Tim Parry from Multichannel Merchant – Podcast Transcript

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Shaun Ryan:  [0:04] Hi, I’m Shaun Ryan from SLI Systems, and this is the Ecommerce Podcast. Today I’m talking to Tim Parry, who’s a senior writer at “Multichannel Merchant” and the director of the annual MCM Awards. Welcome, Tim.

Tim:  [0:16] Parry: Hi. Thanks for having me, Shaun.

Shaun:  [0:18] You’re welcome. Now, Tim, traditional question to get us started: what was the first thing you ever bought online?

Tim:  [0:24] I think, boy, you probably have to go back to the ’90s. I’m not sure exactly what the first item is I bought, but I’m sure I bought it on eBay. I think that was a huge thing in the late ’90s that really got a lot of people comfortable with ecommerce in the first place. [0:41] I do remember I used to buy a lot of pro football jerseys and pro baseball jerseys and turn around and resell them on eBay as well. So it was kind of a cool way to get some collector’s stuff and make a few extra dollars on the side.

Shaun:  [0:56] And what was your most recent purchase?

Tim:  [0:59] Most recent, I actually bought myself a Christmas present. My wife and I always wind up doing our own Christmas shopping and surprising each other on Christmas Day, as opposed to her buying for me and me buying for her. Married 13 years, you kind of never learn how to buy the right gift.

Shaun:  [laughs] [1:14]

Tim:  [1:17] But I actually bought a pair of jeans on Wal‑Mart’s website on Black Friday. After I was in the store, went to the mobile site to see if I can find it in the right length for me, and then found out that it was actually $2 cheaper on the Wal‑Mart website, and 97 cents shipping. So for the whole thing, saving one dollar, I figured I might as well go home and just order it online and have it shipped.

Shaun:  [1:42] Yeah, wow. And I think you’ve sort of hit on a trend there as well. First of all, how was the mobile shopping experience on Wal‑Mart.com?

Tim:  [1:53] Mobile was interesting. I recently got an Android‑based phone, so I’m still kind of getting a little used to it. But seeing that I was on a Symbian before that, it’s a much easier shopping experience. It’s just like you’re working on the regular web. As long as you can squint a little to a smaller screen, really not that bad of a deal.

Shaun:  [2:14] And do they have a mobile‑optimized version of the site, do you know? Or was it just their regular site that you were viewing on your Android?

Tim:  [2:22] I’m pretty sure their regular site is optimized for mobile. I’ve noticed a big change in their site in the past year. When you’re looking at their main website, it seems a lot more mobile‑friendly. The site itself is a lot narrower than it had been in the past. The fonts are a lot smaller. It’s almost where you have to zoom in on your regular browser, if you’re on Firefox or if you’re on Internet Explorer, but it seems to be the right size and configurations when you’re on a mobile phone.

Shaun:  [2:52] OK, interesting. So, you’re a senior writer at the “Multichannel Merchant.” What’s your main area of focus?

Tim:  [3:03] Main area of focus for me, I actually handle our list and data strategies. We used to have a separate newsletter for that. Now we just cover the industry. So we talk about the lists the catalogers are renting from the subscribers’ name and address, those traditional lists, right down to the email lists. I also handle the ecommerce reporting as well as the social media, and, of course, general news. If something breaks, some kind of breaking news happens, like one company gets sold off to another one, I’ve got to jump on that as well. [3:37] And I also handle the annual Multichannel Merchant Awards, too. So that usually takes up most of my spring, making sure that the entries are all taken care of, the judges that we select are all getting their assignments done, right down to planning the actual awards, the awards luncheon and awards ceremony as well. So it’s pretty exciting. It’s not a traditional job of a journalist, but it’s a pretty exciting part of the whole experience for me.

Shaun:  [4:09] There must be a lot of logistics involved in organizing something like that.

Tim:  [4:14] Yeah, it’s crazy. I never knew exactly how difficult it was. I kind of got thrown into it midway through a year, because the director had left, and I just happened to know a lot of the judges, so it was kind of like, “Well, Tim knows the judges. Let’s have him deal with all these people.” [4:30] And then, all of a sudden, it’s kind of like you’re planning a wedding every day or something, when you’ve got to get a hotel and get enough food in there for people to sit down and have, pretty much, what comes down to one big final party, almost.

