The Democratization of Retail Through Technology

The Democratization of Retail Through Technology

Recently, I did a talk at NRF’s Big Show on how Retail is becoming more accessible and how it’s affecting the entire Retail landscape. Retail at its core is all about capturing and fulfilling demand. Store and Fulfillment. Businesses capture demand through their physical, online, and partner reseller’s stores and fulfill demand through their storefronts, warehouses, and distribution partners.

However, behind these two simple concepts are many layers of complexity. Setting up an online store can be a gargantuan task for many brands: building responsive websites and connecting them to point of sale systems, order management systems, warehouse APIs (all of which painfully unique), shipping endpoints, and returns systems. In theory, Retail is simple, but in practice, it’s extremely complicated. This complexity separates the largest brands from the smaller ones, big brands have the capital and resources to build out world-class commerce systems that consistently deliver delightful experiences.

But all this is changing at a rapid pace. According to a recently released Goldman Sachs report, the annual number of new brands has been growing faster than ever.

Why is that?

First, it requires far less capital to start a new retail brand than it used to. Businesses no longer need physical storefronts with locked inventories to get started. Asset-lite Commerce storefronts and centralized inventory reduces the need of upfront capital. At Symphony, we have seen very successful businesses start with little to no up-front capital

Second, it’s cheaper to operate a retail business these days. Businesses no longer need to staff physical stores or buy expensive ad space. Lower overhead and better marketing tools are fostering faster growth rates for businesses. When we compare growth rates for comparable periods between two sets of very respectable companies – two big players and two rising stars – we can see that brands in the new era of retail are growing much faster than before.


So we have more brands getting created, we require less capital, we have better marketing at our disposal, and we have new generation retail businesses growing faster than ever. So is world-class commerce truly available to everyone?

Unfortunately, we’re not completely there. The next step for democratizing retail is lowering the cost barrier of Fulfillment. Fulfillment accounts for at least half of the commerce experience, if not more. It’s also the single biggest expense after product manufacturing. Fulfillment – which includes storage, pick pack, inbound shipping, outbound shipping, and returns – accounts for 25% of revenues for an average brand. But when we compare that to Amazon, we can see why Fulfillment has room for democratization. Amazon, who probably delivers one of the fastest and most delightful Fulfillment experiences in the market, only spends 12% of their revenue on Fulfillment. If we want true democratization of retail, we have to offer systems and cost structures that deliver an Amazon-like experience to any brand.


So what can a brand do to create a world-class fulfillment experience for their customer? Instead of wishing for Amazon’s extensive fulfillment network and resources, there are a few ways to recreate their cost savings and shipping speed:

  • Choose Multi-Warehouse Distribution: If you are shipping over 500 packages a day, you have to start thinking about distributing your products in 2-3 warehouse in the US. Multi-warehouse allows you to reach the majority of your customers in a much shorter time frame using standard ground shipping, which deeply cuts your Fulfillment costs.
  • Economies of Scale: Brands should partner with companies that can help them achieve economies of scale. Thanks to their sheer scale, Amazon is able set up Fulfillment networks that quickly deliver packages and negotiate rates for less than the industry average. In order to mimic this, young and mature businesses alike should partner together or work with Fulfillment networks that can pool demand and create efficiencies for everyone, creating economies of scale that can compete better with Amazon.

Companies that invest in Fulfillment infrastructure to deliver world class Fulfillment have a great future in the new era. Goldman Sachs estimates that “” (the modern online arm of a retail brand) will grow at 22% YOY over next 10 years and will see a 10% increase in profitability.


The Golden Age of Retail is upon us. It’s time to seize this opportunity and become truly iconic.

If you’d like to learn more, click here for the full set of slides I used at my NRF presentation. If you’re interested about discussing democratization affecting your brand or how to improve your current commerce set-up, we’d love to talk.

What If You Could Optimize Trendsetting?

What If You Could Optimize Trendsetting?

Trends don’t start at the brick and mortar of a big-box retailer. They begin at the boutique level, where tastemakers and trendsetters are relentless as they search for the new and amazing. This is why it’s important for your business to have a plan to connect with, and sell directly to, the boutiques where styles and trends are born. When your brand is discovered organically, viral waves of growth follow quickly.

