Digital retail’s vanguard embraces actionable data

Merchandising at the downtown San Jose Muji store

The coming crop of digital retail professionals is more data-driven than ever.

It stands to reason. Retail — and digital retail in particular — is moving ahead at breakneck speed. Marketing software and e-commerce platforms have been evolving and proliferating to the point that some already in the business today feel overwhelmed by the choices.

But when it comes to data and the tools to wrangle it, those headed for retail careers say, “Bring it.”

“I would say that 100 percent of our students understand the importance of analytics,” says Sanjukta Pookulangara, an associate professor at the University of North Texas’ College of Merchandising, Hospitality & Tourism. “They do understand that data is a critical piece in this puzzle, because that helps them make better decisions.”

The University of North Texas, in Denton, is not a bad place to start when examining the mindset of the next generation of site merchandisers and digital retailers moving into key industry positions. The school is unusual in the depth of its focus on digital retailing and its students are regularly honored for their work by the National Retail Federation.

Moreover, the work being done by UNT students and instructors provides a vivid illustration of how quickly retail fields are evolving. While data and figuring out what the data says have always been important in retail, the digital revolution has supercharged their importance.

“I think what the consumer is demanding is changing dramatically, along with the technology that is being offered,” says Portia Griffin, a dual-major senior studying merchandising and digital retailing. “They even tell us in class, ‘By the time you graduate, most of this information won’t be relevant anymore.’”

Site merchandising changes by the minute — or so it seems

Portia Griffin

Portia Griffin

That is not to say the lessons learned will not be valuable, just that the specific tools, and even some methods, will be out of date by the time students land their first jobs after graduation.

For instance, the class of 2012, the year Griffin, 22, started her undergraduate studies, would have been amazed then by the analytics tools available today.

Griffin, herself, has seen the evolution, given that a big part of UNT’s curriculum involves hands-on projects, including building an online store and analyzing sales and consumer habits. (Full disclosure: Among the new breed of tools that Griffin has explored is BloomReach’s Compass product.)

“All the different types of data collection is amazing,” she says. “It’s exciting for me to look at. I was just amazed at what you could pull.”

Lindsey Tanoff, who expects to finish her merchandising masters program in the spring, says the pace of retail change is definitely impressive. When she started her undergraduate studies in 2007, she didn’t sense the kind of emphasis that is placed on data in 2016, though she says that might be attributed to her own interests at the time.

“Retail definitely changes very quickly. And it’s not even retail, it’s the consumer who changes so quickly,” says Tanoff, 28, who went to work in retail before returning for her masters.

And sure, some of the change in merchandise that a store offers is a function of changing seasons or fashion trends, but there is more to it than that. To remain relevant, retailers must find ways to understand their customers and anticipate their desires.

“The merchandise is also changing with the consumer shopping habits,” Tanoff added. “In retail, everyone has to change because the consumer changes.”

No doubt, changing shopping habits and evolving technology make for an exciting field. Tanoff, who teaches an undergraduate course at UNT on consumers in a global market, says professors and instructors frequently talk about ways to keep their work current.

One site merchandising constant: actionable data

Lindsey Tanoff, University of North Texas merchandising masters student

Lindsey Tanoff

“It always seems like they’re saying they’re doing new research and new curriculum for the next semester,” she says, “because something changed, or there is some kind of new platform that needs to be talked about.”

Data, however, appears to be here to stay.

Both Griffin and Tanoff have digital retailing on their list of potential jobs after graduation. And both say they expect to have access to voluminous data and the tools to make quick sense out of what the data is telling them about their customers.

“You can’t have a successful retailer, a successful fashion company, without the data to either drive sales or help in the creation of new designs, new styles, new lines,” Tanoff says.

Sure, Griffin says, there is a need for merchandisers to rely on their intuition and experience when it comes to representing and respecting their brands. But that is not enough. There is a need to marry intuition with data.

“I really like data, but I’ve always had to be the gut-feeling person. I’ve never actually had the data to back up my gut feelings,” says Griffin, who’s worked for retailers through high school and college. “I really like numbers. They make me feel better.”