Shaun:  [4:43] Yeah. Yeah, yeah. You’re basically organizing a big party. So how long have you been doing that, now?

Tim:  [4:50] I believe this is my fourth full year. I think part of the deal, it was interesting, because I had surgery on my neck in 2007, kind of came back to find out, “Oh, by the way, you’re going to be doing this.” So I think 2008, 2009. This’ll be my third full year, fourth year doing the thing on my own.

Shaun:  [5:11] Yeah. You’ll be getting it down and sort of getting efficient at doing it now.

Tim:  [5:18] Oh, yeah. Now it’s pretty much a lot of getting rid of a lot of duplicities and making sure that everything just runs smooth.

Shaun:  [5:25] So you’ve obviously been at the publication for quite a while now, if you’ve been doing the MCM Awards for three or four years.

Tim:  [5:34] Yeah, I’ve been with the publication itself for, I’ll be entering my sixth year now. Jim Tierney, who is the other senior writer, he and I both started the same day in 2006, actually January first. I had been with the Chief Marketer side. I actually just moved over there a few months before that, and they eliminated my position. But Sherry Chiger, who was the editor at the time, wanted me to stay on board, and she was in charge of both publications, so she brought me over to “Multichannel Merchant” as well. [6:03] At first, I was like, oh, great. I don’t know if I want to write about retailers and retail marketing and lists and data. But actually, there’s a lot of inside things. A lot of people think retail is just going into a store and buying something and that’s it. I think there’s a lot of fun, inside things that nobody really thinks about.

Shaun:  [6:20] Yeah. Yeah. I agree with you, being from the part of the industry that I see. I know, from the outside, people think it’s a lot simpler than what it is. But when you get into it, there’s a lot of really interesting things there. The publication itself, how does “Multichannel Merchant” distinguish itself from other retail‑focused publications?

Tim:  [6:41] I think one way is, we used to be known as “Catalog Age.” And that was actually just before I came on board is when they made the change to “Multichannel Merchant.” The focus was just on catalogs and how to market your catalog, how to make sure you’re shipping it right, making sure the right products are in there, your pagination is good. But around 2005, there was kind of the move towards going online and making your channels kind of blend in together. [7:11] So “Multichannel Merchant” really caters a little more towards those merchants that are old‑school, hard‑line catalogers, but also kind of teaching them as well about some of the newer tactics with online, with mobile, with trying to get rid of all those silos between the retail channel and your catalog channel and your online channel as well.

Shaun:  [7:32] Your readers, so they traditionally are catalogers, are you finding now that you’re getting readers that were pure play online who have started producing a catalog? Or it works more for retail stores that are going online and doing the catalog and doing mobile. [7:52] Are your readers expanding as you, sort of, change your focus?

Tim:  [7:55] Yes. We’re actually seeing little bit of that especially for the pure play e‑retailers. They seem to be seeing the importance of direct channel as well, and getting something physically mailed to a consumer for them to look through and then bring them to the website. [8:14] We are seeing, I wouldn’t say the Amazon’s of the world that are doing that, but some of these other pure plays that are starting off are suddenly jumping into the catalog again, whether they’re doing it on a regular month‑to‑month basis or if they’re doing a quarterly basis or just a special edition catalog.

[8:34] For instance Target, they just sent out a catalog the other day for people to drive them into the retail stores, a kind of cooperative catalog. That also includes some mobile aspects too, which is pretty cool. You have QR codes in there so people, even though people at this stage don’t seems to be starting off from the whole QR code mania and shooting a barcode with their phone, that option is there as well. They’re really trying to tie all the different channels in.

Shaun:  [9:04] Interesting. I’ve heard people say catalogs are such an old‑fashioned way of doing business, printing on paper and sending it out. This is kind of a leading question, I’m guessing the catalogs aren’t going to go away?

Tim:  [9:22] I don’t think they actually are. I’m still surprised once in a while. I’ll go on Facebook and see friends of mine and these status updates, they’re curling up in front of the fireplace and reading their catalogs. [9:32] People still have an affinity to them and I think one big change in the catalog industry is that, where people saw that as they saw the catalog as a channel, they’re now understanding that the catalog is what drives you to the other channels.

