Mike Cassidy

Apr 10, 2014

The race to bolster web sales by Deb Shops and Sears Outlet fuels a startup’s thrill ride

When clothing retailer Deb Shops came to BloomReach with a plan to super-charge its e-commerce sales by improving its customers’ digital shopping experience, the project presented the sort of challenge that software engineers live for.

Not only was the Philadelphia-based seller of fast-fashion for juniors and plus-size young women in the midst of a complete website overhaul, but it was also in a bit of a time crunch. Prom-dress-buying season, the company’s high season for sales, was bearing down fast and Deb Shops wanted the new site to be ready for go time. That’s the way it is in Silicon Valley and in the tech economy: Anything worth doing, is worth doing fast. The stereotypes of all-nighters, cold pizza and Red Bull persist for a reason. Not only does time mean money, but the difference between having the right cutting-edge technology adopted in the right way at the right time, or not having it, can be the difference between a company that soars and one that crashes and burns. [caption id="attachment_6943" align="alignnone" width="297"] Deb Shop's David Cost Deb Shop's David Cost[/caption] David Cost, Deb Shops’ vice president of e-commerce and digital marketing, is one who’s been keeping his company on the soaring side. He says he was confident when he turned to BloomReach, having already deployed the company’s mobile search and personalization technology to great effect last summer. Then again, this was a tech project, which are never without their unknowns; and having BloomReach SNAP (search, navigation and personalization) up and running was the key to launching Deb Shops’ updated web site in time for prom sales. “It was the governing factor of when we could go live,” Cost says. “We really wanted to be live at least a month before peak prom. That’s what really forced the mid-February time frame.” Back in Mountain View and in Bangalore, India, where key members of the BloomReach engineering team work, the startup’s engineers and product and technical managers knew what they were up against. It’s why many joined the 170-person startup that was out to change the way the marketplace thought of and used search by moving beyond the search box to bring personalization to every aspect of users' digital shopping experience. “It was basically a beta product,” Seychelle Hicks, the product engagement manager on the project, says of SNAP, which was publicly announced as part of the Deb Shops’ February rollout. “It was under an accelerated timeline.” Accelerated, as in by the time core work started on the Deb Shops’ project in January, the engineering and technical teams had three and a half weeks to integrate BloomReach’s technology with Deb Shops’ website. And there was an extra incentive: BloomReach’s marketing department had lined up media coverage for the product rollout that was tied to Deb Shops’ relaunch. It wouldn’t do to have reporters from Forbes, VentureBeat, GigaOm, Internet Retailer and others assembled with no product to show them. The stakes were high all the way around: For Deb Shops, whether or not the launch was ready would be the key to its first quarter -- aka Prom Quarter -- when the retailer registers its highest sales. For BloomReach, it was an opportunity to showcase a personalized discovery technology that deeply analyzes a retailer’s vast store of products and matches that with individual consumers’ intent, by anonymously gathering browsing behavior across mobile and desktop platforms. Using machine learning and natural language processing, SNAP then helps consumers discover products that fill their needs and desires. “People worked literally around the clock,” says Ulrike Kotak, the technical product manager for the Deb Shops’ project. “It was all hands on deck.” [caption id="attachment_7113" align="alignnone" width="300"] BloomReach's Ulrike Kotak served as technical product manager on the Deb Shop's project BloomReach's Ulrike Kotak served as technical product manager on the Deb Shop's project[/caption]

Though SNAP was a new product, it was not the first time BloomReach, a five-year-old startup, had felt the kind of pressure that comes with a product launch or the need to meet a hard deadline. Just months before the Deb Shops project kicked off, Sears Hometown and Outlet Stores asked the company to deploy its natural language and machine learning approach to product discovery on its site.

