Saturday Jan 10, 2015

ALEX AND ANI Selects Oracle Retail to Extend Personalized Approach

Founded in 2003, American jewelry brand Alex and Ani has cultivated a loyal customer following based on careful craftsmanship, an eye toward personalization, and reliable, seamless engagement in stores and online.  Next, the retailer is upgrading its behind-the-scenes processes with Oracle Retail merchandising, planning, point of service, and warehouse management solutions. The world-class integrated suite not only catches up with ALEX AND ANI’s recent explosive growth, but also allows for plenty of “thinking big” in coming years.

“One of our taglines is that you own the story,” said George Franzino, consultant and program manager for ALEX AND ANI’s “Project Prophet” software implementation. “This is our story. We’re going to need this system really soon. It’s the power of positivity.”

In ten years, ALEX AND ANI has grown from a single store in Newport, RI, to a nationally recognized lifestyle brand. Offering bangles, necklaces, earrings, rings and charms—all designed to “adorn the body, enlighten the mind, and empower the spirit”—the omni-channel retailer has more than 40 brick-and-mortar main street stores, an e-commerce site, international sales, and a wholesale business. The company’s legacy systems, however, have been unable to handle the complexity of the multiple distribution channels. There were no planning solutions in place to provide visibility into the supply chain, and no streamlined processes that could really provide value.

The new Oracle solution, with its first “go live” in April, focuses on planning and multichannel capabilities, with special attention given to better integrating social media. Part of the brand image, Franzino said, is the customers’ sense of relationship with award-winning brand founder Carolyn Rafaelian, in addition to principles such as domestic manufacturing, sustainability, and a focus on charitable donations.

“It’s a very creative environment,” Franzino said. And that “willing to stretch” energy carried through when it came time to build the new system.

“This is really a wholesale replacement of the system we have,” Franzino said. “It really does touch everything. At the same time we’re implementing this system, we’re building the company.” The implementation involves new departments, an expansion of functional areas, and new hires; as such, it bodes well that so many in the industry workforce already are skilled at working with Oracle.

Franzino, who has worked largely with Oracle products since 2004, said Oracle was the right choice for ALEX AND ANI because of scalability and best practices. Likewise, the retailer required an enterprise system to support its business focus of sustaining excellent customer relationships and being able to provide what they want, how they want it.

“This is the execution layer of delivering on that brand promise to our customers,” he said. “This will greatly enhance that customer experience.”

For more insight to ALEX AND ANI’s cross-channel strategy, read an executive Q&A with VP of Digital Strategy Ryan Bonifacino here. (1to1 Media)

Thursday Jan 08, 2015

Coupons in the Car

Drivers have always been an easy target for advertisers, whether its via the FM radio or roadside billboards.  But its time to be a little less "spray-and-pray" and a little more surgical in these communications.  OnStar recently announced AtYourService, a commerce platform that connects drivers to merchants in the car.  Recall OnStar is the concierge service provided in GM cars; press the OnStar button, then ask the operator for directions, a phone number, the nearest gas station, etc.

This evolution makes perfect sense.  Drivers will now be able to get offers from nearby retailers, restaurants, and hotels.  Don't panic; this is a pull model so your car won't be spammed with unwanted advertisements.  Just as BLE beacons enable contextual offers in stores, OnStar will use the car's location and the request to select relevant offers.

RetailMeNot, the online and mobile deals site, has inked a deal with OnStar to provide the deals.  I myself always visit before making an online purchase so I can see if there are any applicable coupons.  Its saved me lots over the years.  Now the 6 million OnStar subscribers can save some money too.

Tuesday Jan 06, 2015

Retail Robots

I thought it fitting to kick the new year off with a futuristic topic, and what more futuristic than robots?  Lowe's hit the news back in October with their OSHbots, a robot deployed in their Orchard Supply Hardware store in San Jose, CA.  As a sales assistant, the robot provides customers with product and inventory information using voice response, much like Siri.  It navigates the store using collision avoidance technologies like its 3D camera.

