It's not about online and offline, it's about the brand. That's Paul Miller's philosophy on Williams-Sonoma and ecommerce.
Miller explains, "Your brand is your most cherished and valuable asset. With emails and what we do on the website, it all has to be augmenting what you've already established the brand can do."
How do you make best practices actually work in real-life
retailing? Miller detailed four key areas to Williams-Sonoma's multi-channel success.-> Tactic 1) Reorganize to avoid cross-channel conflict
Williams-Sonoma is just one of several brands owned by Williams-Sonoma, Inc. About 18 months ago, the company restructured to organize by brand rather than by channel, as was previously the case.
Maintaining a consistent voice, message and customer experience is much easier when it's the same team responsible for the online, retail and catalog channels.
Miller says, "At the end of the day we work together to make sure we make the right decisions for the brand. What we do is always aimed at getting a higher return from that same customer base. A catalog has references in it that send people to the website for recipes. We'll send emails that will drive people to the retail stores. The retail stores distribute catalogs."
This approach also recognizes that customers that shop from multiple channels are worth more to the brand, "...so we do everything we can to encourage that."
But do the stores buy into that philosophy?
Miller has two strategies for dealing with the bricks versus clicks conundrum.
#1: He lets the stores see the clear correlation between online support activities and their own results. "They realize, 'Holy Smokes! Paul sends out an email talking about this in-store promotion and we sell out our cooking class.'"
#2: His team meets regularly with regional and district managers to solicit their input and acquaint them with online programs and strategies.
The email team also keep the company's store operations group fully informed about each email campaign, and stores get regular communications on what's happening online.-> Tactic 2) Ensure cross-channel consistency
It's not just the brand experience issue that drives cross-channel integration, but also recognition that the nature of Williams-Sonoma products means multi-channel purchase behaviors are common.
Miller explains, "They'll go online and research the espresso maker, then go into the store and buy it."
So... "it's a central accepted philosophy that the channels must work in concert with each other." Which means, for example...
Brand themes (voice, visuals, message, etc.) in stores and catalogs are matched at the website.
Products available online reflect what's sold through retail and catalog. "If we're going to send you a catalog and have a URL on there, we're going to make sure you can get that SKU online."-> Tactic 3) Match site content to the brand experience
The focus on the brand and implied relationship with the customer means you won't be confronted with typical offers and sales messaging at the Williams-Sonoma website.
Instead, there's a lot of non-sales content in addition to the online store, including an extensive online recipe atabase.
Miller's aim is to sell ideas, as much as products. To draw people gently into a relationship where selling opportunities arise naturally.
"Selling someone on the idea of that incredible dinner party, or the menu within it, or the particular recipe. To me that's a lot more valuable because that creates a much stronger bond with that customer."
That doesn't mean the site doesn't also sell. A set of product links under "related items" accompanies each recipe posted at the site, for example.
"We're happy to sell those related things, but I think that it's a bigger opportunity when you start to inspire people and start to get them to think about cooking and entertaining in a different way and look at you as the centerpiece of that."-> Tactic 4) Use email very carefully
The soft-sell brand-compatible approach carries over to Miller's email campaigns, where he relies on several retention-oriented tactics:
o Respect the permission.
Miller says, "For example, we may collect a name at Williams-Sonoma, but we don't then turnaround and blast you with stuff from Pottery Barn."
o Run seasonal campaigns.
Miller eschews standalone mailouts in favor of ongoing campaigns with seasonal themes - summer recipes followed by end-of-summer sales announcements, for example.
"We think of it all in terms of conversations. A type of
conversation stream that we would have with our customers."
o Offer value to build a relationship first, then sales.
"We're going to give you citrus recipes, show you how to use them, how to pick the best citrus, for example. More than just 'here are the citrus-flavored products we've got'."
Miller adds, "Ultimately of course we want to sell more merchandise. But when you have the opportunity to have that kind of tangible relationship with your customer, that's where the magic happens. They start looking to us as a resource for their entertainment and cooking needs."
o Make the most of segmentation.
Miller's team uses various criteria to send better targeted messages to different audiences, such as gift-oriented emails to those who predominately buy gifts only.
He adds, "A lot of things that sound like platitudes, things that are obvious - that's business for you."
o Promote the other channels, too.
As well as channel-independent material like recipes and new product announcements, emails also plug in-store promotions or new catalogs.
The brand-centric multi-channel approach is one of the reasons Williams-Sonoma Inc. saw double digit growth in both on- and offline sales in Q2, 2003 compared to a year ago. But Miller's hesitant for that to take all the credit.
He explains, "Two-three years ago people weren't as likely to go online and buy a thousand dollar espresso maker."
Note: Williams-Sonoma is a member of Shop.org, a forum for retailing online executives to share information, lessons-learned, new perspectives, insights and intelligence.