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Most Admired Online Retailers

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For years STORES has published a list of consumers’ 50 favorite online retailers. This year we’re introducing a complementary report: The Most Admired Online Retailers as chosen by their industry contemporaries.

Working in concert with, STORES Media conducted an e-mail survey, polling both NRF and retail members during the last week of June and first two weeks of July. Respondents were asked to name the one e-commerce retailer they most admired — keeping in mind traits including innovation, social responsibility, customer-centric culture, quality of products and service, supply chain efficiency, the ability to capture and retain shoppers and financial soundness. They were also asked to share why the company they chose stood out.

When the votes were tallied, Amazon emerged as the “most admired,” with Sephora, Poppin, ModCloth and One Kings Lane rounding out the top five. It’s interesting that, in some instances, what retail insiders consider “engaging” is very different from what might motivate the consumer; in others, it’s clear that whether one works in this industry or not, ultimately we’re all consumers.
“Reinventing the retail game in terms of customer service, business practices … and the value equation.”

Ask a number of retail insiders why “wins,” and their answers are likely to sound very similar.

“It’s the first place you think of when you need something”… “Amazon is all about efficiency — in, out and on your way in a few clicks or less”… “They know how to drive conversion”… “I can’t remember the last time I searched for something and they didn’t have it” … “They never stop innovating.”

While there are a number of overarching themes, insiders closest to the company attribute success to CEO Jeff Bezos’ fanatic attention to detail and his refusal to waste time on anything that isn’t directly about the customer. It’s been reported that Bezos periodically leaves one seat open at a conference table and informs all attendees that they should consider that seat occupied by their customer — the person that he deems most important.

A Fortune article from November 2012 reported “a strong strain of pragmatism, or practicality, runs through Bezos’ decision-making … he has his credos, and he cites them frequently. ‘The three big ideas at Amazon are long-term thinking, customer obsession, and a willingness to invent,’ he says.”

Invention and innovation are vital components in Amazon’s competitive arsenal. Just when rivals think they’ve gained an edge, Bezos reinvents, re-engineers and reclaims the top spot. Amazon Prime, Amazon Associates, one-click ordering, the Kindle e-tablet, Amazon Cloud, Instant Video, personalized product recommendations, the acquisitions of Quidsi and Kiva Systems and forays into businesses like the recently announced Amazon Art marketplace are just a few of the ways Amazon constantly rewrites the rules of retail … and wins.
“Constantly pushing the boundaries of retail innovation.”

When Sephora first entered the U.S. market in 1998, it broke the model for how prestige cosmetics were sold. Fifteen years later the company is still innovating and challenging traditional thinking in the world of beauty and fragrance.

“Sephora is an innovator in so many ways,” says Julie Bornstein, the CMO and chief digital officer who championed the rebuilding of Sephora’s site a year ago. “We’ve really taken a lead when it comes to investing in technology. We’ve built a highly complex set of attributes around every product we sell, and we’ve worked to create a network of digital experiences that span every channel — stores, mobile and online.”

Case in point: the new digital Beauty Bag, a virtual makeup bag that shoppers can rely on so they never forget a shade they love. A few weeks ago Sephora (in partnership with Pantone) launched Color IQ, a digital store experience that will scan customers’ skin to determine their exact foundation match. Bornstein insists that she doesn’t want technology to interfere with the tactile nature of selling beauty products, but rather to enhance it.

For Lauren Freedman, president of the e-tailing group, innovation is at the core of the retailer’s identity. “They’ve always been a leader when it comes to embracing the ‘new’ — whether it’s product or technology or omni-channel efficiencies,” she says. “Digital and mobile are huge assets for Sephora. When it comes to understanding how to drive deeper engagement with shoppers, they’ve nailed it.”
“Amazing and innovative products with an impressive customer experience.” is a neophyte in the online retail realm, but in one short year it has made some colorful waves. In the most basic sense, Poppin sells office supplies and furniture, but there’s nothing basic about the collection, which splashes everything from notebooks and tape dispensers to file cabinets and a conference table with bold, bright color and a contemporary design aesthetic.

