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Talking with... One Kings Lane CEO Doug Mack

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Curated online flash sales sites are all the rage in online retail these days. In 2011, one of the most talked-about was the elegant home decor site, One Kings Lane. Last year, long-time member and e-commerce veteran Doug Mack was appointed to lead this niche start-up as Chief Executive Officer. With founders Susan Feldman and Alison Pincus, this fashion and digital retail executive trifecta has led the company to draw an impressive customer base in the housewares retail vertical.

In light of their astonishing growth and as a preview to Doug's upcoming appearance as a Super Session speaker at Retail's BIG Show, we reached out to CEO Doug Mack for our most recent Talking With… interview. During our conversation, Mack repeatedly touched on a few key themes that apply to leading and succeeding with just about any retail business in the world: hone in on innovation, embrace design and technology, leverage your data, and optimize every aspect of the customer experience. While Doug points to some of the companies and brands that he looks to for inspiration, I can only imagine how many companies and brands already are inspired by his leadership and the near-flawless focus at One Kings Lane on website design, online merchandising and building the next game-changing lifestyle brand.

Social media is obviously changing the way some people shop and engage with your brand. What are some of the new and exciting trends in social?

We’ve had great success at One Kings Lane with social media to fuel “word of mouth” around our brand – when you offer something unique and interesting, customers will now share it broadly via Facebook, Twitter, blogs and even old-fashioned email. Some exciting developments in social media are new “interest” focused communities such as Pinterest and Houzz. While Facebook does a great job at addressing the social graph, these emerging sites are addressing interest by providing environments for enthusiasts to spend time sharing what they love across a wide range of categories and interests, including design and home décor.

What does the future hold for flash sales? How is the business model evolving?

The Flash Sales model is very exciting to consumers, as they tend to get great products at better prices. My view is that innovation is critical for the continued growth of companies in the flash sale space. In our case, we were the first company to offer the Flash Sales model in the home market when we launched in 2009. We then followed up by evolving from a pure flash sales model when we launched the Tastemaker Tag Sales series, where we work with well-known designers and influencers to bring curated sales of one-of-a-kind and vintage items to One Kings Lane. Today, we also shop around the world to bring unique, exceptional items that are hand-selected and deliver tremendous value for our customers. In many ways, we’ve already evolved well beyond flash sales with the variety of merchandise we offer – along with the content we integrate into the experience.

Today’s hot topics in retail include all things mobile, tablet, social and flash. Looking forward, which of those items do you think will sink and which will swim?

I believe the mobile, tablet, social and flash trends will continue to be very relevant to consumers. The reality is that consumers are now becoming accustomed to searching and purchasing items directly from their smartphones and tablets – with tablets representing a particularly encouraging opportunity. Social will be embedded in all e-commerce experiences – so sites that offer an exceptional consumer proposition will benefit from it while those that are undifferentiated will suffer. In flash, I expect we’ll see vertical winners evolve in the years ahead in categories such as apparel, home, kids and travel – while sites that are not a leader at any particular category will eventually sink.

What do you find the most exciting about working in the e-commerce field?

I’ve been in e-commerce for more than a decade now – and I absolutely love the opportunity to find innovative new ways to excite consumers. As we have this mindset in our company, it forces us operate in a non-traditional way in almost every area of our business, from merchandising to product to marketing to operations. For example, unlike traditional retail, our shelves change every single day, 365 days a year, which presents major operational challenges – that as we solve one by one, provides us with huge sources of competitive advantage. The end result is that we continue to deliver a dramatically new and different retail experience for our customers – and yet, despite our fast traction, I think we might still be in the first inning of all the innovation we have planned in the years ahead. The amount of open space to innovate makes it exciting to come to work at One Kings Lane each day.

With your background in design and technology, do you ever find yourself getting caught up in website design and looking less at the retail component? How important is website design for retailers?

That is a critical question for any e-commerce company. We have a phrase that we use at One Kings Lane that one of our employees came up with at our last all company summit – “the merch is the fuel to the car.” Everything we do in the business is critical to our success – but if we don’t get the merch right, we won’t get very far. Design and technology are critical aspects to our overall experience – as we apply these disciplines in three key directions – to our consumers, our employees (who run the business) and our suppliers. One of our driving principles in the application of design and technology is to stay focused and keep it simple – and this certainly manifests itself in our website design. In fact, I believe companies that have hard-to-navigate and cluttered websites is a result of a lack of focus internally – you can see their lack of cohesive strategy represented in the experience on their website.

The feedback we continue to receive from our customers is they love the simplicity of our site. One of the hardest things is to not implement every idea we have for fear it will clutter the experience. We relentlessly curate both the merchandise and website experience to make it a joy for our customers.

How does technology empower retailers today? What are the opportunities of innovation and convergence between the two industries?

Just having a website no longer cuts it for retailers. For retailers to be successful, they need to offer their customers an opportunity to interact with their brand easily from wherever they are, whether it’s on their phone, at home, or in the mall. Also, the future of commerce lies in the massive leverage of data – to have an unfair advantage is optimizing every inch of the customer experience – how you market, how you merch, how you serve. This is extremely hard to do – but those who crack the code will have a systematic advantage in the market.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing digital retailers right now?

Companies have been working on incremental improvements to refine the customer experience, but my sense is we’ll start to see a wave of companies like One Kings Lane that bring a game-changing new experience to bear. The challenge is to sort out if you’ll be part of changing the landscape – or more impacted by it. My sense is digital retailers are also a bit too dependent on certain tools that work today, such as email and SEM, but need to push their thinking on how to be more creative in their customer contact strategies.

What skills do you look for when you’re hiring new staff at One Kings Lane? Do you think today’s graduates are bringing the right experiences to the table?

In every employee we look for passion, agility, innovativeness and customer focus. We focus huge mind share on hiring employees that fit well in our company culture. We’ve had great success hiring recent graduates who have the above traits, along with experienced individuals from a wide variety of industries, including e-commerce, retail, internet and media.

As a recognized leader in your field, who or where do you look for inspiration?

I am a huge fan of major brands that fundamentally change industries. I continue to have utmost respect for Nike, Apple and Starbucks in particular as they completely changed their respective markets, but then never stopped evolving. Apple for instance not only changed the PC industry, but then the music industry – then the mobile industry – and now the PC industry again (via the introduction of tablet computing). All of these companies started with a core innovation, but did not rest on their laurels. As One Kings Lane builds the next lifestyle brand, I will continue to look at these game-changing companies for inspiration.