Don’t be afraid to experiment. The retail and ecommerce space are directly impacted by the fact that consumer behavior and interests are constantly evolving. One of the best ways to increase customer loyalty and retention is to be on top of those behavior/interest trends and delight them with new and creative experiences. Over the past year we have seen a lot of retail and e-retail companies take on this attitude — perhaps in part because they needed to adjust for the limitations that the pandemic incurred on regular shopping patterns. Walmart is a great example of a big brand that has experimented a lot in the past year and seen good results with consumers. It has tapped into the rising trend of social commerce and has been experimenting with selling and promoting its products on TikTok.
As part of my series about the “How To Create A Fantastic Retail Experience That Keeps Bringing Customers Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bob Braham.
Bob is the CEO of Famous, the mobile ecommerce platform. He has over 30 years of leading high-tech organizations, including Hewlett Packard, Dell/EMC and Silicon Graphics leveraging that experience to lead small to midsize companies. Previously, Bob was the Chief Revenue Officer of ClearStory Data, a software firm, helping lead the company to an acquisition.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Before I became the CEO of Famous, I had a 30 year long career of executive leadership roles for various high-tech organizations. Most of these companies were well-known, high-growth brands like Hewlett Packard, Dell/EMC, and Silicon Graphics. Throughout my career I’ve gained quite a bit of experience leading small to midsize companies to turnarounds and subsequent exits. That experience and my knowledge of how to leverage great technology in a compelling market made the CEO role at Famous seem like the right fit for me.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
My story comes from when I was a sales trainee at Hewlett Packard (back when HP was a high growth company), I was straight out of college and a little naive. The sales people were doing a roadshow and the trainees were tasked with driving this big truck to various locations each day, setting up the computer equipment, assisting sales people, then packing up for the next day. During one of my shifts I was paired with someone who decided he wanted to take the truck around for a spin to visit with some friends, and insisted that I join him. To this day, I’m not exactly sure what his purpose for this side tour actually was, but we ended up making multiple stops and being very late to return to the road show location to pack up. We were so late that by the time we returned, the show was closed and one of the sales people was left behind to watch over the equipment. I was later reprimanded as guilty by association — I should never have gone into the truck for what I was told would be accompanying my co-worker for a quick errand. My lesson learned was: always control your own destiny.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
John Gorman worked with founder Glenn Bell to start Taco Bell as it’s first president. Although not in high tech, John really understood how people worked. As a young manager I met with John for breakfast regularly where I’d run situations by him and he’d tell me engaging stories. When John was close to passing away, I visited him in his bed. He was weak and barely coherent but suddenly he popped up, wide awake and lectured me for two hours on all the things I was doing wrong in my career. It was an incredible experience. It felt as if he realized he did not have much longer on this earth and wanted to impart some things to me before he left. After that conversation, John died two days later.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Our family (my wife and both kids) are enamoured with The Book of Joy. It’s a story about the friendship between the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu — two leaders from extremely different backgrounds sharing areas of commonality and the good they try to do in the world. Many of their sharing revolves around seeing things from the perspective of others, particularly during conflict… which we have no shortage in our world today.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our vision at Famous is to bring brands’ products to life on any mobile device. To achieve that we recently launched Famous Pro for Shopify, a new no-code platform that enables anyone to easily create beautiful and engaging mobile storefronts, with little-to-no technical expertise. We built this platform because there is currently a gap in the market — companies need to be able to create well designed mobile websites, but the skill and resources need to do so can be cost prohibitive. We believe that the future of ecommerce lives on mobile, and we give brands the ability to convey their unique stories and cultivate a deeper connection with customers to sell their products in the best way possible, decrease bounce rates, and increase customer loyalty and retention.
I joined Famous because my background had been largely in enterprise applications particularly cloud infrastructure. Famous gives people the power to express themselves and to make their business “cool”. No cloud infrastructure app can do that. Particularly with the pandemic, you are seeing loads of new entrepreneurs building digital businesses and expressing themselves in these businesses. In turn, customers enjoy being affiliated with these intimate, people driven brands. I like to say that we help customers love their merchants!
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I have two very simple recommendations here:
- Focus on people. After over 30 years in the tech industry I realized that the strongest asset you can ever hope to have is your people. As a leader, the sooner you give up the idea that you can oversee and be involved in everything, the better. Trying to hold on to that idea will put you on the fast track to burn out. The alternative — and overall better business strategy — is to focus on recruiting a team of talented folks that you trust. Once you have that foundation, it’s your job as a leader to foster an environment of mutual respect, transparency, and self-empowerment.
- Act with Integrity. To other executive leaders, this may sound obvious. But when you harbor secrets you create stress on yourself. I was once told: if you tell the truth on Monday, you don’t have to worry about what you said on Wednesday. I have seen well meaning leaders confronted with the difficulty of pleasing shareholders and the market relative to the pain of telling their story straight up. After years in business, I’ve learned that one of the benefits of acting with integrity, is that you greatly reduce your stress.
Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. The Pandemic only made things much worse for retailers in general. 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?
