Deliver a highly personalized experience. Using data and AI, you can ensure you’re offering the right product to the right customer at the right time. This is crucial for building customer loyalty. If you’re constantly prompting a customer to buy a pair of shoes that aren’t available in her size or that have sold out, she won’t feel that she’s being listened to. But if you know she’s looking for a pair of white sneakers, and you can send her an email with the exact shoe she’s been eyeing, in her size and ready to ship, you can create a happy and loyal customer.
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 Raj De Datta.
Raj De Datta is Co-Founder and CEO of BloomReach, a leading software platform for digital commerce experiences that powers brands representing 25% of retail eCommerce in the US and the UK. Raj is a multiple-time entrepreneur. Before launching Bloomreach, he was entrepreneur-in-residence at Mohr-Davidow Ventures, served as Cisco’s director of product marketing and was on the founding team of telecom company FirstMark Communications. Raj also worked in technology investment banking at Lazard Freres. Raj serves on the Council for Player Development for the US Tennis Association, as a Founder Partner at seed-stage venture capital firm Founder Collective and an individual investor in over 20 start-ups. Raj is the author of the upcoming book from Columbia University Press, “The Digital Seeker” which is a guide for digital teams to build winning experiences. He holds a BS in Electrical Engineering with a certificate in Public Policy and International affairs from Princeton University and an MBA with distinction from Harvard Business School.
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?
I started Bloomreach with the basic notion that the most important problem we could solve for people was to create relevant web experiences. I saw machine learning and AI tech in those days in 2009 behind applied primarily by Google and Facebook in advertising and felt that when applied to digital experiences and commerce, we could impact billions of people and thousands of businesses. I recruited a team from Google, convinced Bain Capital Ventures to give us 5m dollars and we got started.
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?
The biggest mistake we made was to build a performance based business model around SEO — it gave us great success early but later would create complexity and risk for the business . I learned that while it’s important to have early success, it’s equally important to think a few steps forward.
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?
I’m grateful to my wife — who has seen me take risks throughout my life. Because I was unemployed between startups when we got married, we got started together with low expectations 🙂
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?
I like The Everything Store from Amazon — it teaches so many lessons on how Bezos built a great business against incredible odds. Also like the Nike story in Shoe Dog. Both teach the story of grit and persistence which I believe is the most important entrepreneurial quality.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We recently did a study to see how much ecommerce traffic we power in the US and UK markets and it came out to 25% of all traffic. This is a testament to the size and scale of our customer base. Customers like Albertson’s, Tractor Supply, the GAP, and many others are doubling or tripling their online sales year over year and we’ve been able to keep up with them and provide them the resilience they need as they deliver world class commerce experiences to their customers.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Now more than ever, we need to give our teams the opportunity to step back from work and reset. And from a company leadership perspective, it’s important to show the necessity of disconnecting by taking those breaks ourselves, too. At Bloomreach, we’ve established quarterly “Disconnect Days,” where every employee — no matter location or title — takes the day off. We want our people to thrive, and giving them the space to step away and take downtime plays a massive role in setting them up for that success.
Ok super. 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?
Reframe the way you look at your customer. Rather than asking “what do you want?” businesses should be asking “why are you here?” The ‘why’ questions help you to uncover your seeker, which is a consumer seeking a higher-order outcome. Lululemon is a great example of this. Their seekers aren’t just looking for athletic apparel, they’re looking to create a healthier lifestyle, to combine comfort and fitness, to feel good when they work out. Lululemon understood this and oriented their offerings accordingly. As a result, their seekers have become much more loyal, engaged consumers of the Lululemon brand.
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?
Amazon and others like them will always be a threat. What you should do is focus on what you are best in the world at and differentiate in areas they may find hard to duplicate. One of our customers for example, Hobbycraft, an arts and crafts retailer in the U.K., publishes an “ideas” section on their site where they provide suggestions for categories such as home decor or kids. They are not just engaging with you to buy a product, but rather they are helping you discover wonderful new projects that bring joy to the buyer and their friends and family. This is exactly what Bloomreach is all about!
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?