Choosing dress

As always, there’s a catch. Building a boutique wholesale business has its own logistic challenges that can grow too big for you to sustainably control. From the start, one must address the realities of the costs of doing boutique wholesale business.

Assuming that most wholesalers expect to maintain a profit margin of around 20%, you have to cut into your own margins in order to make the sale. For example, if you’re selling a sweater that cost $20 to make at $90 MSRP, the wholesaler price will be at most $72 and you’ll be left with a margin of $52. For big-box retailers that buy at large volumes, the margin cut isn’t so bad. However, boutique wholesalers don’t nearly buy as much at one time, so the margin cut rarely justifies the costs of maintaining these relationships.

Then there’s the cost of managing a boutique wholesale channel. The challenge is in the inherent diversity of the business. Instead of managing two or three big-box customers, you have to manage 30, 40, or maybe even 50 different customers with different agreements, different expectations, and different demands. It’s not a one-man job, it requires a team of people to engage with these accounts and process their orders. Hiring that team and accounting for their errors can cost you money against your already thin margins.

Crash of company

Simply put, if you want to heighten your chances of success with boutique wholesale, you need to automate as much of the process as possible. Your boutique customers will always want to maintain their own margins, so you can’t really optimize around that. But if you can automate your processes to cut down on human error, save on labor costs, and scale without worry, you can make your boutique wholesale business grow in a quicker, better, and more sustainable way. Let’s not forget, growth is crucial in making boutique wholesale viable; the more boutiques you’re able to place your products in, the more chances you have of catching the eye of those valuable tastemakers.

The best part of boutique wholesale automation is that it’s simpler than ever to achieve. Commerce platforms nowadays can unify the D2C and wholesale experience under one site, which makes it infinitely easier to automate the entire wholesale process. Customers can now log into your current site, where they’re given a personalized wholesale experience with the assigned terms and credit limits applied. Orders can get processed automatically and shipped out within a specified window. You minimize the touchpoints needed to get your products into their boutique, which also eliminates headache of human error and cuts down on the team needed to manage this channel.

Becoming the next big thing only happens when the tastemakers embrace your brand. Since these trendsetters do their hunting at their trusted boutiques and not mainstream department stores, it makes sense to build the best possible boutique wholesale channel. As your offline business grows, it drives your D2C channel as your new customers look to engage in a deeper way with your brand. This virtuous cycle is what propels your brand into unprecedented growth, the kind that turns good brands into iconic ones.

2-Day Fulfillment is the New Standard

2-Day Fulfillment is the New Standard

Customer expectations are the demarcation between a poor shopping experience and an amazing one. Fall short of the line, your customer satisfaction and brand equity will fall. Go beyond the line, and you have an opportunity to convert that customer into a brand evangelist. When you make business decisions or pore through analytics, you should always ask yourself: Are we meeting the demands of our customers? If so, how do we exceed them?

When your customer is shopping online, he wants a store that’s descriptive and easy to navigate, no hidden fees revealed during checkout (shipping, handling, etc), and orders to arrive as soon as possible.

You can look through your site engagement metrics and pricing models to find answers to the first two, but for fulfillment, we have studies that confirm our natural assumptions – customers want their packages as fast and as affordable as possible.

Since the advent of Amazon Prime, we’ve seen a shift in customer expectation when it comes to receiving their orders. First, we can look at how many people have signed up for Amazon Prime since its inception – its main claim being unlimited 2-Day fulfillment with no extra fees at checkout, just an annual membership fee:

bii-sai-cotd-amazon-prime-subscribers-1 (1)

According to Business Insider, Amazon was about to tally around 57 million Prime subscribers at the advent of 2015. The lure of unlimited 2-day shipping began spiking in 2013, and now customer expectations are beginning to shift to what Amazon can provide instead of what the market at large is providing. Backing this claim is the gradual penetration of Prime users on other eCommerce platforms according to research done by Millward Brown Digital:



In the graph above, you can see that almost 1 out of 10 shoppers on,, and are also Amazon Prime members. This statistic becomes even more stark when you see the rate of cross-shopping between all Prime members and these same stores:


0.9% of all Prime members are willing to cross-shop between these same retailers on the same session. So even when Prime members make up 10% of shoppers on certain retailer’s sites, it seems Prime members shop almost exclusively with Amazon. The ease of use and convenience of Prime is a pretty compelling reason. Customers are now accustomed to receiving their packages in two days or less without paying extra at checkout.