It’s a bit hard to take broad strokes lessons from companies like Costco and Krogers because they were labeled as “essential” during the pandemic, allowing them to stay open and for the most part continue business as usual.
On the other hand, while companies like Lululemon certainly benefited from a pandemic-related spike in interest (lockdown mandates actually created an athleisure trend), it also managed to beat out other athleisure competitors because it was well set up for digital retail. In fact, Lululemon saw a lot of success through its ecommerce channels during the pandemic, with a reported 94% growth in digital sales in its third-quarter of 2020. The company went on to explicitly say that it was able to make up for revenue loss from the closure of brick-and-mortar stores with digital sales. I think the lesson here is clear — the future of retail is digital, and in order to be successful in any environment, companies must invest in ecommerce operations and strategies that result in high-quality customer experiences.
Another company that I admire is Target. Target has been regarded as a dinosaur in retail. But CEO Brian Cornell, who took the reins about six years ago, led his team to seize on their strengths and capitalize on the pandemic. Target was one of the leaders to mix digital with brick-and-mortar to provide an exceptional customer experience. While never shopping at Target much before, I became hooked on their system of ordering online, getting out of my house — a great exercise in itself, and having a Target service rep deliver the product to my car. Many other businesses (e.g. Whole Foods) saw the strength of this system followed suit.
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 retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
It’s true that Chinese companies have a bit of an advantage because they are able to offer consumers cheaper prices. I would venture even further and say that it is unlikely that U.S./European companies will ever be able to beat those low price points. If you evaluate how the Chinese labor market is structured versus U.S./European labor markets, it’s clear that Chinese companies will have an easier time offering lower prices because labor is typically much cheaper. To compete at the price level, U.S. and European companies would need to either compromise on labor practices, or make drastic changes to their logistics and operations practices.
Where U.S. and European companies can win: quality mobile ecommerce shopping experiences. Research has shown that the number of smartphone users now sits at around 3.8 billion, an increase of roughly 104% since 2015. In line with this, global revenue from ecommerce has also grown with sales anticipated to reach 4.97 trillion dollars in 2021 — and a large percentage of that expected to be from mobile shoppers. What this means for U.S. and European companies is that there is a big opportunity to capitalize on the mobile ecommerce space, thereby more directly reaching and selling to consumers. However, to truly win, companies need to do more than just occupy those spaces, they need to provide good shopping experiences. Research has shown that cheap prices are not the only things that are compelling for consumers. In fact, Forrester found that 61% of U.S. online adults are unlikely to return to a website that does not provide a satisfactory customer experience. In addition to this, Shopify has research that shows that immersive website design and branding can double the likelihood of a customer making a purchase once they are in an online storefront. All of these facts indicate that online storefronts that have clear branding, compelling design, and are easy to use (especially during checkout) are critical to captivating and converting customers, and being successful in the increasingly competitive global market.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a retail business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
One of the key mistakes that I see CEOs and founders make is that they don’t build or plan for future proofing infrastructure from the get-go. These folks may feel that they can not prioritize this while they are just getting their business up and running, but I disagree. It is very possible to build realistic, yet ambitious plans to adopt features that will help your business succeed years down the road — without taking too much time/resources away from current operations. On the flip side, if a company is slow to adopt or plan for new technologies and platforms they can quickly fall behind their competitors or discover that they do not have the right infrastructure to evolve with the changing landscape. A good example of this is the shift of the ecommerce industry to mobile. Industry surveys show that almost 80% of all ecommerce traffic is now mobile, making it very clear that this is the future of online shopping. Still, some companies were slow to adopt mobile-first strategies.
Another common mistake is the undervaluing of design and customer experience. When companies are first getting set up, a lot of them will naturally focus on the operations and logistics side of the business. Once that’s set up, many will make the mistake of diving into marketing and advertising efforts without first evaluating and polishing up their branding and website flows. As I mentioned in the previous section, consumers value good website and shopping experiences so much that a large majority will not return if they have a bad experience. What’s even more interesting is that even seemingly small design/website changes can make a huge impact. Research has shown that a simple 0.1 second speed improvement of a mobile site can increase conversion rates by 8.4% on retail sites. What this tells us is that companies that want to convert audiences and retain customers can not make the mistake of waiting too long to build shopping experiences that are well branded, easy to use, and engaging.
This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business in general and for retail in particular?
At the most fundamental level, a great customer experience helps build engagement. In our Twitter based low attention span world, with all the media competing for our attention, we appreciate being entertained. And we respect a brand that has gone through the effort to create an engaging experience so we trust they will take the same care in our overall customer journey. Trust is not easily earned, however customers will trust a retail brand which delivers great products, offers reliable support and information, and provides an enjoyable shopping experience. They will build a connection to that brand and keep returning. Ultimately, retail shopping is all about the experience. Consumers want shopping to be easy and enjoyable — combine that with quality products, and you have a winning formula.
We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?
