In an industry as diverse and wide-ranging as retail, there’s no one way to create a stellar brand experience — but there are a few common factors. The 17 brands and retailers recognized by the first Brand Experience Awards (BEA), co-presented by Retail TouchPoints and RetailX, have different business models, customer types and challenges, but they share a commitment to never standing still.
In a discussion moderated by Debbie Hauss, Executive Director of Content for Retail TouchPoints, executives from eight BEA-winning companies pulled back the curtain on the technologies, strategies, pivots and discoveries that made their programs stand out from among more than 90 organizations that entered the competition:
- Leslie Voorhees Means, Co-Founder and CEO, Anomalie, winner in Digital Innovation;
- Zachary Hoover, Retail Operations Manager, Boost Mobile, winner in Store Design and Experiential Retail;
- Ekta Chopra, Head of Digital Transformation, e.l.f. Cosmetics, winner in E-Commerce Site Optimization;
- Geronimo Chala, VP Retail, Rebag, winner in Digital Innovation;
- Angela Gearhart, VP, Brand Experience, Sleep Number, winner in Pop-Ups, Events, Partnerships and Other Brand Activations;
- Gail Buffington, VP of Marketing and Analytics, Soft Surroundings, winner in Mobile & Social Optimization;
- Jeanne Foley, Co-Founder, The Groomsman Suit, winner in Pivot Strategy; and
- Sharon Leite, CEO, The Vitamin Shoppe, winner in Store Design and Experiential Retail.
Read about all the winners by downloading the Brand Experience Awards report.
Leading Through An Unpredictable Crisis
With the worst of the pandemic in the rearview mirror, Hauss asked retailers what they had learned.
“Being able to communicate and stay connected is key,” said Leite. “When COVID started to take hold, we assembled a core group to be in charge of communicating to customers, both internal and external. Because the situation was very unpredictable, leaders in the organization needed to be predictable in the way we handled and communicated information. Being consistent in sharing a message can have a very calming effect.”
“To build on what Sharon said, we had to do all that with a lot of patience,” added Gearhart. “As leaders, we had to maintain patience and balance in both our professional and personal lives.”
“Everyone reacts to crises differently,” noted Hoover. “So it was important to listen to how people were preparing to get through the crisis themselves, to ensure not only that their family life was taken care of, but also to ensure that they could continue to do their day-to-day work.”
Using Data To Determine Future Direction
For more and more brands, data analysis drives the customer experience, and BEA winners exemplified that trend.
In February 2019, e.l.f. Cosmetics shuttered its 22 stores, although the brand is sold widely by other retailers. “We put that investment into digital,” Chopra explained. “Our strategy was to double down on data and now we’re doubling down on that. We’re harnessing data to really personalize and offer an amazing experience that’s frictionless across the full ecosystem of everything we do.”
Rebag started opening retail boutiques in 2017 and had 10 locations operating before the pandemic, but it remained primarily a digital reseller of high-end luxury handbags and accessories. The company experienced “exponential growth” even after its stores were required to close, Chala said.
“With our data-heavy perspective, we were able to understand what this resale world looks like for luxury handbags, and we wanted to educate the consumer about the true value of what they’re investing in,” he explained. That accumulated data led to the launch in 2019 of Rebag’s Comprehensive Luxury Appraisal Index for Resale (Clair), which empowers consumers to determine the current sale value of their luxury item.
“We’ve realized how much siloed data and processes are dangerous to our business; it makes it hard to be nimble,” Buffington remarked. “That has definitely informed how we’re planning our future. We’re making our data and our processes more seamless, and we’re no longer afraid to tear up our tech roadmap and redo it to fast-track new projects.”
Wedding Apparel Presents A Unique E-Commerce Challenge
Anomalie is an exclusively digital retailer selling custom-made wedding gowns. The Groomsman Suit started in e-Commerce but has opened three brick-and-mortar showrooms within the past four years. Means and Foley agree that it has been difficult for couples and their wedding parties to purchase clothing for this important occasion online, but the retailers have addressed these obstacles in different ways.
“When we were building Anomalie, we didn’t think the answer was to open up another brick-and-mortar boutique,” Means said. “A digital experience can offer really dramatic advantages in addressing the pain points brides experience, by offering them true customization with inclusive sizing and a more affordable price point.”
Means invested in developing proprietary technology to address brides’ concerns, and relaunched its data-powered DressBuilder platform late last year. Leveraging the collective knowledge of expert dressmakers, stylists, technical designers and data scientists, DressBuilder enables brides — with one-on-one guidance from Anomalie’s virtual stylists — to design the wedding gowns of their dreams.
While brick-and-mortar bridal shops represent 95% of the market, after they were forced to close in March, Anomalie saw its weekly sales triple compared to six months earlier.
For The Groomsman Suit, “COVID was like a slap in the face after we had spent a lot of money renovating and building these beautiful showrooms and advertising to drive traffic,” Foley said. Fortunately, the company had moved cautiously into retail with small-footprint locations, and “about 99% of our business is still online,” she said.
The company won its Pivot Award for the way it shifted the personal services that the stores provided when its physical locations were shut down. “Within 24 hours, we had a virtual appointment option so people could schedule a Zoom call with any of our team members,” Foley said. “We had to provide that high-touch experience remotely so that the customers coming to us online would be confident we were going to fulfill their wedding wardrobes.”
“It’s not a battle between e-Commerce and brick-and-mortar,” said Chala. “Both worlds need to emerge stronger [from the pandemic] to create a holistic, 360-degree experience for the customer.”