Williams-Sonoma Gets Personal
Bettering an already successful brand means bringing business down to the personal level.
Williams-Sonoma touches its customers where they live—literally.
The $5 billion retailer boasts many household names in the housewares industry among its portfolio: Pottery Barn, West Elm, Mark & Gram and, of course, Williams-Sonoma. With a mission to enhance its customers’ lives at home, Williams-Sonoma must continually improve the experience existing and potential customers have with the brand from catalogue to online to mobile to in-store.
“This multi-channel story really is a tremendous opportunity to take advantage of the best of each of the channels,” says John Strain, executive vice president and chief digital technology officer at Williams-Sonoma, Inc. “We prefer to talk about it as optimized multi-channel experience, because each channel provides an opportunity to engage with your customers in a way that capitalizes on the strengths of the channel in a different and better way than only one channel can provide.”
For Strain, optimizing the customer experience and finding innovative ways to engage with customers means bringing together analytic, creative and digital components. It’s about striking the appropriate balance between the creative—visuals featured in catalogues and Web sites—with the analytic, the data showing how effective efforts are with the target audience. And with more data, the target can be more fine-tuned and experiences can be personalized.
“Personalization is something we’ve been talking about in the industry since the dotcom age,” Strain says. “As an industry, we’re finally at the place where all the components of technology are mature enough for us to be able to deliver on the promise in a material and meaningful way.”
Capturing the Customer
Big data isn’t new for Williams-Sonoma.
Strain, who joined the company as chief information officer in 2006, says Williams-Sonoma has been capturing information about the customer for about 30 years. But now it’s about “capturing as much of that as you possibly can. And it’s not just shopping patterns,” he says. “It’s important, for us to be able to match in-store transactions back to online customers and knowing all those pieces are foundational. But, it’s about more than just transactions.”
Data such as what customers looked at and didn’t buy, or in essence, knowing which items resonate with specific customers and those that didn’t resonate gives Williams-Sonoma the raw material to drive better personalization. Customer behavior information in-store and on-site coupled with demographic, geographic and psychographic data enables Williams-Sonoma to mine for insights on how and when to contact the customer.
“Once we have data, then it becomes an opportunity for us to identify the customer when they're on the site—and through our partners—even when they're not on our site, in other places, such that we are able to serve up the right creative components and the right offers, based on what we know about the customer,” Strain says.
The Mobile Advantage
The smartphone is more than just a means for convenient shopping for Williams-Sonoma. It can tell a story of how an individual shops and how multiple channels impact the ultimate buying decision of the customer. There are many touch points for customers and understanding how all contribute to the experience is critical for personalization.
“Mobile is a tremendous unlock for us, and it’s hard to believe that smartphones have only been around seven or eight years,” Strain says. “The smartphone revolution has really been a transformative moment for us, for the industry, and it’s interesting because it has sort of taken technology out the backroom and really brought it into the front of the store. As customers and associates use mobile devices in our store, this is an opportunity to understand the science of the digital engagement model in the context of the physical store.”
Data from mobile further drives personalization down to the individuals within the same home, which takes a company that initially touched an entire home with a catalog to a more refined level of customer contact with targeted email to a smartphone. Also understanding the location of stores frequented by individuals can help Williams-Sonoma communicate the inventory, events, sales happening at the customer’s preferred location.
“Each of our brands aren’t particularly concerned if you shop in store or shop online or shop through mobile. It’s all good,” Strain says. “It’s all about being really customer-centric and letting them shop through whatever channel makes the most sense for them.”
Becoming Business Agile
Williams-Sonoma truly began to support its business and realize its digital transformation potential when it moved from a waterfall approach to a true agile-based development methodology, going from one major software release per year to software releases as often as every three weeks. The change in the backend technology and processes isn’t what the business focuses on; the focus is on delivering value and continually improving with customers.
“Agile, for us, has been transformative,” Strain says. Agile has helped the development team move from a “design for perfection” mentality to one of incremental improvements that can be made along the way in a “release train mentality”: changes happen on a regularly scheduled basis, and if a feature or function isn’t ready to go with this release, there is another release (another train) going live shortly. As a result, the company can find opportunities to deliver value faster and change course quickly if needed.
“It’s given us a lot more flexibility to respond to the business. It’s provided us a lot quicker time to market. It’s actually given us better cost controls,” Strain says.
But ultimately the technology behind big data, mobile, agile and more is a supporting player to the larger goal at Williams-Sonoma, which is to deliver an amazing customer experience across channels. According to Strain, there is no such thing as a technology project. They are all business projects at Williams-Sonoma; they all drive business value and are based on the merits of the business results they are going to provide. And that means reaching customers where they live, whether it’s at home, online, in-store or via mobile.
“The point is and should be, really, how can you best, most cost effectively, most efficiently, most quickly deliver value to your customers? Deliver projects with value to our business partners?” Strain says. “For us, it’s about delivery value and delivering value as quick as you possibly can.”