eTail East 2017: eTailers Focus on Meaningful Connections With Customers

BOSTON — There are still opportunities for companies—both established or emerging--to “elbow their way in” to a retail market landscape many believe is being dominated by Amazon.com, said Sameer Patel, CEO of Kahuna, during his welcome address on day two of the eTail East conference. But to secure a piece of the pie, companies must take meaningful approaches to connecting with customers, agreed speakers who took the main stage to share what their firms are doing to accomplish that.

During his keynote presentation, titled “Make Meaning: Lessons from a Mission-Driven eCommerce Disruptor,” Andy Levitt, founder and CEO of Purple Carrot, showed that despite a strong presence of competing players in the packaged meal delivery market—and Amazon’s expected entrance after its acquisition of Whole Foods—there is still room for start-ups who wish to break into the space. The three-year-old company has done so by focusing on providing customers with services related to plant-based foods. Levitt noted that the company uses its content to educate customers about the benefits of eating plant-based foods, explain what the meals are, teach them how to prepare the food, and show them how they are making an impact to help preserve natural resources.

Another start-up, M.Gemi, an Italian leather shoe company that seeks to offer luxury quality footwear at a reasonable price (“made the old way, but sold in a new way,” directly to the consumer), also shared its story. According to president and cofounder Cheryl Kaplan, M.Gemi benefits from a supply chain of local Italian factories. The firm is unique in its approach, as it is constantly updating its shoe inventory to reflect the request of its customers and is able to release new shoes once a week, which is not the norm of the industry. She said that the company encourages customers to submit feedback through any channel they want, whether it’s via the phone, SMS, chat, email, or any number of other options. “We know that once we’re communicating [we're] that much stronger,” she said, as they can then filter the insights into what they should be making and selling. The typical M.Gemi customer repeat-purchases four times a year, which is also “unheard of in the luxury space,” she emphasized.

Speakers from tenured companies also spoke about what they are doing to revinvent themselves and stay relevant. Emily Culp, chief marketing officer of Keds shoes, pointed out that though the brand is 101 years old, its new consumer live in a world in which they “eat, sleep, and breathe” on mobile devices. Culp said that it has been crucial for the company to present a consistent experience on each channel it uses to reach buyers. To bridge the gap between offline and online, the company has invested in creating video content that allows customers to get an accurate idea of the “look and feel” of their products. It’s also investing in alternate payment options that support one-click purchases and taking advantage of social media feeds and influencer networks to show how people look wearing Keds.

Revlon, the makeup and accessories company, has taken a similar approach. Swan Sit, the company’s global digital vice president, said that Amazon has not adequately solved a pressing customer problem: seeing what a product will look like on a particular body. She noted that buying items that need to be tried on or applied, such as lipstick or foundation, has to be done on a case-by-case basis, since each person’s skin tone is different. Companies in this industry have benefited tremendously from using augmented and virtual reality, which allows customers to speed up the process of trying on mascara and lipstick.

Another major way to differentiate from Amazon.com using the human element will be the strategic use of physical retail spaces. In a panel titled “Understanding Disruption, Innovation and Brick and Mortar Success,” representatives from digital-first e-commerce companies agreed that offline environments will play a big role. This has been the case for Mizzen+Main, a performance menswear company, said Kevin Lavelle, the company’s founder and CEO. Essential to the company’s growth is the fact that they have opened “pop-up stores,” and formed partnerships with major traditional retailers such as Nordstrom and Saks.

In agreement was Drew Green, CEO of Indochino, who went as far as to predict that in five years’ time, very few, if any brands, will be able to survive with an online-only presence.

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