How to sell eCommerce technology to retailers

Suppliers of eCommerce technology looking for a successful pitch with furniture retailer Heal’s might be best off avoiding wrapping their products and services up in buzzwords such as omnichannel, CRM and big data.

These are the types of phrases that put off the customer & eCommerce director at Heal’s, David Kohn, who at a recent event in London argued that most big tech suppliers do not make ideal bedfellows for small to medium sized retailers.

“Negative buzzwords? One of them is Oracle! If you are a small company, my general advice is steer clear of anyone you’ve heard of,” he stated.

“It’s the Oracles and Adobes, [for example], they’re not structured to deal with SMEs. They will tell you time and time again that’s what their strategy is and what they focus on, but they don’t.”

Oracle and Adobe argue otherwise and have a range of long-term customer partnerships in this space, but talking on a panel at April’s FUTR Summit, Kohn said he prefers working with smaller suppliers, who he believes can offer a more dedicated service to companies like Heal’s. He also revealed his retailer places all tech partners in an ongoing league table to ensure it is getting the most from them.

“If you’re a small company, the single most important thing you can get from any supplier of technology isn’t the technology, it’s the customer success team and the people who will help you use it,” he stated.

“You have to find a way of making them dedicate more time to you than they should do, so if a supplier enters the relegation zone, it’s basically a trigger for us to kick them up the backside – occasionally with justification and often without.”

He added: “It’s amazing how often if you let somebody get away without helping you, they’ll just keep taking a fee and not moving things on.”

Resources are tight

The financial and margin squeeze many UK retailers are currently facing is well documented, and illustrated by the cost-cutting, downsizing and restructuring measures taken recently by the likes of New Look, Carpetright, House of Fraser, and Debenhams.

But, interestingly, Kohn said cost of technology or supplier partnership is not necessarily the deciding factor when it comes to whether a deal gets the green light.

“Being able to prove a proof of concept which is zero to very little effort and zero to very little cost, is incredibly valuable,” he remarked.

“We’re all massively struggling with resource, we’re pretty desperately trying to trade in this worst retail environment in living memory, so the amount of time and attention we’ve got to dedicate to new stuff or difficult stuff is very limited.”

He added: “Whereas you used to have a cost benefit analysis, we use an ease benefit analysis. Basically, ‘how easy is it?’ is almost our primary criteria. As soon as something starts to become difficult, it’s got to show an unholy amount of benefit before [we start considering it.]”

Kate Mitchell, head of digital at Bensons for Beds and Harveys Furniture parent company Steinhoff, and a fellow panellist at FUTR Summit, agreed. She suggested she could be exposed to the best technology and the best supplier team, but the resource she has available internally can dictate the investment decision.

“It might have the best functionality, it might touch all the bases in terms of what we want it to do but I’ve got a certain amount of headcount that needs to be trained on it and use it on the website,” she explained.

The eCommerce technology Steinhoff invests in for its UK retail brands needs to fit the business objective, and help drive trade now and in the future, but it also has to come at a time when the company has the right skillset in place internally, Mitchell noted.

“Because if I haven’t, I’m bringing in great tech that will just sit there and almost gather dust.”

Describing her thought process when investing in new tech, she added: “A lot of the time I’m saying ‘Can I implement this with ease?’.”

What tech sits well with furniture retailers?

The different retail verticals will naturally have their own requirements from eCommerce technology.

Whereas the fashion sector is now on a drive to introduce features such as visual search and buy now, pay later platforms, the grocery sector is focused on improving delivery methods and in the early stages of how to use voice-enabled tech.

In the furniture world frequented by Heal’s, Bensons and Harveys, the visualisation element seems crucial.

“There is evidence people are more driven by images than they are by words and, in our sector, seeing things is one of the most important things,” argued Kohn.

“Seeing [products] in different environments is very important. 360-degree, image rendering, augmented reality (AR) and even virtual reality – that’s particularly interesting to us.”

Mitchell added: “We have a lot of challenges in the online experience around visualisation of product. We’ve created an AR app which works really well but we need better integration across the whole commerce experience.”

The Steinhoff head of digital also listed data tools as an important part of the eCommerce toolkit, “not just to support the customer in their online journey but also using data [through that end to end supply chain experience]”. It is particularly crucial for Steinhoff to use data to understand trends and selling patterns because of the 12-week lead times it has when buying in product from suppliers, she added.

Kohn also referenced online journey mapping and the personalisation of the eCommerce experience as crucial elements for furniture retailers like Heal’s. The is highlighted by the business's recent decision to work with the likes of BounceX and Hero.

“A lot of people talk about personalisation as if it’s the be all and end all,” he commented.

“We take a slightly different viewpoint, we’re very keen to bring people back into the eCommerce experience. We’re trying to personalise the eCommerce experience by making a little more emotional by providing a touchpoint between the online customer and a real person.”

Worth a shot?

The retailers admitted they are bombarded with multiple requests or adverts from tech suppliers every week, but despite the vetting processes they described, speculative pitches can still work.

Mitchell welcomed suppliers to come forward with potential Steinhoff user cases for voice-enabled technology, admitting she thinks it has huge potential in her organisation but has not quite worked out how.

“You don't know what you don’t know,” she explained, adding: “If someone comes to me with an amazing technology that could work for the business then we’ll absolutely pursue it.”

Kohn commented: “I’d love to say picking tech is a structured process but it is somewhat random.

“There are things that turn me off straight away, but generally I’ll have a little look because you can have a very quick look. The things that capture the attention are somewhat random but you’ve got to assess, does this genuinely add anything that customers will get anything out of?"