Q-and-A: Sur La Table exec talks e-commerce trends - SmartBrief

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Q-and-A: Sur La Table exec talks e-commerce trends

6 min read


Kevin Ertell is vice president of e-commerce at Sur La Table. He has worked exclusively in retail for more than 27 years and has focused his expertise on e-commerce since 1997. Previously, he worked at ForeSee Results, Borders and TowerRecords.com. He is a member of Shop.org’s Board of Directors and the NRF Foundation Board of Directors.

As Sur La Table’s VP of e-commerce, what are the key issues on your mind this year? What are the e-commerce trends to watch out for in the year ahead, and how can retailers prepare?

Mobile is clearly growing at an unbelievably high rate, and I think it’s really important to distinguish between smartphone and tablet. The customer mindset is different on each, and screen size clearly dictates a tailoring of the experience to ensure customers get what they need at the right moment.

And we need to take into account not only an online shopping experience on each but also an overall brand experience. Our stores regularly have customers coming in showing the associates one of our marketing e-mails on their phones and asking about a product featured there. I think we have an opportunity to enhance that experience with more capabilities as we go forward. For example, how can we give the customer more information from an e-mail right there on her phone? Essentially, how we extend the e-mail into a more interactive experience that allows some simple input from the customer to help her get to the right product for her. And then how can we help her ask the associate the right question?

On the tablet, I think we have the opportunity to create a more immersive experience. A lot of research I’ve seen shows that people are playing around tablets while sitting on the couch watching TV. They’re checking around to see what’s new and interesting, in many cases. This is similar to how and why people view catalogs. How can we really enhance that experience for people in a way that is easy to consume on those devices?

Those are the bright, shiny objects, but we’ll also continue to focus on improving usability and the core customer experience. I think we as an industry still have a long way to go to improve general usability in the self-service environments we operate. There is still a wide gap between conversation rates and customer intent-to-purchase rates. As my friend Bryan Eisenberg is always saying, “We don’t have traffic problems; we have conversion problems.”

Surveys this season say something like one-third of consumers plan to do at least some of their holiday shopping via smartphones and tablets. What do you think is driving the rapid rise in m-commerce? How is Sur La Table adapting its e-commerce offerings for mobile shoppers?

I would say the two biggest drivers are convenience and improved shopping experiences. But convenience is way out in the lead. We just launched a smartphone optimized site on Nov. 15, and it’s working really well. It’s such a vastly improved experience. We’re now working on creating a site tailored for the tablet, as well. And as I mentioned above, we’re trying to think of ways we can take advantage of these technologies to create better and more satisfying experiences for our customers at home and in our stores.

Unlike some other online retailers, Sur La Table isn’t offering free shipping on all holiday orders, but it is offering a free-shipping promotion with a minimum purchase of $59. How important is free shipping to online shoppers? Is it a make or break feature for people when they’re deciding whether to make a purchase? As e-commerce evolves, will free shipping remain a priority or will other features become more important?

I think it’s become extremely important. Many customers expect it, and we humans seem to hate paying for shipping even more than we hate paying taxes! It’s pretty clear from comments we’ve seen in our customer satisfaction surveys (and from what I’ve seen over my entire e-commerce career) that there is a pretty large and growing segment of the population that will forgo the purchase rather than pay for shipping. I think free shipping will continue to be very important for the foreseeable future.

Twitter came out with a report last week that found that users that viewed retail-related tweets, both organic and paid, were more likely to make a purchase. Pinterest recently changed its policies to let brands create their own pages. How important do you think social media is to online retail? Can you talk about how you see the relationships between social media and online retail sales, and how they’re evolving?

Well, I think the Twitter report is a little biased. My guess is the users who are following and reading retail related tweets are more engaged consumers who are more likely to purchase anyway. That said, I think social media is a valuable branding tool more than it is an immediate sales driving tool. I don’t know of too many retailers who are seeing significant sales volume coming directly from social media on a regular basis. I think that can be OK if we look at those platforms as opportunities to talk about what we’ve got going on and help customers get to know us better. It’s also a spot to help customers with similar interests connect to each other under our brand umbrella, and that’s a good thing. Ultimately, I think the “social” components that most contribute to sales are those that take place on our sites, like customer reviews or the customer Q&A that we offer on our site. We’ve got a few tricks up our sleeve on that front that I can’t talk about yet, but stay tuned …

Much has been made this year of the issue of “showrooming,” a word coined last holiday season after Amazon offered discounts to shoppers who used mobile devices to order items they saw in bricks-and-mortar stores. Given that home goods stores like Sur La Table have always depended on creative merchandising and eye-catching, colorful in-store displays to draw customers in, is “showrooming” a big concern? How is your company addressing the issue?

We continue to build on and enhance what is already a great in-store shopping experience. We have a lot of private brand and exclusive products that we offer at fantastic values. And we’ll match prices on items that are carried by others, so there’s really not a lot of reason to come check something out in our store and then buy it elsewhere. If you want the convenience of online shopping, we obviously offer that as well. Finally, many of our stores offer these amazing cooking classes, which are experiences that just can’t happen online.

This question-and-answer session was produced as part of SmartBrief’s 2012 Best of reports, which capture the year’s most important stories in each industry. Sign up now for NRF SmartBrief to get tomorrow’s report on the top must-read stories from the retail industry.

Image courtesy of Kevin Ertell.