5 E-Commerce Marketing Strategies for Survival

1,000+ marketing and technology professionals from many of the retail and e-commerce industries’ best companies came together recently for 4 days at the eTail East conference in Boston, MA to share best practices and learn from one another. I took lots of notes during the sessions, and had conversations with many highly experienced individuals about their companies’ successes. Included below are the five key takeaways from the event, plus many quotes and examples from these industry movers and shakers. (Check here for a list of other upcoming e-commerce conferences in the US and Europe)

A big thanks to the following companies for sharing their innovative practices and key success factors:

Here are the 5 key e-commerce takeaways that emerged:

1) Innovation is required for survival. (and the 3 ways to enable this culture are provided below)
2) Content-driven commerce provides a unique opportunity to differentiate your company and offerings, and increase revenue.
3) Personalization, now a possibility with today’s technology, is key to taking your content to the next level and delighting your customers.
4) Omnichannel marketing is a must - but tread carefully due to its complexity.
5) Connect in-store and online efforts to create a seamless digital experience for your customers.


Technology and consumer behaviors are changing at the speed of light, and most companies are simply trying to keep-up, let alone getting ahead of consumers’ expectations. Here are three recommendations to get your company on the innovation track, along with tactical advice from e-commerce leaders.

1. Create an Innovation Team

During one of the many sessions at eTail East, a question was posed to the 1,000+ individuals in the audience: “How many of you have a Head of Innovation who resides within the marketing or IT departments?” Only 2-3% of the audience raised their hands that their companies currently had an individual residing in this type of role.

Carrie Bienkowski, Chief Marketing Officer of Peapod, explains that within Peapod, the head of innovation reports into the product organization; however, this person works closely with the CMO, resulting in a shared resource.

Companies like Wayfair, one of the world’s largest online retailers of furniture and home decor, blazed a trail for innovation in their organization by creating an innovation-focused team. Wayfair Next Research and Development Laboratory was launched in 2016 to explore new customer experiences [i]. A few projects that Wayfair Next has worked on include:

  • Computer generated images utilizing photorealism (i.e., reproducing photographs in other medium) to better engage their customers.

  • WayfairView, a mobile app, developed to enhance the mobile shopping experience. Through the use of augmented reality, WayfairView lets shoppers visualize furniture and décor in their homes before they buy [ii]

  • Patio Playground: “The company’s first-party virtual reality application, available on the Oculus Rift Experiences store. Patio Playground allows shoppers to immerse themselves in an inspirational landscape, where they can explore, rearrange, and discover furniture and décor from Wayfair’s catalog.” [iii]

WayfairView - a mobile app using augmented reality to make home-decor shopping a breeze!

“We are working on immersive experiences for our customers, with 3D content, for Omni-Platform e-commerce - the combination of online and physical environments.”
(Shrenik Saldagi, Mixed Reality Applications Lead, Wayfair Next)

Rafeh Masood is BJ’s Wholesale Club first Chief Digital Officer. His teams’ goal is to accelerate the digital innovations of the company. Masood explained the core concepts when evaluating new technologies at BJ’s Wholesale:

  • Simplicity
  • Speed-enhancement
  • Security
  • Scalability; and
  • Sustainability

Fashion and apparel retailers have a firm understanding of the evergreen e-commerce industry. Major companies, like Neiman Marcus, have developed its own Innovation Lab specifically for research and development of continuing innovative trends.

2. Build a Culture of Innovation

Technology is certainly a key facet of innovation, however, sustainable innovation is only possible through development of a culture of creativity and an obsession with understanding the needs of your customers, coupled with rewarding smart experimentation. Dillard’s and Peapod provide examples of how to develop a culture of innovation:

  • “Innovation is not driven by technology. We need everyone on the business side to always be thinking about innovation. For example, we’ve invested heavily into our supply chain, which is a lesson learned from Amazon.” (Brent Cryder, CTO, Dillard’s)
  • “Innovation is not only about chasing shiny new things. We need to ensure we’re providing the basics for a great experience first by our Peapod customers. For example, since our margins are less than 2%, we need to have a hyper-focus on being innovative in managing costs well and leverage IT for our supply chain.” (Carrie Bienkowski, CMO, Peapod)