“When they decided to go forward with us, one of their stipulations with us was, ‘We need to have this live for the holidays,’” says Rena Patel, the BloomReach product manager who helped lead the integration. “We effectively had two months to finish building the product and integrate it with a huge retailer, which is a very aggressive time frame.” Patel says Sears Outlet provided the chance to put BloomReach’s search technology through its paces with an enormous online retailer that sees 24 million Web visits a year. “We kind of went out big bang,” Patel says. “We picked a very large retailer. It’s a well-known brand.” And it was vital that BloomReach’s technology be up and running by the end of October, the date that retailers typically halt any software changes on their e-commerce platforms to ensure that nothing interferes with the holiday shopping season. “Our holiday season, from an online perspective, is typically the week of Black Friday and that next week, heading into Cyber Monday,” says Donnie Franzen, Sears Outlet’s director and general manager of e-commerce. The size of Sears Outlet, with nearly $2.5 billion in annual sales, brought with it challenges and strategic advantages. The challenges? The sheer size of the operation meant that the retailers’ tech team working with BloomReach might not always have been initially aware of the features that were important to other divisions, including marketing and even in-store sales associates. The advantages? Sears Outlet had the sophistication and ability to work closely with BloomReach technologists to speed up the process, Patel says. “We want you to be a partner in going on this journey with us,” she says BloomReach told Sears Outlet. “We’re not claiming that we have this bullet-proof product, but we believe we have enough to get you started and then we’ll work with you collaboratively.” In the end, not only did BloomReach make Sears Outlet’s deadline, but the retailer, which had originally planned the launch as a pilot project to see whether the product improved sales, very quickly found it did and scrapped the pilot in favor of full deployment of the technology. Franzen says the improvement in the website’s performance -- and the resulting bump in spending per shopper visit and the rate at which shoppers became buyers -- was dramatic. Oh, and the improved shopper experience might have saved his marriage. “My wife, when I first started working here, I had her as a test case,” he says. “She tried to shop the site; and she tried to use search and she was met with sub-optimal results. She said, ‘You have to fix your search, your onsite search, or I’m never going to shop on your website again.” The Sears Outlet success was encouraging to those working on the Deb Shops project at BloomReach, but they knew well that every integration is different, that every retailer has different needs, priorities, inventories and strategies. The Deb Shops project, for instance, also involved Dan Veksler, a principal with software development firm XCENT and an expert in Demandware, the retailer’s e-commerce platform. As they raced toward the mid-February deadline, BloomReach’s team members were in daily contact with Veksler, who was based in Chicago. [caption id="attachment_7114" align="alignnone" width="284"] Developer Dan Veksler, of XCENT, provided Demandware expertise to Deb Shops Developer Dan Veksler, of XCENT, provided Demandware expertise to Deb Shops[/caption] Yes, the deadline was tight, Veksler says, but also exhilarating. “I kind of live for the thrill of the launch,” says Veksler. “That’s what keeps me excited.” And the Deb Shops work did get exciting. As the deadline neared, product testing turned up a few hiccups that Deb Shops said it couldn’t live with. Chief among them was a problem with BloomReach’s “more like this” feature, which lets consumers visually search for similar products. Essentially, if a shopper sees a product that is close to what she wants, she can tap or click an icon on the screen to discover additional products along the same lines. The feature was not differentiating between items designed for juniors and items designed for plus-size young women, meaning juniors were seeing some suggestions that had nothing to do with them, as were plus-size shoppers. “We had to ensure that we stayed within the same category when it came to recommendations,” Veksler says. “That particular issue was resolved shortly before launch.” As for Deb Shops’ Cost, he never doubted the site would be ready for prime time. Well, OK, he hardly ever doubted the site would be ready. “I got worried right at the end to be honest,” he says. [caption id="attachment_7115" align="alignnone" width="300"] BloomReach technical product manager Ulrike Kotak and product engagement manger Seychelle Hicks check in by phone with Deb Shops’ e-commerce team. BloomReach technical product manager Ulrike Kotak and product engagement manger Seychelle Hicks check in by phone with Deb Shops’ e-commerce team.[/caption] And why not? The retailer was redesigning its entire website and adding a powerful search and personalization technology that was key to its aggressive digital commerce strategy, a strategy that focuses on building engagement with shoppers. “You could feel that,” Kotak says of the tension. “They did a full site upgrade. That was obviously very stressful on their end.” But in the weeks leading up to the Feb. 25 launch, the stress began to ease as the teams from Deb Shops and BloomReach tackled the unexpected glitches one by one. And yes, the site went live on time. Hicks, the product engagement manager, who arrived at BloomReach about the time the Deb Shops SNAP work started, says the breakneck push to launch Deb Shops is the sort of thing that drew her to the Silicon Valley startup. “I was like, ‘Oh, so this is what Silicon Valley is like.’ They weren’t lying,” she says. “It was very exciting to be part of such a high-profile launch for the company that brings us to a higher level.” In fact, think about it: finding a need; filling a need and doing it on time. For more than a few toiling in tech, that’s what it’s all about. Photo of David Cost, courtesy of Deb Shops, photo of Dan Veksler, courtesy of Dan Veksler; photos of Ulrike Koltak and Koltak and Seychelle Hicks by Mike Cassidy. Mike Cassidy is BloomReach's storyteller. Reach him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com and follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy