Posts tagged: e-commerce

You ARE a technology company

In this day and age, pretty much every company is heavily dependent on technology to operate. But if you have an e-commerce operation (or really any sort of transaction website), you are a consumer technology company. The sooner we recognize and accept this fact, the sooner we can get on with leveraging it to our competitive advantage.

We often talk about focusing on our “core businesses” at the expense of everything else. At a conference I attended last week, I heard a number of speakers and attendees reference Amazon as a “technology company” as sort of a dismissal. They were basically saying, “Yes, Amazon has lots of great features and functionality and people rate their experience highly, but they’re a technology company. We’re retailers. We can’t compete on that level with them.” This type of statement draws the obvious retort: “So, then, on what level do you plan to compete?”

While Amazon does generate some revenue from selling technology services, the vast majority of their revenue comes from retailing products. Their financial statements look pretty much the same as most retailers (except they have much bigger numbers and growth rates). But Amazon and other pure play online retailers are not burdened with the type of legacy thinking that exists in a lot of multichannel retailers. They understand full well the value of creating a quality online experience, and they understand that technology is part of their core business.

Competing with Amazon is clearly very difficult for a variety of reasons (price being high on the list), but how many business elements can we abdicate to them before our very survival is at stake? Shifting our mindsets regarding our sites is one key way to claw back into the game.

Our websites are consumer software applications, in many ways like Microsoft Word or Quicken. And this means that online our business is technology.

People use our website applications to accomplish tasks like buying our products, learning more about our products or getting inspiration. Their perceptions about the quality of our applications can absolutely make the difference in whether or not they complete their tasks and whether or not they return to use our applications again.

And their perceptions of our brand can also be influenced by the quality of our site experiences. A study by ForeSee Results on the Internet Retailer Top 100 sites found that people who were satisfied with the online experience of a retailer were 44% more likely to purchase offline. That indicates significant value in making sure the website is a quality software experience.

Our websites are also an opportunity to differentiate from our competitors, particularly if we’re not selling proprietary products. If consumers can buy the same North Face jacket or Nikon camera from a variety of different retailers online, the quality of the online experience will be a contributing factor in the decision.

Let’s do what it takes to include the quality of our site experience in our value proposition.

Here are 3 ways to get started towards becoming a consumer technology company:

  1. Organization
    We will likely need to make organizational structure changes to support a consumer technology focus. I previously made a case for changes in E-commerce IT organization that goes into more detail, but suffice to say the technology strategy and the business strategy need to be not only aligned, but integrated.

    Furthermore, we need think about different types of roles. Software companies have product — not project — managers and product teams who are dedicated to building customer focused product strategies and life cycles. A quick check on the Amazon careers page reveals many product management positions. Do you have product management positions in your organization?

    Check out a typical set of responsibilities from Amazon’s Baby Registry product management gig and note the mix of business and technology functions and responsibilities:

    • Research and identify opportunities for Amazon to further distinguish our Baby Registry offering.
    • Define a long-term product roadmap, including technical, business development and marketing initiatives.
    • Develop new strategic partnerships ad drive day-to-day partner relationships.
    • Conduct business and financial analysis, including forecasting, monitoring, and reporting.
    • Define requirements, and drive customer experience projects and work with all relevant cross-functional areas and our technology teams to guarantee smooth, efficient implementation.
    • Manage bottlenecks, provide escalation management, anticipate and make trade-offs, balance the business needs versus technical constraints, and maximize business benefit while building great customer experiences
    • Work cross-functionally with designers, software development engineers, salespeople, product managers, and other internal partners.
  2. Budget/Investment
    How might our current budgets change if we considered ourselves  technology companies? Maybe not at all, but we should nonetheless re-examine our customer investment strategy in such a light. At the very least, we might consider revamping our budget processes to accommodate a fast moving, highly innovative competitive marketplace where the features and functionality of our website “product” are key parts of our business strategy and our ability to differentiate from our competitors.
  3. In house or outsource?
    Often we decide to outsource technology (and other elements of our businesses) because they are not “core” to our business and other people can do a better and more cost effective job. How does our thinking on outsourcing change if we consider ourselves technology companies? We might still legitimately consider outsourcing or licensing third party software, as many software companies do. However, we might also consider building up true competencies in at least some areas of software design and development because of the need to differentiate and deliver quality branded experiences for our customers.

