DALLAS — Glen Senk, CEO of hip fashion retailer Urban Outfitters, addressed the audience with his keynote "Create for the Customer" at the 2010 Shop.org Summit.
Senk recalled being the first University of Chicago MBA graduate to go into retail, and his professional start at Bloomingdales in the 1980s. At the time, he told the crowd, there was no technology in the retail industry. "Business moved at a snail's pace," Senk recalled, and the industry "operated without real-time information." The process to handle returned merchandise would take a month to grind through, he told the audience, retail was mostly about theatre: it was merchant-driven, design-driven, and ego-driven. He compared the general behavior of the industry at that time period to the television show Mad Men.
Senk said, "But what did happen back then is, and maybe it was because of the lack of technology and the lack of sophistication, was that we had the time to make a really beautiful, innovative product in wonderful stores. In fact, I think the slower pace fostered more thoughtful, deliberate behavior." Senk explained that, since the 1970s, Urban Outfitters has been focused on appealing to a very specific customer, considering themselves pioneers in lifestyle branding and visual marketing.
"The Internet changed everything in a blink," Senk said.
Senk placed the beginning of Anthropologie.com in 1994 — a point in time, he noted, when "Apple was doing poorly" and the launch of Google was still four years away.
Against his judgement, he shelled out $5,000 to start up an online presence for the retail company and within in two days, Anthropologie.com saw over 5,000 hits. Senk admitted to the audience that he promptly ate a large slice of humble pie before delving more into the realm of ecommerce.
Senk realized that websites could not replicate the brick and mortar store, but that visiting Anthropologie.com could nevertheless be a personal experience. Sixteen years after the launch of Anthropologie.com, Senk says that now he and his colleagues constantly try and make components of the bricks-and-mortar experience as strong as the Web-site experience.
Urban Outfitters has gone from a one channel experience to a four channel experience in ten years, a process Senk describes as "staggeringly complex" with a customer base that is now both multi-lingual and multi-currency.
"We are a company that has never advertised. We've always believed that if we took great care of our customers and worked tirelessly to inspire them that our business would grow in an organic, sustainable manner," Senk reflected. "We [have always been] a bit on the underground though, so we were very resistant to putting it all out there," said Senk when recalling the company's social media beginnings. "But, we've learned our lesson and we have followed our employees and customers and we were ultimately early with ratings and reviews. We were early with blogs and nontraditional forms of marketing and customer acquisitions and we were early with a strong presence on both Facebook and Twitter."
Senk insisted, though, that the adoption of social media has been true to the company's values. "In retrospect, our real joy has always come from connecting with our customers. We have always believed in complete transparency so the jump into social media into encouraging our customers to actively participate in our brand was actually a natural evolution."
Senk shared Urban Outfitters' recent development of mobile service, comment that, "As we study the mobile opportunity, we believe that these devices may ultimately impact the in store experience more than they actually impact the online experience."
He mused towards the end of the keynote, "We think that we are only a few short years away of customers walking into our store, scanning a product to learn about it and locate a size or color, perhaps share the product with a friend or read a review, and if desired, walked out of the store with the product in hand, automatically charged to an account that is linked with a mobile device."