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5 Internet Retailing Lessons You Might Have to Learn the Hard Way

Steve Tutelman

Change is one constant in the life of an e-commerce retailer. Brock Weatherup took a page from his own experience when he shared several of those “life lessons” during his keynote at the most recent Philly New Technology Meetup.

Brock knows a thing or two about e-commerce. In past lives, he served as CEO of several Internet retailers, including Fathead, Pet Food Direct, and Pet360. Brock sold Pet360 to PetSmart last fall and joined the company as Chief Digital Officer.

Today? He recently launched Atai Ventures and co-founded the tech accelerator ICONYC Labs. He has a boatload of knowledge and experience when it comes to building and running e-commerce businesses, and he shared some interesting war stories at the tech meetup that are worth highlighting.

1. Don’t Assume Anything About Your Shipping Strategy.

Brock reminded everyone of the importance of testing your fulfillment and shipping strategy. You can’t assume that every product has the best packaging and will ship properly. He recalled one holiday season at Fathead where 15 percent of its wall decal products — which were packaged in tubes — simply rolled away from the package handling area. Lesson: Test, then test some more to get it right. Fathead’s solution was to add a triangular box around shipping tubes to prevent rolling.

2. Prepare for Swings in Customer Demand.

Michael Vick wall decals were flying off the virtual shelves at Fathead — until the football player’s 2007 indictment. Brock remembered being stuck with quite a few Vick decals. Forecasting customer demand has always been, and will always be, challenging. Buying habits can change on a dime, and retailers must learn how to prepare for volatile swings in demand, manage these changes, and flip them into opportunities.

3. Every Idea Isn’t a Winner.

When Brock was CEO of Pet Food Direct, a pet food subscription site, he considered merging it with another site that focused on content for pet owners. But Brock quickly realized that concerned pet owners didn’t want to read about their dog’s hip dysplasia while shopping for Frosty Paws. Going from concerned owner of a sick animal to impulse buyer wasn’t how the market operated.

4. Hyper Personalize Your Customer Experiences.

Brock recalled Pet360’s philosophy behind providing hyper-personalized experiences: Customers don’t want to consume every last bit of content or browse every single product on your site. I feel this as a consumer, too — I want a personalized, relevant digest of content or products just for me. Brock believes consumers crave personalization from retailers more than ever. Hyper-personalized experiences rule, whether that’s a coupon offering for razor blade refills right when the customer is due to run out, or sending fabric swatches for throw pillows that match the sofa a customer recently purchased.

5. Hire Your Brand Advocates.

Employees without passion can’t fake it. At Fathead, Brock hired sports fans who genuinely loved Fathead and talking about Fathead’s products. These employees were naturals at interfacing with customers, because they were customers themselves. They knew the emotional triggers that would motivate customers to buy. Take fan rivalry, for instance. How do you get a New York Giants fan to buy a wall decal and lifesize cutout of Eli Manning? Tell him the Dallas Cowboys fan down the street ONLY has a decal of Tony Romo, and he’d better one-up that fan by buying both!

One of Brock’s ultimate points was that even if you have all forces at your back — the best-planned strategies, the most seasoned team, the hottest product — every e-commerce business still faces challenges. That’s why the best e-commerce professionals never stop making mistakes and learning from each of those experiences.

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