In the pursuit of Less Waste
How Koko Created a Customer Base in the Height of a Pandemic
Sustainable Living for all.
Based in Columbus, Ohio, Koko is a sustainable living store with two main goals: create an accessible, enjoyable customer experience, and to foster a culture of “less waste.”
I was excited to sit down to talk with Koko’s owner and founder, Adria Hall, and how she’s navigated the obstacles of starting a business at the height of the pandemic.
Zero-Waste Home Goods
“Growing up, my mother was what I used to refer to as a ‘crunchy hippie,’” Adria joked. “But nowadays, a lot of what she did would simply be called sustainable…she didn’t use a lot of paper towels, she made her own cleaning solutions, used holistic medicines when possible, and I didn’t really realize until after I joined the real world and went to college that the lifestyle she fostered wasn’t really the norm. And as an adult, I naturally started incorporating some of her habits.”
But Adria says that it was when she became pregnant with her son that she grew more conscious of her consumption habits, as well as the impact they had on the environment. This led her to seek out more sustainable products for everyday living, but she was disappointed in what was available.
“Even online, it was really hard to find what I was looking for, and the quality wasn’t always great, not always the most sustainable choice because of shipping, manufacturing discrepancies, etc. That’s where Koko really came from.”
Yielding the Power of the Shopping Experience
Before Koko was founded, Adria traveled frequently for her work, especially along coastal cities. There, she would find more sustainable shops, but quickly observed that they were all quite similar.
“Everything was earth-toned, all one color, and I felt unable to ask questions, like it was assumed that I knew what I was doing…At that point, I knew that I was going to bring a store [to Columbus], and bring it to the community I loved, but I wanted to be different–I wanted to be approachable, I wanted people to feel comfortable asking questions.”
In her pursuit to demystify sustainability, Adria has created a shopping experience that’s truly unique, from the products they offer to the way you shop for them.
“I wanted to break down the barriers of why people wouldn’t choose a sustainable product. Is it boring? Do I not know how to use it? Do I feel like I don’t have access to it where I am? Do I feel ashamed to ask about it?”
That being said, it would be an understatement to say that Koko opened under challenging experiences–while their business concept had been developed long before, the paperwork wasn’t finalized until February of 2020. Then, when the pandemic spread to the United States that spring, Adria’s plans for an Earth Day opening were effectively canceled.
“We are an interesting case study because we actually started in the midst of the pandemic…we did eventually open our first store in July of 2020, but I think having to pivot from the very start has made us more on our toes than other businesses. There’s been lots of impacts to store shopping, as well. I think some people were excited that they had somewhere to go.”
Still, Koko had to abide by mandates to help keep people safe, but while doing so, they’ve worked to fit what customers need in a given moment, whether it’s more online offerings or curbside pick-up, while still providing the in-store experience for local customers when possible. As a testament to their innovation, Koko has already grown significantly since its launch, having opened an additional store in the city, while continuing to grow their online shopping experience.
Shipping Delays & Price Increases
During the pandemic, I witnessed an immense impact from shipping delays on vendors, where product would often wind up at sea in freight ships for months, to the point of risk for growing mold and becoming damaged. For instance, our first client was a global brand, with a crisis that no other vendor in the world could resolve: over 300,000 apparel items that had to be sold to a big box wholesaler within 14 days. In 3 days, we secured a location, built infrastructure, and scaled processing from 0-27,000 units, and completed the project not only on time, but in fact 2 days early, with 100% clean lab results, and zero complaints from the vendors who received the shipments.
That being said, I appreciate the ways in which Adria’s managed to pivot her business so quickly, and I was curious about what Adria’s shop has dealt with when it comes to supply and logistics, as well as how they’ve managed their pricing.
“A large portion of our product does come from the US, from smaller makers, however I will say it’s the whole supply chain. If they’re making something for us that comes in a glass bottle, and that glass bottle is sourced from China, and there’s a delay with these glass bottles or a delay in their products shipping to us, if there is a huge shipping fee, that’s rightfully passed down to us, and what we’ve experienced is that we didn’t see it as much in 2020, but in 2021 we witnessed a lot of shipping delays, a lot of vendors raising their prices because their costs are increasing.
For the shop, though, Adria says that the key has been striking the balance between accessibility and quality.
“Part of our mission is to make things more accessible, and part of that is affordability, and also the education as to why something that is sustainable might be more expensive, so it’s a tricky balance to strike right now, knowing that our vendors are producing really high-quality is important, and at the end of the day, it’s just one of those things where there’s not much we can do except be as transparent as possible, and educating along the way.”
As for pricing, Adria recalled raising prices on things here and there along the way, but they haven’t experienced any significant increases on product lines yet; much of this is certainly attributed to keeping their strategies innovative and flexible.
“We are constantly figuring out how to keep things affordable while maintaining profit and supporting our staff, and that means being creative constantly.”
The Future of Sustainability in the Industry
Over the past few years, it’s become clear that sustainability has a permanent place in the industry, and I was interested in hearing Adria’s thoughts on how Covid-19 has impacted the sustainability sphere.
“A lot of people would say Covid has negatively impacted sustainability, but I would say that differently. I’d say that it’s amazing what we saw as a result of being stuck at home–it gave people a lot of time to really examine their habits, the products they’re using, the type of waste they’re creating. They didn’t have places to go, places to be, things to do, so a lot of people were focused on their homes. And at the same time, there was a lot we couldn’t control, and I think that many people have felt empowered in controlling the waste they put out.”
What’s in Store for Koko
Because of the circumstances in which it was opened, Koko has learned to be quick on their feet from the get-go, even when it led to endeavors that they hadn’t initially planned to pursue. For instance, Adria mentioned that they didn’t plan on having an online presence initially, but that’s now become a strength for the business.
“Something that we’ve been working really hard over the past couple of years and honing over the last 6 months is bringing the refillery experience online. It is how the world is that online shopping is convenient, it’s not going away. Is it better to buy locally if you can? Yes, always. But if you don’t have access for a variety of reasons, we want to make sure that you are able to have the refillery experience.”
On top of that, Adria’s revealed that Koko will be coming out with custom products soon, as well as a subscription box that will launch later this year.
“There’s been an increased interest, and it’s been amazing to witness the change in the industry. New companies are coming out, new products, new technology, new ways to eliminate waste, and new sustainable lines. I think that customers will continue to demand it, and the industry will continue to grow.”
Meet The Founder
Adria Hall was exposed to sustainable practices from an early age, but she turned her attention to the sustainability industry around the birth of her son.
When Adria founded Koko, she had over a decade of retail experience at that point, and envisioned a customer experience that’s both accessible and enjoyable. As the owner and founder of Koko, Adria is also a community-builder, educator, and storyteller.
Koko is located in Columbus, and has two locations; one in Clintonville and one in Hilltop, but they’re available for online shopping, as well! Check out their site, kokotheshop.com.