In some ways, it’s a view that encapsulates contemporary site merchandising.

“Analytics has always been important to merchandising,” says associate professor Pookulangara. “The only difference now is it’s much more sophisticated.”

And while the end goals are time-honored, the methods for achieving them require a more sophisticated set of skills.

“It’s still a store,” Pookulangara says of a digital commerce site. “You still have to make a profit. You still have to know your ROI. So it’s extremely important that they need to understand analytics, both in terms of site analytics, as well as web analytics.”

It seems that those who are looking to digital retail as a career are on board with the need to step up the industry’s analytics game. The fun part will be watching just how far they take it.

Photo of Muji store by Mike Cassidy. Photos of Portia Griffin and Lindsey Tanoff courtesy of Griffin and Tanoff respectively.

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. 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.


Garden Answer Facebook page

Garden Answer builds content to drive digital commerce


One of the confounding things about producing effective content to drive e-commerce sales is the way that something that looks so simple can be so incredibly difficult.

You’ve got products. They’ve got names. You’ve got stories about why somebody would want to buy your products with names. What’s so hard about that?

And then along comes Garden Answer — a Facebook page, a YouTube channel, a franchise, really — that is crushing it when it comes to producing videos that build a community around gardening and around the products gardeners need to buy in order to do their thing.

More on content and commerce on the BloomReach blog

And who’s behind this e-commerce content juggernaut? That would be Laura and Aaron LeBoutillier, an eastern Oregon couple that was goofing around, making gardening how-to videos for fun, when one of the country’s leading flower brands discovered them on YouTube.

“We never dreamed, you know, that it could turn into something like that,” says Laura, who is the star of the operation’s videos. “It wasn’t really a plan.”

Never dreamed it could turn into something like what, you ask?

The LeBoutilliers now have a contract to produce gardening videos for Proven Winners, a leading supplier of plants for wholesale growers and therefore garden supply stores. Aaron works behind the camera and Laura is the on-camera talent, explaining how to perform garden magic in a series of fast-action Facebook videos and longer, normal speed YouTube videos.

The couple’s Facebook page, where many of the videos live, is closing in on a million likes. The Garden Answer page has had 88 million views this year alone, Aaron says. On the YouTube side, the couple has 78,000 subscribers and has racked up about 6 million views in 2016, he adds.

And, like so many things, it looks easy from afar. It started out as fun, after all. Get a camera. Shoot some video. Bingo. But turning a hobby into a business is a grind.

“Hard work and consistency,” Aaron says, explaining what raised Garden Answer’s profile. “We were doing one to two videos a week for over a year before we saw any money come in at all.”

That hard work is paying off now. It’s also yielded some lessons that others struggling with getting content right might adopt. In this, the second of an occasional series on the role of content in commerce, we’ll take a look at some of those lessons and some of the strategy behind Garden Answer’s partnership with Proven Winners.

Garden Answer’s five keys to effective content

  • Don’t try: In other words, not all content is made to sell. Some is to educate and engage.
  • Know your audience: Don’t just know your customers; know where they are in their purchasing process.
  • Keep it real: You can’t fake authenticity. Don’t try to be too cute.
  • Produce consistently: Don’t go for long stretches without posting. It’s a conversation. Avoid dead air.
  • Learn from others: Keep your eyes and ears open. Keep track of content you like. Why does it work? How can you learn from it?

Don’t try: Not as in, “Don’t try to produce high-quality video.” Don’t try, as in, “Don’t try to sell.” The couple is not required to use Proven Winners products in their videos, though they often do. They retain editorial control of their work. Sometimes there are direct links to product pages, sometimes not.

That’s important to the LeBoutilliers, who are more interested in showing people how to build a fairy garden or repurpose a laundry basket as a strawberry planter than they are in being a pitchman or pitchwoman.

“The cool thing about them,” Laura says of Proven Winners, “There was no, ‘How can we sell stuff better? How can we get the word out about our products better? They asked us, “How can we enable you to help inspire people to want to garden.”

