Product experience and immersive design. Industries that traditionally benefitted from an in-person sales experience are now recreating — or even enhancing — ways for customers to experience or evaluate products in a digital environment. From immersive web design, to 3D-modelling and virtual product tours, to rich and interactive product details, there are many ways for businesses to allow customers to learn about their products online before ever stepping foot in a store.
As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Richard Lee, a senior IT and online systems executive with over 20 years of experience working directly with clients to develop ecommerce solutions for their businesses. Richard is a communicative and personable problem solver with an aptitude for innovation and solutions development, and a technology evangelist who can clearly describe the benefits of various technologies.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was raised in a suburban neighborhood on Long Island by loving and hard-working immigrant parents. I’m what is known as a Third Culture Kid (TCK), as my parents’ respective cultures were different from mine and my sisters. Language and communication are some of my strengths and are also common among TCKs.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I am in my third leg of my career so I have many interesting stories. One of the most memorable and most-cherished is having been the personal computer consultant and tech trainer for Liz Claiborne, the American fashion designer. I recall a trip by chauferred car from their apartment across from Central Park to the Greene Street Apple store where she purchased her first MacBook. On the trip back to her apartment, I asked how she started Liz Claiborne and she shared the very early days with me. We continued to work together up until her death in 2007. I love that I had access to Liz Claiborne the brand and the thoughtful, inspiring person behind that brand. I was allowed to share my knowledge of tech with someone I truly revered.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?
I think that lessons learned are often not funny, at least in the eyes of the person experiencing them, and at the time they’re happening. Though nothing specific comes to mind, I know that early on I continued to trip and fall due to the lack of planning and began to blame this as the real cause of my failures. Someone shared with me the 7 P’s of Planning, an acronym that has many variations but the most playful version that I stand by is: Prior Preparation and Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance. That acronym applies everywhere.
Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?
At Dynamicweb we have numerous projects underway in industries many wouldn’t traditionally expect to be embracing ecommerce — including agriculture, recreational vehicles and aircraft services.
What we’re finding is that self-service can take various forms depending on the unique requirements it’s being applied to. In the end, we’re finding there is a surprising diversity of goods and services that can be offered or facilitated digitally, and a little bit of creativity goes a long way.
In a pandemic scenario, the easier it is for consumers to access goods and services across any sector, the more industries can stay in operation and help sustain the economy and job markets. Life certainly isn’t ideal during a pandemic, but thanks to technology some normalcy can be maintained.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Burn out is a serious matter that can be silent, invisible and disabling. It’s also one that can be prevented but it takes a very strong personal character not to give into peer pressures. We often hear the mantra or battle-cry “Work hard, play hard” and though this is a shared and often desirable situation to be in, there is no specific ingredient list that defines how to achieve it. Balance in your work and life is critical to thriving. I have sadly met professionals who have been burned out of their paths to higher levels of achievement. This is also the realm of performance-enhancing drugs that are popular in the workplace to offset burnout, only to cause other issues and addictions. There will be people around you, at work, that will appear to have balanced work and life and claim to sleep only four hours per night. I would simply recommend not to compare yourselves to others and stay the course with your own faith and principles.
When it comes to avoiding burn out, the age-old advice is to do what aligns with your passion in some way, whether directly or indirectly. That said, even those who are doing what they love inevitably experience burn out — particularly when they overwork. I think spending the necessary time to focus on yourself and your personal needs, maintaining a healthy work-life balance, viewing your work through the larger perspective of why you do what you do, and reflecting on gratitude are all things that can help foster contentment and reduce burnout, even on a day-to-day basis.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
The first set of persons to assist me were my parents. They were very supportive of an early childhood hobby of movie making and supplied me with Super 8 movie cameras, projectors and best of all, a small allowance to pay for development of these films. My father remained very supportive of me as I started my own company, even though we had battled, as sometimes fathers and sons do, when I worked for his company. I also found along the way professionals who essentially sneezed my business card to their friends and colleagues, which helped to grow my business organically and by word of mouth. One such person was an accountant who I had met while working for my father. When I started my business, he was the sole customer I had inherited from my father as a gift to start my business. That accountant in turn passed my reputation to his friends and colleagues and my new business quickly took off, enough that I was able to move my business from my parent’s basement to an office in Manhattan where it still stands today. And like six degrees of separation, everyone I knew for years was ultimately related to that accountant. I remain deeply grateful to him.
Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share five examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?
A year ago, eCommerce was nice to have. Now, it’s an imperative. But the flood of new businesses and industries embracing eCommerce means retailers must now continue to push the boundaries of technology and creativity to stand out. Businesses are racing to position themselves as “digital first” companies and the obvious choice to buy from when shopping online.