[9:47] You’re not seeing as many order forms inside the… Well, you’re still seeing these 1‑800 numbers, so people can use a call center, but you are seeing that you that as more of the vehicle to drive the consumer to the website.

[10:03] You’re seeing a lot of slimmer catalogs, smaller catalogs coming out, not just in the less number pages, but you’re also seeing “Slim Jim” size, the slimmer catalogs that fit a little nicer mailbox.

[10:15] Now the catalogers are understanding that that’s not the actual sales mechanism but that’s what’s driving the sales mechanism. I think you’re going to see a lot more of these catalog merchants sticking it out in that channel.

Shaun:  [10:31] I know some of our customers that are catalogers, they have fantastic conversion rates, primarily because the people using the website as an ordered system rather than being attracted to the website. They’ve really got the catalog, made their purchasing decision and just going online and making the purchase, so the conversion rate looks fantastic because the website isn’t converting people, the catalog is.

Tim:  [11:03] You have to wonder now if more of these catalogers are going to use the quick order with the big mechanism when you enter your number on your catalog and it would take you right to your own personal page. You’re going to wonder now, if they’re going to be using QR codes. [11:19] Were starting to see more of the QR codes, like Target, and Sephora is another one who added this for the catalog, adding more those QR codes. So you shoot that on your mobile phone and you get more of your personalized information.

[11:29] You’ve got to wonder how soon it’s going to be before when they’re going to use these personalized URLs and QR codes together would make the ultimate shopping experience.

Shaun:  [11:38] So you get your catalog ‑‑ just to run through that scenario from the shoppers view. You get your catalog. There’s a QR code there that you pulled your phone up, pointed it at the QR catalog and at that takes you to a page for the product that are looking at. You’re already logged in or something to that effect, that’s personalized to, that particular catalog you received.

Tim:  [12:04] Yeah. They’re not all going into personalized yet. That could be the next step though. The funny thing is, we started seeing some of these QR codes coming to US catalogs. They were just kind of the QR code is there. Nobody seemed to really know what they are but now we’re seeing a little bit of the, like a note next to it, “Have a code reader? Have a smart phone? Shoot this. Shoot this barcode to find out more information.” [12:31] Now we’re seeing another step on that with the little note of, “If you don’t have a smartphone, enter this URL.” And it would take you to the same page. That may not help with the tracking upcoming people our using the smartphones as far as they can tell.

[12:43] Actually, you know they’re probably coding that differently so it will. So when you type in the URL doing that. I think it’s going to show a little more of the savviness of the US consumer.

Shaun:  [12:54] It’s only going to increase our spaces. It’s one of those trends, that it’s very early days now. They may well grow onto something very significant. To be clear, when the shopper is interacting with these QR codes, do they need to download an app for that particular store that will read the QR codes?

Tim:  [13:23] That’s a good question. I actually have not downloaded ‑‑ for instance Target’s got one and I know that Amazon has one. I have not personally downloaded those yet, but I went and downloaded a generic code reader. [13:38] One of the things that I was under the impression recently was all smartphones are coming out with the code readers built in. I just happened to buy one that didn’t have a code reader built. I don’t think my wife’s iPhone, when she had her iPhone, that one had one built in.

[13:53] But for instance if you use specific stores, I think there’s some great advantages there. For instance, if you have the Amazon barcode scanner, that’s dangerous for all these merchants out there. You could literally sit in Wal‑Mart all day on Black Friday and just shoot the barcode with your Amazon reader, have the Amazon price come up, and if it’s a better price than Wal‑Mart, go ahead and add that to your shopping cart.

[14:25] In all seriousness, you could shop at Amazon all day while you’re standing in a Wal‑Mart store.

Shaun:  [laughs] [14:30] I know. It’s kind of changing things around for people, isn’t it? For the retailers.

Tim:  [14:35] Oh, most definitely.

Shaun:  [14:36] Well, even the experience that you shared, where you went to the Wal‑Mart site itself and found it cheaper on the site then it was in the store. You sort of feel like they’re not winning when they do that.

Tim:  [14:51] Yeah, it’s interesting. I think Wal‑Mart too may see it as it doesn’t matter where the sales come from, as long as they get the sale. I’m sure they didn’t mind in that case that I was still buying from a Wal‑Mart store.