For many companies, innovation is woven into the framework of the customer lifecycle. Swan Sit, VP, Global Digital at Revlon describes five pillars used at Revlon to understand and analyze customers through their purchasing journey:

  • Website- through Revlon’s e-commerce site or marketing-focused website,
  • Online Retail Partners
  • Digital Media
  • Social Platforms
  • Innovation

3. Experiment

Many unique innovations in e-commerce come from experimentation, and are enabled by the acceptance in companies that failure is sometimes part of the process. Several e-commerce retailers, including Peapod, DXL Men’s Apparel, and Dunkin’ Brands, to name a few, recounted their experiments (and some failures) that helped pave the way for their greatest innovations; for example:

  • “We believe strongly in innovation, including the idea that failure is a part of the process. For example, Peapod invested heavily in pickup points. Creating 216 locations in a short period of time for our customers to pick up their groceries. However, we discovered that our customers simply preferred delivery versus pick up.” (Carrie Bienkowski, CMO, Peapod)

Testing experiments is crucial to determining whether or not a potential innovation will become a success. In e-commerce A/B testing is the easiest way to gain insights on the outcomes of attempts at innovative.

  • “The more you test, the more you learn. We do lots of A/B split testing, including isolating and testing different markets...Testing helps us know how frequent to email our customers. Sending more emails may yield more revenue, however, it may also yield more opt-outs.”(Dan Fagan, VP, CRM & Media, DXL Men’s Apparel)

Whether it is through email, social, or website views, A/B testing helps determine the direction your organization should be headed. However, it is just as important to not be led entirely by data during your process of experimentation. For example, Rafeh Masood, Senior Vice President and Chief Digital Officer at BJ’s Wholesale Club, discussed the relaunch of the organization’s website with a new look and feel as part of continuous improvement efforts discovered through A/B split testing.

  • “A large part of our consumption and behavior is serendipitous and knowing what we want. We cannot be trapped into solely depending upon data to personalize our customer interactions. For example, we should consider offering customers unique items that our data may not indicate is a match.” (Amit Shah, CMO, 1-800-Flowers)

With many retailers having both an in-store and online presence, A/B testing can also be used for in-person interactions. For example, Paul Murray, Director, Digital Innovation at Dunkin’ Brands shared how their organization used A/B testing to determine the success of curb-side order pick-up for locations that did not have a drive-thru. The company also ran price-point tests in-store to experiment with promotions. The price-point test was to drive the most people to stores and to get the highest profit.

  • “At Dunkin’ Donuts, we try to get concepts out quickly and get comfortable with failing...Everybody has an opportunity to be wrong (and right) and it helps drive faster dialogue” (Paul Murray, Director, Digital Innovation, Dunkin’ Brands)

Major fashion apparel retailers like Neiman Marcus have experimented with the concept of augmented reality for their retail stores. During a panel discussion about going beyond omnichannel, Rajeev Rai, Chief Technology Officer at Neiman Marcus shared that the company has launched Memory Mirrors. These will bring the power of digital technology to its customers. The customer can view themselves in the mirror wearing the clothes or makeup offered in their stores.

Neiman Marcus unveiled its "Memory Mirror" - a tool for in-store shopping

Content-Driven Commerce

86% of B2C marketers are using content to market their products, however, only 25% rate the success of their organizations’ overall content marketing approach “extremely” or “very” successful. [iv]

Here are just a few examples of what e-commerce leaders are doing successfully to tap into the power of content to drive engagement and revenue:

  • “Content is huge for us, and we produce a ton of it. (e.g., TV, social, videos). User generated content, including reviews, are also very important to the success of our Business.” (Mitch Murphy, Co-Founder & Head of Design, Leesa Sleep)

Leesa Sleep uses the power of user generated content to provide unique social media posts.

  • “Every part of our organization must be a digital native. It’s part of every group’s goals: focus all of our data on 3 segments of people, and align content and other interaction efforts on these folks.” (Ryan Scott, VP, Digital Operations & Innovations, Keurig Green Mountain, Inc.)

Urban Decay, owned by L’Oreal, deployed a global content marketing strategy to expand into new markets by coupling its Salesforce Commerce Cloud platform with a e-Spirit’s content management system. Watch the video to learn more about how Urban Decay uses content marketing.

  • “Content is key for our businesses success. We need to ensure that our content is purposeful and relevant. For example, we provide functional tips for customers, individualized to their needs.” (Nick Fairbairn, SVP, Marketing LeTote)

Video has become a mainstay content element for many companies. Online publications like Buzzfeed’s “Tasty” series, Tastemade, Food Network and their online publication affiliates and a world of other’s have created a food-obsessed society. Retail food vendors, like Panera Bread, are taking advantage of this new revolution and have enabled buyers to make better decisions regarding food selection. Mark Berinato, VP, Experience Design at Panera refers to this revolution as a “Food IQ Increase,” and ensures the organization’s content is geared towards this trend.

The Power of Data for Personalization

83% of marketers say creating personalized content is their biggest challenge. [v]

During a panel discussion at eTail East, one of the moderators posed a question that found the root cause of a lack of personalized content: unified data structure. Of the over 1,000 audience members, only about 10% have an individual or team that is working towards unified data structure in their organization. Here are some insights as to how e-commerce leaders are approaching the personalization opportunity:

Developing a Unified Data Approach

  • DXL Men’s Apparel integrates data sets to achieve personalization for the digital and in-store experience
  • “We need to tap into the power of data. Everyone in an organization needs to be digitally oriented; having a chief digital officer is a good role to get this started, but the effort needs to be across the organization.” (Cory Munchbach, SVP, Strategy, BlueConic)

Matching Content and Communications with Individual Customer Needs

  • At Keurig Green Mountain, the main focus is to ensure the communications match the consumer’s needs. Personalized communication helps influence the decision-making process for customers

Don’t Be Lulled into a Data-Only Approach

  • A large part of 1-800-Flowers consumption is “serendipitous”. The organization understands that data alone cannot provide all the insights necessary to personalize customer interactions
  • BlueConic, a customer data solution, admits that data is just another medium to understand customer behavior: There is always a “human element” that must not be overlooked
  • Dillard’s uses artificial intelligence to maximize consumption from customers while using data coupled with other insights to drive intelligent decisions

Leverage Data to Drive a One-on-One Approach

  • Manish Chandra, Founder & CEO of Poshmark (a social commerce marketplace for fashion with 2.5 million sellers, not to mention that 1 in 50 women in the US as users) shared, “Our business is based on one-on-one relationships. For example, we offer virtual dressing rooms where seller stylists do individual styling with users. The stylists utilize a ‘card’ with personalized information and they create a custom curated clothing package to simulate what happens in a store or boutique.”
  • LeTote uses the one-on-one approach by offering fashion as a service to its customers. Through the use of algorithms powered by physical data, demographics, and many others, coupled with continuous feedback and improvement processes

Omnichannel Marketing

Do you use only one channel to keep updated on World News, to learn about new products, or to communicate with colleagues, friends, and family? Certainly not. At this point, we are all accustomed to using our personal computers, tablets, smartphones and other devices on a regular basis for communication, information gathering, purchases and for other purposes. As e-commerce marketers, this omnichannel environment creates many opportunities, as well as associated challenges. E-commerce leaders at the eTail conference provided some great tips for better attacking the omnichannel marketing beast:

Customers’ Terms, Not Yours
As marketers, it is important to note that despite our exhausted efforts, at the end of the day, the customer is going to interact with your collateral on their terms; Dave Harris, previous Vice President IT at Yankee Candle pointed out to the eTail crowd:

  • “Don’t force your customers to use a channel - nudge them softly, and give them the options to do what they want; for example, provide an online coupon that can be used in-store.”(Dan Fagan, VP, CRM & Media, DXL Men’s Apparel)
During the a keynote case study Paul Walsh, Senior Vice President, Platform Strategy & Innovation at Visa discussed the need to provide consumers with a more frictionless digital experience. He also added the need to take advantage of the rapidly expanding opportunity to connect with consumers through IoT (Internet of Thing) devices. New methods will need to be created to get content to these devices. One way to push this content is by using Content-as-a-Service (Caas) technology.
  • “There will be 21 billion connected devices by 2020. 21 billion connected devices are 21 billion ways to pay for our customers.” (Paul Walsh, SVP, Platform Strategy and Innovation, Visa)

Mobile, Social and Other Channels
Omnichannel marketing is just that, omnichannel. Do not feel limited to just a website or a mobile app. Besides building community through mobile apps, social media has helped Poshmark build a strong company loyalty.

