I love my job. It's been a frenzied year so far and with many e-commerce teams about to hunker down for the holiday crunch, I'm at last taking a two week break to read, (hopefully) write and recharge.
One of the reasons I love my job so much is that the learning environment in digital retail is endless. The pace of change in e-commerce is at an all-time high, and every client brings a new set of circumstances, opportunities and unique challenges into the mix. But sometimes, there are common threads that run across even the most diverse of engagements and sometimes, the learning is a re-run. In a good way.
This year I have had the opportunity to work with e-commerce executives at 'household name' brands, regional retailers and fledgling startups. Most are in the U.S., some International. Most B2C, some B2B. Many are well established in selling online, others just getting started (I continue to be surprised at how many sizeable retailers are still in the early stages of e-commerce). Some are highly successful in digital retail, others, admittedly, are falling short and need serious help.
Despite the obvious diversity of these clients, they are kindred spirits in the lessons they have learned by striving for excellence in online and multi-channel retail. I am often asked "what are the most common mistakes you see retailers make online?" or, "what are the biggest challenges that you see clients face in the online space? ". I'll take a slight detour and answer that question based not on the "mistakes" and "challenges" but instead on the 10 lessons I see CEOs and executives (and myself) learn over and over again in the world of online retail.
Lesson #1: This will be harder and more expensive than you think.
This lesson is particularly important for executives new to the online channel, many of whom have little perspective on the level of effort and investment required to build and sustain an online or multi-channel endeavor. It's not just the technology. It's the people, the design, the marketing, the analysis and the ongoing improvements. Many of the "rescue 911" engagements I see are the result of underinvestment in critical areas of e-commerce.
Lesson #2: This will take longer than you think.
Online commerce moves at warp speed, but that does not mean that your return on investment or sales increases will be instantaneous. If you have a short time horizon in terms of expected success – ask yourself: "Why do I think that ROI will come quickly?" Do you have data and perspective to validate that expectation? Wishing won't make it so. Its ok (and right) to aim aggressively - but have a plan (not just a hope) to get there.
Lesson #3: You will need to get educated about how to run a digital business.
The good news here is that the e-commerce industry is full of great conferences, communities and sources of information, much of it free or low cost. The perplexing thing is that too many executives don't take advantage of them. Subscribe to newsletters, follow industry experts on Twitter, listen in on webinars, read industry research and white papers. Just when think you've read a ton, read some more. Spend a lot of time (no, just cruising the home page doesn't count) on the sites you admire. You'll be surprised how quickly things change and how quickly new technologies and tools take hold (think mobile, tablet, social, etc.) and how different this channel is from the others that you may operate. Understand the metrics that are important to the business and how they work. Make your web analyst your best friend. He/she has lots to teach you.
Lesson #4: This will impact every area and every channel of your organization.
If you ask any seasoned, successful retail executive how online commerce has changed their organization, they will tell you that the changes have been substantial and that the changes have spanned every operational and customer facing aspect of the business. Be prepared for conflict; be prepared to make hard decisions. You will need to develop a vision for integrating digital into your organization, become a digital cheerleader and bring the rest of your organization along for an exciting and at times bumpy ride.
Lesson #5: Who you hire and where you place them in the organization is critical.
Hire people who "get it" and have done this before. They are hard to find, but they are out there. Mix them with your best and brightest internal minds. Stir. Have them report either to the CEO or to an executive that not only understands but actively communicates the importance of digital endeavors in your company's future. The rest of the organization will need to understand and buy in to the online vision and be appropriately incented to align the customer experience across touch points and channels. (Go back to Lesson #1 if you think this will be easy) Send the message that this matters.
Lesson #6: The guiding principles of great retail still apply.
Shiny website, great. Even more great? Awesome product, great merchandising, effective marketing, attentive service, fast, accurate fulfillment. Don't ever think you can forget those things.
Lesson #7: There will be distractions. Have a strategy, stay focused.
Having a solid vision and strategy for e-commerce is just about the only thing that will help you determine which of the many new ideas you'll see and hear about are worthwhile and which are simply shiny objects floating by. Be open to the ideas and the possibilities; but have the discipline to prioritize and say "no" when necessary. (Note, see Lesson #1 again – this is probably the main thing I see even the most successful online retailers struggle with)
Lesson #8: Your customer is already way ahead of you, and so (likely) are your competitors.
I still have the occasional client that will tell me "our customer is not that internet savvy…" to which I say, don't kid yourself. This is no longer a choice. It's an imperative. Your customers (young old, rich and not so rich) are already shopping online on their computers, on their phones and on tablets. They may not be shopping online with you yet, but their expectations are being raised every day by the early adopters who have gotten it right. Yes, you will have to run to play catch up, but that will be less difficult than not entering the race.
Lesson #9: The longer you wait the harder and more expensive it will be.
Yes, in some ways the barriers to online entry continue to be lowered due to advancements in technology. But, at the same time, the complexity and sophistication of the online world continues to evolve and (see the point above) customer expectations continue to climb. Jump in and kick like hell. There isn't going to be a better or easier time.
Lesson #10: This will be more fun than anything you've ever done.
Despite the hard lessons above and many others, I don't know a single e-commerce executive who hasn't become completely addicted to the pace and excitement of running their online business. It's the shot of adrenaline that every retailer needs.
So, to that last point above, I admit it, I'm an addict too. Yes, I'm about to take a two week vacation, but as crazy as it sounds, I can't wait to come back to work.