Like it or not, this the new standard of fulfillment, because today’s customer will carry most of that expectation when shopping on other brands. It’s why many online stores are offering more expedited shipping options at reasonable rates, so that they can compete on equal ground.

Of course, it’s a vast undertaking to cobble together the logistics and scale to balance expedited and free shipping without eating into your profits. You can’t get one without sacrificing the other, not unless you invest truckloads of capital into developing your own nationwide fulfillment network (on top of that, that network has to integrate seamlessly with your store and inventory pieces).

When you’re a growing brand, it’s a daunting task to build the logistics on your own. Unless you’re backed by a ton of capital from investors, you’ll most likely have to find a provider or a partner that already has these logistics in place. So when looking for a partner, you should look for these key traits to see if they’ll do the job for you:

  1. The smarter network that’s truly “nationwide.”

Your logistics partner shouldn’t just have warehouses all over the country, they also need the analytics and tools necessary to ensure the fastest deliveries at the cheapest rates. If you want to offer 2-day shipping at an affordable rate to all of your customers, you need a partner capable of such things as inventory load balancing and delivery analyses to know which warehouses to stock in order to achieve affordable 2-day shipping to your customers. A vast network matters, but a smart network is even more important.

  1. Pricing matters

It’s an obvious thing to look out for, but it is an important factor. Whatever your fulfillment partner is charging you, you have to decide to pass on those costs to the customer or absorb them in order to offer discounted or free shipping. Also keep in mind, free shipping (the kind that stays free and doesn’t show up later in the subtotal) is a very powerful driver for successful checkouts. Reports say that 20% of consumers believe “free shipping” is the most compelling reason to shop with a specific retailer.

  1. Consider your brand

With some 3PL or Fulfillment-as-a-Service solutions, you won’t be able to maintain branding of your packaging. They either won’t support customized packaging, or they might insist on applying their own branding in lieu of yours. Remember the value of expressing your brand at the fulfillment stage of the customer experience. This is another important touchpoint you have with your customer, and it can be the tipping point that can convert customers from regular shoppers to brand loyalists.

Your customer’s loyalty and desire for your products is the lifeblood of your business, which makes it even more important to think of innovative and scalable ways to exceed their expectations. You shouldn’t have to sacrifice your revenues to keep your customers happy, which is why choosing the right partner and making the right fulfillment decisions can be a make-or-break moment for your brand.

Going From Successful to Iconic: Gaining Customer Loyalty

Going From Successful to Iconic: Gaining Customer Loyalty

“You cannot buy loyalty; you cannot buy the devotion of hearts, minds, and souls. You have to earn these things.”

– Clarence Francis, Michigan Business Review, May 1956.

Your brand’s success is directly tied to the loyalty of your customers. It’s not just about convincing a customer on their first purchase, but convincing the customer that you’re worthy of a second, third, or fourth purchase. Everything you do as a brand – from production to marketing to logistics – should be focused on engendering loyalty. And the best way to cultivate loyalty is to provide an amazing shopping experience for your customer.

The good news is that you determine the value of your product and the core of your brand story. You’re already two-thirds of the way to providing a flawless experience, but that final third – where customers actually interface with your store to purchase your product – is where 80% of brands hit a wall.

For example, Your website is the core of your online presence, which makes it one of the most important pillars of your brand. For the most part, you’re bound by hardcoded templates to work around. You’re forced to fit your brand vision within the boundaries of the framework, when it should be the other way around. In order to faithfully deliver your brand – with your quality products and amazing story – you need to be satisfied with what kind of store you can build. How likely is that if you’re working within the boundaries of a template?


The Experience Doesn’t Stop at Checkout.

In addition, your online store serves as major gateway between your customer and your brand. From page load through physical delivery, the experience is what drives loyalty. If your site isn’t totally in sync with your inventory and fulfillment workflows, you’re vulnerable to costly errors that erode customer trust. Packages can get misplaced or delayed, making customers more and more frustrated with each passing day they wait. Verified orders can get pushed back because of an unforeseen stockout, which happens when your inventory counts are inaccurate. When you can’t control the last third of your shopping experience, these things will inevitably happen. What’s worse, all of these events damage the trustworthiness of your brand, and loyalty can’t exist without trust.