  • “Social media features are at the heart of what we do. When you join our Poshmark app, we dynamically create a social group for you. In addition, sellers curate items across the platform specifically for you. Another example of our community efforts are our Virtual Posh parties. (e.g., wild animal prints party)” (Manish Chandra, Founder & CEO, Poshmark)
Walgreens opted to forgo the use of kiosks in its 8,000+ stores, preferring to focus on the more agile aspects of mobile technology:
  • “Investing in kiosks across our 8,000 store network would be an expensive proposition, especially since after two years to implement such a strategy the technology and intent may change. Therefore, we see mobile as a key strategy. (e.g., testing out in-store displays or beacon technology)” (John Yesko, Sr. Dir. User Experience, Walgreens)
Dunkin’ Donuts provides the perfect example of taking a Mobile First strategy:
  • “We’re mobile first company. Web is a distant second for us. Examples of the power of mobile include:
    • Mobile order taking has a multi-layer value exchange - it helps our customers (e.g., better chance of accurate ordering, more rapid pick-up since customers that order ahead of time through their phone can skip the in-store line) and our company (e.g., customers’ use of their phones to order translate into labor savings in-store and higher throughput).
    • We ensure that our mobile strategy results in strong utility for our customers; for example, our loyalty programs are easy to understand and use; the purchasing process is simplified through mobile technology (e.g., Dunkin’ Donuts’ On-the-Go Mobile Ordering).” (Paul Murray, Director, Digital Innovation, Dunkin’ Brands)

Dunkin' Donuts (Dunkin' Brand) mobile app

Another example of omnichannel in action, which also helps bridge the divide between online and in-store, is digital signage. See this video for a look at that latest offering from Samsung and e-Spirit for digital signage.

To App, or Not to App?

With everyone on a smartphone, tablet, or wearable device, of course you should create an app--right? During eTail East, there was a debate on whether or not apps added value for certain companies. Yankee Candle opted not to have an app, opting to focus its efforts on web and in-store experiences - two major building blocks for its customers’ digital experience.

DXL Men’s Apparel is an example of a company that did opt into having an app. Built to enable true personalization (from the in-store journey to online), this app’s true power lies in its ability to maintain customer loyalty. A DXL customer is incentivized to download the app because they will receive exclusive offers that they otherwise would not find online or in-store.

Apparel companies are not the only retailers putting their hat into the app ring. BJ’s Wholesale Club is in the piloting stages of launching its mobile app. “Express Scan” will enable customers to use a mobile phone to expedite the check-out process. Rafeh Masood, Senior Vice President and Chief Digital Officer at BJ’s Wholesale Club, mentioned that BJ’s is working on a mobile app that will be all about convenience. BJ’s wants to ensure that the final product is not just a mobile site wrapped in an app, but that it will respect the real estate on users’ devices and focus on high value. The company will incorporate the use of cameras, step counters, location tracking, and a rewards system into the app.

Poshmark, a social commerce marketplace for fashion with 2.5 million sellers, relies heavily on its mobile app for e-commerce revenue. Manish Chandra, Founder & CEO of Poshmark, shared that more than 60% of its products are purchased through the Poshmark app. Chandra points out that building a community around the app is key to its success. Creating a community and keeping the organization out of the discussion helps to empower the end user and build strong brand loyalty.