Shaun:  [15:03] Exactly. They still get your email address and you’re now a customer and they can market to you.

Tim:  [15:09] Oh, most definitely.

Shaun:  [15:13] The QR codes is an interesting trend. What other trends have you been seeing and writing about recently, and ecommerce?

Tim:  [15:21] I think the shift to mobile, or the addition of mobile, just from the consumer viewing all of this stuff, and it’s been one of the huge trends right now. We saw a report recently that 28% of all holiday transactions, whether they’re online or offline, are going to be mobile‑influenced in some way or another. That has to do with people also. [15:49] You go into a store, let’s take Home Depot for example. They try their best to keep their stores well‑staffed, but you can’t always find somebody in the orange apron. If you go and you look up that image, if you have your phone with you, your smartphone with you, you can look up whatever that information is on the Home Depot website, and get a little better idea of is this the tool you need, or is that the tool you need.

[16:13] So I think that’s huge, knowing that 28% of all holiday transactions are going to be somehow influenced by that. Jokingly for the last couple of years we had always been saying, “This is the year of mobile, it’s finally coming, it’s finally coming.” 2010, it just seems to be, this is the year that it finally has taken off.

Shaun:  [16:32] Yeah. I mean that’s a huge number. So do you see the stores encouraging that? Because presumably if you go to the store’s website, and reading the reviews and getting other information about the product, that you couldn’t by just looking at the product, sort of standing in front of it. Then that’s enhancing the experience for the user. So are the stores encouraging this by telling you to do that? Are they providing WiFi in the stores?

Tim:  [16:59] I don’t think they’re providing WiFi per se, but you’ve got to hope you’re in a store that also has a good signal. I can tell you if there’s two grocery stores for instance, that are right down the road from my house, if I’m calling my wife because I need to find out if I need to pick up dog food or I need to pick up milk or something like that. If I’m standing in the back of the store, I’m getting no reception. [17:21] So they may want to start adding the WiFi function in some of these stores, knowing that the cellular signal is going to get you so much. But with these smartphones too, you can switch it off and go to the WiFi.

Shaun:  [17:34] Yeah. Well I think for a store owner, it’s a dilemma. Because if they provide a WiFi, then it’s going to make it easier for the customer to go and visit their site, and get this extra information. But it’s also obviously going to make it easier for them to go and visit their competitor’s site, and they could potentially lose a purchase.

Tim:  [17:52] That’s it too. You look at stores like Barnes and Noble and Borders, I know they get a lot of traffic in their stores, they get a lot of people in there. But they don’t seem to be doing well because they offer free WiFi. A lot of people will go there, and grab a cup of coffee at the Starbucks kiosk or whatever, and decide they’re going to hang out all day, and use the computers. [18:11] It’s funny. Some of these stores like that, that were big on, “Come hang out here and loiter, because you’re eventually going to buy a book,” are now just becoming a place that are, “Come and loiter here and use our WiFi, and we’re not going to get a purchase out of you.”

Shaun:  [18:25] Yeah, yeah. I suppose they’ve got to look at the overall trend, is it worth it for providing those sort of services? Realistically, the answer probably is going to be, if you can encourage them and encourage them to be going to your site, you would expect you’re going to get a net gain, because people are going to be going to the competitor’s sites anyway. You might as well make it easy for your customers, and they’ll come back to your store.

Tim:  [18:52] That’s true. Think Starbucks. I know they’re not really somebody we cover as much. Usually the people who we cover are the ones who you buy something from them, they put it in a box, and they ship it to you. But in the case of Starbucks, they’re working with Yahoo right now to develop like an intranet in there. [19:10] So when you log in, you have a whole separate Starbucks network where you can download Starbucks music. You can find out more information from them. They have a whole news network.

[19:20] So it’s kind of like, if some of these merchants that have a cafe as well were to do that, they can always use that as a channel to sell their books as well, download their music. And add the whole ecommerce experience to their sitting in a cafe and drinking coffee experience.

Shaun:  [19:42] Yeah. Yeah, that’s interesting. So mobile is obviously the big trend for 2010. I imagine it’s going to continue on to 2011. What else is going to big next year?

