Technology and business: An essential partnership

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In a presentation held late Sunday morning at NRF 2018: Retail’s Big Show, two executives of QVC Group, Mary Campbell, chief interactive experience officer, and Todd Sprinkle, chief digital officer, discussed how the giant direct-sales media company is investing in — and ruthlessly evaluating — technological innovation to manage its rapidly expanding portfolio of brands and channels. They were introduced by Healey Cypher, CEO and co-founder of Oak Labs, a retail startup specializing in interactive magic-mirror technology for dressing rooms.

“If there was just one change you could make within your organization,” asked Mary Campbell to begin the discussion, “that would help you solve many of your major challenges, what would it be? At QVC, it was blurring the lines between technology and the business, so that technology and the business are one team solving many of these challenges.”

The session was of particular interest because it was the first opportunity for most attendees to hear QVC’s plans — on the technological side, at least — for managing systems and assets after completing its $2.1 billion acquisition of HSN, in the process creating the world leader in video commerce. The post-merger QVC has a base of 23 million customers, reach into 360 million households globally and annual revenues of $14 billion.

Today, QVC consists of eight retail brands: QVC, HSN, Zulily, Frontgate, Ballard Designs, Garnet Hill, Grandin Road and Improvements. It is a direct retail company, a traditional media company and, increasingly, a social media company as well. “QVC,” Sprinkle said, “really does create a multi-platform, multi-format experience across broadcast, web, mobile and social.”

“But we don’t think of our customer as a mobile customer, or a TV customer or a dot-com customer — because that’s not how she sees herself. She sees herself as a QVC customer. Our customers actually tend to interact with us across all of those platforms. And our best customers shop with us across all those platforms, so our goal is to make sure we are constantly creating meaningful experiences that are relevant on each of these platforms.”

And constantly assessing how their customers are reacting to them across the platforms. “QVC,” Sprinkle said, “is not a transactional retailer. We are an experiential retailer, which means we’re competing for her time — time she spends with other retailers, and time she spends with other content.”

Which means that QVC needs to create a consistent experience across all these channels. There are, Campbell said, three key challenges to doing that: complexity, the need for speed and the need for innovation. “To manage these challenges,” she said, “we really are blurring the lines between our technology teams and our business teams.”

Take, for example, the issue of complexity. “We have less control of where and how the customer engages with our brand,” Campbell said. “We also have the challenge of both listening to what the customer is saying and also looking at data. And, of course, we have the challenge of integrating all of these different capabilities of all of these technologies and platforms into our legacy systems.”

Then there is the need for speed. “There are changes in the customer’s adaptation to all these channels, and, of course, change in customer expectation.”

The question is how to make sure the company is moving quickly as well, at the same time investing in what will give the greatest payoff. One solution being used at QVC to help manage this is DART, data analytics response technology. DART isn’t from-the-ground-up new; it’s built on a base of legacy systems, but it’s fast. “The power of it,” Campbell said, “is what it allows us to do in the day. And to do things in the day, we need to figure out, what is the minimal amount of information that allows us to make a decision?” DART, in other words, is essentially a business intelligence tool. It enables — at least to a workable degree — the business team and the tech team to be talking about the same thing at the same time, while looking at the same dashboard, and reach a quick conclusion about what can be done “in the day,” i.e., right now.

Does it work? Campbell and Sprinkle cite the case of Beauty IQ, a live, multi-platform social shopping network running across QVC, HSN and Facebook Live, which they managed to launch in 90 days. To do that, the tech people and the money people are speaking the same language. They’re blurring the lines.

Photo by Jason Dixson Photography.

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