Online leaders of the pack: Lessons from Amazon, Nordstrom and Walmart

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Few can rival the experience and e-commerce “chops” of Fiona Dias, who offered her perspective on “Lessons from the Leaders of the Pack” at Retail’s BIG Show. Currently Chief Strategy Officer with ShopRunner, Dias has been involved in and observing our industry’s evolution from senior leadership vantage points ranging from her current gig to GSI Commerce and Circuit City. The hallmarks of e-commerce pack leaders? Dias boiled down pack leader strategies to just four: leadership, perseverance, product and customer experience.

Leadership matters. “Excellent leadership in animals is not that different from excellent leadership in humans,” Dias observed, describing how a mother elephant uses all of her experience to lead, protect and feed her family everyday (to the tune of 300 to 500 lbs of vegetation per elephant!). Outstanding e-commerce leaders whom Dias pointed to include Jeff Bezos and Jamie Nordstrom – the former a founder, the latter a fourth generation family member whose name is on the company door. Contrast that with Walmart, who until recently “struggled mightily” with a “revolving door” of e-commerce leaders who “have come and gone.”

In Dias’ own experience, the head of e-commerce must not only be a top-notch digital leader, he or she must report to the CEO – who in turn has to push alignment throughout the organization “or that digital leader is doomed to fail.” The CEO also has to align the rest of the executive team around common goals. Finally, a holistic talent plan is key, incorporating a mix of internal and external hires, job rotations, plus incentives to reward and retain that talent.

Play the long game. Put another way, “plan and execute for the long term, not just the short term” (think about Jane Goodall’s 53-year, multi-generational study of chimpanzees). Dias observed that “every retail category is under threat from Amazon – or it will be.” Amazon’s distribution centers are getting closer to customers, improving the delivery time. The company’s services business includes “the electrical grid for cloud computing”, powering companies ranging from Samsung and Netflix to NASA. Companies need to ask themselves:

  • How they will win over customers and beat competitors over the next three to five years?
  • Do they consider omnichannel “the future” of the company (not just a project)?
  • Is an effective investment process in place to ensure adequate resources are allocated to the multi-year plan. Ultimately, Dias underscored, “Are you adequately resourced to win in the long term?”

Product, product, product. As opposed to the old adage of “location, location, location”, retailers must first and foremost focus now on product (with mobile and the web, “Your customer may never make it to your store.”). “The reason you stand out among a sea of competitors is product,” Dias observed. In Amazon’s case, their vast product assortment dwarfs what other retailers offer. In the case of Nordstrom, it’s quality over quantity with beautiful, curated product.  Whichever path they choose, companies need to develop a differentiated product strategy – “otherwise, you will struggle.” The keys:

  • A clearly articulated product strategy that works in an omnichannel world (for example, on the Nordstrom site, you won’t hear the in-store piano that works so well in the store –“it’s the product that will stand out… [and] I don’t feel like I’m buying a widget.”).
  • Products that your customers truly desire (“Merchandising is a lost art for many retailers,” Dias mused.)
  • Careful analysis of competitive barriers to the product strategy.

Customer experience = Win or die. Amazon tops the list of online retailers with the highest customer satisfaction – and keeps getting better at it. Dias pointed to a number of loyalty features that keep customers coming back again and again: AmazonPrime, the Kindle, 1-click buying, and the “Subscribe and Save” program. Retailers who want get the customer experience right need to:

  • Map every step of their customer’s experience – think about how Bezos and his team are “laser focused on the customer experience.”
  • Put into place customer feedback loops on how they’re doing.
  • Decide who in the organization is accountable for acting on customer feedback and remove shopping friction within and across channels.
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