And this is where many growing brands hit a wall. They’ve created amazing products and crafted engaging stories, but they fall short at the last mile. The patchwork systems that attempt to translate your brand during the various commerce experiences will fall short. If you can’t control your customer’s experience with your brand, you can’t control how your customer perceives your brand.


We Put You Back in Control.

This is why Symphony exists, to return control from the limitations of today’s commerce technology back to its rightful owner: you.

You’ve already done the hard work of creating a valuable product and an engaging brand story. To navigate the pitfalls of the last mile requires a partner that allows you to make decisions based on reliable, consistent technology and gives you full control over your branding.

We’ve achieved this by developing an end-to-end commerce platform that backstops the entire shopping experience: faithfully translating your brand through a beautiful online store, elegantly managing orders with agile inventory controls, and exceeding customer expectation with a dependable nationwide fulfillment network. All three pieces are seamlessly integrated with each other, meaning they work together in sync and without any false notes. Most importantly, you are put back in the driver’s seat in the journey with your customers.

And when you can control your brand’s destiny, you can provide the kind of flawless shopping experience that earns a customer’s loyalty.

If you’d like to learn more about how Symphony can put you back in control of your customer experience, reach out to us here.

Should You Have Subscriptions?

Should You Have Subscriptions?

Retaining an existing customer is 20% of the cost of acquiring a new one. Besides the increase to your bottom line, the more brand loyalists you can have, the better.

Offering product subscriptions, or even basing your entire business around them, is becoming a great strategy for many businesses. Gartner predicts that by 2015, 35% of Global 2000 companies will rake in 10% of their revenue from subscription models (and this isn’t even counting media digital services, like Netflix).

Subscriptions extend lifetime value and reduce customer churn. In turn, your brand a chance to cultivate a base of loyal customers who help your business grow. This stability also gives you better insights in production and logistics, which helps you control costs.

But are subscriptions the right strategy for your brand? At Symphony, we offer industry leading Subscription commerce services – pre-paid, customer editable, administrative editable – with features like pause, accelerate and change. We’ll ask a few questions to see if you have the kind of products that customers would want on a consistent basis.

1. Is your product consumable?

If your product is something that needs to be bought again and again, then it’s helpful for you customer to have a subscription option. Baby wipes, for instance, are great subscription products since they’re one-and-done products. Baby blankets are generally not, since there’s no reason for customers to subscribe to a product that’s assumed to last.

It’s an obvious question, but still important.

2. Do you have a lot of repeat business?

Being a consumable isn’t enough for a product to succeed as a subscription. It has to be a product that your customers keep coming back for.

As such, your most popular products are ripe candidates for subscriptions. If it’s something that consistently flies off the shelf, then you can safely assume that customers would gladly pay for the convenience to subscribe to recurring shipments of it.

Even better, take a look at your order history and see if your returning customers continue to buy the same product. These are the kind of customers you want to target subscriptions towards anyways, because they’ll be more likely to purchase the subscription and less likely to cancel them.

3. Do you have the resources to build infrastructure around subscriptions?

Offering subscriptions is tricky business. You have to have software that’ll keep track of the customer’s payment and shipping information while enabling orders in sync with the customer’s preferred subscription plan.

Subscription errors can lead to costly chargebacks and dissatisfaction that nullify the business-growing benefits that subscriptions offer.

There are a couple of ways to build proper commerce infrastructure around subscriptions. First, you can find a specialized subscription solution that can integrate with your current set-up. The best subscription commerce services enable various forms of subscriptions – pre-paid, customer editable, administrative editable – with features like pause, accelerate and change. Finding a partner that can handle the integration and maintenance is essential, especially as you look to scale.

Or you can deploy with an end-to-end solution that offers subscriptions as part of its solution, which makes the maintenance and stability of your subscriptions naturally scalable.

There are plenty of compelling reasons to consider expanding your business model to include subscriptions: Greater lifetime value from your customers; better forecasting for your inventory and logistics; and cultivating brand loyalty.

Just make sure your products are good fits for subscriptions, and take care to choose the right solution to help you build your subscriptions out. At Symphony, our industry leading solution powers subscriptions for many of the market’s fastest growing brands.

Want to learn more about how Symphony can help you get your subscription business off the ground? Let’s talk.

