Michael Osborne, CEO of SmarterHQ, at 2016

Combining in-store and online data is harder than it seems

Michael Osborne, CEO of SmarterHQ, knows all too well the challenges for retailers trying to marry in-store and online data to get a full picture of their customers.

He frequently talks with retailers who know that breaking through the barriers separating digital from brick-and-mortar data is vital to keeping up with consumers’ increasing demands during a period of digital transformation.


Often, other priorities get in the way of building a seamless system, meaning the customer experience those retailers offer is less than ideal. We caught up with Osborne at in the fall. He’s the latest installment of BloomReach University, Video Campus.

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


Video: Don’t underwhelm digital shoppers with a lousy customer experience

Everybody knows that delivering a memorable customer experience has gotten a lot harder in the era of the alway-on, mobile consumer.

Customers move from device to device, creating a customer journey that looks more like a plate of spaghetti than a straight path to purchase.

Dan Chester, vice president of retail sales at Foresee, a customer experience analytics company, says every contact between a customer and a retailer needs to be measured and assessed. Chester took time out from his schedule at the Retail’s Digital Summit to talk to us about the danger of “underwhelming” your customers.

This is the third of our three-part video series on customer experience, but there are more videos on more subjects still to come.

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

Ann Ruckstuhl

Video: Website performance — where seconds turn into millions

There is no faster way to drive a customer crazy than to offer up a website that runs slower than the security line at your favorite airport.

Video: How to stand out with customer experience

But do you know who a slow website should really drive crazy? Enterprises that count on a creaky digital platform to deliver sales. Ann Ruckstuhl, of SOASTA, says that seconds mean dollars — big bucks, in fact — in the digital world.

Site performance isn’t the sexiest aspect of the customer experience. But Ruckstuhl, CMO of the Silicon Valley company that measures and improves digital performance, can drop some numbers on you that are bound to get your attention.

We caught up with Ruckstuhl at, where she ran down some specific stats, including the math on Walmart’s $250 million site-speed revelation.

This is the second in a series of videos with thought leaders who attended the Retail’s Digital Summit in Dallas. Stayed tuned for more in the series.

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



Video: Retailers fail to deliver on customer experience

It turns out that modern consumers have become very tough customers.

Armed with smartphones and high expectations, shoppers are no longer hunting only for products. They are also paying careful attention to the experience that comes along with the effort of finding what they want.

At the Retail’s Digital Summit 2016, customer experience was among the topics that seemed to be everywhere.

We caught up with Patricia V. Waldron, a global marketing director for IBM, at the summit, who  shared her thoughts about customer experience in this video. One key takeaway: IBM’s research shows that only 40 percent of consumers globally believe that retailers are providing them with the kind of customer experience that they deserve.

And yes, Waldron has some thoughts about what retailers can do to move that number higher.

This is the first in a series of videos with thought leaders attending Stay tuned for more in the series.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy. lobby quick take: Retail transformation at JCPenney

JCPenney has been on quite a ride — from Ron Johnson, of Apple store fame, setting a new course that proved disastrous, to a recent turnaround strategy that appears to be bearing fruit.

Mike Amend knows the story well. He’s JCPenney’s executive vice president for omnichannel and he shared his insights at the Retail’s Digital Summit in Dallas. We’ve boiled his main points down into a bite-sized presentation.



How to embrace innovation in 180 seconds

Every company, including every retailer, wants to be seen as an “innovation company.”

But is every company ready for innovation? Oscar Castro of Creare Ventures took to a stage at the Retail’s Digital Summit to break down the things to think about before you drive your organization toward disruption.

This is the second in our series of quick-hit reminders from’s 2016 digital summit.



Five email tips from 2016

We get it., or any trade show, is a blur of great ideas that sound so good at the time.

By the time you fly home, unpack and show up at work, well, they’re gone. Or buried under a list of chores that stacked up while you were away.

We’re here to offer some Spark Notes-like refreshers, starting with email marketing tips from David Costs, of Rainbow Shops.

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


In digital retail, you make your own luck: 2016


Listening to the Houzz success story at the Retailers’ Digital Summit, you’d be forgiven for thinking the way to find the ideal mix of content, commerce and community is through sheer dumb luck.

After all, Houzz co-founder Alon Cohen explained during “Winning the Internet Trifecta — Content, Community and Content,” that he and his wife launched the home-improvement website because they were struggling with the remodel of their own Silicon Valley home. They weren’t out to act as a marketplace for those selling furniture, building materials and hardware.

But soon, Cohen said, Houzz users started asking where they could buy the stuff they were seeing in pictures on the site, which the couple launched as a side project in 2009.

So, Cohen and his wife, Adi Tatarko, built a feature that let contractors and designers tag products in photos and say where to buy them. But Cohen said, that wasn’t enough for Houzz fans.

More 2016 coverage

“We started getting calls to our office and they were saying, ‘Oh, I want that bath vanity in the photo. Where’s the add-to-cart button? I think you guys have a bug. It’s missing.’ We started getting a lot of these calls,” Cohen told Shelly Palmer, of Palmer Advanced Media, who interviewed him on stage.

It was incredible — and free — market research. Cohen and Tatarko’s focus groups were coming to them. And so they linked directly to products. And the more they added content, the more popular the site became.

Houzz’s marketplace now includes 15,000 vendors

Its marketplace, Cohen said, has 15,000 vendors selling goods and more than 1 million home professionals offer advice on the site, Cohen said. It’s attracted a boatload of venture funding.

But really, it’s not all about luck. In fact, there are some fundamental business lessons in Houzz’s meteoric rise to e-commerce superstar:

  • Don’t create a solution in search of a problem. Cohen and his wife, Adi Tatarko, discovered a frustration and a need. They were experiencing it. They’re neighbors were experiencing it. The parents at their kids’ school were experiencing it.
  • Don’t just hear your customers, listen to them. Understand their needs and their limitations. Showing nice pictures of great remodels is one thing, but who has the time to track down the products at the core of the rehab? Who wants to be sent hither and yon to find what he or she needs? Houzz users said they sure didn’t want to be and Houzz made it one-click easy.
  • Be a facilitator. Cohen and Tatarko knew there were people who needed help with remodels and that there were few easy ways to survey all the possible professionals who might help. And they knew there were professionals who had the expertise, but few ways to connect with the right audience at just the right time. So, Homeowner, meet contractor. Bingo.
  • Content may be king, but no one type of content reigns supreme. Houzz uses photos to show users the possibilities. It includes words, in the form of blog posts, telling visitors how to improve their homes. There are forums for the Houzz community to share ideas. There is Houzz TV to help users see transformations and meet the people behind them. And it provides digital catalogs of products to buy. Again, Houzz is understanding its customers, knowing that different content works for different people at different times.

The site continues to thrive. Cohen said that Houzz is working for the home-improvement crowd. And it’s working for the contractors who undertake remodels as well. Homeowners and building-and-design professionals can connect on the site. They can noodle around with idea books, brainstorming ideas and settling on a plan.

Houzz co-founder says it’s reduced the agony of remodeling

“We have shortened the life cycle of a project by six months,” Cohen said, based on conversations with the building professionals using the site. “They have told us that they used to spend so much time just figuring out what people want.”

The site clearly serves a purpose beyond transactions and simple commerce. It’s a place to plan and dream and wonder, “What if?” It’s a place to talk with others who have ideas and expertise.

Interviewer Palmer allowed as to how the site is pretty much constantly open on his computer.

“I have it open on my desk pretty much all day, all night,” he said. “When I’m on the phone with clients and they think I’m paying a lot of attention to them, I’m actually looking at furniture.”

He was joking. Really, clients of Shelly Palmer.

So, back to Houzz. It’s apparent there was more than luck involved. And the good fortune that Cohen and Tatarko encountered as they built a powerhouse house renovation site? That appears to be a case in which the Houzz founders made their own luck.

Photo of Alon Cohen and Shelly Palmer at by Mike Cassidy.

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



Five easy steps to innovation — OK, not easy


Oscar Castro and Mike Ward have lived by innovation, motivated in part, by the desire not to die by lack of it.

Castro, who worked on Sears and Kmart’s online initiatives and led the creation of Big Lots’ digital business from the ground up, and Ward, CEO of online used bookstore ThriftBooks, offered a tutorial at the Retailers’ Digital Summit on how to navigate the whirlwind of innovation.

The CliffsNotes version of their talk, “How to Thrive in an Era of Constant Change”: Innovation is messy. It’s scary, sometimes unpopular, difficult, uncomfortable and, many times, a flop. So dig in and shake it off.

More 2016 coverage

“There will be failure in innovation,” Castro told 80 or so e-commerce professionals on the closing day of the summit. “Failure is your friend. Failure is a natural part of the innovation process. So embrace that and get comfortable with it.”

I’ve often written about how retail needs to adopt a Silicon Valley startup mentality. In fact, the notion is often preached from stages like those at But admittedly, I’ve been a little thin on just how you go about getting in touch with your inner-startup.

Broad guidance on tackling innovation

Castro and Ward filled in some of the blanks, not in a paint-by-numbers way, but by offering some broad guidance on how to go about turning your organization upside down — or at least turning part of your organization upside down.

Ward used the example of overhauling ThriftBooks’ automated repricing engine, the machine that adjusts used book prices depending on market conditions. The engine was data-driven, but unable to understand that all books are not created equal. In the eyes of consumers, some are simply more valuable than others.

Here are some of the steps the ThirftBooks crew took in tackling the building of an innovative new engine, according to Ward:

  • Identify and evangelize a mission: Not hard to identify here, Ward said. ThriftBooks simply had to fix the way it was setting prices if it wanted to keep keeping on. As important was making sure everyone understood what the mission was and why it deserved mission status.
  • Assemble a small and nimble team and give it authority and autonomy.
  • Tolerate failure. Ward said he was down with the cliches fail fast, fail well, fail small etc. He also said it’s important to set deadlines and determine a point at which it’s time to recognize the idea was a bust.
  • Communicate clearly. Set specific guidelines, including those deadlines. Can the team be expanded?  Extended? Under what circumstances? For instance, you might set two-week cycles. Innovate for two weeks. Then meet and assess progress. Agree that you’ll work through two cycles. If there is sufficient progress, go for two more. Repeat.

How’d that work out for ThriftBooks? Ward says the team’s goal was to accurately price every book, every day.

“We surpassed that goal,” he said.

Indeed. ThriftBooks once took days to reprice its entire inventory. Today, he said, it’s done in 15 minutes and involves 7 million items. He said ThriftBook conducts “tens of millions” of price changes every day.

Oscar Castro’s take on innovation

Castro, who now invests in digital retail startups, had his own pointers, dealing primarily with the run-up to taking on an innovation project. Here, then, are his five secrets to success when it comes to thriving amid constant change:

  • Understand there are different types of innovation. There is incremental innovation — tweaking a product or service you’re already offering. Think of Heinz turning the ketchup bottle upside down for easy pouring. Then there is disruptive innovation — creating a new industry or an entirely new way of doing something. Think of Uber. Get comfortable with the degree of innovation that you’re willing to take on.
  • Be honest. Innovation is a very popular. It’s a buzzword. Everyone wants to be in it, but not everyone is ready to be in it. Make sure your organization is prepared and willing to innovate.
  • Plan your portfolio. Know how you are going to allocate your resources to make sure you have what you need. In other words, and in particular, know how much budget can be freed up to try something new.
  • Establish a culture that supports innovation. Think about things differently. In corporate America, “failure” is a bad word. In innovation, it’s a natural part of the evolution process. Understand that.
  • Prepare to manage differently. You can’t take the way you’ve always done things and apply that way to a new innovation venture.

And so, no. Neither Ward nor Castro have a magic wand, a silver bullet, a slam-dunk solution or whatever else it is everyone is looking for. Innovation is hard work. But it can be incredibly rewarding and — if approached properly — incredibly profitable, as well.

Photo by Mike Cassidy.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at; or follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.



JCPenney’s prescription for retail change


Mike Amend, an e-commerce executive at JCPenney, has a pretty good perch from which to comment on embracing change.

The 114-year-old retail chain where he works has been whipsawed by change over the past five years, with changes at the top and dramatic changes in strategy. But there is plenty to learn from change and plenty of ways to tackle it, Amend, executive vice president of omnichannel, told a crowd of e-commerce professionals Tuesday at the Retail’s Digital Summit.

“The biggest barrier to change is the impetus to change,” Amend said in a talk titled, “JCPenney and Transforming the Customer Experience — An Insider’s Look.” “In my opinion, this is one of the greatest retail misses — but frankly — opportunities for us, is we have long been wed to our traditions and typical practices, unwilling to reimagine how customers are researching and shopping, especially in light of the technology revolution.”

Too many retailers that are producing financial results that are close to or a little behind the previous year, are willing to stay the course, he said. It often seems to take a major disruption or a crisis to prompt the willingness to change.

More 2016 coverage

Implicit in Amend’s message was: This is no time to wait. Your customers have moved on, far into the digital, multichannel age.

For its part, JCPenney has had two dramatic swings in recent years. In 2011, the retailer hired then-Apple-store guru Ron Johnson as CEO. Johnson had a plan to make over Penney’s image by bringing in hipper brands and foregoing the chain’s emphasis on discounts and sales, as Fortune reported.

The results were disastrous, leading to a $6-billion drop in annual sales and a near-death experience for the venerable retailer. Johnson was fired in 2013. At ShopTalk in May, he pointed to a culture that wasn’t ready for change as part of the reason his ideas didn’t flourish.

And while Amend didn’t get into the details of the Johnson era, he said that there are good ways to go about transforming a company and some not-so-good ways.

“As I’m sure you’re all aware,” he told the audience, “JCPenney in the past has had some not-so-great ways to change.”

It is, as they say, a process. Amend, who joined JCPenney in 2015, said the company’s executives laid out three keys to initiate change as they started the company’s transformation:

  • Talk to real customers: It sounds obvious, Amend said, but how often does it really happen? In fact, JCPenney considered customer feedback when it made the decisions to start selling major appliances. And the retailer learned through customers that consumers put a value not just on a good deal, but also on their time and having an easy shopping experience. JCPenney now works to “make it worth her time, worth her money and worth her effort,” he said.
  • Test change: It’s one thing to hear the voice of your customer and launch changes, programs and features that they want, but you can’t leave it at that. Go back regularly and see how those changes are playing out in the real world. “You never know what you may learn or what assumptions may be validated or invalidated.
  • Define success criteria before, not after, implementing change. You want to know where you’re headed before you start down a new path.

Oh, and one other thing, Amend said.

“Once successful change has been determined, it all comes down to the speed of execution,” he said. And sure, he had some examples.


Based on what JCPenney heard from customers, market research and the surge in the housing market, executives decided to add large appliances to the retailer’s inventory. Amend said that in eight weeks, JCPenney built over 400 appliance showrooms, hired and trained 2,200 associates and set up 50,000 appliances for display.

And it turns out, Amend said, appliances are providing a 10-times lift on sales per square foot, compared to the inventory that they replaced.

The store also went all-in on buy-online-pickup-in-store, Amend told the crowd. JCPenney first tried a limited pilot program that had products ready for customers on the same day that they ordered them. They rolled it out in nine weeks, Amend said.

When the pilot was deemed a success, Penney executives expanded the program to 775 stores. Amend says the same-day pickup service has a fulfillment success rate of 94 percent.

On a related note, he added that more than half of JCPenney’s online orders involve a store in some way. They are either shipped to a store, delivered from a store, picked up in a store or returned to a store.

“Were going to drive this dramatically higher,” he said of the 50 percent figure, “by working to even further utilize and leverage our store locations.”

After all, in JCPenney’s case, if some change is good, a lot of change is better.

Photo of Mike Amend courtesy of the National Retail Federation. Photo of JCPenney story byMike Mozart published under Creative Commons license.

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


Champagne drinks 2016 is better than a nice, stiff drink


Don’t let the morning mimosas fool you.

The annual Digital Summit is serious business — OK, with a Sunrise Happy Hour thrown in. Hey, no doubt many making their livings in e-commerce these days could really use a drink.

Digital commerce is racing ahead, constantly changing. Mobile is changing everything. Amazon is changing everything. Changing consumer habits are changing everything. Technology is changing everything. But how do you even keep up with all the changes in technology?

And so, the gathering in Dallas, which starts Tuesday, is almost a tribal ritual. A gathering of 5,000 or so e-commerce professionals, coming together to see what they can learn from each other.

How tough is it to get a handle on digital retail as the tools, strategies and customers it serves gallop into the future? Consider that National Retail Federation executives, who run, are calling upon Michio Kaku, a physicist and pioneer in string theory, to explain in a keynote session, what the heck is happening.

He’ll be paired with comedian Marc Maron, a nod to the maxim that sometimes you’ve just got to laugh. will cover the gamut of issues keeping digital retailers up nights

There will be dozens of presentations, workshops and networking events, where everything from website latency to primo job opportunities will be discussed. NRF vice president Artemis Berry put it this way in an NRF news release:

“We are thrilled to be able to provide conference attendees the opportunity to learn from industry experts on topics that are critical to today’s dynamic retail environment. Our goal is that they leave (the) summit with practical skills and knowledge that they are able to implement into their current business practices so that they can continue to grow and succeed.”

Fair enough. While there are plenty of critical topics in retail, a scan of the two-day agenda indicates that a few umbrella topics will be hard to ignore.

More 2016 coverage

Customer experience, which is bubbling up as the retail buzz phrase, will get its share of stage time. Among the more intriguing-sounding sessions is JCPenney’s Mike Amend talking about transforming customer experience as the boundaries between digital and physical retail blur.

Amend, Penney’s executive vice president of omnichannel, should have an interesting story given JCPenney’s roller coaster ride of recent years.

Content and reimagining the customer experience are keys to the future

The intersection of content and commerce will be another hot topic. IBM is sending an executive to speak at a session that looks at using cognitive computing to ensure that the right consumer is getting the right message at the right stage of his or her shopping process. Sur La Table’s Kevin Ertell will share ideas about how to go beyond simple customer reviews and ratings when it comes to telling a story with consumer-generated content.

Build vs. buy will be on the minds of many — and on stage when Skava President Arish Ali lays out the potential benefits for retailers of taking on the task of building key commerce platforms and the potential perils when retail companies that use technology try to make the leap to becoming technology companies involved in retail.

The importance of encouraging girls and young women to embrace programming will also be center stage. Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, will lay out a strategy for attracting females to computer science and programming — fields where they are sorely underrepresented.

As the retail industry becomes more and more intertwined with the technology field, it is vital that the pool of potential employees doing the technical work look more like America — and as importantly — more like retailers’ customer base.

A number of presentations will look at the way some retailers tackle the idea of social responsibility. Executives and directors from Uncommon Goods, The Container Store, The Grommet and ThriftBooks Global will participate in a panel discussion that looks at the benefits of doing good while selling products. A key benefit, according to the presentation summary, is the way social goals appeal to millennials as both customers and workers.

And while I find those broad topics to be the most compelling, there will be plenty more — internet security, supply chain, payments, mobile and website performance etc. In fact,, and shows like, it can easily seem overwhelming, running from session to session, trying to meet up with people in a sea of people. It’s just a little bit crazy.

And almost enough to drive you to drink.

Photo of champagne drinks by Leon Brocard published under a Creative Commons license.

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


Scott Silverman

Video: Where to find retail’s future leaders

No surprise that the face of retail is changing as the industry undergoes dramatic disruption. As data — and more sophisticated gathering and analysis of data — becomes increasingly important in the retail world, organizations are going to look to e-commerce experts to lead the way.

In our latest edition of BloomReach University, Video Campus, retail expert and advisor Scott Silverman talks about how the evolution of retail and e-commerce is changing the kinds of tools retail organizations look for in their leaders.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at Follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.

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Video: How to future proof your e-commerce operation

It’s not news that successful retailers can no longer keep separate systems for online data and in-store data.  But, says Sean Cook, formerly of Aptos, just how to combine that data successfully is easier said then done.

In our latest installment of BloomReach University, Video Campus, Cook talks about turning to the cloud to “future proof” your retail business; to be ready for the next big thing in retail data — even if nobody knows exactly what that’ s going to be.

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

Jakki Geiger

Video: Data is the asset that helps you serve customers across digital channels

One of the keys to serving customers well across digital channels is treating data like a strategic asset, says Jakki Geiger, of Informatica. In our latest installment of BloomReach University, Video Campus, Geiger explains that retailers need to be ready for customers who meander through their shopping excursions, using mobile, desktop and laptop.

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

Steve Arndt Persio

Video: How to meet customers’ demands for meaningful personalization

Now that we are entering the era of one-to-one personalization, retailers need to aim higher to meet consumers’ expectations for relevant and personalized experiences.

In our latest installment of BloomReach University, Video Campus, Steve Arndt, of Persio, talks about what retailers can do to better use data from different channels in their efforts to create the kind of personal experiences that a majority of shoppers say they want the retailers they deal with to provide.

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


Video: Brick-and-mortar retail isn’t all about foot traffic

Shelley Kohan, of RetailNext, has some surprising observations about the brick-and-mortar retail world, given all the talk about falling foot traffic in physical stores.

In our latest edition of BloomReach University, Video Campus, Kohan also explains why retailers need to keep e-commerce and digital shopping in mind, even as they work on their in-store experiences.

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

Ryan Scott SapientNitro

Video: Are you doing all you can to achieve one-to-one personalization?

Ryan Scott, formerly of SapientNitro, says there is no reason for retailers to wait around for the time when all their customer data can be integrated and easily seen. The data and technology tools already exist.

In our latest installment of BloomReach University, Video Campus, Scott, now vice president of digital operations and innovation at Keurig Green Mountain, talks about the importance of bringing data and customer experience together to achieve real, one-to-one personalization.

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

Kathy Kimple FitForCommerce

Video: Personalization on the Web will soon be a must-have

It seems silly to say that personalization is coming to the e-commerce world, when so many already claim to personalize. But Kathy Kimple, of FitForCommerce, talks about what real personalization is, where retailers can go wrong and what customers have grown to expect when it comes to online experiences.

In our fifth installment of BloomReach University, Video Campus, Kimple talks about what is at stake for retailers. See the other installments at our BloomU Video Campus page.

Ryan Scott on build vs. buy

Video: Why buy beats build in e-commerce experience

As e-commerce retailers realize that building a better customer experience is the key to competing with Amazon and others, many of them are facing a bit of a technology gap. Where are the tools to make their sites special in the eyes of shoppers.

In our fourth installment of BloomReach University, Video Campus, Ryan Scott, formerly of SapientNitro, says the apparent gap has led some to consider building their own custom experiences into their e-commerce properties. His advice: Don’t. Building your own is difficult, expensive and ongoing. Scott says there are partners out there who can do what you want done.

Note: This post has been corrected to reflect that Ryan Scott has moved from SapientNitro to Keurig Green Mountain, Inc.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at Follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.


Brian Beck

Video: How should retailers use big data?

In our third installment of BloomReach University, Video Campus, Brian Beck, senior vice president of e-commerce and omni-channel strategy for Guidance, talks about the role of data in e-commerce and retail.

Beck shares some thoughts about how to handle data silos and offers a reminder that customers are not all that concerned with what is happening behind the scenes. They just want to buy products.

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

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Video: IBM talks about cognitive computing and the future of retail

Welcome to the inaugural class of BloomReach University, Video Campus. Over the next several weeks, we’ll be posting short videos (hey, you can watch them in line at the grocery store), featuring thought leaders in retail, e-commerce and digital marketing, who will provide their takes on key trends and challenges in the industries they follow.

No need to take notes. (You can just replay the video.) But there will be a quiz. OK, there won’t.

First up is Patricia Waldron, director of global retail solutions for IBM, talking about the era of cognitive computing and how that’s changing retail. She’ll also touch on ways in which the ability to gather, analyze and quickly act on data — on clicks, on foot traffic and on how consumers react to marketing appeals — is changing the way the game is played.

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


Video: 2015 thought leaders on the state of e-commerce

It is rare to have under one roof the kind of e-commerce firepower that the annual Digital Summit brings together. The 2015 version in Philadelphia earlier this month didn’t disappoint. The BloomReach content team took advantage of the critical mass to collect the thoughts of some of retail’s leading experts and thinkers on topics ranging from mobile’s rise to omnichannel’s importance to the difficulty in pinning down a clear definition of personalization.

The entire video playlist is on YouTube. You’ll also find a summary of the interviews and the videos below. Yes, there are quite a few, but they’re short and there is no need to watch them in one sitting. Consider this the start of a conversation that we’ll continue in the coming months. Cook up some popcorn; take a seat and enjoy.

Lauren Freedman, of the e-tailing group, talks about site merchandisers and their often-overlooked importance. The best among them succeed through a mix of art and science.

Patricia Waldron, of IBM, explains how cognitive computing and natural language processing are changing the world of e-commerce.

Ian McCaig, of Qubit, says businesses sometimes go wrong when testing. Take care not to focus too much on measuring the effects of superficial changes.

Brian Beck, of Guidance, explains that it is difficult, if not impossible, to get a comprehensive view of your customers without taking a holistic view of your data.

Ryan Scott, of SapientNitro, talks about the pros and cons of building key systems rather than buying them from companies focused on the solutions to your challenges.

Kathy Kimple, of FitForCommerce, talks about the importance of personalization and the risks involved with doing it poorly.

Gangadhar Konduri, of AgilOne, points out that while consumers spend a lot of time on mobile and the Web, the bulk of buying still goes on in stores. How do you marry the different consumer worlds?

Ryan Scott, of SapientNitro, says it’s important to understand that the relationship between retailer and consumer doesn’t end with a purchase. In fact, that’s when the relationship begins.

Shelley Kohan, of RetailNext, talks through different types of measurement and when you might deploy each.

Shelley Kohan, of RetailNext, says that declining foot traffic in brick-and-mortar stores is only part of an in-store story that might not be as bleak as it seems.

Steve Arndt, of Persio, says that real personalization means understanding what your customers are doing on all the channels they use to shop. It’s the best way, for instance, to avoid wasting money on misguided retargeting.

Jakki Geiger, of Informatica, talks about some of what needs to happen in order for a retailer to be able to give a customer what he or she wants — when they want it and where they want it.

Sean Cook, of Aptos, says that companies need to “future proof” themselves. Find out what’s involved.

Scott Silverman, of Scott Silverman Associates, talks about how the importance of a data-driven mindset is likely to shape the future of retail’s leadership.

Scott Silverman, of Scott Silverman Associates, explains that building a data culture is vital for retailers that want to build a seamless customer experience.

Scott Silverman, of Scott Silverman Associates, says retailers face some tough choices when it comes to mobile. Some need to be ready to make sacrifices on the desktop in order to make the necessary commitment to mobile.

David Morin, of Prism Retail Analytics, says retailers now have the tools to gather data in the physical store that is similar to the data gathered on the Web. He looks at the importance of dwell time, store layout etc. in the brick-and-mortar world.

At BloomReach we like to move fast and break things — no really, we break things. The idea is to illustrate the fact that when a consumer knows what he or she wants, but doesn’t know exactly how a retailer describes it, it can be an ugly scene. If your site isn’t able to learn and understand the thousands of ways shoppers describe products, you’re e-commerce strategy might well be shattered. Take a look.

Videos produced by Justin Fogarty, BloomReach’s head of content. Cover photo by Mike Cassidy.

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



Amazon dominates; mobile first; Apple’s iRing: The BloomReach Relevance Report

So, another week is behind us, but not just any week — the week of Missing the free coffee and tchotchkes — and that omnichannel, POS, mobile buzz? Check out the BloomReach Relevance Report.

Amazon buries a college in packages


The BRRR admits to being hooked by a Business Insider headline proclaiming “Amazon Prime wreaking havoc on college mailrooms.” It did half of what a good headline should do, which is get people to read the story. It fell short on the other half — telling prospective readers what the story is about. Essentially the story described something a little less than havoc at one college mailroom, the one at the University of Connecticut. Still, it’s an interesting tale of Amazon’s scale and dominance. It seems the Seattle behemoth’s cut-rate Prime membership for college kids has packages arriving at the Storrs, Conn., campus by the truckful, to the tune of 3,000 a day. The problem is, the campus mail system doesn’t have anywhere to put 3,000 packages and the volume is apparently causing a bottleneck at the local post office, too, where workers are working into to the wee hours to deal with them, according to BI. And while the story deals only with one campus, you’ve got to believe the same thing is happening at other schools, large and small. (Nice job, by the way, by the UCONN Campus Daily, which first reported the story. If any other student journalists are reading this — and why wouldn’t you be — you should look into the situation at your school.) Amazon Prime is a college kid’s dream. The $99-a-year service is free for six months for students and then only $49 a year after that. Brick-and-mortar shopping options are limited for a significant number of students who find themselves on isolated campuses without a car. What better way to order not only textbooks (a natural), but also chips, sodas, cereal, electronics and their accessories and, hey, let’s not forget free (well, free for $49 a month) video and music streaming. It’s a match made in heaven — or Seattle, at least.

Amazon (again) crushes the competition


Speaking of Amazon and its dominance, it turns out that the originator of the Everything Store is cornering the market on product search. A survey out this week, commissioned by BloomReach, found that 44 percent of consumers start their product searches on Amazon, bypassing the wider Web and the sites of specific retailers. The number surpasses both search engines (such as Google, Yahoo and Bing), which were the first choice for 34 percent of those surveyed, and retail sites, which commanded only 21 percent. The trend represents a widening gap between Amazon and the other alternatives. In 2012, Forrester Research found that 30 percent of consumers first went to Amazon when searching for products. The trend line is particularly disconcerting for online retailers, because in an odd way they’re being squeezed by both sides. Amazon continues to take search share and the search engines continue to condition consumers to expect rapid and relevant results when they are searching for products. In fact, 86 percent of retailers in a companion BloomReach survey said they believed that the main search engines were heavily influencing consumers’ expectations in regard to search on their sites. And they’re right, according to the consumers that BloomReach surveyed. By a 2-to-1 margin, shoppers said they didn’t understand why retailers don’t offer the same personalized experience that the most popular search engines offer. Perhaps not coincidentally, in the retailer survey, 44 percent of respondents said they saw Amazon as their biggest threat. Another 21 percent named eBay and 20 percent said a direct retail competitor represented their biggest competition. Amazon, it seems, rolls on.

Shop talk: mobile, mobile, mobile


Well, another is in the books. This week’s hootenanny in Philadelphia was the expected fire hose of omnichannel, dynamic marketing, attribution strategies and mobile, mobile, mobile. Beyond the biggies, there were side trips into the not-so-distant future for a look at “mood analytics” and virtual reality, for instance. Is the day coming when retailers will monitor customers’ heart rates and in-store movements while analyzing facial “micro-expressions” to determine what products to present to each individual? Could be, but it’s going to take a lot of buy-in from shoppers. More in the here-and-now were the on-going discussions about mobile. 2015 appears to be the year that the talk is moving beyond just the talk. For years, it’s been necessary to at least discuss developing a mobile strategy, but this week it was clear that retailers have come to the conclusion that they need to get it done now. Forrester’s Suchartia Mulpuru announced from the stage that for the second year in a row, retailers selected mobile as their top priority in a and Forrester survey. They (Who are “they,” anyway?) say data wins arguments and the numbers are impossible to ignore. In her presentation, Mulpuru noted that 30 percent of retailers’ traffic is coming from smartphones, but that phones account for only 12 percent of sales. And she said that’s primarily due to one other set of statistics specific to shopping on smartphones: “Eighty percent of customers find some kind of problem, some sort of frustration, and when they experience that problem, in a significant percent of circumstances, they just switch devices and they go to a desktop or a laptop. A significant portion, nearly a quarter, give up entirely.” Add that to Deloitte Digital’s Kasey Lobaugh’s presentation, in which he pointed out that nearly half of in-store sales are influenced by digital devices — 28 percent by smartphones alone. He also projected that by 2018, e-commerce sales would reach $492 billion, with 27 percent of that coming from mobile. “Digital is no longer a channel,” he said. “Digital is pervasive.” You can find parts of the presentations on the website.

Holiday sales to rise modestly, except for e-commerce retailers

Retail sales will be up, but modestly, this holiday season, Bloomberg Business reports. The predictions factor in two consumer trends — the shift toward buying experiences rather than goods and a preference for shopping online, according to the Washington Post. The National Retail Federation this week, released its forecast, saying sales would be up 3.7 percent over last year in November and December. Other prognosticators put growth in the range of 2.8 to 4 percent. The NRF figure represents a slowing from last year’s 4.1 percent, though higher than the 10-year average of 2.5 percent, Bloomberg says. CNBC reports that retailers’ practice of deep holiday discounts and fierce price competition will also be a drag on growth this year, as consumers have come to expect significant deals on the holiday gifts they buy for others and themselves. The slower growth will mean fewer temporary retail jobs, although shipping companies are going to be looking for at least as much holiday help as last year. E-commerce will remain a big bright spot. Online sales are expected to rise between 6 and 8 percent, the NRF says, topping $100 million, up at least slightly from last year’s 5.8 percent increase, the Washington Post says. Consumers are still nervous about the economy and while the overall economy has picked up, wage increases remain torpid.

Quote of the week

“There is a need for electronic devices with faster, more efficient methods and interfaces for interacting and or controlling external electronic devices.” — Apple’s patent application for an iRing, similar to the Apple Watch, as reported by SmartCompany.

Photo of Amazon boxes by Global Panorama, magnifying glass by Jeffrey Beall and newspapers by Jon S., published under Creative Commons license. Photo of sign by Mike Cassidy.

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




Mobile’s yin and yang was on display at

Put yourself  in QVC CEO Mike George’s shoes. The guy knew the ABCs of selling stuff on the big screen — as in really big and plugged into the family room wall.

His was a pre-iPhone enterprise, he told those gathered at the Digital Summit 2015 this week. In fact, never mind mobile, QVC initially didn’t even fully deploy the Internet as a sales channel, he acknowledged.



“You know, back in those days, we sort of thought about it as a somewhat discreet, isolated, platform, kind of a group over on the site, creating this wonderful innovation for us,” George said of the dot-com era. “We thought about whether we should spin it out at some point.”

(Here’s Digiday’s coverage of George’s talk.)

But soon, QVC realized that it wouldn’t do to have two separate entities. Executives and others at the company were beginning to understand that everything was changing — including the way many consumers were looking at shopping and the role different platforms played in their shopping excursions.

The epiphany most likely sounded familiar to many of the digital retailers in the room, who have been scrambling to keep up with consumers’ rapidly-evolving habits. It was a pervasive topic at the trade show, where omnichannel rolls off the tongue and mobile is a frequent modifier (strategy, conversion, traffic, shoppers, -enabled, -centric etc.).

George and QVC provide a vivid example of the disruption that the mass adoption of smartphones has brought to the retail world. And his talk about how QVC has handled that shift might hold some lessons for those working to figure it all out.

“We think a lot about disruption,” George told the ballroom of conference attendees. “We worry a lot about the threat of disruption to our established business model, but increasingly, we’ve been thinking about disruption that can be a powerful force for us, if we engage in our own purposeful disruption.”

While George detailed several moves QVC made from the late 1990s until today (including the recent purchase of flash sale site zulily), one thing that he said seemed to be the key to unlocking the potential QVC had as a multichannel retailer.

“We began to ask ourselves: Are we presenting a cohesive experience to the customer?” George said. “And maybe we need to evolve our thinking a little bit from being so device-centric to being more customer-centric and really thinking about the customer journey in a more deliberative way across devices and platforms.”

And so QVC went on a mission to integrate its television platform with its e-commerce operation. It focused on designing a mobile experience for the small screen, rather than relegating mobile to an afterthought.

No, it wasn’t a crisp, thunder-struck epiphany. More of an evolution.

“Like many of you, we observed this phenomenon, with the launch of the iPhone, our customers dragging us into mobile with great intensity and speed,” George said. “And candidly, we struggled to keep up with that. Our customers were telling us that they do want to use these new devices to engage in commerce and they want that to be a full and rich experience.”

Not everything they tried worked. But by moving on mobile, QVC was in a position to ride the tremendous wave it’s become today.

How tremendous?


Forrester analyst Sucharita Mulpuru introduced George by saying she had spent a lot of time thinking about how to crystalize “all the wild and diverse topics” attendees had to talk about his year and she boiled it down to one PowerPoint slide. It said: “Mobile. Mobile. Mobile.”

“Mobile,” she said, “is at the top of virtually everyone’s to-do list.”

And with good reason. Mulpuru said that while revenue from mobile conversions remains relatively low (about 12 percent of sales), mobile wields a strong influence on other channels. Mobile, for instance, is responsible for about $1 trillion of the $1.6 trillion in digitally influenced in-store sales, she said.

Those figures track with the numbers Deloitte Digital Chief Innovation Officer Kasey Lobaugh presented later in the conference. Lobaugh showed a slide that illustrated that digital devices were now driving nearly half of all in-store sales, a number that was up from just 5 percent in 2012.

No longer is digital 5 percent,” he said, “but rather, we have to think differently. Digital is becoming pervasive.”

All that said, getting mobile right is still an elusive goal for most retailers, Mulpuru said.  She likened the pursuit to the star of viral video: The New York rat that wrestled on the subway stairs with a wayward slice of pizza.

Mobile, she said, “is this delicious slice of pie that everybody wants a piece of, but they just don’t know how to bring it home.”

And that is costing retailers money. Mulpuru cited research that said that 30 percent of e-commerce traffic was coming from smartphones and, again, that traffic was producing only 12 percent of sales. The problem, she said, is that the vast majority of consumers have a bad experience when they turn to mobile.

“Eighty percent of customers find some kind of a problem, some sort of frustration. And when they experience that problem…in a significant percent of circumstance, they just switch devices and they go to a desktop or a laptop. A significant portion, nearly a quarter, give up entirely.”

And even with those who stick with a retailer by switching devices, businesses are missing out, because few retailers — 20 percent — know how to track those customers across devices.

Still, some see the dismal figures in a positive light. Getting mobile right will provide a tremendous opportunity in terms of attracting new customers and keeping existing customers loyal. The question is: How far off is that reality?

It’s hard to predict the future with precision, but let’s just say that mobile is likely to be a big topic again at 2016.

Photo of projected image of Mike George by Mike Cassidy. Photo of Suchartia Mulpuru courtesy of the National Retail Federation.

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



“Innovate or die” is harsh, but true in fast-paced retail world

When you’re looking to draw a crowd to a presentation at a big trade show, like the Digital Summit, subtlety is not the way to go. And so: “Beyond Omnichannel, Innovate or Die” will do as a session title.

But the thing about the provocative title is, that besides being attention-getting, it’s a fair warning for retailers who have seen the retail game shift wildly as the digital revolution rolls on. Innovate or die has been a dominant theme this week, as about 5,400 e-commerce practitioners and experts gathered in Philadelphia to share strategies, business cards and anxieties.

Talk of the need to take risks and act fast was in no short supply —  from “Building the Next Generation Fan Experience” to “The Future of Customer Retention” to “Next-Generation Ideas for a Fast-Changing Industry,” the mantra of “innovate or die” was on prominent display in the ballrooms and meeting rooms at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.


“The headline here is, never bring a knife to a gunfight,” Deloitte Digital’s Kasey Lobaugh said introducing a presentation on disruptive change that bounced from gene sequencing to Airbnb, to virtual reality to Soylent. “What I mean by that is, you’ve got to understand the role technology is playing in the industry. You’ve got to understand the exponential trends, relative to technology. You’ve got to understand those; and begin to invest in the appropriate ways.”

Retail change is lightening fast 

It happens fast, doesn’t it?

Who knew? Who knew, even five years ago, that digital devices would be on their way to driving nearly two-thirds of all sales in brick-and-mortar stores? Or that smartphones would influence 28 percent of sales in physical stores, according to Deloitte Digital. Or that Amazon would not only reign as the e-commerce king, but that it would become the leading place where consumers go to search for products they want to buy. Who knew that consumers, armed with mobile devices, would shift the way they think about shopping, brand loyalty, ownership and even consumption of products vs. consumption of experiences?

That’s the thing about disruption: It practically comes out of nowhere — or at least out of little-known places. Lobaugh touched on that, too. He explained that legacy retailers face new challenges from companies that are new to the retail business.

“It’s not brick and mortar vs. dotcom. That’s not the battle.” he said, shattering a popular narrative. “The battle is happening based on technology’s impact on these new forces in play.”

He pointed to Deloitte research that found that the top 25 retailers have lost 2 percent of their market share in the past six years. And while 2 percent doesn’t sound like much, it actually translates to $70 billion.

“This is a competitive battle, launched with all-new competition, coming from all different directions,” Lobaugh said.

Strategies to spur innovation

So, what to do? Retailers need to act like a startup, a point I’ve written about before, but which was underscored at by Justin Ferrell, of Stanford University’s Hasso Platter Institue of Design. Ferrell urged retailers to dig into the things that make startups nimble, creative and adaptable.

FerrellNRF“If you want to create something that has never been done before,” he said, “you have to do something different.”


Ferrell, who teaches human-centered design, says acting like a startup might mean changing the way people in an organization think. So yes, get out of your comfort zone. But that’s just the beginning. In particular, he suggests:

  • Thinking about the process of working toward a goal, rather than thinking about reaching a particular goal. “If you focus on a process and a way of working, you end up with products and pieces of technology that you couldn’t have imagined,” Ferrell says. “But if you’re always focused on the outcome — what’s the thing we’re trying to make — then you’re limited by that initial vision.”
  • Show, don’t tell. An old saying, but Ferrell means that it’s best early on to have some version, some iteration — and preferably a primitive one — of what you’re trying to make or do. That way your end user can experience your idea, rather than simply hear about it.
  • Have a bias toward action. Don’t line up internal meeting after meeting to argue about what your customers want. Go out and talk to them. Don’t ask, “What do you want?” Listen to their needs, challenges, aspirations. Empathize. “It’s about spending a lot of time with people to find out what they need and then applying your expertise to that in order to come up with a novel solution,”  he says.
  • Embrace experimentation. When you’re process-focused, you’ll come up with a number of ways to get to your goal. Jump in. Give one a try. Especially if it’s never been done before. “There is a difference between creative-problem solving and creative-problem finding,” Ferrell says. “You have to think about creative-problem finding. What’s the problem that no one is working on? When you find a creative problem, often the obvious solution is the disruptive idea.”

It’s not all or nothing

Granted, as is sometimes the case with these conference presentations, Ferrell’s steps might come with a whiff of “easy for you to say.” And indeed, an audience member did ask about the practicality of applying some of Ferrell’s ideas to a large, established company.

Farrell gets it; he understands that big, legacy companies don’t easily turn on a dime — and in fact, that’s not exactly what he was getting at.

“I’m not saying, ‘Stop everything you’re doing that’s making you money and start doing things that you don’t know whether they’re going to make you money or not,” he said.Don’t be afraid to establish different teams for different purposes. Sure, have a core working on the day-to-day — maximizing the things that work. But have a distinct team that is pushing the boundaries, thinking of new things, working in new ways.

“Think about creating a small team that is trying to disrupt yourself,” he says. “Because if you’re not, somebody else is out there doing it already.”

It’s a powerful way to innovate. And let’s face it, innovating as a company is a way better option than dying.

Photo of Kasey Lobaugh and Justin Ferrell courtesy of the National Retail Federation.

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