Here are 6 strategies I see large retailers employing:
- Leaning fully into omnichannel. Retailers are going beyond adding eCommerce to their brick-and-mortar stores. Savvy companies are going truly omnichannel and getting found anywhere and everywhere their customers may be shopping, like eBay, Google Shopping, Amazon, and vertical-specific eCommerce sites or clubs. They’re also investing in smart, long-term social media strategies and personas to stay connected with their customers. Finally, no omnichannel strategy is complete without a strong focus on SEO and digital advertising. This is where larger retailers with large advertising budgets often have the high ground over small retailers.
- Investing time to understand and optimize the customer journey. Forward-thinking, digital-first companies meticulously study the customer journey in its various forms and identify how it can be improved. They’re constantly asking themselves what the perfect customer journey looks and designing metrics to achieve new standards. Perhaps even more importantly, they’re asking themselves what the customer journey might look like 10 years from now, and beginning preparations today.
- Growing organic online communities. Through apps, forums, customer reviews, and user-generated content, marketing-savvy retailers are creating organic customer advocacy and online “word-of-mouth” that keeps customers naturally engaged and builds true relationships, not just more sales. No amount of advertising beats an unsolicited endorsement from a trusted third-party, like friends, family and peers.
- Product experience and immersive design. Industries that traditionally benefitted from an in-person sales experience are now recreating — or even enhancing — ways for customers to experience or evaluate products in a digital environment. From immersive web design, to 3D-modelling and virtual product tours, to rich and interactive product details, there are many ways for businesses to allow customers to learn about their products online before ever stepping foot in a store.
- Personalization at scale. Large retailers are utilizing data across their entire technology stack to personalize every experience — whether it’s offering intelligent product recommendations, well-timed promotions, or simply addressing customers by name whenever possible, they’re leveraging data from every customer touchpoint to optimize their experience.
- Embracing a hybrid model of eCommerce and a minimal brick and mortar presence. The store front, even if it is a popup shop, serves to assist in the pickup of merchandise and to improve the convenience of returning merchandise. The pandemic introduced curbside pickup, for those not only wishing to be socially distant but also wishing to save on delivery charges.
In your opinion, will retail stores or malls continue to exist? How would you articulate the role of physical retail spaces at a time when online commerce platforms like Amazon Prime or Instacart can deliver the same day or the next day?
While eCommerce can certainly compliment a brick-and-mortar business model, it’s not likely to fully replace the in-person buying experience in all industries. Shopping is still an enjoyable social activity for many consumers, and same-day delivery isn’t always an option when you need something in a pinch. Plus, delivery often adds costs that can be avoided by running to the store.
However, it’s only a matter of time until any industry that can incorporate to ecommerce will make the shift. Industries like fashion, luxury goods, or automobiles may never be fully-replaced by a digital experience — but it will likely be available for those customers who prefer it.
Even if advances in VR and AR made online shopping a truly amazing experience, big box stores as well as popup shops will continue to occupy physical real estate. These traditions won’t all be replaced by tech, even if they are loss leaders.
The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?
Retailers — whether small or large — should start committing to digital transformation today in order to prepare for tomorrow. Incorporate services like online self-service, curbside pickup, same-day local delivery, or even customer-driven digital communities. The sooner a business starts focusing on its digital strategy, the larger their return will be as they gain important benefits like positive customer reviews, boosts in SEO, widespread product listings on third-party marketplaces, and more opportunities for testing new strategies.
While the “retail apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade, 2020 has all but forced businesses to be available in many different ways. Those that have realized the benefits of eCommerce won’t likely be returning to an offline-only model any time soon.
Many of the leaders in retail are slow-moving behemoths, and need innovation from acquisitions to stay ahead. Small and midsize retailers can focus on providing value and streamlining the shopping and customer experience, and providing high value products.
Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise to retail companies and e-commerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
Retailers and e-commerce companies continue to add value to both directions of the supply chain. Although some manufacturers may opt to add D2C to their mix, in doing so they may be signing up to compete with retailers who are more skilled at selling.
Retailers continue to defend their stake in the supply chain and re-invent the values that make them so valuable. For manufacturers, they reduce holding costs and the overall costs of goods sold by moving inventory fast and predictably. Plus, retailers already own the sales infrastructure, marketing expertise and market share that manufacturers would have to invest in themselves.
On the flipside, consumers benefit from retailers by having a one-stop shop for their shopping needs. Customers don’t want to create accounts on 5 different websites to get a full cart of goods they could’ve gotten from one store. So there are opportunities to provide customers with better experiences and customer-centric focus than what individual manufacturers can easily provide.
At the end of the day, retailers are a critical part of the supply chain for many manufacturers, and technology continues to offer vast options to re-invent their roles. By continuing to become faster, more efficient, and digitally-savvy, retailers can maintain their margins and find new ways to enhance their value in the supply chain.
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 😊
I like the concept of living minimally. I have been for the past couple of years exploring alternative forms of living in nature by employing permaculture and traditional ecological knowledge to explore what can be assembled into an affordable, sustainable mode of living and loving life and embracing nature. My test grounds are on 10 acres in the Mojave desert.
How can our readers further follow your work?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!