Similarly, an Aloft hotel in Cupertino, CA deployed a robot that navigates the hotel and delivers items to rooms when requested by guests.  Need extra towels or perhaps another pillow?  SaviOne, your robotic bellhop, will deliver it to your door.  At Carnegie Mellon, inventory counts in the bookstore are handed by AndyVision, an autonomous robot that scans shelves looking for out-of-stock situations.

At around $150,000 per robot, these solutions are unlikely to be cost-effective yet, but as the technology matures and demand increases costs are bound to come down.  A mix of humans and robots in stores doesn't seem so impossible now, as voice and vision technology continues to evolve.  But we're still in the novelty phase with mainstream adoption several years off.  In the meantime, look for small, innovative examples popping up in California and Japan.

Thursday Dec 18, 2014

Evolution of Image Recognition

Remember the first time you tried Shazam on the iPhone? I was blown away. Even with ambient noise the thing was accurate.  Then I recall John Yopp, our head of research, say we should create a fashion Shazam that identifies clothing for people. When you see a cool tie at lunchtime, snap a picture and buy your own.  Wait a second, songs are one thing but fashion would be impossible.  Patterns, shadows, creases -- it would never work.

Then I came across GetFugu and Google Goggles, which both made good attempts are recognizing products.  Amazon's Flow was also very good, but it heavily leveraged optical character recognition to get hints about the product.  I suppose that fine when shopping in stores, but it wasn't the real world scenario I was looking for.  (Flow has undergone many upgrades over the years and now it can create a shopping list.)  Pounce was pretty good at marrying traditional advertising with digital, allowing the user to snap a picture of a product in a circular/flyer then see the product on the Website.

In a Customer Advisory Board meeting, one of my customers showed me a very cool app for recognizing sneakers.  NetShoes, a Brazilian e-commerce company, released an app that I found to be very accurate.  (I went around the conference snapping pictures of people's sneakers.  Luckily it was the last day so most were wearing comfortable shoes for the plane ride home.)  I later contacted the engineers and found there was a pretty exhaustive process for training the application to recognize the objects, but it could be used for almost anything given some degree of context.

Five years or so after my first experience with Shazam, I think we're getting closer.  Companies like Slyce are investing heavily in the technology necessary.  But we've still got a ways to go.  I downloaded and tried Neiman Marcus' implementation of Slyce and tested a few handbags.  Close but no cigar.

Wednesday Dec 03, 2014

Have you used ApplePay?

After I received my iPhone 6, I quickly registered a credit card and headed to Walgreens to test ApplePay.  It worked great, meeting my expectations.  Since then I've only used it one other time -- at a vending machine I found in a hotel.  (And they charged an extra $0.10, presumably for using a credit card.)  To be fair, I also have a case/sled for my iPhone 5 that allows me to use Isis/Softcard which I've tried at McDonald's.  But in both cases there's no real incentive for me to use it. The card in my wallet works just as well.

InfoScout just released the results of its Black Friday survey and found that ApplyPay was used only 5% of the time when it could have been used.  That is, the customer had registered a card and the store was equipped to accept ApplePay, yet only 5% of the time was ApplePay used.

There are various reason cited by the survey participants for not using ApplePay, but the biggest (31%) was not knowing whether the store accepts it.  When asked why iPhone 6/6+ owners haven't even tried ApplePay most said they didn't know how it works (32%) or they're satisfied with current payment methods (30%). declares "ApplePay a Bust on Black Friday, New Data Show," but most of the experts they interviewed said the adoption rate is normal for an emerging payment.  My own experience with smart cards is similar; a big marketing push is required to educate consumers so they feel comfortable.

So have you used ApplePay yet?  How was the experience?

Monday Nov 10, 2014

Shopping Just Got Easier with Echo

Last Thursday I was in Orlando talking to a group of retailers about the future, and specifically how the internet-of-things might change the way we shop.  I was explaining how companies like Amazon are working on ways to conveniently reorder products, like placing a reorder button in the laundry room so its easy to reorder detergent.  At the same time I was speaking, Amazon was announcing their latest product, Echo, which is even better than I had imagined.

Echo is a device you place in your home that listens for your commands, much like Siri on your iPhone.  It answers your questions and does basic tasks.  What's the weather today?  Set an alarm for 10am tomorrow.  Add paper towels to the shopping list.  When is the next Hokie football game?  Seems like every futuristic TV show or movie has an intelligent voice-response system in the home -- I guess Echo is our first step in that direction.