Three Strategies to Connect In-Store and Online Efforts

Not only are brick-and-mortar stores moving on-line, but on-line stores are opening brick-and-mortar stores. The divide between the virtual and physical world is closing rapidly; but not quick enough for consumers. Consumers, not surprisingly, demand a seamless experience when crossing the bridge between the on-line and brick-and-mortar worlds. Here are three strategies to connect in-store and online e-commerce strategies, and some great anecdotes from e-commerce leaders:

1. Create a Consistent Experience Online and In-Store

  • “A consistent experience online as well as in-store is important. (e.g., brand consistency) “We’ve learned this from experience. We’re more promotional on our web-site versus in-store and this has irritated our customers and store employees. Once solution that we’re experimenting with is geofencing capabilities to help with this consistency; however, we’re careful not to create a ‘big brother’ problem. Another solution we tested was using kiosks for customers and tablets for associates, but it didn’t take off.”” (Dan Fagan, VP, CRM & Media, DXL Men’s Apparel)
  • e-Spirit developed a partnership with Samsung to deliver content to interactive digital signs in retail stores to bridge the gap between online and in-store experiences, as previously described.
  • “We have used kiosks to augment the physical space in our restaurants. These kiosk’s have given our consumers a sense of control. They can dive deeper into menus and related content, and avoid the typical pressure of waiting in line to order.” (Mark Berinato, VP Digital, Panera Bread)

2. Organizational Structure: Get Your Online and In-Store Employees on the Same Page

  • “There’s a struggle between margins and budgets between online and in-store that impacts the ability to have more consistent promotions. We need to think more regarding omni-channel offers and promotions that apply online and in-store. Another important step is to train store employees about your online business and related promotions. Our store operations team is responsible for this.” (Dan Fagan, VP, CRM & Media, DXL Men’s Apparel)
  • “We’ve just hired a data scientist. We meet cross-functionally to ensure there’s cross process and technology efforts for the retail/ecommerce connection.” (Mitch Murphy, Co-Founder & Head of Design, Leesa Sleep)
  • “It’s important that we get store employees to understand what’s going on with our digital strategy at Walgreens. They need to become advocates for the company’s ecosystem, regardless of whether its in-store or online.” [John Yesko, Sr. Dir. User Experience, Walgreens]
  • “We want to create a seamless retail experience. One way we are doing this is to ensure that our associates understand our customers’ preferences and styles. We provide an app. for our associates that helps them understand what customers have purchased as well as their browsing history. This digital information empowers our associates and ensures that our customers have a better customer experience.” (Rajeev Rai, CTO, Neiman Marcus)

3. Change the Role of the Online Store

  • “The physical environment is still super relevant even with the existence of an online presence, but in different ways. It’s about creating connections with people and standing for something as a brand.” (Mitch Murphy, Co-Founder & Head of Design, Leesa Sleep)
  • “We needed to change of the role of the physical store with new digital technologies. How could we leverage our 8,000 store network from a digital perspective? One example is our successful strategy of enabling customers to order photos through our app., and then pick them up in-store.” (John Yesko, Sr. Dir. User Experience, Walgreens)
  • “Panera restaurants represent time away -- we want to help our customers use the restaurant in different ways. Part of that is enabling customers to purchase their food through different channels, and use the space in our restaurants for individual work, meetings, or simply enjoying a meal.” (Mark Berinato, VP Digital, Panera Bread)

Here are two options to learn more about how to increase customer engagement and revenue across your online and in-store activities:
  • New e-book: How to Use Omnichannel Marketing to Drive E-commerce Revenues (Download here)
  • Get a demo of Content + Commerce in action if you have Salesforce Commerce Cloud, SAP Hybris, IBM Websphere or Magento.


[i] http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20160511005150/en/Wayfair-Announces-Opening-Research-Development-Laboratory

[ii] http://investor.wayfair.com/investor-relations/press-releases/press-releases-details/2016/Wayfair-Brings-Virtual-Furnishings-and-Dcor-into-the-Home-with-WayfairView/default.aspx

[iii] http://investor.wayfair.com/investor-relations/press-releases/press-releases-details/2016/Wayfair-Launches-Virtual-Reality-App-to-Customize-Outdoor-Spaces-with-Furnishings-and-Dcor/default.aspx

[iv] http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/2017_B2C_Research_Final-rev-10-26-16.pdf

[v] http://www.business2community.com/marketing/10-surprising-stats-personalization-01791432#e659DxUyjp4Ra2wX.97