Originally published on MarTech Series.
Could you you tell us about your journey into digital commerce and your role at Astound Commerce?
I cut my career-teeth in the world of book clubs and direct marketing in the UK, just as Amazon began its own journey, seismically disrupting not just publishing, but every vertical it took on. Direct Marketing is the precursor to digital commerce, founded upon the principles of using customer data to build highly targeted engagement strategies, driving transactions and measurable, profitable long-term relationships. However, data by itself is not enough to create great Direct Marketing and successful Digital commerce. What’s needed is a great product, compelling story-telling, relevant and engaging content, a user experience that is friction-free and solves pain points, and a brand that creates advocates from buyers.
Technology has rapidly evolved over the past 10-15 years to enable businesses to have a complete view of the customer and engage in personalized experiences at every touchpoint. As this happened, my career kept me at the forefront of digital commerce, leading to my current position as Chief Client Success Officer at Astound Commerce, where we are pioneering the integration of technology, experience, and relationships. Driven by digital commerce strategy our goal is to deliver business results to our clients, the world’s leading brands and retailers.
What does the future of e-commerce look like for traditional brick-and-mortar stores? What is your agency’s role in that future?
While the closure of retail stores will continue to make headlines, the largest proportion of sales continues to take place in physical locations. Those retailers who create in-store experiences that meet their customers’ needs efficiently, while delighting and inspiring, will succeed. Just as digital commerce professionals can learn from their direct marketing predecessors, today’s brands and retailers can learn from innovators from previous decades. For example, we look to leaders such as Selfridges, that pioneered the concept of bringing out product, so that customers could see and touch it. The brand provided 1:1 concierge-level expert personal service to help guide shoppers through their choices and the store, and elevated the usually mundane task of shopping to a thrilling day-out with exciting and topical displays, like the first mono-plane flown across the channel that was placed in Selfdridge’s store back in 1909.
Today, technology that is driven by consumer demand for socially connected mobile experiences can help retailers do this, and more. We can provide seamless connections between the digital and physical through mobile apps that guide in-store experiences and recognize customers regardless of where they are shopping. This integration puts digital concierge capabilities into the hands of store associates and allows shoppers to transact in a way that is most convenient for them. This could mean online ordering, in-store pickups, accessing inventory from a store thousands of miles away or providing product recommendations that resonate rather than repeat.
Astound Commerce partners with our clients to develop digital commerce strategies using customer data, analytics, insights and best practices bringing together the brick-and-mortar store, e-commerce, and all other customer connection points, into an experience-driven digital commerce ecosystem, that creates new customers for brands, and increases value from existing ones. It is our job to continually evolve and innovate to ensure our clients stay competitive and differentiated. Our world-class customer experience designers and writers, relationship marketers and content creators are enabled by our global team of technologists who have been building and integrating digital commerce technologies for decades, and ensure that our roadmap comes to life.
Could you tell us about your Salesforce Commerce Cloud partnership and what it means to be a first Implementation Certified Partner?
Astound was a founding ecosystem partner for Demandware (the Salesforce Commerce Cloud predecessor) back in 2004, and is now a Salesforce Global Platinum Consulting Partner. We have a range of ‘firsts’ under our belt, including being the first systems integrator to receive implementation certification, the first to implement the new Storefront Reference Architecture with Puma in August 2017 and the AI Einstein solution, and one of the first to receive Global Solution Support certification. While our initial focus was Salesforce Commerce Cloud, we now work with Marketing Cloud, Sales Cloud and Support Cloud, and are proud to be leading the industry with our Multi-Cloud integration practice. For Astound, all of these firsts are reflective of our goal to always make sure our clients get the most value possible from their investments into Salesforce.
We partner with global brands and retailers to launch successfully, and then improve their performance by providing 24/7 support, ongoing analytics and optimizations, and by bringing best practice and innovations forth to ensure that our clients’ investments into Salesforce provide great business outcomes, along with an exceptional customer experience.
For brands that already have a strong online presence, how can they maintain a competitive edge, especially with the shipping arms race?
Think about every aspect of the experience, not just shipping. Today’s consumers make choices based on a brand’s environmental track record and commitments. How are you packaging your products? Amazon continues to use unnecessary amounts of single-use plastic in weirdly large boxes to pack almost indestructible and often low value items. On the other hand, Rent the Runway uses fabric packaging that can be reused multiple times, and is required to be returned at the end of the rental period. Can your packaging be returned, reused or recycled? Is the experience of receiving the product enjoyable or flexible, beyond fast delivery time or low-free cost? It’s important to think about the customer service you offer, whether your customers can easily communicate with you when there is an issue, and how quickly you can resolve their concerns. What is unique to your own brand or product? Can it be easily replicated by others? Does it surprise and delight your customers? There are multiple ways to compete, beyond simply replication.
What technologies within your industry are you interested in?
Currently, there is interest in headless commerce and progressive web applications, together with the continued growth in the number of platforms providing personalization solutions. Whether it is load time and performance enhancements, better mobile experiences or more relevant products, offers and content, each can help in improving the digital commerce experience for consumers. From a business perspective, technologies that are flexible afke Virtual/Augmented Reality, that are interesting, but do not necessarily add this same level of consumer or business value.
How is AI disrupting the e-commerce space?
AI is not one sole technology, but more of an umbrella term that covers many. Some interesting uses of AI that I have seen recently include using AI to improve fraud detection. This is a great example of less visible technologies that impact the customer experience in a meaningful way, and impact the business by improving the ability to detect fraudulent orders and returns, which makes a significant difference to business results.
What advice do you have for companies looking to infuse AI into their offerings?
Start with strategy. Is there a problem that you are trying to solve? AI is not for the faint-hearted, and it’s not a magic bullet. Successful use of AI requires the upfront investment of time and dollars, and the understanding that systems using AI require constant training to ensure that results produced continue to evolve and improve. Be clear about your goals, and make sure that AI is necessary in order to meet them. Remember again that AI is not a single technology or product, and to research carefully to understand what is possible, along with the future roadmap functionality. Consider whether you would like to be a forerunner in the area, or a fast follower learning from the experiences of others in the space.
What is your advice for online retailers as we head into the holiday season?
It’s November, which means that your plans are likely already in place. However, you can still learn from not just your own experience and results this holiday season, but from observing others. Beyond that, my best advice is to eat and exercise well over the next few weeks in preparation, and remember to call Astound in time for the 2020 holiday season!
What do you think is the next big thing in e-commerce?
I spoke at an e-commerce conference a few years ago about emerging models in consumerism and cited the rise of businesses based on product rental versus ownership. I discussed the concept of waning necessity when it comes to owning product versus using it for a period of time, and how this was shifting. This shift is continuing to unfold. Also, product and delivery packaging, the environmental impact of delivery mechanisms, together with the products themselves, will meet even more rigorous scrutiny from consumers in terms of their impact on natural resources and our planet. I expect that the next ‘big thing in e-commerce’ will not be technology-driven, but that as consumer needs and emerging digital business models evolve, this will drive the need for continued technology innovation.
Tag the one person in the industry whose answers to these questions you would love to read?
Harry Selfridge. Although, that will of course not be possible. I would also like to hear what Jeff Bezos or Scott Galloway would have to say. As I believe that change in e-commerce will be driven by the next generation of potential shoppers, I would love to tag a group of high school seniors from across the country and track their digital commerce behavior from this holiday until next. You never know what you might uncover!