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Creating demand before the product hits the shelves

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Abnesh Raina.Now more than ever, customers rule retail. And they're constantly chattering on social media about what they like and don't like. While listening to them is essential, the conversation often happens after the products are already out there. So how can retailers leverage all the available information about trends and products so the right product hits the market at the right time? As we gear up for our sold-out Online Merchandising Workshop later this month, we wanted to learn more about the ways customers' ever-increasing power is affecting the industry. We spoke with Abnesh Raina, CEO and founder of PlumSlice and former CIO of Restoration Hardware, whose new company seeks to help retailers get better products to market faster through easier collaboration. Hear Raina's take on how customer engagement is changing the industry, why time to market is so critical and why his team believes so passionately in using technology to transform today's retail operations. 

Your company was founded just this year and is led by an executive team with 70+ years of retail experience. Can you tell us a little bit about the driving vision that brought you all together? We worked in e-commerce and IT technology management at companies like Restoration Hardware, Williams-Sonoma, and BestBuy, to name a few, and have had firsthand experience of all the things that can go wrong in getting a product from the design phase to the customer’s front porch. We developed PlumSlice’s collaboration technology and services to help retailers avoid the product pitfalls we saw and bring the best products to market faster. For the past few years, we have been helping retailers make technology investments to improve their customer service levels and be more responsive to the marketplace. Our next phase will be to fully implement our cloud-based solution, which makes collaboration a seamless, global experience for all e-commerce stakeholders, including customers.

Consumer shopping and engagement behaviors have dramatically changed over the last several years. How has the evolution of the customer’s voice affected how retail organizations are run? Today’s shoppers are more selective, more demanding and more likely to know exactly what they want to buy. They have unprecedented access to product research and to product comparison tools, with multiple retailers just a few keystrokes away. In particular, social media has given them a powerful voice that can make or break a new product. Smart retailers are embracing this change and creating marketing, merchandising and social media initiatives that engage and respond quickly to the consumer; deeply personal interaction has become the new norm. On top of this, customers also now expect a seamless experience regardless of the channel they use to browse or purchase the product. Retailers must deliver consistent product information— such as pricing, product mix, messaging and availability—across all channels.

Why is collaboration among different departments and collaboration with customers so important, and what’s the key for increasing collaboration in the retail environment? Time to market now is so critical. Using technology tools, you can produce smarter goods, faster, and deliver consistent product information to all stakeholders. E-commerce and omnichannel have upped the game for developing products that customer really want to buy and get them to market on time. To succeed, you need tighter collaboration between all players in the product lifecycle while more closely engaging the customer. You can’t afford slow suppliers, mistakes in sizing or fabric, or not hearing that the customer is sick of wedge shoes. These can be avoided by better communication from start to finish of the product lifecycle. Cloud-based technology, such as PlumSlice, allows collaboration internally and with your customers early on in the production phase so mistakes can be avoided and the right product selection can be made.

Retailers have embraced social media for marketing, but how can they leverage social media in product management? Typical social media engagement occurs too late in the process, after the point of no return. For example, the product is in stores or ready to ship and companies are just now sussing out customer interest. At that point, all companies can do is wait for the social media fallout. To avoid this, retailers must engage customers farther upstream in the product cycle, as early as the inspiration and design stage, and then on to product selection. Social media channels are perfect for this type of interaction. Think of Pinterest; there is such a strong visual sense of what people like and you can see how customers are attuned to sharing ideas.  Through inspiration dashboards, collaboration channels and feedback, you can foster a more powerful sense of consumer ownership of your products so demand is created earlier in the lifecycle.

Your team will be attending the upcoming Merchandising Workshop. What are you most looking forward to about this event? We are looking forward to insightful conversations and interactions with other attendees; learning what’s working for them and what’s not in this new social and mobile paradigm. With our background and experience, we also think we can give people ideas that they can implement now for real results, such as helping them manage their products better, get ready for the holiday peak season, or develop an effective cloud strategy. But even if we don’t meet face-to-face, they can find some helpful planning resources on our website.