Expert Insights:

Exploring the State of eCommerce with Brand Leader Amy Sveda

As the newly named President of Luxy Hair at Beauty Industry Group, Amy Sveda is working to lead the business into its next phase of growth — a perfect fit after years in leadership roles at brands like Anthropologie, Victoria’s Secret, Louis Vuitton, and others. From middle market to luxury merchandising across women’s, beauty, kids, home goods, men’s, and more, Amy has spent her career on the cutting edge of eCommerce and brand management. But nothing could have prepared her for the events of 2020 — and that applies to all of us.

The pandemic provided a moment of pause for a lot of retailers; a chance to reassess where they were and how they were positioned in the market at that time — as well as an opportunity to rethink their teams, positions, inventory, offering, and quality levels,” Amy says.

COVID-19 catalyzed a huge shift onto eCommerce, particularly for those retailers that were still hyper-focused on their brick-and-mortar models — because those consumers were now converting to the digital space. And for a lot of organizations, having to figure out how to capitalize on that business and replicate the in-store experience via an eCommerce channel was a real wake-up call.

With over 20 years of industry experience across middle market to luxury brands, the senior executive knows enough to write a book about retail merchandising and the eCommerce space. But until then, she’s been kind enough to share her insights with us.

“Top of mind for me right now,” says Amy, “is really understanding what the landscape looks like and how it’s going to evolve.” Read on to get her take on the current and future state of retail and eCommerce, and what companies can do to keep up and stand out among new and evolving technologies, tools, and buyer behaviors.

As retailers navigate the pandemic, what are some of the biggest challenges facing eCommerce?

It’s a really exciting time for eCommerce because it’s an industry that can set itself apart from an innovation and sustainability standpoint. There’s a lot of work to do in terms of climate change, waste, and consumption — and it has to be tied to how customers are engaging with the space.

Moving forward, however, there’s still a lot of uncertainty about what’s going to happen with the Delta variant. A lot of customers are starting to invest in things that they weren’t investing in during lockdown, when subtlety was the way of life. Today, they’re looking to reinvent themselves in a bolder, more statement-driven way — and that often means leveraging fashion as a means to engage in self-expression.

Retailers need to consider: if there’s another shutdown, what does that mean from a product or shopping behavior standpoint? Right now, there might be a sense of urgency when it comes to certain purchases; but the anticipation is that, at some point, that stops. And the question is, when?

Are you seeing any interesting technological or behavioral trends emerging in this space?

Typically, stores that had a broader retail brick-and-mortar footprint were leaders — simply based on their proximity to the customer. Now, with an even greater focus on eCommerce, it’s leveled the playing field for digitally native brands because traditional retailers really have to rethink their positioning and how they’re interfacing with the customer. So technology really comes into play.

There are a plethora of brands integrating augmented and virtual reality as well as live stream into their marketing strategies through pop-ups, webinars, and other online events, but there’s a world of opportunity to leverage these technologies to improve the shopping experience for the customer and convert the sale.

In the US, we’ve been a bit lagging in terms of livestream and virtual shopping, which have been prevalent in Asia for some time. That’s starting to change as customers and companies attempt to replicate the same level of sales touch onto eCommerce that they’re used to experiencing at brick-and-mortar stores.

What are shoppers searching for within new digital experiences like VR and live stream shopping?

Companies can leverage branding, photography, styling, and copywriting to help create an emotional connection. But these days, you have to take it further — and that’s where live stream shopping comes in. People can ask questions that are relevant to them and immediately get answers, so it’s hyper-personalized. And, more importantly, they get to create a deeper emotional connection with the brand because of that human-to-human contact.

How can brands communicate with their audiences most effectively in this changing landscape?

Edit to amplify. You might think you need to provide a customer with as much information as they would possibly need to make informed decisions or to engage with your brand. But a lot of times you lose them in the process.

People want to cut through the noise and find what they need, quickly. That’s why brands need to think about editing the experience to amplify what they’re trying to convey to their customers. How can you simplify the experience?

How can you make it easy for people to find what they’re looking for? How can you expedite that transaction? And how do you personalize that experience so that you’re speaking directly to an individual’s needs? The arrows all point to live stream, virtual shopping and VR, and it’s that kind of technology that’s going to give brands a cutting edge moving forward.

Are there any digitally savvy brands whose efforts you admire in particular?

The Beauty industry really seems to be leading the cause across all facets with technological risk-taking and innovation. L’Oreal’s acquisition of ModiFace and Sephora’s best-in-class experiences, from their Virtual Artist to their in-store tech, are just two examples.

In the luxury space, this year Gucci pioneered the virtual reality footwear experience, which other brands are sure to follow. And in home goods, the IKEA Place app revolutionized augmented reality shopping and continues to break new ground.

Do you still get frustrated with certain elements of the online shopping experience?

No matter how easy a brand tries to make returns, they’re still an inconvenience. As everyone’s lives get faster and faster again, it’s something that still causes people to go out of their way. So brands will need to consider that.

Online measurement systems also tend to feel super antiquated. There hasn’t been enough evolution in that space to help a customer find what they need. And if you think about the gender spectrum and body positivity movement, current online size charts aren’t solving those needs; they just provide a point of reference. Finding the right fit for every kind of body is going to require more hand-holding than what the current digital experience provides.

What other advice would you give to retail brands and eCommerce players trying to compete today?

First and foremost, remember that the customer is the focal point of everything we do as retailers. It’s important to never lose sight of that, and to apply that thinking across the gamut. It’s also critical to stay abreast of the competitive landscape — and not just in your specific segment.

Look beyond that to understand what’s happening within the marketplace at large. If you’re an accessories retailer, brush up on what’s happening in the beauty space or food and beverage industry, for instance. There’s relevancy to be found across the board, as well as various ways to differentiate yourself from the competition. Above all, it’s about being agile and maintaining that flexibility because, as we’ve seen with Covid, you really never know what can happen.

Can you share any predictions on what’s to come for the post-pandemic world of eCommerce?

I’ve been talking with a lot of investors lately, and everybody wishes that they had a crystal ball. I can say that we’re cautiously optimistic, and I do think customers are more engaged. There are brands that had been working to increase their penetration of digital sales, and Covid ended up helping them bring that to fruition.

While some of that has leveled off now that stores are opening up again, online sales are still higher than they were before the pandemic. So I think that’s the new norm. Brands are learning to be faster, they’re learning to be more nimble. They’re getting better at managing inventory, just for the sheer fact that no one really knows what the marketplace is going to look like. So the ability to pivot is critical. And as advanced technologies come more and more into play, they’re going to push the retail environment to invest in new kinds of experiences.