Tim:  [20:00] I think ratings and reviews are going to continue to grow. I think you see a lot of people now ‑‑ and I’m big on this. I’m not a huge ecommerce shopper, but if I’m going to make a big purchase, I’m always going to look and see if there are ratings and reviews for the product, to see if it is actually what I want. If it’s going to work the way I want. [20:21] My wife and I recently had a baby, and my wife bought a video camera for us, a flip cam so that we can record a lot of these newborn experiences. I got a little worried, because she’s in retail. She works in a retail store, and she works for Macy’s. I figured, well maybe she didn’t look up the ratings or reviews or anything when she surprised me with this flip cam.

[20:45] I’m thinking, oh man, she spent all of this money. She’s like, “But it was on sale, and it had four stars.” I’m thinking, OK, good. She looked at the ratings and reviews and made sure that it was a good enough product for us to use as well.

[20:57] I think that one big that you’re going to see, with the ratings and reviews, is you’re going to see a lot more bad reviews up there, as well as the good ones. I think there are some merchants who figured in the past, that if you have a product that gets one star or two stars, you’re not going to want that review up there, and get rid of it.

[21:16] But if you see nothing but five stars out of five, the consumer’s starting to get skeptical. Like, wait, how come everybody is saying that this is a great product, and nobody has anything bad to say about it?

[21:25] But you’re going want to mix those bad with the good. That also helps on the operations side as well, because when the buyers are deciding, “OK, what products do we want to have in stock next year?” If they see that for instance, a crock‑pot that’s being sold in Macy’s gets two stars, and it turns out all it ever does is causes electrical fires everywhere, they’re not going want to keep that in their store.

[21:48] So they will want to get something that’s going to get a better review, or then again a new product may not have that review yet. But it’s kind of a good way to test to see if the products you’re selling are the value the customer wants too.

Shaun:  [22:00] Yeah. I think there’s a whole art to running reviews in an optimal way. To be encouraging your shoppers to write the reviews, and the way you sort of display them and make them available. [22:20] We talked about reading reviews when you’re in‑store. Obviously that’s an important part of the mobile experience, is making sure that if you have a mobile optimized site that you make those reviews available, because you’re actually enhancing that experience if you’re showing them in the store. Are you seeing catalogers incorporating reviews that they’ve collected on the website into the catalog at all?

Tim:  [22:44] We’re actually starting to see that. I was actually kind of disappointed the first time that I went and checked out a retailer’s catalog and saw some of the reviews being used there. They were kind of the ones ‑‑ I won’t mention the name of this merchant, but it was a “gizmos and gadgets” kind of thing. If you really want to see who I’ve lambasted, the Big Fat Marketing Blog, which is one of our properties, I did a post on it over there. [23:14] But there was a five star review on something and I figured, did they really get a five star review for this product? So when I went and looked it up, the merchant was very new on the whole ratings review thing. There was one review, and it was a two star review for the same product. Well, how do you get a five star review for this, when there’s a two here? So I looked at the other products and the pages, and figured that maybe somebody, while they were doing the design, just put it in the wrong place. Nothing matched up to this.

[23:46] So I think that if you’re going to use these ratings and reviews in your catalogue, it’s a great idea. You can especially use it to help enhance the experience. But if you’re just making things up as you go along, then that’s not going to do well for anyone. It’s not going to do well for you. It’s not going to do well for the consumer, and it’s not going to do well for the manufacturer, either.

Shaun:  [24:09] I’m just visualizing the experience. If you can say, “This has got a four or five star review, ” or whatever, then you could say, use this QR code or go to this URL to read all the reviews, and see the up‑to‑date reviews for this product.

Tim:  [24:26] That’d be a fantastic way to tie it all in.

Shaun:  [24:30] I agree. I’m sure we’ll see more of that. Going back to that in‑store experience, you recently, a few months ago, wrote about CompUSA’s success, and how they’re bringing the online shopping experience into their bricks‑and‑mortar stores. Can you describe what they were doing, and what was special about what they were doing there?