The Forrester research that I mentioned before is one of many pieces of evidence that illustrates that the experience a customer has on a website can directly affect conversion. While there are some specific ways to improve performance, creating a unique and compelling experience is a little more complex. The solution often involves a complex network of design agencies, tech developers, and marketers, not to mention cost and resource drain. Because of this, cost and technical barriers impede businesses from building the immersive and stylish experience that consumers want. Due to this complexity, organizations are forced to spend much of their time on operations and execution vs value add and creativity. Fortunately, new mobile ecommerce experience platforms are emerging to help bridge the gap between desired outcome, and limited technical ability and resource budgets.
Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?
The Famous platform is primarily built for ecommerce merchants, and other non-technical folks at small to medium businesses (marketing managers, ecommerce managers, etc). However, what we were finding is that some of our merchants, particularly new ones, were so buried in building the basics of their storefront, they had no energy left to use Famous and creatively think about building an eye catching mobile experience for their customers. So while they really liked our platform, they simply did not have enough time to utilize its full power.
We really wanted to make sure that these merchants got the complete/best experience using Famous, so my head of marketing suggested that we create a match-making service that pairs selected design firms with merchants to build their Famous mobile experiences. We matched a few merchants with a particular design firm whose CEO I trust and admire. Not only did this “wow” our merchants, but the CEO of that design firm emailed me one day, thanking me for the incremental business and asked if I’d like a share of the revenue!
Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?
Oh, it gets better… I told that CEO that I did not want a cut of his revenue. My counter request was that he give these leads exceptional service and help them become Famous customers. He did a great job and recently gave us an order to upgrade his account to handle the additional business.
A fantastic retail experience isn’t just one specific thing. It can be a composite of many different subtle elements fused together. Can you help us break down and identify the different ingredients that come together to create a “fantastic e-retail experience”?
A fantastic e-retail experience takes into account the customer journey. I think you can break down the customer journey into five general stages: brand discovery, product exploration, checkout, shipping and receiving, and then post-product delivery follow up. Companies that want to build a great e-retail experience should make sure that each of those stages are not only easy, engaging and enjoyable for customers, but well designed with a strong brand voice and visual identity.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a fantastic retail experience that keeps bringing customers back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Don’t forget the basics. I said it before and I’ll say it again — good website design can do wonders, even at the most foundational level. The fact that a simple 0.1 second speed improvement of a mobile site can increase retail site conversion rates by 8.4%, should speak for itself. Consumers that are given an easy, engaging, and enjoyable shopping experience are not just more likely to purchase, they are likely to return again. The best way you can ensure this happens as an e-retail company is by making sure that your website has responsive performance, engaging interactions, and well branded design.
- Iterate. At Famous, we have learned some “fantastic retail experience” best practices from working with some globally recognized brands. One of the best practices that stands out to me is the strategy of doing rapid prototyping — design, quickly publish and then monitor results. From conversations with brands we’ve learned that those that leverage rapid prototyping give themselves a significant competitive advantage. This is one of the reasons why it was so critical for Famous to ensure that our platform had a no-code capability. The ability to allow non technical people to create designs and immediately publish without waiting for the work of developers to test out their ideas is incredibly valuable.
- Don’t be afraid to experiment. The retail and ecommerce space are directly impacted by the fact that consumer behavior and interests are constantly evolving. One of the best ways to increase customer loyalty and retention is to be on top of those behavior/interest trends and delight them with new and creative experiences. Over the past year we have seen a lot of retail and e-retail companies take on this attitude — perhaps in part because they needed to adjust for the limitations that the pandemic incurred on regular shopping patterns. Walmart is a great example of a big brand that has experimented a lot in the past year and seen good results with consumers. It has tapped into the rising trend of social commerce and has been experimenting with selling and promoting its products on TikTok.
- Future proof. As I stated in one of my previous answers, it is incredibly important to invest in strategies and technologies that make your brand ready for the future. If you don’t approach your business with this forward thinking mindset, you may not be able to offer your customers the features that they feel will make their experience better. Mobile-first websites were a “future” strategy/platform from a few years back that brands should already have locked in — those that haven’t are already falling behind. On the other hand, social commerce is a future strategy/platform that is just now emerging and gaining traction. L’Oréal is a good example of a brand that is investing early in this emerging trend, and it is likely that it will not only benefit from this early investment but we’ll see other brands soon follow suit.
- Focus on customer delight. There is plenty of complexity in retail. The marketing teams at these brands and the merchant owners get so bogged down in implementation details that they don’t have any energy left for creativity. But if you think about what will excite and astonish the customer, the way Southwest Airlines has established themselves in the mundane airline industry, the job becomes more fun, and customers become more engaged, trusting and loyal.
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?
I’ve been involved in a number of nonprofits focused on food, housing, and job creation as well as bringing forth relevant social justice policies for those less fortunate. However, there is one trend I find disturbing and if I had great influence, I would tackle head on. That is the bi-partisanship of our politicians. Someday, I’ll be thrilled to see members of our two party system use their talents to work together and move our country forward rather than do what best serves their own personal and political party’s interests
How can our readers further follow your work?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!