I'm sure the commands "add to list" and "buy" were the first things Amazon implemented. This product follows the same strategy as the tablet and phone that came before it: make it incredibly easy to buy things from Amazon.  Why bother putting "buy" buttons in strategic places around the house when you can just say what you want out-loud.  Brilliant.

Thursday Oct 02, 2014

Big Lots Chooses Oracle Commerce

More and more retailers are leveraging the full range of commerce technologies, including robust, scalable platforms, user-friendly business tools and solutions to enable a true omnichannel shopping experience. Big Lots is taking all of these options to the next level with an ecommerce program to serve its growing business. 

Big Lots operates 1,495 stores in 48 states and, if you have one near you understand why people love to shop these stores. Big Lots is a unique, non-traditional, discount retailer with product assortments in the merchandise categories of food, consumables, furniture & home décor, seasonal, soft home, hard home, and electronics & accessories. The company’s vision is to provide an outstanding shopping experience for customers both in the stores, and, coming soon, on-line.

By selecting a hosted version of Oracle Commerce, Big Lots is providing its business users with cost-effective, cutting-edge tools to shape a personalized customer experience through multi-channel promotions, targeted offers, and image-rich product profiles. 

Oracle Commerce also gives the Big Lots team the flexibility to adapt to changing business strategies or market needs such as expanding offerings, integrating new tools or bringing its commerce infrastructure in-house from the hosted solution.  

Congratulations to the entire team at Big Lots and welcome to the Oracle community!

Thursday Jul 03, 2014

Whole Foods - Give Bees a Chance

This posting is decidedly un-tech, which is unusual for me.  But its an important topic that is worthy of our attention.  Preliminary survey results from the Bee Informed Partnership indicate that 31.1% of managed honey bee colonies in the United States were lost during the 2012/2013 winter, and this is actually better than the previous season.  So what?  Its not just about the honey.  Pollinators like bees are crucial for food production.  $15B of economic activity is attributable to crops that require bee pollination.  Without bees, crops will suffer and that will lead to fewer food choices.  In fact, the impacts trickle to cows and thus reduce dairy options as depicted in the pictures below (from Whole Foods):

There isn't a smoking gun we can point to, so the White House has earmarked $50M for crucial research to find the culprit, or at least stave off the rapid decline. Its likely some combination of pesticides and parasites, but it may also have to do with their changing habitats.

Serial do-gooder Whole Foods has launched a Share the Buzz campaign to draw attention to this issue.  Did you know (from their site)?

  • 1 out of 3 bites of food is pollinated by honey bees and other pollinators.
  • Bees and other pollinators are needed for more than two-thirds of the world’s crop species.
  • Bees pollinate more than 100 types of crops in the US, including some of our summer favorites: berries, watermelons, peppers and avocados.

Low-tech is still an important part of our lives.

Wednesday Jul 02, 2014

Staples Delivers Convenience

To understand exactly what’s top of mind when it comes to digital retailing, go no further the Internet Retailer Conference and Exhibition (IRCE) held last month in Chicago.  Our team was there to host customer events and attend sessions by industry leaders, including Oracle customers Shop Direct, Sephora, Office Depot, NetShoes, Sur La Table and Dress Barn.

Throughout the week, retailers shared just how extensively mobile influences sales.  Among them, Sephora expects that by 2017 consumers will use a mobile device in half of all purchases, decal retailer Fathead said the same and Shop Direct predicts 100 percent of its sales will involve mobile within a year.

As consumers use mobile devices to shop anytime and anywhere they want, a few retailers are already greeting them with the right experience, the right selection of products and nearby service and support. 

Case in point is Staples, second only to Amazon in North American online sales. Staples is well into a major transformation in which the retailer has expanded to more than a million SKUs and made it convenient for customers to buy online and have items delivered or waiting for pickup in a nearby store.  84 percent of customers are businesses, and Staples provides them easy access to tech repairs, 3D printing, Apple products and, soon, a Steelcase store within a store. 

Speaking at IRCE, Staples EVP of Global E-Commerce, Faisal Masud, described design, performance and search improvements that helped to increase sales conversions by 10 percent and moved revenue per online visitor up 9 percent.

