Strandbags has re-platformed its Australian and New Zealand websites with Shopify Plus and a mix of plug-ins under what it is calling ‘Project Future’.
The retailer, which has over 270 stores in this part of the world, partnered with digital agency Mindarc on the transformation, and stood up both websites in a heavily-truncated four-month period.
In this week’s iTnews podcast, CTO Stuart Freer and head of digital & data delivery Paul Erskine discuss the origin, status and next steps for Project Future, as well as a new set of transformations beyond it.
Freer joined Strandbags - which sells handbags, luggage, wallets and related products - in September 2020 from cosmetics player Mecca Brands.
Erskine joined in March this year, as Project Future began to take shape - one of a number of hires made by Freer to bolster the company’s IT, digital and e-commerce resources.
Project Future was born out of “strategy work” in November 2020, though the timing of that work - pre-Christmas, and with Victoria exiting lockdown - meant that future digital ambitions took a temporary backseat to peak trading season.
At the start of the company’s financial year, Project Future was presented to the board and was signed off.
“At this point, we'd already done an RFP, we'd had a look at the market, and understood what was the right product to go for,” Freer said.
“Shopify was chosen because of its capability, its integration, and because its partner ecosystem is extremely strong.”
Freer initially set a target to start Project Future in April and to relaunch Strandbags’ websites in October.
But as the pandemic wore on, and physical stores were forced to close, pressure mounted on the company’s existing e-commerce properties.
“I'm looking at how online is performing and it's OK [but] it's not setting the world on fire,” Freer recalled.
“We'd had several outages of our old platform, and [applied] some updates that hadn’t been as successful as we'd like. And I said to the team, ‘We're going to have to pull [Project Future] forward.
“We’re going to have to go live as fast as we can, and I suggest we do this in August, but what we'll do is we'll do it as an MVP [minimum viable product]. We called it the MLP, the minimum loveable product.”
Erskine, brought onboard to lead delivery, had been at Strandbags less than a month when the project was fast-tracked.
“I was looking around the internal team and no one really batted an eyelid. They were like, ‘If we believe in it, we'll get it done, and the vendor was the same,” Erskine said.
“No one flinched and everyone was looking out for us.”
“The digital and technology team is culturally brilliant,” Freer adds.
“I've worked with a lot of different teams across businesses from Coles and Mecca, or back in the UK with Tesco and Dixons, and they just have this total attitude of ‘we can solve for that, that's not an issue’.
“I've had teams in the past that just didn't have that mentality. [The Strandbags team] has a real kind of ‘service delivery in a crisis’ mentality, but then applies that to projects, and that's unusual. You don't always see that with a lot of businesses and projects.”
Strandbags’ previous e-commerce sites were relatively basic, comprising two layers - “a homepage and then a product listing page”.
“You couldn't put content into the product listing pages, it was very difficult to create stories, and it was difficult to change the experience,” Freer said.
It was challenging to add payment options, leading to different services being offered in two countries.
The underlying hosted infrastructure did not autoscale or easily handle large bursts of volume.
“What we'd typically have to do for a ‘click frenzy’ or Black Friday sale, particularly last year, was take the cores from 8 to 16 to 24 and just keep going up and up and up until we could see response times where we wanted [them] to be,” Freer said.
“But it was all very trial and error, with a bit of hope involved.”
The new websites - Strandbags.co.nz and Strandbags.com.au - offer a dramatically different experience to customers.
For the first time, there are separate sections for ‘women’ and ‘men’ shoppers.
The pages are content-rich, and come embedded with recommendations powered by a Shopify plugin called Hi-Conversion that itself is powered by Amazon Personalize.
A ‘smart search’ plug-in called Sajari is used to connect the search terms customers use to the products they actually wanted; this is then used to improve similar searches in future.
Customers are shown which stores have stock they can click-and-collect, as well as warehouse availability of their desired product in near real-time, providing assurance before placing an order.
The sites also have account management features for the first time, allowing customers to see their purchase history, change their details and - soon - to manage their participation in Strandbags’ loyalty scheme.
Navigation and look-and-feel of the websites mirrors some of the bricks-and-mortar store concepts and designs being trialled in Blacktown in Sydney’s west and at Chadstone in Melbourne.
Erskine said the company spent time examining “the different worlds” of in-store and online, and shaping the online experience after in-store practices.
“If a customer comes into the store, how do the staff greet the customer? And how do they then determine if they go through the fashion side or the travel side [of our product range]?” he said.
“The people who run customer service in the store also know the type of questions to ask the customer, so we wanted the website to reflect that.
“And so I think that actually really helped us at the start to kind of shape the web experience so when you come onto the website, you've got the travel and fashion worlds, and then from there, all the types of questions the customer would ask to find the type of product they want we've tiered the website to reflect that.”
To bring the new websites online in such a short period of time meant that some augmentations originally planned for Project Future were pushed back into a “phase two” that is currently underway.
One piece of work will see Strandbags drop a “cut-down version” of the website onto mobile kiosks that are currently in around 50 stores.
The intention is that customers will be able to see a small selection of products in-store, then walk up to a kiosk, select the product specifications they want such as size and colour, pay and either have the item delivered to the store or to home.
Freer called it an “endless aisle console”, and said it could be valuable particularly in the travel part of the business, where luggage sets were bulky and presently took up a lot of retail floor space to show off all the different colours, for instance.
Strandbags also intends to explore different delivery services if the demand is there, particularly once travel reopens.
“If the demand is there, we'll trial and test an on-demand style service. Imagine you're going on holiday the next day, you bust the zip on your case, and you need a new one in two hours. Well, we could probably do that,” Freer said.
“That's the sort of thing that we want to be able to do for customers.
"Outside of Project Future, the company is also starting a new initiative called Project Explorer, that will set up Strandbags on new data foundations hosted in AWS."