Q&A: Brian Tilzer, Staples.com, on E-retail’s Evolution & Analytics

Brian Tilzer speaks with eTail about how Staples.com developed its successful e-commerce platform, how it has evolved, why analytics are so important and more.

1. Can you tell us a little about yourself, your background and what you do at Staples.com?

Staples.com e-commerce platform

Brian Tilzer

I lead electronic and mobile commerce for Staples.com to drive sales and margin growth and deliver a world- class experience for small business and consumer customers. I’m also responsible for the planning and development of the online experience for two of Staples’ cross-channel corporate growth initiatives, Copy and Print, and Office Technology. Additionally, I’m charged with developing new opportunities to further grow the Staples.com business.

Previously at Staples I was a Vice President of Strategy for the North American Delivery Leadership Team. Prior to joining Staples, I was with Linens ‘n Things as Senior Vice President, Strategy and Business Development, leading a strategy group and overseeing its growth businesses. I also spent 10 years working with retail and consumer clients as a management consultant with Andersen Consulting/Accenture.

2. When did it become apparent that Staples.com needed an e-commerce strategy, and how did the company decide to approach and implement it?

Staples has been an e-commerce leader for over a decade. We got into the game early and were very active from the beginning. Given our historical catalog and our contract business, embracing e-commerce made sense for us. The fact that we moved early and aggressively into e-commerce is a big reason we’re the second largest e-tailer in the U.S. today.

More recently, our e-commerce strategy has been updated to reflect the changes in our customers’ behavior. Emerging technologies and platforms like mobile and social media present new opportunities for us to engage our customers. We’ve refreshed and intensified our efforts in the digital space, focusing on providing not only a wide range of office products, but of services-based customer solutions as well.3. How has the Staples.com e-commerce platform evolved? What new capabilities does it have that have proved beneficial?

Over the years we’ve strived to build and leverage an increasingly deeper knowledge of our customers. At Staples, we bring “easy” to the office, but we can’t do that unless we have an almost obsessive focus on the customer. By paying attention to their site behavior we’re increasingly able personalize their shopping experience to reflect their needs and interests.

Also, as customers are increasingly migrating to web commerce and web service, they’re also moving to social commerce and social service. Social media tools like Facebook and Twitter now play an important role in not only serving as brand vehicles, but as customer service touch points. We’re able to engage our customer in a very personal way, and that’s not limited to just social media but also through online chats, personalized marketing and even user-generated content on Staples.com, like ratings/reviews and question/answers.

4. How have you studied and leveraged analytics to grow your e-commerce business? What are some examples of actions you’ve taken with the e-commerce platform that were directly influenced by analytics?

Analytics are a major part of our DNA and a key reason why we’re a trusted source for office solutions. We use customer and web analytics to offer the most relevant promotion, product assortment and recommendations to the right customer at the right time. We have implemented continuous improvement processes with constant testing, learning and refinement of our go-to-market strategies to drive a better, more relevant experience every day.

We use analytics not only to optimize our existing e-commerce capabilities but also to implement new capabilities on Staples.com. Through utilization of a wide array of quantitative analytics and qualitative feedback mechanisms we’re continuously testing and learning about next generation user experiences that make shopping even easier for small businesses and broaden the array of meaningful solutions we provide. We employ this approach in virtually everything we do on the site – ranging from optimizing the custom search results to fine-tuning the product pages to introducing new services geared toward our customers.

5. How can analytically driven site optimization influence customers to buy more, and is this something they’re conscious of in any way?

We don’t view analytic tools as a way to sell more to customers, but rather as a way to be more relevant to their shopping experience. Our goal is to allow our customers to make more informed shopping opinions, whether by providing rich product ratings and reviews on our mobile site, or through informative vehicles, like our tablet research center on Staples.com. Yes, we’ve seen that a byproduct of having great analytics is that we can improve sales, but we believe that if you think of the customer first, everything else will take care of itself.

6. How are e-retailers getting smarter, and how are consumers getting smarter simultaneously? How will the industry continue to evolve based on this?

Our world is so much more digitally connected now. Our customers are more informed than ever and, thanks to smartphones, can compare prices whenever and wherever they want. However, we also have the opportunity to learn more about our customers than ever before, through their buying and search patterns and with vehicles like social media. It’s up to us to make sure that we harness that information for our e-commerce offering, and provide a personalized shopping experience that lets our customers easily find the products and solutions that are right for them, so they can get back to running their businesses.

7. What advice might you offer to fellow big box retailers who haven’t seen quite as much success in the digital space?

It all comes back to Marketing 101. You have to know your customer. Consistently keep the focus on them and trying to understand what they want and need, and then figure out how to use some of the new e-commerce tools to support those wants. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to force a new digital methodology onto your customers if it’s not appropriate for their business. Remember, it’s always about the customer and their experience!