Staples personalizes the e-commerce session with your local store info to facilitate cross-channel buys. The company saw an “exponential improvement in sales” after revamping mobile to display just the products customers care about, and earlier this summer a new tablet app immediately increased conversions.

Underpinning the commerce anywhere strategy are inventory systems that recognize both store and online orders, including any order placed via a mobile app. “Without a seamless unified inventory model, the Omni-channel experience would not be possible,” said Masud.

For a closer look at Staples’ transformation, read more by Internet Retailer managing editor Zak Stambor.

Watch here for IRCE insights from Shop Direct head of e-commerce Paul Hornby, who details the company’s journey as it went from catalog retailer to top ten on the Internet Retailer Europe 500.

Read more about how Oracle helps retailers deliver Commerce Anywhere, as well as media coverage of Oracle’s recent work with retailers worldwide.

Monday Jun 30, 2014

Emotion Contagion

Facebook recently released the results of an experiment it conducted in 2012 on emotion contagion. Social experiments have shown that a person's emotional state can be influenced by those around him.  If your friends are having a bad day, you tend to unconsciously synchronize to their emotions and thus they "bring you down."  Facebook wanted to see if this type of influence thrived in social media, so they manipulated the newsfeeds of almost 700,000 people during a single week. 

[I'm going to avoid a discussion on the legality of this experiment (it was, read the terms of service) and the ethics (definitely a gray area) and simply focus on the the experiment and its potential impact to retail.  Facebook is known for pushing boundaries, getting its hand slapped, then patiently waiting for society to catch up.  In many cases what was controversial five years ago has become mainstream today, either because Facebook waited or it actually influenced society.  But I digress.]

In general, those exposed to more positive posts in turn made more positive status updates.  And the same was true for the reverse.  But it was actually a tiny impact -- something on the order of one tenth of one percent.  Of course when applied to large group (like shoppers) this could have a meaningful impact.  Below is an explanation posted on Facebook by one of the study's authors:

So how might this impact the average retailer?  Retailers already monitor social media using Natural Language Processing to gauge brand sentiment.  This experiment indicates sentiment may be influenced indirectly by exposure to other unrelated posts.  In other words, get your customers in a good mood by posting LOL cats, then slip in an offer to buy your products.  On second thought, manipulating emotions is bound to backfire.  Let's just stick with great deals and superior customer service.

Monday Apr 28, 2014

Personalization for Retail

Personalized service was one of the casualties when the retail industry moved from independent stores to chains.  Personalization at scale has always been difficult, but technology advances in the last ten years have helped.  One only needs to visit to see what automated personalization can accomplish.  By personalizing the customer experience, retailers like Z Gallerie and Zenni Optical are increasing customer engagement, converting more sales, and cross-selling/up-selling.  Typical approaches include:

  • Product Recommendations
  • Searchandising & Faceted Navigation
  • Personalized Emails
  • Webpage Curation
  • Targeted Alerts & Offers

All of these approaches must effectively leverage many data sources.  While these techniques are fairly mainstream in the digital world, they are only now making inroads in the physical stores.  The combination of indoor-location and mobile apps has opened new opportunities to find customers and provide relevant, personalized content while they are shopping.  Of course there has been much debate over the privacy concerns, but as long as retailers focus on being a butler rather than a stalker, those issues will work out over the long-term.

The three C's for personalization are Context, Content, and Conduits.  Understanding each is important to the overall personalization effort.

Context makes message more relevant and therefore more sticky.  Context starts with location, which includes tactics like geo-fencing and in-store location.  Messages delivered as the consumer drives near a store or as they browse a particular department within the store are relevant to the current situation and therefore more helpful.  Context also includes what might be known about the customer.  Unidentified customers might rely on what's known about local customer segments, while an identified customer might include detailed purchase history.  If the customer doesn't own a dog, don't offer them dog food.

Content includes product data, offers, and lifestyle information.  Not everything is about a coupon.  A sporting goods retailer, for example, might alert customers about local sporting events.  Alerts for new shipments or upcoming promotions are also helpful to customers.  Help customers improve their lifestyles without always overtly selling to them.

Conduits refer to the different touchpoints for contacting customers.  Obviously the web is an excellent opportunity to present offers, but email and mobile apps can be just as effective and are sometimes more appropriate.  Using a combination of conduits, possibly managed via marketing automation, can provide the most consistent messaging.  Be care to note a customer's contact preferences.

Connecting the data sources, optimization science, marketing execution, and delivery technologies will round-out the personalization solution.  Remember, customer centricity is a philosophy, not a feature.

Thursday Apr 10, 2014

Stage Stores Rounds-up

Steven Hunter, SVP and CIO at Stage Stores, said something at Oracle's recent Industry Connect conference that caught my attention.  He was retelling a story about how Stage Stores customers, communicating through social media, said they wanted to make donations to charities at the point-of-sale.  So Steve implemented round-up functionality that allowed donations to several nationwide charities.  The program was good, but not great so they went back to social media to receive additional guidance.  This time they swapped the nationwide charities for local charities and donations rose by 600%!

There are a few lessons to take away from this story.  First, listening to customers is important and never easy.  Social media can be a big help, but sometimes it still takes experimentation to find the right solution.  Second, customers want to be charitable, but they want to be involved in the choice of charities and prefer local organizations that directly impact their communities.

Donating to worthy causes feels good, so why not associate that feeling with shopping?  The donation jar by the register has been around forever, but it presents issues for security, counting/reconciling, and lack of audit trail.  So retailer's have a couple requirements for taking donations at the register:

  • Must never increase checkout time.  Long lines are bad news for retailers.
  • Must be integrated into the payment process, without requiring prompts from employees that are awkward for both parties.
  • Must be electronic, so theft is minimized and there's no overhead for counting.
  • Prefer to give customers a choice of charities, so they get a say in where their money goes.
  • Prefer configurable charities, that are local and can be changed to align with events.
  • Prefer to provide receipts for donations, so customers can collect them and take deductions at tax time.

Based on these reasonable requirements, ARTS developed an integration standard that aims to reduce the cost of integrating the POS to "charity processors," the third-parties that process donations for retailers. Greg Buzek, who is very active with his own charity, quickly calculated that 1.4 million POS registers were represented by the companies involved in creating the standard,  Just imagine if each one of those collected $10 a day for a year.  That would be $5 billion, significantly more than what's collected today, for those in need.

Using the standard, Oracle Retail has integrated its POS with Mini-Donations as a proof-of-concept to show what's possible.  As more retailers follow Stage Stores' lead, vendors will incorporate the interface into their POS and e-commerce offerings, making it easier for retailers to adopt the practice.  Then retailers can strengthen the bonds with their customers and community, and reap the benefits that follow.

Monday Apr 07, 2014

Amazon Dash

Just to once again prove that Amazon is a technology company that happens to do commerce, the Seattle giant has released Amazon Dash, a new tool for shoppers.  Chances are you heard about their recent set-top box, Fire TV, but the Dash didn't get much hoopla.  That's because it complements their Fresh program, which is only available in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

Think of Dash as a remote control for your shopping list that you leave in the kitchen.  When you pour the last of the milk in your coffee, grab dash and scan the carton's barcode.  Or better yet, just say "milk" into Dash's microphone.  Items are added to your online shopping list, then when you're ready to order, you make a few adjustments and checkout.  Amazon Fresh delivers your items the next day.

In a similar vein, I introduced Grocery IQ, a mobile app, to my family to manage our grocery list.  Its nice because we can all add to a centralized shopping list.  When my wife does the shopping (in a physical grocery store), she checks the items off the list as she goes.  We can actually monitor the list in real-time.  (Warning: that also means the kids can add items as you're shopping so the list never shrinks -- real funny kids.)

Amazon has made this process even easier by providing a dedicated device instead of (actually, in addition to) a smartphone.  And of course its hardwired to Amazon's shopping cart.  Brilliant, as usual.

Friday Mar 28, 2014

Kohl’s E-Commerce Upgrade Boosts Stability Despite Tight Deployment Timetable

This is another in a series of reports filed by guest blogger Adam Blair from Oracle Industry Connect this week in Boston. Kohl's SVP of IT Richard Mozack took the stage Wednesday afternoon to deliver one of two closing keynote talks.   Here's what he had to say.