Four Steps to a Flawless Mobile Commerce Redesign

Four Steps to a Flawless Mobile Commerce Redesign

Symphony client SpiritHoods was recently featured in Mobile Commerce Daily with the provocative headline: “SpiritHoods’ Mobile Revenue Surge May Quiet Responsive Design Critics.” The business case for mobile optimized commerce is clear: SpiritHoods mobile revenue increased 1,000% in the first four months after launching a responsive site, and now half of SpiritHoods’ site traffic is coming from mobile traffic.

But making extensive changes to a commerce site may disrupt existing business. To mitigate risks, brands need a strategic framework to successfully redesign a brand for mobile commerce. This is the design process that Symphony developed relaunching hundreds of mobile optimized commerce sites like SpiritHoods.

Symphony’s design team has a philosophy of “mobile first” design, which means that the site is built on the smallest screen first, and then expanded to tablet and desktop store fronts. Using responsive design, the site is built once, and adapts to all screens.

By starting on the smallest screen, the design team and the brand stakeholders are forced to work in a highly constrained environment. Fewer elements can fit on the smaller page, so the brand must prioritize the most important elements. The design team starts by asking three fundamental questions to determine what “makes the cut” on the tiny screen:

  1. What are the most important things for the customer to see?
  2. What are the most important things for the customer to do?
  3. What are the most important things for conversion?

Symphony identified four steps to launch SpiritHoods’ new mobile site:

  1. The most important thing on the page is the call to action, so each page leads with a call to action.
  2. Simplify navigation and eliminate links that can distract the shopper or worse, move them further away from the call to action.
  3. With stripped down pages, there is a danger that the mobile pages will look the same as everyone else’s pages. The brand’s distinct personality must shine on every page.
  4. To optimize for conversions, checkout has to be frictionless. Reduce barriers so the shopper can complete the order as quickly and easily as possible on a small screen and phone keyboards

Here is how the four steps were manifested in SpiritHoods’ mobile redesign.

mobile commerce redesign

1. Make the Call to Action Prominent on Every Page.

There are two main calls to action on the site: Add to Cart and Checkout.

Add to Cart is prominently displayed on each product page immediately below the product photo, and before the long form sales copy and customer reviews.

Once a customer adds the product to the cart, the “sticky” shopping cart drops down and stays open until the customer takes an action – either by tapping away or selecting the large, brightly colored Checkout button. Customers can easily check out without tabbing to another screen.

2. Simplify Navigation

The key to effective navigation is to reduce the shopping experience to just what the shopper needs to see, while making it intuitive and accessible for shoppers to find more information when they want it. For SpiritHoods, the home page navigation only includes shopping links for Women, Men, Kids, Teens, and Accessories.

To reduce the real estate in the footer, the team moved links to the collapsed navigation menu. This reduced the number of links that customers see on the mobile version: Home, Terms, Help, and Shipping. This does not mean that the other pages are omitted; rather, additional links are available in the navigation menu without cluttering the mobile page.

3. Make the Brand Unique

SpiritHoods wanted a design to reflect their edgy urban aesthetic. The product is interesting and highly visual, which translates to extremely shareable content. The product pages lay out each element in order of importance to SpiritHoods: large, vibrant product photos, product name, Add to Cart button, long form sales copy, social sharing icons, and tons of product reviews that scroll effortlessly on mobile devices.

4. Easy Mobile Checkout

Frictionless checkout was achieved by designing a scrolling checkout instead of multiple page checkout. Customers are comfortable scrolling on phones, so it makes sense to scroll down the page, rather than force the customer to click or tab to additional pages to get to the next step in the checkout.

Since the site launched in 2012, SpiritHoods has been redesigned for a smoother shopping experience with improvements to online checkout. SpiritHoods’ checkout now features enhancements including fewer fields, progressive field reveals, address auto-populate functionality. Auto populating addresses is a godsend for mobile shoppers because it reduces the keystrokes customers need to type to get the full address. This in turn reduces billing and shipping errors due to typos.


As mobile phones evolve and customers become more sophisticated, mobile design evolves to meet customer expectations. By focusing on four steps: strong call to action, streamlined navigation, strong brand, and optimized checkout, brands now have a strategic framework to launch mobile commerce design for success.