Carhartt on Prototyping and Collecting Customer Insights from Home

May 20, 2020

In this episode of One Quick Thing, Colleen Hau details how her team pivoted to meet the needs of essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Carhartt is a privately-held company, headquartered in Michigan, with about 5500 employees. At the end of March, their team shifted production to protective masks and medical gowns to help healthcare workers in the fight against COVID-19.

Hau is the Director of Global Product Innovation at the company. Prior to assuming her most recent position, Hau spent five years on the company’s consumer insights team.

Assessing Users Needs During Lockdown

During her time on the insights team, Hau tapped a community called Carhartt Crew. Her team reached out to this group of 6,000 users on a weekly basis to understand their pain points and create products accordingly. She also spent time visiting users in their homes to get a better understanding of customers.

Under lockdown, her team had to change how they observed user behaviors. They began looking at searches on the Carhartt site. Items like gator masks, balaclava-type face coverings for cold weather, began to sell out online. According to Hau, these shopping patterns indicated the demand for face mask-style protection.

“If you can’t get out and talk to your consumers, look to see how they might be using your product in a way you didn’t anticipate or expect,” she said. “They’re coming to you. They trust you as a brand, and they’re looking to fulfill some need they’re having right now.”

Pivoting Production: Masks for Healthcare Workers and Beyond

While many companies rely completely on facilities outside of the US, Carhartt has manufacturing sites in Kentucky and Tennessee. Hau says her team looked for ways to use these factories to “jump in and quickly make face protection” for frontline workers in the medical field.

As states begin to reopen, the need for personal protection is growing for workers in manufacturing and construction. In recent conversations, Hau recalls, leaders in construction have expressed the need for face masks and the difficulty in securing face coverings for employees.

Hau says masks for construction workers must be designed differently — factoring in long hours, physical demands, and the working environments of job sites. “The best way to keep someone safe is to create that great experience around whatever you’re offering to them,” Hau says. “Our whole thing is…helping provide…a solution that’s really comfortable, so [workers] can wear it, and it doesn’t hinder them, and they can focus on their job.”

Modifying Product Offerings from Home

Before employees at Carhartt began remote work, Hau says she told her team to grab the machines they needed to work on products from home. Prototypes can then be made from team members’ respective houses and shipped to their coworkers. “That really required a little coordination to…get everyone’s addresses, make sure they’re getting [prototypes], and then we have to get on a video and review it,” Hau says.

Hau also says that her team must also tap the company’s manufacturing partners to give feedback on new offerings. “We’re having to trust our partners to say, ‘Hey, what fabrics Have you developed? Give us the scientific background,'” she explains. “We’re having to trust them to try on the face masks…and let us know what they think. Because we’re having to make decisions so quickly, and we can’t necessarily wait for the product to arrive at our homes.”

Adapting Brick and Mortar Locations

In addition to a robust online presence, Carhartt has over 30 brick-and-mortar locations. “We didn’t have the tech in place for ‘buy online, pickup in-store’ yet,” Hau says. “So we had to quickly stand up…pick up at the curb.”

Hau also says the company is rethinking how retail associates will work, perhaps staying in one part of the store for the full work day, and limiting interactions with other employees. Employees must also check their temperatures to ensure people who are sick stay home.

Physical Carhartt locations have yet to allow shoppers back into stores. However, Hau says when customers are able to browse the aisles again, the number of people in the store will be limited.