Last year at eTail West, it was 85 degrees. Retailers and technology vendors that attended this year’s event were greeted with clouds and temperatures in the 50s, but we made the best of it by enjoying the outdoor parties huddled around fire pits with warm cocktails. As usual, eTail offered great content, fun events and interesting networking discussions. Here are some of the content highlights from this year’s event.
Mobile PWAs: Is This Finally the Right Mobile Solution?
Mobile continued to be the hot topic at eTail West because retailers, simply put, “still haven’t gotten it right.” As mobile traffic continues to rise and mobile conversions continue to lag behind, it seems we keep going back to the drawing board to look for new mobile solutions. One of the solutions discussed at length this year was progressive web applications (PWAs).
Luke Chatelain, vice president of innovation at West Elm, shared his story of running an innovation lab focused on rebuilding the furniture brand's mobile experience to a custom PWA built by his development team. The project started in 2016, and Chatelain expects to have the PWA fully launched later this year. There are two reasons for West Elm’s shift to a PWA: mobile page load time and user experience.
At the start of the project, West Elm’s mobile experience was running at 19 seconds per page. With shoppers starting to bounce after three seconds, it’s easy to see why West Elm opted for a change. In addition to slow load times, Chatelain also stated that the older style mobile format was not the user experience West Elm shoppers wanted. The older format made it difficult for West Elm’s shoppers to browse its products.
Chatelain explained that PWAs cache most of the page without ever refreshing the entire page. The technology has increased page speed significantly, resulting in a 9 percent increase in mobile conversion for West Elm. This stat from West Elm reaffirms Walmart and Amazon’s assertion that every second of improved page load time can increase conversion up to 7 percent.
However, PWAs do have downsides that need to be considered before jumping into a two-year development cycle. Utilizing partners and third-party technologies on PWA pages is very challenging because the majority of the content remains cached so time to market and the ability to add the types of functionality shoppers have come to expect may be significantly limited. In the end, starting over with a new PWA mobile site is a big investment, both in terms of money and time, and we've learned from others, such as Gap, that time to market is critical to remain competitive.
It’s certainly interesting to see the evolution of mobile. It started with desktop forced onto mobile, then the wave of m-dot sites with unique code bases where desktop and mobile drifted further apart (these still exist), then the big push to responsive web design (RWD) which fixed the single code base problem but caused page load time problems, and now we're back to custom-built PWAs for each brand with a separate code base.
Key takeaways for retailers from Chatelain’s session included the following:
- Mobile needs creative and innovative solutions to improve speed and usability.
- PWAs are custom retailer-specific applications that look good but have limitations.
- The negatives of PWAs include the significant investment of time and money to build and maintain.
Shopper Experience Drives Revenue, But Can You Make an Impact?
Noam Paransky, senior vice president of digital for Gap Inc., shared the challenging situation the retail giant recently found itself in. While Gap was an early e-commerce adopter in 1997, by 2016 its digital growth had dwindled to only 1 percent, while the rest of the industry saw double-digit growth. The Gap made a huge comeback in FY 2017 to achieve nearly 30 percent online growth with a focused plan to improve shopper experience. The Gap’s story made one thing clear: brand still matters, and that means digital and in-store shopper experiences always need to optimally represent the brand.
Paransky explained how Gap righted the ship, which involved bringing the store and online product teams together to establish a unified plan. The plan focused on four major initiatives: foundational, fast, know the customer, and inspire the customer.
The foundational and fast initiatives were critical because all the work Gap does to optimize shopper experience goes to waste if the site doesn’t load quickly or it doesn't have visibility into the effectiveness of its marketing efforts. Paransky discussed how when his team refers to "fast," they think of site speed as well as speed to market. To meet its time to market needs, Gap knew it was going to need to partner with third parties to augment the organization's homegrown e-commerce platform and achieve the experience its shoppers demand. Today, Gap deploys third-party technologies to utilize best-in-breed technologies for tag management, personalization, social integrations, optimizing customer fit, advanced A/B testing, and more, all in the effort to know and inspire its shoppers.
Key takeaways for retailers from the Gap session included the following:
- Brand matters. Make the most of your store and digital assets.
- Speed of experience is critical and can’t be ignored as it directly impacts revenue.
- Partners and third-party technologies can help you accomplish your goals more quickly.
Cultural and Digital Transformation is an Uphill Battle
There were several sessions on the cultural changes needed in retail to shift organizations from two distinct teams — store and e-commerce — into a single digital team, typically led by a chief digital officer.
Dhritiman Saha, senior vice president of digital at J.C. Penney, shared how recent cultural changes at his company were based on three principles. The first was the operating model of the company had to become more agile to allow the team to test and try new innovative ideas. The second was around how data and information J.C. Penney already had could help drive better shopper decisions and provide better shopper experiences. Lastly, Saha said that people already in the company needed to be empowered which, when combined with bringing in great new talent, helped with its digital transformation.
Harsh Acharya, head of technology and product at Dell, talked about breaking silos and making sure the entire organization follows the same process to make technology decisions. This approach helps the company avoid disjointed decisions and technologies. Additionally, Dell breaks its decisions into groups of the very short term, short term and long term to ensure it can take advantage of quick wins while still being able to correctly plan for long-term bets.
Chief digital officer roles are still fairly new and some retailers still don’t have the function at all. In a keynote session titled “Change Agents for Digital Success,” CDOs, like Kevin Moffitt from Office Depot, explained the role, stating that one of its main functions is to bridge business and IT to ensure the business needs of the company are met while enabling IT to build and deploy innovative solutions.
Key takeaways for retailers from the executive panel sessions included the following:
- Culture matters. Large organizations must shift their culture to become agile and open environments.
- Siloes slow down innovation. Larger, historically store-based companies must integrate in-store and digital departments.
- Chief digital officers can help bridge the gap between business and IT.
By the end of eTail West the California sun came back out and temperatures climbed back into the 70s. And the retailers in attendance headed back to their offices hoping that the best practices they learned at the event will result in sunny days and higher online conversions in the months to come.
Rich Stendardo is the CEO of Yottaa, a web and mobile optimization services company.
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