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RetailX Virtual: How 4 Digital-First Retailers Leverage Tech To Enhance Human Connections

  • July 2, 2020 at 8:15 AM EDT
  • By Marie Griffin
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When COVID-19’s stay-at-home orders halted most physical retail and boosted e-Commerce, it wasn’t just the brick-and-mortar retailers that were forced to make quick and decisive shifts. As digital-first retailers wrestled with soaring sales and a rush of new customers, they had to reinforce their commitment to human-to-human connections — ironically by leveraging their digital capabilities.

Four retailers speaking at a recent RetailX Virtual Experience, “Human Connection: Retail’s Secret Ingredient in the Digital Age,” revealed how they tapped their organizational expertise and the advantages of technology to overcome the effects of COVID-19 lockdowns. Led by moderator Allison Medina, VP Content for RetailX, four retail executives shared the virtual stage:

  • Addie Wallace, Director of New Business Strategy and Insights at Wine.com, revealed how the retailer shifted in-person wine tastings to virtual events, gaining the ability to involve celebrities like John Legend and reach a wider audience.
  • Eric Hutchinson, Founder of Resident, talked about how the direct-to-consumer seller and distributor of mattresses used its algorithms to identify those customers most likely to be more comfortable with in-person shopping and direct them to retail partners’ stores.
  • Andrew Lande-Shannon, Senior Director of Store Experience for Madison Reed, discussed how the retailer used its professional licensed hair colorists to provide virtual expertise for consumers stuck at home and improve a tough situation with events like virtual hair coloring parties.
  • Leslie Voorhees Means, Co-founder and CEO of Anomalie, explained how the e-Commerce-only seller of made-to-order wedding gowns called on its remote stylists, who work with brides during a process that can last as long as 24 months.

Wine.com Taps Experts To Ease Selection Process

While Wine.com sells exclusively online, the retailer has built person-to-person connections through a team of wine experts who engage in live chats with site visitors. These oenophiles provide free advice and answer questions 15 hours per day, seven days a week.

Before the pandemic, Wine.com had branched into the physical world with live tasting events and winery tours. When the shutdowns started, “one of our biggest pivots was changing our in-person wine experiences to virtual tastings,” Wallace explained.

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With virtual tastings, Wine.com had the flexibility to tap well-known celebrities like Jon Bon Jovi and John Legend, and to reach a much wider audience of consumers who were unusually receptive to new digital diversions while they were sheltering in place.

Behind the scenes, Wine.com had to gear up to handle the surge of business that came its way when bars and restaurants closed and adults increased their at-home alcohol consumption. During April, the retailer saw a 350% increase in sales compared to April 2019.

This required Wine.com “to drastically change our warehouse operations,” Wallace said. “Because we had to maintain physical distance, we had to double the number of shifts. We went from operating one shift per day, five days a week, to two shifts per day, seven days a week.” The company hired more than 500 people in operations, customer service and its live chat recommendations teams to keep up.

Resident Leverages Data To Deliver Customers To Retailers

Home furnishing sales also migrated further online during the pandemic, putting pressure on the supply chain for Resident, which sells mattresses under the Nectar Sleep, Awara Sleep, Level Sleep and DreamCloud Sleep brands as well as the Bundle brand for furniture.

“We’ve seen a multi-fold increase in sales, which has been great, but it’s quite a challenge to scale up when you’re selling a physical product,” Hutchinson said. “We’ve had to open up additional distribution points so that we could accommodate enough FedEx and UPS trucks to get the products out.”

Resident serves two customer segments, each of which the company deems equally important — directly to consumers, and through a growing number of brick-and-mortar retail partners.

“A lot of those retail partners are hurting and they need traffic in their stores,” Hutchinson said. Leveraging its digitally native data-driven capabilities, Resident is helping them address the challenge with “an algorithm that determines on the front end whether someone’s more likely to buy online versus offline. For those customers who are more comfortable buying offline, we have a customized, personalized experience to take them through to introduce them to a retail partner.”

Resident’s newest offering for its partners is a retail appointment scheduler, which manages the entire process of connecting the consumer and the retail partner.

As Hutchinson told Retail TouchPoints, a mattress is a considered purchase that takes place over time. “With data and attribution models, we can figure out where to spend money to reach these consumers as they are researching their purchase,” he said.

Madison Reed Expands Digital Brand With Offline Service

Madison Reed started as a direct-to-consumer online brand, but for more than two years it also has been opening and franchising Color Bars. There are now more than 600 salon-like Color Bars offering hair color consulting and salon services as well as product.

While beauty salons were closed during the pandemic, demand for home hair color products — and advice — exploded. Madison Reed was perfectly poised to capitalize on this trend because, like Wine.com, it already had invested in virtual advisors. In Madison Reed’s case, these were professional, licensed hair colorists. “Our team has been doing incredible things like virtual hair coloring parties to really build that community,” said Lande-Shannon.

As salons reopen and customers return to Color Bars, Madison Reed has instituted new safety measures such air conditioning with ionization and diligent cleaning of surfaces. However, a segment of the population is still concerned about leaving their homes. “As we see it, our business is in a really good place because we are creating an experience that is seamless wherever the client interacts with us, whether online or in our Color Bars,” said Lande-Shannon.

Anomalie’s Personal Stylists Forge Relationships Online

Unlike Wine.com and Madison Reed, Anomalie has stuck to its roots as a digital-only retailer, but like them, its foundation of human-to-human service has buoyed the company during the pandemic.

“We’ve been investing since day one in supporting a remote stylist force that forms really strong connections with our customers throughout the digital experience of designing and crafting made-to-order wedding gowns,” Means said. Stylists work individually with brides over the course of a process that can last six to 24 months.

“For us, this was not a case where we had to pivot to another strategy or change course. At Anomalie, we’re using the scale of an online experience to drive better recommendations, more options and greater value,” Means added.

As the COVID-19 crisis has shown, traditional bridal shops are in a vulnerable position because many have not embraced e-Commerce, nor are they developing the technological innovations that can improve the wedding gown purchase journey. “I’m curious to see what happens with legacy retailers’ omnichannel strategies as we go forward,” Means said. “It’s a time to think in a very sober way about whether your stores, your workforce or your physical assets are aligning with your customer needs.”

RetailX Pivots To Help Retailers Cope With COVID-19

RetailX Virtual is a new online event and educational offering, and the Human Connection topic grew out of Medina’s conversations with leading-edge retailers. Each one of the companies represented on the panel exhibits “a relentless focus on the customer experience,” she said.

“It’s not business-to-business or business-to-consumer anymore. It’s human-to-human,” Medina added. “That’s really the way great brands are coming to market these days, and that is why we selected each of these brands.”

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