Digital merchandisers can break down data silos: Part two of four

silos

If you follow retail trends, you’ve heard over and over how e-commerce, and mobile commerce in particular, has completely revolutionized the way consumers shop and buy.

What you haven’t heard as much about is how that same revolution has upended retailers and those who work for them, dramatically transforming roles and in some cases devastating businesses that were too slow to adapt.

For a look at the heart of the disruption, consider the job of site merchandisers. They were once called upon primarily for their sense of style and fashion — and for knowing what the season’s big seller would be. Now, they are expected to be all that, plus take on an analytic role, using data to determine winning and losing products.

It sounds like a fascinating job, but there is a catch: Recent research, commissioned by BloomReach and conducted by Forrester Consulting, indicates that merchandisers often don’t have the tools they need to master their new data-driven duties. In fact, the survey shows, modern merchandisers are being underutilized and, arguably, underappreciated.

Caitlin Molinari, who built a career in retail merchandising and marketing, says she’s seen the pigeon holes that site merchandisers can find themselves in when they are overwhelmed by data — and all but unarmed in terms of analytical tools.

See the entire site merchandising series

“They need to be almost let loose a little bit and have more trust put in their roles,” Molinari, who’s worked for Nordstrom, Pacific Sunwear and Teefury, says of digital merchandisers. “They’re making these daily decisions in merchandising and creating those unique experiences. I really don’t think they’re set up for success.”

In this, part two of a four-part series on the future of site merchandising, we look at the potential for properly armed merchandisers to break through the various silos of data and thinking that rise up in e-commerce organizations.

Molinari, who recently founded Caitlin Molinari Marketing, says merchandising has too often been seen as a “plug-and-play” position. Executives, buyers and others turn to merchandising with a list of products, brands, styles that need to be promoted based on corporate goals or past buying decisions.

“But really, they have so much data at their disposal,” she says. “They need to be given the freedom to implement what the data is telling them based on the user behavior.”

Molinari says she’s seen merchandisers buried in so much data that they don’t know where to turn first. But new tools that cut through the clutter and provide instant insights are giving merchandisers the opportunity to take a larger and more collaborative role in e-commerce organizations.

Merchandisers are now able to quickly understand how the categories and products they’re responsible for are performing. More importantly, such cutting-edge merchandising tools illustrate why a product is doing well or falling short. They let merchandisers see their customers’ shopping journeys — how they arrive at a page, where their next stop is when they leave, what products they view during the same shopping session.

It’s the kind of information that puts merchandisers in an ideal position to break through the silos that arise in any organization. It gives them the broad view that is essential for building the kind of comprehensive customer experience that many retailers seem to be searching for.

Finding ways to break through silos of data is about more than making merchandisers’ and marketers’ lives better. Opening up organizations also means customers can have a better shopping experience.

And isn’t the customer what retail is all about? It’s certainly what everyone says it’s about.

Phil Stocker, senior manager of site merchandising for home-goods seller Wayfair, which recently adopted a new set of merchandising tools, says his team is well on its way to understanding customers in a whole new way.

“Long term, I see this tool getting us closer to where we are the voice of the customer internally, where other parts of the company, all the way from acquisition to retention, is leaning on us for insight on who are customer is, how they shop and what’s important for them.”

(Full disclosure: Wayfair is a BloomReach Compass Merchandising customer.)

The potential shift is not insignificant. Forrester recently surveyed 100 digital merchandisers for BloomReach and found that, in general, merchandisers don’t believe they have the access to the data and tools that they need to make the best decisions for their companies.

In fact, Forrester’s research also indicated that the lack of data hurt merchandisers’ standing with their marketing colleagues. Only 36 percent of the marketers that Forrester polled said they strongly agreed that they should integrate merchandisers’ product knowledge with marketers’ own customer expertise. The marketing side simply didn’t believe that merchandising had the data needed to help attract new customers or keep existing ones.

Talk about a silo.

Molinari

Breaking those silos apart takes more than technology and tools, Molinari says. Better integrating different retail functions has been a focus of her career and something that she works on with her retail clients today.

“The best thing I can tell you,” she says, “is break down those cubicles and break down those office walls and just go sit with everyone.”

Learn from the other teams. Keep each other apprised of goals and initiatives. If marketing is launching a campaign focused on a landing page, hold a meeting of marketers and merchandisers before the campaign even begins. Coordinate on the relevant products.

If the campaign will feature jean shorts, for instance, merchandising might have ideas about an onsite feature about the fashion or maybe a notion about a spring-break tie-in with the shorts or a plan to build a lookbook.

“One without the other is not good enough any more,” Molinari says about merchandising and marketing. “It really has to come down to the mentality that you need to collaborate.”

Merchandising and marketing need to examine and discuss the results of their efforts together, too, she says. How many product page views were there? Did conversions increase? Did the campaign help sell similar items?

But to be a part of the bigger discussion, merchandisers need to have ready access to meaningful data. And there, Forrester’s research shows, organizations have a lot of work to do.

analytics dashboard

Only 44 and 42 percent respectively of the 100 merchandisers Forrester surveyed strongly believed they had adequate tools to gain actionable insights into shopping behavior and inventory management. Only 35 percent strongly believed they had what they needed to analyze their customers’ journeys. The numbers were even worse for revenue management, merchandising analytics, pricing adjustment, purchasing management and assortment planning.

But the right tools can make all the difference.

“What helps, as a manager, is to see the team get really excited about having a really easy way to measure every decision they’re making about the site,” Stocker says.

And why not get excited? Armed with easily accessible data, merchandisers find themselves in a position to provide the marketing team with the insights it craves. They can help buyers understand what is selling from what category pages and what is not.

Having the right real-time data helps build an atmosphere in which various teams can start to see the bigger picture — the view beyond their individual silos.

“There are so many different departments. There are so many agendas,” Molinari says. “It really comes down to, is this going to improve the business. If you win, we all win.”

It’s a different way of thinking. But clearly, with the accelerating pace of change in retail, thinking differently is called for more than ever before.

Photo of silos by Counse  and data dashboard by Intel Free Press published under Creative Commons license. Photo of Molinari courtesy of Caitlin Molinari

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.