A common mistake many leaders in the retail space make is not adopting a digital first strategy. Traditionally, retail has thrived in physical spaces, and indeed, physical space allows for a number of important benefits in retail: trying on clothing, making returns, in-store pick up and so on. But the benefits of physical retail must be used to augment the digital experience, not the other way around. Your e-commerce experience, your mobile app, your email campaigns and social media — these channels should all serve as the center of your retail business’s strategy. From there, utilize the physical space to further enhance the shopping experience and create greater convenience for shoppers.
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?
A consumer has so much choice these days, and they’re often shopping in stores or websites that have a similar look and feel. And if it all looks the same to them, why should they buy from you? Customer service and the customer experience are what allow you to stand out. Delighting your customers, whether that be through a sincere interaction with someone in your store or an incredible digital experience that answers a deeper need, drives loyalty that will have customers choosing you over the competition again and again.
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?
I think the disconnect comes when you ask “what?” rather than “why?” When you believe your role is to simply provide a product or service, it’s easy to lose the human element behind that transaction. When you ask “what?” you create a customer experience in which a customer wants to buy a dress, you provide the dress, end of transaction. When you ask “why?” you create a customer experience in which they need to look nice for their son’s graduation, you help them find an outfit they feel comfortable in, they are grateful for your help, you make a sale. Asking the ‘why’ builds that deeper connection between business and consumer, and helps the business to prioritize the customer over the transaction.
Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?
Annie Selke is a designer and retailer of lifestyle brands. They have over 400 categories of products and their customers were struggling finding what they were looking for. The marketers could see the customers struggle but were unable to help them. After deploying Bloomreach, they were finally able to show the customer the right product at the right place, and at the right time, delighting their customers.
Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?
Annie Selke reported enormous benefit after implementing Bloomreach, enjoying a 40% increase in revenue related to our product discovery capability. This has led to an expanded partnership and their entire “front end” of their commerce experience will be powered by Bloomreach going forward. From the type you land on their site or app, to the time you click add to cart, we will be helping Annie Selke’s customers enjoy a world-class commerce experience.
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 retail experience”?
A fantastic retail experience, or really a fantastic experience for any type of business, encompasses a few key elements. The first is that they put the seeker at the center, uncovering the deeper motivations behind why the consumer has visited their site or store in the first place and providing relevant solutions. Next, they remove the work from the consumer, making it both simpler and more enjoyable to find what they need. Finally, they prioritize digital, utilizing data and technology to power meaningful and relevant customer experiences.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. 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. –
- Break online/offline boundaries. The physical experience is no longer separate from digital. By breaking online and offline boundaries, you can create a more robust customer experience. The introduction of buy online, pick up in-store is a great example of this.
- Don’t ask ‘what,’ ask ‘why.’ To get rid of what frustrates consumers and create the digital experience they actually want, businesses must reframe the problem they’re solving for. Instead of asking customers “What do you want?” they should be asking “Why are you here?” HotelTonight, for example, discovered that planned travel was only one type of trip people liked to take. Many were looking for more spontaneity, and thus were turning to travel sites for last minute places to stay. A successful business was born from simply asking ‘why?’
- Put the seeker at the center. Once you uncover the ‘why,’ you uncover the seeker behind your customer and build for them. HotelTonight serves as one example of a seeker-centric company, but you can also find this mentality in others such as Stitch Fix and Uber.
- Shift the work from the consumer to the company. As retail has become increasingly frictionless, a lot of work has shifted back to the consumer. A fantastic retail experience removes that burden from customers and puts the joy back into shopping — often in unique ways. Take Rent the Runway, which allows customers to find outfits from all types of brands on a rental basis. Rent the Runway is curating brands, helping customers put a new outfit together, and ensuring they always have a fresh, new look.
- Deliver a highly personalized experience. Using data and AI, you can ensure you’re offering the right product to the right customer at the right time. This is crucial for building customer loyalty. If you’re constantly prompting a customer to buy a pair of shoes that aren’t available in her size or that have sold out, she won’t feel that she’s being listened to. But if you know she’s looking for a pair of white sneakers, and you can send her an email with the exact shoe she’s been eyeing, in her size and ready to ship, you can create a happy and loyal customer.
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. 🙂
People First. It sounds simple, but as we all try to navigate these incredibly difficult times, the help we can offer others goes a long way. One good deed a day can make a massive difference.
How can our readers further follow your work?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!