Zappos Embraces Its Quirkiness to Stand Out in San Francisco’s Tech Crowd

Inside the shoe retailer's digital lab

Headshot of Lauren Johnson

Walking into Zappos’ tech-savvy San Francisco office—dubbed Zappos Labs—it becomes clear that this is not the typical Silicon Valley space often depicted in the media with walls made out of touch screens and virtual assistants.

Instead, a bean bag game is set up in the middle of the floor. In a nearby conference room, a whiteboard features a 3D-printed eraser holder, a test product created from a 3D printer that staff members have been playing with recently.

A giant piece of paper on a wall is covered with Post-it notes from a recent five-day project designed to get staffers' creative juices flowing. Each Zappos team member was asked to pitch an idea about retail and technology, which was then sketched onto three sticky notes. 

A bookshelf in Zappos Labs houses CEO Tony Hsieh’s

book, "Delivering Happiness," and an award for most

donuts eaten in the office.

The office is also used as a lab to test how real people react to different digital products. For example, Zappos hires locals via Craigslist to see how they respond to a prototype the team is developing. Recently, the team placed a paper cut-out of an iPad on a window in the office to measure consumers' reactions to technology. The test resulted in a few key learnings about how consumers interact with tablets.

"In the early days of [Zappos] Labs, it was much more of a hacker mentality in some ways, and we didn’t do a lot of customer validation," said Will Young, director. "Now, I think we’re much more methodical about the touch points that we should be thinking about. [We] do some research [and] get some people into the office to talk to them."

Zappos Labs has cranked out quite a few digital products since opening in 2011. In 12 short weeks this summer, the team launched Ask Zappos—the program lets shoppers text, email or share on social media a photo of any product they like, and Zappos will find a similar product at any retailer.

And of course, being in the same city as the world’s biggest tech brands doesn't hurt.

The proximity to Pinterest in particular has spawned a few notable projects. In 2012, Zappos launched a tool called PinPointing, which matches up a person’s account with recommended projects. Zappos was also one of the first brands to use Pinterest’s API—a plug-in that embeds Pinterest pins on websites.

"When we started Zappos Labs in San Francisco years ago, I don’t even remember 'fashion tech' being a real term," Young explained. "Now, there are fashion tech meet-ups, fashion tech start-ups. That’s where we're getting more value—just being surrounded by all these startups that are really thinking about e-commerce in different ways."

Indeed, Zappos is in the middle of San Francisco’s tech retail boom. Pittsburgh-rooted American Eagle Outfitters' innovation lab occupies two floors in the same building, and Target’s digital lab is just a 10-minute walk away.

This article is part of a series this week profiling seven brands' innovation labs. Click here to read more.

@laurenjohnson Lauren Johnson is a senior technology editor for Adweek, where she specializes in covering mobile, social platforms and emerging tech.