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“Future of retail.” with Omri Traub

The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of what the industry calls click and collect but is also known as curbside pickup, etc. This is a model that has been extremely popular in Europe for years, but has only had limited adoption in the US before the pandemic. We are seeing more retailers creating innovative click […]

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The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of what the industry calls click and collect but is also known as curbside pickup, etc. This is a model that has been extremely popular in Europe for years, but has only had limited adoption in the US before the pandemic. We are seeing more retailers creating innovative click and collect models and many more Americans taking advantage of them.

As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Omri Traub. Omri is the Co-Founder and CEO at Popcart, a shopping assistant tool helping thousands get the best prices online every time. Before that, he was VP of Engineering at Oracle where he led the Endeca team, acquired by Oracle in 2011 for $1.1B. Popcart is Omri’s third startup. He lives in Brookline, MA with his wife and four children.

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 started writing code when I was 9 or 10 when I got my hands on one of the earliest models of the IBM PC. By the time I got to college, I thought I was going to study some serious science like Chemistry or Physics but I kept getting drawn back to coding and ended up majoring in Computer Science. I started my first company with two college friends while the three of us were still at Harvard. This was in 1998 at the height of the dot-com bubble. We were young and knew nothing about building software, but we were sure we were going to succeed… And somehow, after spending 10 months building a product and releasing it to the world with one email message to an online mailing list, we sold the company for over $2M. This ‘coming of age’ experience got me addicted to the magic of creating software. Unfortunately for me, it also set impossible expectations for how easily success should come as nothing since has come to me even remotely this easily.

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

A few years ago, my wife was going back to work full time and I found myself doing much more to help run our busy household. After being a customer for more than 20 years, I fell in love with Amazon all over again when I discovered that I could shop for everyday essentials (CPG = consumer packaged goods, a > $1T a year industry) online and have them arrive at my door in 1–2 days. My bubble was burst, however, when I happened on the outrageous price volatility on Amazon when looking through my purchase data as well as purchase data from friends and family. A friend of mine paid $50 three times for a mega-pack of Kleenex on ‘subscribe and save’ but then was charged $80 three times and $104 one time by Amazon! He didn’t even know about it, assuming that prices were locked under ‘subscribe and save’. I started Popcart right then with the conviction that we can arm the consumer with technology that rivals the sophistication of what Amazon and other retailers have. The solution is the simple promise — to find you the best price every time you shop.

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?

Early on in my career, we were getting ready to ship a product release I was particularly proud of. It was the first release we did as part of a larger company that acquired my three-person startup. A woman from the marketing department sent us the ‘splash screen’ — a colorful image introducing the product on first launch. It was a horrendous shade of green. I politely declined to add it to the product. The next day my manager told me the woman was livid at my insubordination: “Tell these people downstairs,” she said, “that until they get a degree in art or marketing they should do what they are told.” This was my first introduction to the silos that get created at large organizations. I vowed then and there to never succumb to that kind of thinking and to always be open to opinions and ideas from everyone, regardless of what department they work in or what formal education they have. I think about this often now that I am running my own company.

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

Unlike other shopping extensions like Honey, which help mostly at checkout by looking for the best promo codes, Popcart engages with you as you browse for items online. As you shop normally on sites like Amazon and dozens of others, it pops up when it finds you a better price online. We have seen incredible growth recently around Amazon’s Prime Day, where Popcart helped tens of thousands instantly compare Amazon’s deals with Walmart, Target, Best Buy and others, all of which were having mega-sale days of their own to compete! In time for the holiday season, we are introducing an exciting new feature for Popcart — back in stock alerts. With online shopping going into the highest gear, we expect many top items like the upcoming releases of PlayStation 5 and Xbox to go out of stock quickly. Popcart’s new alerts will make sure you will be the first in line the moment more items are available for sale!

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

I split my days between managing a team and doing my own creative work. The first part involves a lot of time in meetings (remotely, of course these days), reviewing plans, and helping others make the best decisions in their respective areas of the company. This is both challenging and rewarding — seeing people develop their own leadership capacities and trying to make an entire organization hum like a well-oiled machine. It can also be exhausting — jumping between technical issues with the engineering team to customer issues to reviewing financials. I find that leaving aside some time for my own independent and creative work renews my energy and satisfies my creativity. These days, running a small startup company rather than a large division within a bigger company, this involves writing code again myself and prototyping new feature ideas that might have a big impact on the future of the company.

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?