Tim:  [24:52] CompUSA was actually doing something pretty cool there. They were making it a little easier for the consumer by not making them have to take their phone out to look up some of these ratings and reviews. It works in a couple different levels. [25:06] One is, you don’t have to staff your store with as many people. And two, what they did, was every single electronic product was hooked up to the Internet. So instead of, say, using your mouse and clicking on whatever item it is, if you picked up a specific camera from their “waterfall wall” as they call it, the 50‑inch screen, that was above that would reflect that you picked up that camera and you would get all your product specs. You’d get your ratings reviews type of thing up there.

[25:38] So interactively you can use a keyboard at the front of the waterfall to surf through whatever kind of product information needed to make a better purchase decision. I think it was a great idea, because they knew that people were going to their smartphones anyways and looking this information up.

[25:56] So why not just make this information a little easier for them by having that information right on hand, as opposed to also just going to one centralized kiosk in the store? This way, it’s all hooked in with every single product available to them.

Shaun:  [26:07] It sounds wonderful. I think the beauty of that approach is that way you’re sending people to your website, making it easier to read all the reviews, get the extra information, but you’re not offering the ability to go to your competitor’s web site. They can still pull the phone out, but it’s a slightly harder experience. You’re making the experience you want them to do even easier. It seems like a really good strategy.

Tim:  [26:38] Sure. Like you said, you’re keeping them right in the store, as opposed to having them go check out the same product on Amazon. Or say if you’re in a Best Buy, you’re not all of the sudden ‑ or in this case CompUSA ‑‑ you’re not checking out to see what Best Buy has for a product instead.

Shaun:  [26:54] Exactly. Now, one trend we haven’t really talked about much, in the interview so far is social media. How do you see retailers using that now, and what do you see changing over the next year?

Tim:  [27:09] Social is interesting. When merchants started using social media, I think they looked at it as a big wild west frontier almost, where they didn’t know what to do with it. I’ve seen this a lot with new technologies and new trends, is that the marketers have just gotten rid of all common sense when it comes to Marketing 101, and just think, “This is a whole new channel. We can do whatever we want in here.” [27:35] I Think now they’re realizing that social media is about being social. You’ve got work along with people. You can’t just go in and ‑‑ if I’m meeting you for the first time, am I just going to try to sell you a bunch of Encyclopedias? The answer is, yes, I can try to do that, but you’re going to want to walk away from me.

[27:53] If you engage in conversation, we have something going on where it’s more than just talking about sales products, then you get this brand affinity going on. There’s a lot more of a trust factor in social media right now, than just to push the product out and tell everybody that you have to buy my latest digital device.

Shaun:  [28:15] Exactly. So the social media is seeing the retailers ease at Twitter and Facebook. I read something recently about Radio Shack using Four Square to help drive people into the store. Are you seeing much of that?

Tim:  [28:40] We’re starting to see some Four Square. I actually saw some report today from someone. I apologize, because I don’t remember who the vendor was. The first thing I saw on there was, “Target was the most popular Four Square location”. [28:55] So they are tracking what merchants and what sites are getting the most people going to them. I actually see that as a pretty good idea for getting people into the store. The question is, what do you with the customer once they get there?

[29:11] Another way of getting the incentives of, say, making 10 visits to the Journeys store, for instance. Journeys is a footwear, a teen skateboarder or surfer footwear kind of place. If you make 10 visits to the store, you get some kind of coupon.

[29:29] Journeys discovered that there’s actually more people taking advantage of the coupons they have on their Facebook page then on the Four Square thing. They just see it as, hey people are doing the Four Square thing. They’re having a good time with it. It’s something fun they can do with their phone, and let their friends know where they’re at. They don’t really see the need as much for the incentives, as with other things.

Shaun:  [29:51] Cool. Well, Tim, we’re just about out of time. I want to thank you very much for your insights today. Some really interesting trends here. There’s a whole host of fascinating stuff happening for multi‑channel merchants. I want to thank you very much for sharing your insights.

Tim:  [30:12] Thank you, Shaun. I’m sure that, within a few weeks, everything I said is going to be outdated. That’s just how much everything seems to be changing in this space.

Shaun:  [30:20] Yes, and unfortunately, this will be here forever.

Tim:  [laughs] [30:23] It would be interesting to check that out next year and see what changed.

Shaun:  [30:30] Well, thanks again, Tim. I’m Shaun Ryan from SLI Systems. That was another episode of The Ecommerce Podcast. Tune in next time.