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Recognizing and accepting the fact that developing an e-commerce operation puts us in the consumer technology business is an important first step to successfully competing in the online marketplace. Once we’ve achieved the consumer technology mindset, we’ve got to take steps to create an organizational structure that executes like a consumer technology company. Without such steps, we will fall further and further behind the companies who are leveraging their technology focus to create the positive customer engagement cycles I discussed in my previous post.

What do you think? Do you think being in e-commerce means you’re in the in consumer technology business? How is your company organized?

Photo credit: Sebastian Bergmann


My Favorite Sites of the Year

It’s the end of the year and the end of an amazing decade for e-commerce. So, in keeping with the time-honored tradition of awarding “bests” at the end of the year, I’m listing some of my favorites sites and site features of the year. I always enjoy discovering new sites and techniques when I read other people’s lists like this, so I hope you’ll find something interesting in my web award show.

The overall best e-commerce site award goes to:

Moosejaw.com

Moosejaw has it all. They’ve done an excellent job creating a very intuitive site that provides lots of options to narrow your selection; you can easily sort by price, color, size and brand. They have lots of what they call “custy reviews” available for their products, and you can even choose a “custy reviews” search/browse results page that highlights recent reviews in the product listing. Moosejaw has a great checkout process that does a good job of guiding the customer through the process, and their error messaging is clear and easy to understand. And no commentary on Moosejaw would be complete without mention of their Madness section, which is full of wacky content that keeps you coming back for more. In a final stroke of branding brilliance, Moosejaw provides free Moosejaw flags to anyone who requests them, and encourages people to take photos of themselves with Moosejaw flags at the height of their adventures, literally, like at the top of a mountain. What a brilliant way to make your customers your greatest marketers. As a final point of support for this award, when I asked people around the office for their favorites sites, Moosejaw was by far the most common choice.

Runner-up

Net-a-Porter

Net-a-Porter shows they understand how their customers shop, and they understand that the self-service experience of the web requires extra attention. They have a prominent “What’s New” section, and their landing pages get right to the products (without lots of “window” signs screaming about promotions). Each item in the listing has an alternate view when hovering over it, which is becoming fairly common, but Net-a-Porter uses and alternate view that features the item being worn rather than just showing it from the back. When you click through to the product pages, there are many more product views and some items have an excellent video of a model walking in the clothes so customers can see how the clothing looks in action. Finally, there are details about how items fit and an invitation to contact a “Fashion Advisor” for more help if you need it.

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Best use of video:

K-Swiss

I’ve always wondered why more sites don’t do what K-Swiss is doing with their product videos. Namely, use them as the primary image for the product when they’re available.

When you arrive at a product page that features a video (which, unfortunately, isn’t all of them) the video launches immediately and shows a model walking in the item. You can easily switch the view to see her walking from the front, from either side and from the back.  And best of all, there’s not sound that could get a workplace shopper in trouble. 🙂 K-Swiss also features multiple static images of product to ensure customers are getting as much information as possible.

Runner-up

Ice.com

Ice.com is also making excellent use of video and using it as their primary image when a video is available. And they’re getting great results. Ice’s Pinny Gniwisch reports conversion rates jumping a whopping 400% after customers view a video, and return rates drop 25% for products with videos. Video really helps give customers a much better understanding of what they’re buying, which helps to remove one more barrier to purchasing products online. I’m really impressed with the quality of the short videos they’re producing, as well. The folks at Ice.com clearly understand the value of video, and they’re making the right investment to improve their business.

