The first thing you see on the Wishbone Design website is a photo of a man and young girl packing colourful boxes into a kombi van in a warmly lit warehouse. There’s a dog and one of the brand’s signature wooden kids’ bikes in the foreground, a clue that the photo was taken at Wishbone’s headquarters in Wellington, but no buy button in view. It’s an unorthodox choice for an e-commerce business. Most online retailers reserve the central space on the homepage for their best-selling
ing products, since it gets the most eyeballs. But Wishbone’s executive director Jennifer McIver says the photo serves a purpose. “We want the door to feel open,” she explained to Inside Retail in a recent interview. “The vibe of the brand is that the door is open and we’re in here having pizza on the fire.” (The warehouse features a wood-burning stove, which McIver’s husband and business partner Richard Latham uses to bake a homemade pizza for the team every Friday. Talk about cosy.) This is just one example of the level of thought that goes into almost every decision at Wishbone. Founded in 2005, the brand offers just a few core products: a ‘three-in-one’ tricycle that turns into a balance bike that also adjusts to get bigger as the rider grows, an adjustable ‘two-in-one’ balance bike, a rocker that turns into a four-wheeled scooter and a wagon. The relatively small product mix is not due to lack of consumer demand or brand vision, but rather an intense development process in which every last detail is perfected to meet the company’s high standards of good design. For Wishbone, well-designed products must not only serve a function and look good, they must also be built to last. This means they need to be highly adjustable, so kids can continue to use them for years as they grow, and completely repairable, so a second or even third user can easily replace broken parts. This focus on extending the life of products means Wishbone contributes less waste to landfill than the typical toy brand. On top of this, Wishbone uses sustainable materials, such as birch, for as many components as possible. It also offers an even greener version of its trikes and bikes made out of post-consumer recycled bottles and carpet. Willing to lose the sale Sustainability has been part of the brand’s DNA from the very beginning, long before there was a large enough market to justify the investment in environmentally friendly materials and manufacturing processes. “Right from the beginning, we decided we wanted Wishbone to be based on a principle of anti-consumption,” McIver said. “Although we’re selling toys, every product is multi-functional so ultimately, families are consuming less.” This ethos is behind some of the brand’s more counterintuitive decisions, like placing an ad for used Wishbone products directly next to the buy button. “When we went to our web designers [with the idea], they said no,” McIver recalled. “They told us if we did it, we would lose the sale. And we said, we know. We want customers to understand that we’re very authentic in our brand. We’re willing to lose the sale.” Another benefit of promoting the secondhand market is that customers get a sense of the potential return on their investment. (Wishbone bikes start at A$249, which is up to five times the price of non-adjustable balance bikes.) “We want the consumer to really appreciate that Wishbone bikes and other branded bikes are different,” McIver said. “We are a premium product, and we’ve got to explain to someone why they should pay more.” Consumer pressure is leading more retailers to think about the environmental impact of their products, from manufacturing and materials to end of life. Sustainability is becoming a hygiene factor, and Wishbone, with its strong track record in this space, is in the position of being a thought leader. This can be seen in the continued evolution of its products. Last year, the brand launched an updated version of its recycled plastic bikes based on principles of the circular economy. The parts are now hollow, which reduces the overall amount of plastic used, and free from strengtheners, which means the bikes can be fully recycled via standard kerbside collection. That wasn’t the case before. “We released the bike as a challenge to the global toy industry,” McIver said, “Ninety per cent of toys are plastic, and most of them are destined for landfill. We believe the toy industry needs to stand up and take responsibility for the waste they’ve generated over the decades.” Keeping it in the family The company’s ambitions have grown considerably since Latham built the first three-in-one tricycle after completing his postgraduate degree in industrial design. It was for the couple’s own child, and he and McIver never imagined it would become a global business. “We started the company because we wanted to enjoy our work and have a lifestyle that would allow us to focus on our three little people under the age of four,” McIver said. That work-life balance can be hard to achieve given the brand’s enormous success. Wishbone is now stocked in more than 800 stores around the world and offers global shipping from its warehouses in Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada and the Netherlands. Europe is the brand’s biggest market, accounting for roughly 50 per cent of sales, followed by ANZ, with around 25-35 per cent. This is followed by the US with 5-15 per cent, and Asia, where the brand has a growing number of stockists in Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. “It would be a lie to say the lifestyle is amazing,” McIver admitted. “We work very hard, but we’ve always said, let’s make sure we’re bagging experiences in our family bank that we’ll never lose.” For instance, one year, the whole family lived in Germany for six months between the global toy industry’s two key trade fairs in Cologne in September and Nuremberg in January. “We try to include our kids in the business. Our son has been our picker, and our daughter did a lot of data entry during the creation of the website,” McIver said. In fact, family is the first thing people see when they visit the Wishbone website. That man and young girl featured in the photo on the homepage? It’s Latham and the couple’s daughter.