Comment: Reflections on the RBTE eCommerce Theatre

So last week I spent two very full and fascinating days chairing the eCommerce theatre at RBTE 2016. I’ve now had a week to reflect on what we heard in the theatre and to try to distil a core message out of it. As I wrote in my update after day one, I began with a conception that the connecting theme that ran throughout the two days was about customer-centricity-through-technology. But as the presentations and discussions succeeded each other, I’ve started to think the message was rather different.

Yes, it is indeed essential to be customer-centric. Retail is, after all, a customer-centric business, and eCommerce doubly so. And yes, technology underpins eCommerce and digital experiences in general.  But what we heard in so many of the presentations is eCommerce is still fundamentally about people, the people who deliver that customer-centricity and those experiences.

It’s interesting that Amazon spends more – net after shipping fees and Prime income – on subsidising its shipping and returns proposition than it does on marketing because it regards them as 'effective worldwide marketing tools' –  logistics is the new marketing. Back to RBTE, and perhaps my favourite session of the two days was our panel discussion on the importance of effective returns processing as a customer retention tool. Shop Direct processes 50,000 returns per day. How do they turn that from 50,000 potential issues into 50,000 delighted customers who will return and shop again? By having the most motivated and job-satisfied team in their whole business, according to their internal staff surveys. What does that team do? Looks after every return personally. As a case in point, we heard the wonderful story of the wedding-present duvet stuffed with £5,000 in notes, inadvertently returned as an unwanted gift. You can be certain that the customers who benefited from the systematic hunt by their returns team for this high-value bedding will probably be Shop Direct customers for life now. What makes the difference are the people behind the process.

Or take another example, our presentation from the entrepreneurs behind Enclothed. It’s a highly digital business, and they’ve invested in bespoke technology. But ultimately what does all the technology do? It connects the customer with their personal stylist, and enables that stylist to make very human decisions about what 'their' customers might like in their next personal clothing parcel. Customers are people, and people like to interact with other people, as Facebook proves weekly for about four billion of us. This is just as true when people shop as when they socialise; they want to buy from a person not a machine.

Similarly, we heard that a pillar of the digital transformation strategy at surf-store, Saltrock, is humanising the online experience for customers by featuring their local store and, importantly, its manager. And Blackwells, the books specialist – surely faced with one of the most challenging possible online competitors – told us how they are doing so by “bringing personality back to online retail”.

Even Amazon, if you’ve ever used its online chat support, connects you with a named person - “Hi, I’m Adam” – and not just a submit button. I’m sure it is probably looking at how it might use artificial intelligence technology to automate parts of this, but I suspect it might be a big mistake, saving money on chat-partners, but reducing sales, and more importantly retention, overall.

Brick-and-mortar stores have mannequins in their windows. eCommerce stores can have far more sophisticated shop-windows, full of technical wizardry in place of old-fashioned static mannequins, with every window personalised to the individual customer. But behind both sets of windows, there are still human beings, and it’s those people that we, as customers, really like to buy from.

Chris Jones is a freelance specialist in multichannel and eCommerce, with extensive senior-level experience as both consultant and hands-on interim. He has worked extensively in both B2B and B2C sectors, and has client engagement experience in 15 countries. He is the author of ‘The Multichannel Retail Handbook’. You can find him at