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Most interesting merchandising tool:

Polyvore

Polyvore is not a retailer, but that doesn’t mean there’s not something to learn from or leverage what they’re doing. They call themselves “a fashion community site that lets you mix and match products from any online store to create outfits or any kind of collage. It is also a vibrant community of creative and stylish people.” They have a really cool drag and drop capability that let’s visitors “create looks” from product feeds from many different retailers. Essentially, the visitors become merchandisers, and they’re looks are posted to be voted on and commented on by the community. The best looks rise to the top. There are some really amazing collections, and of course each product has a buy button. Polyvore is now making their technology available to retailers, as can be seen in Charlotte Russe “Design Your Outfit” section.

Runner up:

Hunch

Hunch is also not a retailer, but as with Polyvore, there’s lots to learn and leverage. Hunch describes themselves as “a decision-making tool that gets smarter the more you use it. After asking you 10 questions or less, Hunch will provide a concrete result for decisions of every kind.” Basically, they ask you a series of questions and then provide product recommendations that match. The general concept is not new, but Hunch’s implementation is the best I’ve seen and it gets better the more it’s used. They’re using the community to build and refine the question sets, and they’re covering a massive range of topics. The whole experience is really addictive.

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Most proactive:

Restaurant.com

Poorly written error messages are the bane of the web and a shameful way to lose sales, as I’ve previously discussed. But even well written error messages can be annoying because they come after the fact. Restaurant.com has taken a proactive approach in their account creation process. As a visitor enters a form field, a small box appears to the right giving the user detailed descriptions about what’s expected to be entered and, when appropriate, giving the reason why it’s important. Try it out to see how helpful it is.

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I could go on and on about lots of great features on a lot of different sites, but the seven above really stood out for me as great examples worth checking out.

But there are tons of great sites I haven’t even seen.

What sites stand out for you? I would be grateful if you’d use the comments section to share your favorites with the rest of us.

The Case for an E-Commerce IT Org Change

As multi-channel retailers move more and more towards implementing cross-channel strategies, organizational structures need to change to support those new strategies. I am a huge proponent of breaking up most e-commerce silo  organizations and integrating online and in-store marketing and merchandising teams to ensure a common vision and voice across channels. For IT, though, I actually recommend the opposite approach. I believe technology  professionals who work full time (or near full-time) on the e-commerce site should report directly to the head of e-commerce.

While at a high level is seems like technology should have the same kind of continuity as marketing and merchandising, I believe a close look tells a different story.

Here’s why e-commerce IT is significantly different from traditional IT:

In e-commerce, the business is technology

Traditionally, IT creates tools that help employees be more productive and efficient. However, in e-commerce, IT is actually creating software designed to generate revenue. E-commerce “stores” are really self-service software  applications designed to help customers perform a service — in this case it’s to buy the products and services we sell.  Intuit has Quicken; Microsoft has Word and Excel; retailers have our e-commerce sites. We really need to think about  our sites more as software products and organize our teams in a product management type of structure.

Also, a particular pet peeve of mine is when IT folks refer to those in other functions of the company as “the business.”  Just that reference alone insinuates that IT is not a crucial part of the overall business and creates a separation that  frequently leaves IT coming across as second class citizens, which they are not. While I’ve never liked “the business”  reference in any circumstance, it’s doubly bad in e-commerce where success absolutely depends on technology team  members actively working as part of the business.

Self-service applications require a different mindset

Working on an e-commerce application that is designed to be used directly by customers requires a very different  mindset than what is typically required when working on applications that support employees. Even when the  underlying technology is similar, the mindset required is substantially different. New employee applications usually  come with training programs and manuals. Moreover, employees are ultimately forced to use the app; they get used to it and get incrementally better at using it over time through daily usage. Customers, however, don’t get the benefit of manuals and training programs. They’re on their own. And if the experience doesn’t satisfy them, they give up and the sale is lost.