So many people along the way have taught me and inspired me so it’s hard to narrow this down. But I will pick two! Melissa Leffler was my first boss and also the first to encourage me to become a manager. From her I learned the art of managing people — how to think deeply about the dynamics on a team, about the individual strengths of each team member and how to best bring those out, and how to write and deliver an annual performance review full of constructive ideas for professional growth. Thomas Kurian, at the time President at Oracle and now CEO of Google Cloud, was a key champion behind the Oracle acquisition of Endeca. From him, I learned how to manage a large and multi-faceted organization, how to set a direction for an organization yourself while also letting others innovate and lead, and how to know which projects need your personal involvement and which can run with less intervention.

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

I try to stay involved in my local community — through schools and a few non-profit organizations which I have been advising over the years. With Popcart, we set out to empower shoppers to get the best prices and avoid the most egregious pitfalls of online shopping. With the COVID-19 pandemic, this came into sharper focus with price gouging and supply shortages bringing out the worst of online shopping. The outpouring of messages and emails from our users has kept us motivated throughout this difficult period.

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?

(1) The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of what the industry calls click and collect but is also known as curbside pickup, etc. This is a model that has been extremely popular in Europe for years, but has only had limited adoption in the US before the pandemic. We are seeing more retailers creating innovative click and collect models and many more Americans taking advantage of them.

(2) Retailers are spreading out their deals over a longer time period to try to reshape the demand curve and prevent too much pressure on their supply channel and delivery channels this holiday season. We saw this most with Amazon’s Prime Day sale in October and how Walmart, Target, Best Buy, and others scheduled deals on the same day. The more holiday shopping consumers do early this year, the less likely retailers will be to fail to deliver on expectations closer to the end of December.

(3) Retailers are working to leverage their existing physical stores into a logistics asset. We have been seeing this with Walmart, Target, Home Depot, and Best Buy, and Amazon/Whole Foods. We are seeing retailers like Bed Bath and Beyond converting some retail stores into distribution centers. We are even seeing retailers like Apple fulfill online orders from its stores in some cases.

(4) In conjunction with the move to turn physical stores into distribution centers, we have seen retailers cross-training store staff to handle fulfillment or even remote customer service.

(5) Retailers are optimizing product assortment to help shoppers reduce the number of trips they have to take. We are seeing this with Target and Costco, carrying new types of items they did not traditionally sell to capitalize on shoppers’ desire to visit fewer stores.

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?

Nobody knows when life will go back to normal, but I hope it does — and soon! The pandemic has significantly accelerated the adoption of e-commerce, introducing people to buying more types of items online than they have before. I think physical retailer experiences will continue to shine in areas where being able to see and touch the product before buying is important. D2C brands like Warby Parker and Glossier have proven this to be an effective strategy. I think we will also continue to see retailers use their physical business to their advantage in hybrid ‘click and collect’ models or as localized distribution centers. We are seeing Walmart, Target, and Home Depot — to name just a few — doing this successfully as they tackle the competition with Amazon. The consumer is the real winner here with more flexible options for pickup and same-day delivery for more items than ever.

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?

(1) Invest in digital: High-quality mobile apps are a must. Allowing curbside pickup allows brick- and-mortar retailers to compete with Amazon (see for example the recent success of BestBuy).

(2) Track Amazon prices and stay competitive. Retailers need to ensure they aren’t asking the customer to pay an unreasonable premium to shop with them.

(3) Customer service is a differentiator. Chewy.com created the playbook for how to compete and win with Amazon by delighting customers.

(4) Invest in direct customer relationships. Paid ads continue to climb in price so building a community of loyal customers with high lifetime value will help offset the expense and also drive organic word-of-mouth growth (e.g. A5 Waygu beef at Costco is a unique product that was priced fairly and drove lots of sharing on FB/Twitter/YouTube).

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?

Branding is a powerful thing. While it is true that in some product categories, consumers are willing to try out unfamiliar brands or items with uncertain quality, the shopping experience is still a main driver in driving consumer purchase behavior. Focusing on brand design and the shopping experience on a brand’s own website is important, but so it giving extra attention to product listings on marketplaces like Amazon and Walmart. Brands should ask themselves whether shoppers encountering their brand on Amazon are seeing the brand through the most favorable light. Social media and word-of-mouth marketing is another powerful driver. Investing in building a community around the product, creating engaging content on social media channels, and building a successful refer-a-friend program are just some of the ways brands can compete and win.

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 would focus on education and on broadening educational opportunities for kids of all socio-economic backgrounds. A friend of mine started Citizen Schools many years ago to bring professionals to teach what it is they are passionate about to kids from inner city schools. It was (and still is) a great program and has always been an inspiration for me.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Head over to popcart.com to see what we are up to!

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

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