“We’ve attacked a mundane category with a fashion-forward design sensibility,” says CMO Kevin Ranford. “ caters to both consumers and businesses and fills the design gap between the products we use for work and those available in the rest of our lives. We’ve created a new shopping category — we sell workstyle products.”

Beyond product, the company’s “Work Happy” philosophy has also struck a chord with consumers. “They’ve taken one of the most competitive categories online and created a voice that instantly sets them apart,” says Sean Cook, CEO of ShopVisible. "The 'Work Happy’ slogan is smart and promising. Who wouldn’t want to have more fun at work?”

Furthermore, Ranford believes that Poppin has impressed consumers with its dedication to the customer experience. “Our priority is providing customers with an experience that makes them smile at every touchpoint,” he says. “Whether it is our shop-by-color functionality, witty brand messaging, colorful products or handwritten thank you notes after each first purchase, our goal is always to surprise and delight.”
“The company philosophy of inclusion and positive body image for women of all sizes stands out ... adept at creating social media connections.”

Long before most online retailers began to give serious thought to the role of social media, ModCloth was running with the idea. Today this specialty retailer, specializing in vintage, indie and retro-inspired style, continues to raise the bar with innovative social experiences.

“We believe in having authentic conversations with ModCloth shoppers,” says Sarah Rose, senior vice president of product and growth. “Customers have a voice in everything we do, from the Be the Buyer program to the Make the Cut and Name It & Win It contests. We know that our customers are immersed in social media. We try to leverage their input to understand their style and deliver products that they’ve inspired. This builds brand loyalty.”

The newest program, Style Gallery, invites shoppers to share their looks, gather inspiration from members and browse shoppable looks. Since its November 2012 launch, more than 6,000 outfit photos have been shared.

“We aim to inspire personal style and help customers feel like the best versions of themselves,” Rose says. “That includes using real girls in our creative and mixing regular and plus sizes.”

What’s next? More social interaction. Rose plans to bring the same community engagement to mobile and create an experience where customers can move seamlessly across devices.

“When you look for retailers who are adept at harnessing the notion of social shopping and sharing, ModCloth is paving new ground,” Cook says, “and it’s clear that the power of customer engagement has paid dividends on so many fronts.”
“Unique products and photography … innovative and disruptive.”

In just four short years, One Kings Lane has grown to more than eight million members, $200 million in revenue and a staff of more than 375 employees across offices in San Francisco, New York and Beverly Hills, Calif. While those figures alone would explain why industry insiders are keeping tabs on this online home décor marketplace, CEO Doug Mack has another theory.

“Customers and contemporaries are drawn to our expression of content and commerce,” he says. “The site combines great stories with inspiration and curated products — and we’re providing exceptional values. It’s a way of doing business that’s meaningful to today’s shopper.”

Andrew Lipsman, vice president of industry analysis at comScore, concurs. “We’re seeing a trend toward story-telling. One Kings Lane delivers curated social commerce. They focus on the visual and the unique, but they also share stories that help to connect shoppers to the boutiques.”

Mack describes the essence of One Kings Lane as “to buy or to be inspired.” The retailer launches about 18,000 new products per week and showcases items in multiple, theme shops — creating a marketplace that is different each time décor aficionados click through.

“Unlike traditional retail where merchants are locked into a planogram for a few weeks, our ‘shelves’ change seven days a week,” he says. “We group products together in ways that are unique — and often we have one-of-a-kind items. One day it’s a ‘Mad for Navy’ shop, the next it’s ‘Props from the NYC Ballet.’

“We’re asking shoppers to buy products through a glass screen — without the benefit of touch or seeing it up close,” Mack says. “Shoppers are counting on us to do that for them — to curate a selection of products that meets their standard and delights.”