Site functionality and customer experience are major components of the e-commerce business strategy

The website application is a key differentiator for the business, and customer experience is hugely driven by site functionality. While functions other than technology certainly contribute to an e-commerce site’s success or failure, there can be little doubt that the quality of the technology is a massive contributing factor.

E-commerce is 100% dependent on technology to be open for business.

While technology is critical in all areas of the business, most retailers have offline contingencies for stores so they can  continue to make sales even if the system is down. Websites obviously don’t have an offline mode.

Web businesses are still immature and need considerable agility and flexibility to mature as quickly as possible

For many absolutely legitimate reasons, most IT organizations at multi-channel retailers have significant (and some might say onerous) processes in place to manage technology requests and roadmap prioritization. Because requests for technology improvements come from all corners of the company, it’s important for CIOs to ensure they are spending their resources on work that is thoroughly vetted and likely to generate the highest return on investment for the company. But given the absolute dependence of the e-commerce business on technology, typical IT prioritization and allocation processes are too slow for e-commerce businesses that need to be able to adjust quickly to issues that arise with customer experience.

The e-commerce competitive marketplace innovates far quicker than the brick & mortar marketplace

The CEO of a pure-play e-commerce company is in basically the same role as the head of e-commerce at a multi-channel retailer. If for no other reason than there is no alternative, the CIO of a pure-play reports to the CEO. This reporting structure gives the pure-play leader a leg up in agility and the ability to react to customer needs. In a multi-channel retailer, the CIO must split time between many functions of the business, and I find e-commerce often gets time allocated in a ratio roughly equal to its financial contribution to the business. While such an allocation is understandable given everything on a busy CIO’s plate, I believe this lessened focus can lead to stunted growth and lost ground to competitors such as Amazon who are more devoted to improving their software application and increasing their customers’ satisfaction with their site customer experience.

I believe if a head of e-commerce is to be truly held accountable for the success of the site, he or she should have  appropriate authority over such a major contributor to the success of the site.

So why should the head of e-commerce have authority over e-commerce IT and not e-commerce marketing and merchandising?

To me, it’s all about what faces the customer and what doesn’t. A brand should be clear to its customers about who it is and what it stands for, so continuity in marketing and merchandising trumps silo control over those aspects of the business. Site functionality has no parallels in other parts of the organization. Since it is both unique and customer facing, I believe the head of the online channel should maintain the authority to develop and execute the technical strategy for his or her business unit when it directly affects the customer relationship.

I’ll add this final point: I’ve lived through many different org structures surrounding e-commerce IT, and the only times I’ve found the pros to outweigh the cons of an org structure have been when e-commerce IT was part of the e-commerce operation and reporting to the head of e-commerce.

What do you think? Am I completely misguided? What structures have you seen work and not work? What structure do you think is ideal?

Predicting the Future of Retail

The world is changing incredibly fast — maybe faster than ever — primarily due to rapid technology innovations. If our business models don’t keep pace, we’ll quickly be left behind. Since I believe that defending the status quo is what kills companies, thriving and surviving requires somewhat accurately predicting the future. So I thought I’d take a few moments to predict the three advances I think will most affect retail in the next 15 years.

I’ll start with an easy one:

1. Just about everyone will be connected at high speeds at all times

Heck, we’re almost there now. Technologies like WiMax and its successors will be incredibly prevalent in 2024. Furthermore, screen size will no longer be an issue. Innovative technologies like OLED will allow for large foldable and rollable screens that can be neatly tucked into devices the size of ballpoint pens. But it won’t just be mobile devices that are connected. Our cars, our clothes, our sunglasses, our appliances and just about everything else will be connected. Everyone will have exactly the information they need at any given time immediately accessible at any point in time.

2. Video communications advances will make today’s office spaces almost extinct

This one is where I’ve met with the most dissent when I’ve discussed it with people. I think we’ll all have wall-sized screens in our homes that allow us to have life-sized video conversations with people, and that technology will allow us to telecommute in massive numbers. So many people will telecommute that offices as we know them today will no longer make sense. Our co-workers will be spread throughout the globe, yet our communications with them will come close to the same quality we have today with someone in the same office.

