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Peter Cunningham of Buyapowa: “Partnering to scale up delivery capabilities”

As people have become more used to home delivery, I expect to see more stockless stores, where buyers can see and try products and then have them delivered directly to their homes or workplaces. The obvious savings in terms of less retail space required should impact the bottom line, but also allow more space to […]

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As people have become more used to home delivery, I expect to see more stockless stores, where buyers can see and try products and then have them delivered directly to their homes or workplaces. The obvious savings in terms of less retail space required should impact the bottom line, but also allow more space to be dedicated to creating an experience in-store or a holistic shopping experience, where you shop then dine or go to the cinema without having to take your purchases with you.


As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Peter Cunningham. He is the Director of Marketing at Buyapowa, the world leading enterprise advocacy marketing platform, where he has spent 7 years. He has seen the rapid growth of the business from the launch of its first referral marketing product in 2015 to today, where Buyapowa’s software powers referral marketing for over 100 leading brands and retailers in 27 countries and 21 languages.

Buyapowa’s clients are in fashion, beauty, retail, travel, grocery, telecommunications, banking, insurance, utilities, gaming/gambling and include household names such as Zalando, River Island, Gap, Ralph Lauren, Yves Rocher, The Perfume Shop, Carrefour, Cdiscount, T-Mobile, Vodafone, BT, Rogers, DAZN, HSBC, Ageas, EDF, British Gas, Betway etc.

The software allows clients to equip and incentivize their customers to recommend them to their friends, family and colleagues and offers incentives and rewards for genuine and successful customer referrals (e.g. a sale that that has not been cancelled or returned in the cooling off period, or a credit card that has been used or insurance policy where a premium has been paid etc.).

Peter is a graduate of the University of St Andrews, The College of Law and the HEC Paris MBA.


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 have an unusual career path in that after an MA in Modern History from the University of St Andrews, I took a law conversion course and started work as a lawyer. It didn’t take long to realise that this was not the dream career for me. So once I had freed myself from all my legal, financial and moral obligations in that field, I studied a bilingual MBA at France’s leading business school with the aim of getting into a more entrepreneurial and decision making role in tech, telecoms or the Internet. That led me to a series of senior marketing roles across leading social networks, web conferencing, lead generation for home services businesses, digital marketing for credit cards and, ultimately, to Buyapowa, the leading advocacy marketing platform, where I have spent almost seven years and am the Director of Marketing.

Looking back, I really wish that there had been a tech startup scene in the UK when I originally graduated.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I often think back to 2003, just after I had finished my MBA, when I set up a distribution business for a Swedish web conferencing company. An excellent technology that was far ahead of its time, that allowed many multiple participants, all with real-time video and super low latency VoIP, whiteboards and screen sharing and with full encryption from end to end. It was only held back by the lack of bandwidth and the low CPUs of some computers available on the market at the time. But we were totally convinced that working from home would become a thing. What we didn’t realise was that it would take another 15 years and a global pandemic for that thing to arrive.

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?

As part of my different roles in marketing, I have done many shows and events, often with very small budgets. When I ran my web conferencing start up, I got to be known as someone who would consider a last minute opportunity to take show space at a knock down rate. Typically, I would pay a fifth or less of the list price as the sales person was looking to clear out the last remaining unsold slots. Often I had to decide on the day or I would miss the print deadline for the catalogue. Of course, I would study the floor plan to see if I was next to a big brand that would draw lots of people and make sure I wasn’t along the back wall next to the cloakroom or bathrooms. But I would also try and see what else they could throw in as a sweetener.

One one occasion, the sales person offered me a free conference if I took the slot. It was a big show and I thought this would be a great opportunity. And so I arranged to attend with some resellers, had some colleagues ready in Sweden to do a live demo and paid for a dedicated Internet connection, which cost more than the stand itself. Then I saw the programme. We were at 4.30pm on the last day. As the show started emptying from lunch time, I got more and more anxious. When our time came, five Nigerian men in suits came in and sat in the last row. We waited. No one else came. We decided to leave a few more minutes. And still no one. So I asked the Nigerians if they were here for my conference, to which I got a very brusk reply that I should find another room for my conference and that they were from the Nigerian Trade Department and had booked the same room for a cocktail and were just waiting for me to vacate it.

The moral is that you rarely get anything valuable for free.

Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

At Buyapowa, we are always looking to improve our referral marketing platform and extend our suite of advocacy solutions into new areas. Having our development team in-house means that they are closer to the business and are able to react quicker to the needs of our clients and prospects. But in essence, all of our efforts are aimed at helping our clients get more customers through positive word of mouth. We have some exciting new features we will be launching soon, including some aimed at improving B2B referrals, partner and influencer marketing. We will announce these on our blog when they are ready.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

My first advice would be to find time to exercise regularly and take breaks from your work. Mens sana in corpore sano or a healthy body is an essential part of mental and psychological well-being is something I really believe in. I remember reading a great article from Loic Le Meur several years ago who said that he found encouraging his team to take breaks and do sports, even if only ping pong, not only greatly improved productivity, but also creativity. I am sure we have all found ourselves in a situation where we can’t see the wood for the trees or have writer’s block etc., and often the only way out of this is to disconnect and step away from our desks and come back at it with a fresh mind. In my case, I often find answers to my problems when jogging and can even start to visualise whole paragraphs of texts I want to write. It is also good to find a reason why you can’t avoid or postpone that exercise. I used to have a dog and it would only take a few moments of the dog whining at my door to realise that I could actually take 45 minutes off and reach for my sneakers. As a result, both I and the dog remained in good shape!

I would also recommend finding at least one interest outside your work that you are passionate about, whether that be books by a certain author, a genre of movies, following a sports team, painting, politics etc. Not only is it good for your mental health and creativity to have outside interests, but it will make you a lot more interesting to talk to if you can speak of something outside your office life.

Finally, I would not underestimate the importance of spouse or partner by-in. If the person you share your life with doesn’t support what you are doing and doesn’t understand that there are times when you just have to finish that project before you can do something else, then that can greatly increase your stress levels. Nothing worse than your partner deciding to up the ante just at the moment when you are under maximum pressure at work!

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?

It is difficult to name one person in particular, but instead I would say that several different networking events that used to take place in London combining education with a chance to meet people in the profession, really helped increase my knowledge, curiousness and awareness of digital marketing. Often it was a simple recommendation of a book to read or a blog to follow or a point to think about. But, even while many are no longer active, I would mention Sam Michel’s Chinwag, Christer Holloman’s First Tuesday, John Horsely’s Digital Marketing Group, Richard Fearn’s the Friday Club, and Web Analytics Wednesdays as having been particularly helpful in my case.

Hopefully, we will find a way to replicate these in the digital world.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

In a work environment, I have always tried to help others learn, not only how to do something, but why they are doing it and how it fits into the bigger picture. Often these were things that no one ever taught me and I had to figure it out for myself. So, particularly when someone is curious to learn, I am happy to share what I learned and how.

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?

To answer the question properly, we need to distinguish between things that are here solely because of the Pandemic, like social distancing in stores, and allowing exclusive access for key health workers and the vulnerable between certain time slots and other tactics that are more likely to be longer lived, many of which were often in existence before the Pandemic.

There are a few things that I have noticed retailers doing, which I expect to outlive the Pandemic:

  • Partnering to scale up delivery capabilities. While few retailers can hope to match the sophistication of the logistical networks of Amazon or Ocado, we have seen examples or retailers like Morrisons achieving huge online growth by partnering with Amazon and Deliveroo for home delivery
  • The move from large out of town megastores to smaller format urban stores, similar to what IKEA is rolling out across its major cities, where accessibility becomes more important than having the full range available on site, particularly when you can access the rest of the catalogue digitally in-store.
  • As people have become more used to home delivery, I expect to see more stockless stores, where buyers can see and try products and then have them delivered directly to their homes or workplaces. The obvious savings in terms of less retail space required should impact the bottom line, but also allow more space to be dedicated to creating an experience in-store or a holistic shopping experience, where you shop then dine or go to the cinema without having to take your purchases with you.
  • Due to social distancing limiting the number of people who can physically enter a store at one time, retailers need to ensure that those people who do arrive in-store are buyers rather than browsers. This means both increasing the amount of information that buyers can access online before entering the store, such as ratings, reviews and video demos, and also by getting customers to refer friends to buy in-store. When a prospective buyer arrives referred-in by a trusted friend with an incentive to purchase a specific product, then the chances of a sale are maximised. I expect to see referrals in-store increasing after the Pandemic.
  • One of the key elements for retailers hoping to withstand the immediate challenges of the Pandemic is controlling costs. One aspect is reducing rents and retail space, but another is reducing marketing costs. After having seen how AirBnB used Organic Discovery to get 91% of its traffic without paying a cent to Google or Facebook, I expect that this will only inspire retailers.

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?

If we had any doubts as to whether retail stores or malls would continue to exist, we had a sneak preview with the instant rebound in high street spending after the relaxing of Covid-19 related restrictions in September and at the beginning of December. While you might argue that this was just the release of pent-up demand after so many months of confinement, I would say that this illustrates the importance and endurance of physical retail.

