The Normal store caught my eye today, coincidentally when I was running and listening to my headphones. Normal is a headphone store where you can customize earbuds to fit the shape of your ears using photos taken via Normal’s app, NRML. The benefit? Earbuds that are comfortable and don’t fall out.
The idea is predicated on Normal’s tagline: One size fits none, referring to the fact that no two ears are alike (including the ones on your head).
To be honest, I am surprised that custom earbuds did not come sooner. I remember seeing a presentation from Yurbuds in 2012. Yurbuds also addresses the earbud falling out/comfort problem, but they do not customize. Yurbuds uses a “TwistLock” ergonomic design to keep the earbud comfortably sitting in your ear for hours on end and prevent sound leakage.
Yurbuds are cheaper than Normal’s custom earbuds, starting at around $20, compared to Normal’s $199 pricetag. Normal will soon face competition from the Kickstarter-funded Revol. Revol is similar to Normal in price and customization, but the difference is that Revol’s earphones customize to the shape of your ear while inside of your ear – in just 60 seconds.
You buy the same Revol pair as everyone else, and put the earbuds in your ear for them to “transform from their initial gel-like state to their permanently hardened, customized shape.” Not sure how well that will work, but the idea is certainly cool.
I cannot say whether Revol or Normal (or Yurbud) has the best product, but I can comment on the well-designed customer experience at Normal (both in-store and online).
Normal takes advantage of a number of qualities that are on trend with innovative retailers today: a simple and open store space, product customization in store, branded partnerships (Normal has collaborations with Nike and Rebecca Minkoff), and colloquial copy on its website that makes for fun reading in and of itself.
But Normal also has a number of qualities that stood out to me. These ideas could turn into new retail trends for other companies to take note:
1. Total company transparency – While chatting about advertising and customer relationships over the holidays (as I tend to do…), I recall my brother scrunching up his face at me. “I don’t want to have a relationship with a brand,” he said.
“Wait, what? Why not? Aren’t there brands you like?” I was clearly upset.
Yes, he told me. “But it’s a brand. Not a person.” Sigh. It’s good to get out of the agency world and remember that most people don’t care about marketing. As the NYTimes recently penned, your favorite company can’t be your best friend.
But when it comes to retail (or any business where you deal with people) a customer representative does affect much of your perceptions of the brand (and your supposed relationship to the brand).
So what does this have to do with Normal? The entire office is viewable from the storefront. Just beyond the cash registers is clear glass, behind which sit the company’s engineers, designers and leadership. You might not meet all these people, but just being able to see what goes on behind the brand takes Normal from the non-human branded entity my brother referred to, and makes it feel like more of a brand you know on a personal level.
2. Built for maintenance – This is the coolest part of Normal (to me at least). Apple products (while awesome) sometimes feel like they are made to break (otherwise known as planned obsolescence). The battery seems to slow just as a new phone comes out, and Apple then offers you the option to pay for them to replace your battery, or upgrade to the newest model (NYTimes wrote a piece on this in 2013). Normal is the opposite. The product comes with a lifetime warranty. And it’s designed to actually be used.
How? The entire product is designed in a modular fashion, which means that if one piece starts to falter (say, the cord breaks), you can easily fix just that piece. The store associate I spoke to said customers come in often for quick fixes, and she pops out the broken piece and they are on their way. If you do not live conveniently close to the store, you can just email Normal and they will send a replacement for whatever you need.
Apple products are the opposite of modular, and quite expensive to fix. So much so that an industry of Apple-repair middlemen has sprung up to fix iPhones on the cheap.
Now, maybe it is harder to get a free replacement cable than Normal makes it out to be, but the fun copy on Normal’s FAQ suggests that their customer service is not stingy: In terms of durability, we’re talking super hero status. If something does happen to your cable (even Batman experiences some wear and tear sometimes), just let us know and we can easily send a replacement cable that you can pop onto your Normals housing.
3. Store as Experience
Yes, this is a trend that many retailers are focused on today, but Normal has some unique qualities worth mentioning. The store is beautiful and eye-catching (that’s why I went in). What’s cool is that you can see the earbud’s being assembled in machines in the store, including the ones ordered online. You can also test out the sound quality, and of course customize your buds in-store after checking out the colors and sizes in person.
The product actually takes a bit of time to come out (it is not a simple 3-D print from a picture). Engineers in the back of the store first receive your ear photo and design a CAD (engineering blueprint, essentially) for your specific pair, and then it gets smoothed and printed. As such, Normal has a map and guide of things to do in the area (coffeeshops, Trader Joes, and more) so you can entertain yourself while your earbuds are printed.
Don’t forget that eCommerce is the store for most people. Normal’s site is well designed, with clear, beautiful images of the product, simple explanations for how it works, and a well-made, even entertaining video to advertise the product. Net: the eCommerce site is as much an experience as it is a sales portal.
I think something that would add to the experience (and make me stay longer) would be a music library of trending hits for you to try out the earbuds on, or even a place where you could hookup a pair of Normal earphones to your own Spotify/Apple Music/whatever account. I’ve spent some time in record stores recently just because it’s fun to listen to songs on their nice headphones.
I’m excited to see if Normal goes mainstream, or if Revol creates a competitor store.