The normal argument I hear against this prediction is that nothing can take the place of the types of in-person conversations we have today. That may be true, but maybe we don’t need that level of quality for the vast majority of our office conversations. We’ve proven over and over throughout the years that we’ll trade quality for convenience. In communications alone, we’ve traded phone conversations for what used to be in-person conversations. We’ve also more recently traded the higher sound quality and reliability of land line phones for the lesser sound quality and lesser reliability of mobile phones. Texting has replaced email for many, and even instant messaging has frequently substituted for in-person conversations. I’ve seen people IM each other even though they’re sitting in directly adjacent cubicles where they could have easily just spoken in normal voice.

I’ve used current versions of video conferencing that are pretty impressive. I once attended a meeting at Google’s Ann Arbor office where we met with people in Google’s Mountain View office via video conference. After a couple of minutes adjustment, I felt like we were in the same room. We were even drawing on the white boards for each other.

This particular technological advance will also be driven by environmental concerns and continuously rising prices of fuel. The “world is flat” phenomenon may also be a significant contributing factor as companies will be able to leverage their use of these technologies to hire the best talent available regardless of physical location.

3. Supply chain advances will make same-day delivery commonplace

One of the most often cited advantages of physical retail over e-commerce is the immediate gratification available at a local store. This advantage will not hold for long. I can just about guarantee someone at Amazon is currently trying to find a way to deliver most of their goods to almost anyone in the same day. They’re actually already doing it for some items in some cities today. And they’re not alone. The auto parts retailers have long been able to deliver parts to commercial garages within an hour. In fact, I can imagine the types of distribution networks built by auto parts stores becoming a model for many retailers. Supply chain professionals are some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met.
They are constantly finding new efficiencies in their processes, and I have no doubt they will be able to solve the issues associated with same day delivery.

Do these predictions sound crazy?

If so, think back 15 years to 1994. Hardly anyone had mobile phones or emails. Amazon didn’t exist, nor for all practical purposes did e-commerce. Those of us who connected to the internet did so on dial-up modems at 56k speeds. We’ve come a long way in the last 15 years, and I don’t see any sign of us slowing down for the future.

So, what does this mean for retail?

Many of today’s current physical store advantages are going to be neutralized, so multi-channel retailers are going to have to significantly change their business models. Furthermore, the commonplace usage of video conferencing will likely cause population shifts and cause the need to shift real estate strategies. I can see some people migrating towards urban environments to satisfy their needs for more personal interaction in their social lives, and I can see others going the opposite direction and moving to rural environments to satisfy their needs for more solitude and outdoor living. Suburbs as we know them today will have less appeal and may see significant population decreases.

As I think is already the case today, the retailers who create the best customer experiences across all channels are best positioned to thrive in the future. As retail becomes increasingly self-service via customers’ constant connections to retailers and to each other and to general information everywhere, it’s going to be the retailers who get customers the right information in the right way at the right time and with the best overall customer experience who will garner the most loyalty among customers.

Retailers with physical stores may consider leveraging those physical stores as distribution warehouses while maintaining selling spaces that are in many ways showrooms. Retailers will need to consider whether or not distribution and delivery should be outsourced or become core capabilities. Will sales associates and delivery drivers become one in the same? Will sales assistance occur both via video conferencing and via direct discussion on a customer’s doorstep? Is that crazy from a customer’s perspective or incredibly convenient?

I believe the retailers who best leverage their cross-channel capabilities today will be best positioned for this brave new world. And those who attempt to protect the status quo will face pressures from all fronts.

There are lots of other things that could happen in the next 15 years that are potentially even more radical than anything I’ve predicted here. But one thing’s for sure: there can be no doubt the retail landscape 15 years from now will be very different from what we see today.

What do you think of my predictions? Even more importantly, what are your predictions? How do you think retailers should react?

Retail: Shaken Not Stirred by Kevin Ertell


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