Quite simply, there are elements of physical retail that online has not yet managed to master and perhaps never will:

  • For many of us, shopping is a social event. How many of us arrange to go shopping with friends or family, and end an exhausting trek around the shops with a meal or drink at the end? It is difficult to imagine online shopping with friends on Zoom pitching in with their views and advice as being quite as appealing, nor sharing a meal or drink virtually.
  • There is also a serendipitous element to physical shopping that online doesn’t quite recreate. Yes, you can see ‘people who bought this also bought that’, but it is not quite the same as stumbling across something you weren’t looking for. Particularly, when you add in the social element of the friend who convinces you to buy that jacket that you would never have looked at twice.
  • There are still items that are so expensive, so important or so personal, we will want to see them and touch them before we buy. Even if that means the stockless store where you can’t actually take anything home with you.

Obviously, physical retail will be different after the Pandemic, not least because of the number of long loved brands that have already disappeared. But the survivors will be those who have learned to take the best from online and incorporate it into their physical shopping experience.

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?

Much of what I have written above can contribute to increasing the profitability of retailers, but for those who survive the Pandemic, there are two vital questions that need answering: how to get customers back into stores and how to ensure that those visiting stores are buyers and not just browsers.

Retailers need to create reasons for customers to go to shopping malls and high streets, in part by doubling down on the things that online can’t do, particularly the holistic experience around shopping. Here in London we have a great example of the Westfield shopping malls which combine an extensive range of stores, with cinemas, restaurants, juice bars, manicurists, hair salons etc. As well as abundant parking and great public transport. The only thing that is missing, in my opinion, is the delivery to your home option, so that you don’t have to take your purchases to the cinema with you.

Another key element is to create unique experiences that can’t be found elsewhere. When every mall or high street has exactly the same stores and coffee shops offering the same products and lattés, then there is less incentive to make an effort to go to shop physically. But if the malls encourage local artisans and craftspeople to open pop-ups shops, and have fairs and farmers markets, then one weekend’s shopping will not look the same as every other.

Both during and immediately after the Pandemic, shoppers will need a mixture of incentives and reassurance to re-enter stores. And if social distancing remains with us for many more months, stores will need to maximise the ratio of shoppers to browsers. This is where digital, and in particular, referral marketing can prove crucial by referring shoppers who have a clear idea of what they want to buy thanks to a recommendation from a trusted friend and an incentive to buy now. Clearly a shopper who arrives with a targeted promotion to acquire a particular beauty cream or a particular mobile handset with a discount due to their friend’s recommendation is more likely to leave the store a customer than a random passer-by. Particularly if the incentive is time bound.

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?

US and European retailers stand very little chance of competing with Amazon or Direct-to-Consumer businesses from China based on price. Even if they could match the incredible logistics of Amazon, it is hard to compete against a player who is willing to lose money on each sale, funded by the success of AWS and the patience of its investors. Whereas Chinese based companies all benefit from lower wage and social costs, laxer regulations and tame trades unions, which all add up to much lower unit costs. Added to the fact that, whether selling directly or via platforms like Ali-Express or Wish, they are able to sell direct from the manufacturer without the retailer’s margin. It is almost impossible for Western brands to compete in low margin sectors, as seen with the recent negative press concerning the on-shore and off-shore supply chains of leading western fast fashion brands, particularly when no one is shining a torch at the wages and work conditions of Chinese workers.

This means that US and European brands need to compete on factors other than price. At Buyapowa, as well as working with retailers, we power referral marketing for many leading telecoms brands, utilities and banks and insurers. And, for once, I think that retailers could learn much from their experience. The main thing to remember is that not only do these brands operate in very competitive markets where customer acquisition costs can be sky-high, but there is often very little perceptible difference in their offerings in the eyes of the consumer. The electricity from utility seems very like the electricity from another. The mobile phone and mobile package from one operator is difficult to distinguish from the offer of another, and so on. As a result, they have been forced to double down on customer service, measuring their progress with NPS surveys and other customer feedback tools. And once their customer service is superior, they rely on their customers to vouch for them in ratings and reviews and by referring friends. In the same way, retailers can look to focus on their brands and customer service to differentiate themselves from online marketplaces, particularly where the seller is as far away as China.

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. 🙂

This is a difficult question to answer, but I read Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari last summer and I agree with his argument that future generations will probably look back at our time period and see the mass factory farming of animals as a crime. I am not vegetarian or vegan, but if the public knew the full extent of the suffering of the tens of billions of ‘sentient beings, each with complex sensations and emotions’ that live and die on a production line in awful conditions, often unable to move, see sunlight or accomplish the basic functions of their species, then surely there would be a clamour for change. I think shining more light into the practices involved in factory farming might encourage change, at least get people to question how they can get a burger so cheaply. I guess that is a ‘meaty’ answer to your ‘meaty question’.

How can our readers further follow your work?

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This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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