Talking with...Brooks Brothers Chairman and CEO Claudio Del Vecchio and EVP for Direct and Omnichannel Ken Seiff
As the oldest retailer in America, I would describe Brooks Brothers as a legendary retail establishment driven and shaped by those it serves. And while that may be true, what has been amazing to watch over the years with this iconic brand is a culture breeding generations of innovation for the entire retail and fashion industry. NRF and Shop.org are proud to have two leaders from the phenomenal Brooks Brothers team involved at Retail’s BIG Show this week in the world’s headquarters for retail – New York City.
To help introduce one of our most involved members to our community we were fortunate enough to talk with both their chairman and CEO and NRF Board member, Claudio Del Vecchio, and Executive Vice President for Direct and Omnichannel, Ken Seiff, for a look into the class act that is (and runs) Brooks Brothers.
Personalization has become a top action item for retailers given its significant influence across every customer touch point: online, email, in-store, mobile. How is the Brooks Brothers team bringing personalized shopping experiences to the online and in-store shopper?
CDV: I think our perspective on personalization needs to reflect our 194-year history of personal service. For Brooks Brothers, the real key to personalization is to make sure that the customer sees what they want to see. The challenge is that many of our customers have grown accustomed to working with sales associates who introduce them to a lot of items, which they may not have known we made. So our goal with personalization is to build an intelligent strategy that doesn’t lose any of the sales associate knowledge or the surprise of showing them something new. If we can do that well, we will remain true to our heritage of providing both outstanding personal service as well as innovation.
KS: There is a lot of science to getting personalization right. For example, if a customer has purchased a custom suit, we have a pretty good idea which shirt fit and size makes the most sense for them even if it is their first visit online. And if the customer has a history of replenishing their shirts or suits every season, we can assume our algorithm will have a pretty good idea of their preferences for color, collar, style and much more. But, as Claudio said, there is a real art to personalization. Last month we launched our first efforts at personalization. The early results have been very exciting. And for me the best evidence that we are heading in the right direction with our customers isn’t just from the sales lift, it’s also from a customer email that asked “How did you know I liked stripes?”
Mobile optimized website or mobile app? What’s next for Brooks Brothers?
CDV: Our customers have computers, phones and iPads and they use all of them to shop and search. The proliferation of these devices creates an opportunity for us to service our customers more effectively. We don’t think about it as an either/or; we start by addressing what our customers want.
KS: The vast majority of our mobile customers access our website through iPhones and iPads, so for starters we are going to build an extraordinary experience for them through a mobile optimized website. But we aren’t simply building a website optimized for smart phones; we decided to build a site with responsive design. What our customers experience on a large monitor will differ from what they experience on a laptop, an iPad or a smartphone. When this launches in the spring, customers shopping or searching on any device will have their experience optimized for the size of its screen.
Many retailers (including Brooks Brothers) are operating in a borderless, global marketplace both online and with store expansion into both established and emerging markets. What are you keeping your eye on in the global retail industry?
CDV: After 194 years serving many generations of customers, we are America’s oldest retailer. Today we are a global company with over 300 retail stores worldwide, and almost half of them are international. Our renown as a global brand has been earned the old fashioned way. There is great demand for Brooks Brothers and we open in markets where there is anticipation for our arrival. We have earned credibility for our products and service and view ourselves as the steward for the American Dream.
Ken, as a veteran of the retail e-commerce industry you’ve been a founder or CEO of a number of pure-play retail organizations. What’s the most exciting thing about bringing the legendary Brooks Brothers customer-driven reputation to the digital realm?
KS: Brooks Brothers has this incredible and legendary reputation for serving its customers. The company also has an innovative history going back almost two centuries. Our predecessor teams introduced to America many innovations including ready-to-wear clothing, the button-down collar, the non-iron shirt and much more. That combination is a powerful force in any business, but it is the linchpin of building a great digital experience. Unlike any startup I have been a part of, this is powerful brand with vast resources. And Claudio has been the first to push us to take chances, to innovate and to invent. That makes working here as compelling as any startup.
The Brooks Brothers site has undergone a major site reinvention embracing personalization, stunning photography and storytelling. What are some of the most exciting new features of the website?
CDV: Thank you. We are very excited by what we are building online. It’s been a colossal commitment of almost every department. But if there is one thing that I am most proud of, it would be that we have been able to put our customer first in everything we are trying to do. It is our expectation that our customers will feel excited and inspired about the Brooks Brothers experience no matter which channel they shop.
KS: I think for me the most exciting feature is the all of the stuff we haven’t launched yet. We are working on a lot of really exciting innovations.
What are some of the most common mistakes you’ve seen digital retail leaders make over the last 20 years in the business?
CDV: I think perhaps it is assuming that everything that they are doing needs to be reinvented from scratch.
KS: I think that is right and I am definitely guilty of it. I am learning that a lot of what has been done in the past doesn’t need to be reinvented. There are so many best practices that have already been established in the traditional retail environment and we are trying to build them into our process and practices.
As an investor and entrepreneur you have constantly been ahead of the curve in the digital retail industry. What should we keep our eye on in 2013?
KS: I think that online businesses have now reached the size and scale where the basics are going to matter a great deal more than they have in the past. Effectively planning and managing inventory, creating an easy shopping experience, managing for return on investment and delivering world class customer service will be even more important than any single new technology innovation.
Which retail companies do you find most fascinating to watch?
CDV: I am more interested in hearing from our customers than watching other businesses. We have a mandate to lead, not watch.
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