It’s all about the goal of the content. Garden Answer videos are meant to raise brand awareness, says Jeanine Standard, Proven Winners’ media coordinator, and to do one other important thing. Proven Winners’ research shows that one reason consumers shy away from gardening is the fear that they will kill a living thing. Plants do die, after all.

“Gardening is an emotional thing,” she says. “For people who want to nurture, people who want to put a plant in the ground, they want to take care of it. They want to feed it. It’s very much like parenting and just a heck of a lot easier.”

Laura LeBoutillier’s videos demonstrate that these projects can work. And they provide would-be gardeners with valuable information, which in turn builds their confidence.


Know your audience: This is different from know your customer. You need to know the audience you are trying to reach with a particular form or piece of content. Is it an exploring audience? An audience looking for those with similar interests? A price, features and quality comparing audience? A buying audience?

Your customers and potential customers will likely be in all of these audiences at some point while they’re shopping. But no one is in all places at all times.

Aaron LeBoutillier sees Garden Answers’ Proven Winners audience as a group that is curious and passionate about gardening, attributes that Laura LeBoutillier shares. That makes the couple’s social media pages especially meaningful for Proven Winners. It’s niche information for a niche market.

“That’s why I think companies are going with influencers, these YouTube channels or Facebook channels,” Aaron says. “Their audience are people who are interested in that particular thing. It’s more valuable for Proven Winners to make a video with us than to make a commercial during the Super Bowl, because, who gardens and then watches the Super Bowl?”

It could be quite a few people garden before the Super Bowl, Aaron’s point being, among those who watch how-to garden videos there is no doubt an extremely high percentage of people who garden. And the Garden Answer videos do not cost $5 million for a 30-second spot.

Keep it real: If you’re in the business of selling stuff, well, you want to sell stuff. But keep the long view. Don’t be constantly selling in all your content. Of course there is a place for selling and for providing the key information a buyer needs to pull the trigger on a purchase.

But the Garden Answer variety of content is meant to attract customers and engage them with your brand. It’s about community building, loyalty, demonstrating your expertise — or even sometimes explaining what you don’t know.

Laura LeBoutillier says some of her projects don’t work as planned and when they don’t, she says so — on video. Other times, a project or planting plan she thought would gorgeous, just isn’t. Or at least it’s not to her liking.

“I’ll own it, if I make a mistake,” she says. “Or we’ll update a project and say, ‘Hey, this didn’t work.’”

One note: It’s really hard to fake authenticity. That’s why they call it authenticity. And, Standard says, the LeBoutilliers have it.

“They’re just like the nicest people,” she says. “They’re friendly. They’re gracious. They’re appreciative. She’s just kind of American as apple pie.”

Produce consistently: If you want to build an audience, you need to constantly provide fresh content. The LeBoutilliers don’t work exclusively for Proven Winners and they don’t exclusively post videos. They have a few other clients and they post photographs. They have Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest accounts.

“You have got to be consistent,” Laura says. “You can’t have weeks go by where you don’t post. And right now we’re posting once or twice a day.”

Yes, it takes discipline and there will be discouraging days. Stick with it. Be patient.

“There is no silver bullet,” she says. “You have no idea what is going to take off or what isn’t. It’s funny.”

Learn from others: Study the craft. Browse YouTube and sift through Facebook, watching videos and figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Try and fail. Keep track of what resonates and determine the common denominators.

“Aaron is a huge YouTube video watcher,” Laura says. “He watches a lot and then you find people who do interesting things that you find fun to watch and then you kind of try to adapt it to what you’re doing.”

So, that’s the Garden Answer playbook. Easy right?

Of course it’s not easy. Few worthwhile things are. And that seems especially true for producing the right content. And not just producing the right content, but producing the right content for all the different stages of a consumer’s buying process — and then delivering it to the right person at the right time.

The one sure thing is that the importance of content in commerce is not going away. In fact, given the current emphasis on content, it’s far more likely that more and more digital retailers will become more adept at adding content to the arsenal of tools they use to attract and delight consumers.

And as content strategies evolve, no one will want to be left behind.

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