There was general agreement at Kohl’s Department Stores that the $20 billion, 1,150-store retailer, which has been rapidly increasing its store count in recent years, needed to upgrade its e-commerce platform. “This was a high-growth area, and we were struggling because we couldn’t innovate,” said Richard Mozack, Senior Vice President of IT at Kohl’s. “In addition, the holiday season would be a kind of ‘white-knuckle’ adventure” because of concerns about site availability and performance.

Where Mozack got pushback was in the aggressive timeline for making such a major change: one year from its May 2012 start to go-live. As he told the audience during the final keynote presentation at Oracle Industry Connect for Retail here, many of his own people, along with vendors and advisors, frankly said “We’re nuts to try to accomplish this in 12 months.”

The story has a happy ending, in large part because of decisions that smoothed and sped the upgrade process. Kohl’s chose Oracle Commerce for its e-commerce platform and also used Oracle as its prime systems integrator, along with AT&T as host. The retailer also decided on a “like for like” upgrade, matching functionalities from its old site to its new one.

A soft launch in May 2013, opening up the new e-commerce site to Kohl’s employees and then to select customers, gave the retailer time to work out any remaining bugs. But Mozack knew the acid test would be the holiday season, when peak traffic can be 10 times normal volume. However, holiday 2013 provided Kohl’s with 100% availability. “We were waiting for something to break, but it was crickets,” said Mozack. “This holiday was more stable than our other platform ever was.

“Now we have a foundation that we can build on, to add capabilities for a personalized omni-channel experience for our customers,” Mozack added.

Next up is a merchandising transformation that began in April 2013, also with an aggressive 12-month go-live schedule. It’s on time and is projected to be up and running in two weeks. This upgrade also features Oracle solutions and has gone “remarkably well,” said Mozack, who credited upfront work with Oracle and Accenture in the areas of change management and in deciding which systems actually required customization versus those that could remain vanilla.

These and other IT upgrades, part of a multi-year effort to simplify Kohl’s systems architecture, have been driven by basic business needs. Mozack put it simply: “We could not continue to grow at our pace with the systems we had.”

Wednesday Mar 26, 2014

ULTA Beauty’s Digital Makeover

Reporting today at Oracle Industry Connect in Boston, guest blogger Adam Blair captured insights from retailers:

ULTA Beauty’s revamp of its digital sites last year went much more than skin deep. The 675-store beauty products retailer achieved its goal of a comprehensive site redesign that provides a consistent guest experience across desktop, tablet and phone devices, and it also brought its search and navigation functions together under in-house control with the help of Oracle Commerce including Oracle Endeca and Oracle ATG 10.2.

The site’s home page, category and product pages now boast new features including product metadata and easier access to user reviews. In addition, ULTA guests can now check available inventory of specific products at the store/salon they’re planning to visit.

The redesign, designed to emphasize the breadth of product offerings available from ULTA, also gave the retailer’s business side far greater control over key e-commerce elements, including pricing, promotions and site design changes. With fast-moving beauty and cosmetics trends, “there was no way we could stay current if we had to keep going to IT for changes we wanted to make,” said Jeff Hamm, Director of Ecommerce at ULTA. Hamm and Director of IT E-Commerce Michelle Pacynski discussed the process and the results at Oracle Industry Connect for Retail here.

“Every aspect of the home page is now configurable by the business teams,” said Pacynski.

The redesign process, which took approximately six months and was completed in time for the 2013 holiday season, eventually involved running both the “traditional” site and the redesigned site simultaneously. This large-scale A/B testing allowed ULTA to continue refining the new site’s design with actual guest feedback, ensuring performance and the user experience would be positive. “What had looked good ‘on paper’ or to us internally might not look good to a user,” Hamm admitted. The testing process was supplemented by focus groups, online surveys and store intercepts.

The site redesign has received a positive guest response as well as increased consistency between its navigation and search functions. The retailer’s overall results have been strong, with an 82.5% comp store sales increase for Q4 of 2013. ULTA Beauty opened 125 stores last year and is on track to open an additional 100 locations in 2014.


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