Canadian footwear merchant leverages tradition against larger competitors

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What’s a mid-size retailer to do in the shadow of titans seeking to gobble up all the ecommerce shopping dollars they can?

Montreal-based Browns Shoes, a third-generation family-owned fashion footwear merchant founded in 1940, is in the middle tier of retail chains — intent on remaining competitive against the likes of Amazon and others and relevant to customers expecting robust shopping and service experiences, no matter the store location or device.

If there ever were a retailer that epitomizes the mid-sized market, it is Browns. With a fervor for product innovation and service excellence making up its backbone, Browns operates 65 retail stores throughout Canada juxtaposed by an increasingly vibrant ecommerce presence.

Browns’ journey to the digital shopping era has been circuitous in many respects — and it needed to be, says Alexandre Hubert, Browns’ senior director of IT strategy and logistics. Unlike larger, better-resourced retail competitors that could dive headlong into ecommerce offerings, Hubert says Browns has had to be more deliberate.

INTELLIGENT DISTRIBUTION

While the company has been on the web for more than a decade, in 2011 Browns began to invest heavily in its distribution processes, which included launching an automated intelligent system that uses robotic technology to fulfill store and ecommerce orders. Browns offers a vast product selection with coveted Italian and global designs, so inventory distribution needed to be accurate and continuously updated while leveraging merchandise immediately from any of its locations.

Simply holding full inventories at its locations in a manual process clogged distribution, Hubert says; the new system also gave its customers the ability to shop seamlessly across channels. Within a month, results at both the distribution and store level compressed Browns’ order-to-fulfillment cycle to as low as 15 minutes and reduced its overall order lead time by 13 percent.

“When you look at it, we could have spent a lot of money in marketing and getting the fanciest packages the customer sees,” Hubert says. “But at the end of the day, if the customer does not receive the goods quickly enough it doesn’t matter how much money you spend on marketing.”

He says large retail competitors have achieved success in part because they are “very fast and very reliable,” attributes Browns wanted for itself.

“It is very difficult for us as a mid-sized retailer to be as good as them, but you need to pick your battles and excel in doing that,” he says.

Investing in the intelligent distribution system, for instance, took guts on the part of the company’s executive leadership, Hubert says. “It was a risky move when looking at the size of our business. We’re a large company in Canada, but when you compare us with companies in the United States, we’re small,” he says.

One of Browns’ philosophies is that its success should not be dependent on a single technology, but rather a range of services its competitors will find difficult to match. Browns’ web presence is powered through Salesforce, a cloud computing enterprise software services company providing customer relationship management tools to help business connect better with their customers.

On top of the cutting-edge distribution center protocols, Hubert says a next big step for Browns was launching a distributed, live order management system in 2017 to further ensure accuracy and efficiency.

“It is very difficult for us as a mid-sized retailer to be as good as them, but you need to pick your battles and excel in doing that.” Alexandre Hubert, Browns Shoes

Working with software vendor OrderDynamics and OSF Commerce, a Salesforce platform technology integrator, Browns used the order management system to lay a foundation for achieving key omnichannel capabilities, including consolidating orders for multiple items from different locations into single shipments.

“If you touch a product in less time and move on to the next one, you’re saving there, but you’re also over-delivering on the customer expectation,” says James Bruce, director of commerce experience at OSF Commerce.

The new Browns system also created a platform for click-and-collect, when customers order online or from their smart devices and pick up their goods in the store, effectively increasing store traffic. Shoppers can also register and receive logs of their complete in-store and online purchasing history.

MAINTAINING MOMENTUM

Browns has sought to hone in on the customer journey, Hubert says, as a means for better competing. With the new systems in place, it has been able to start fulfilling orders in as little as 15 minutes from order receipt to confirmation with tracking. Browns now offers express shipping with a 99.5 percent certainty of meeting its fulfillment promises.

“We have a big focus on making sure that whenever a customer places an order, we do a lot of checking through the customer journey to make sure that the pair of shoes or product they want to buy is really available,” Hubert says. “For every purchase we’re making three checks. It’s a detail, but something we really want to make sure of. We want to be able to make sure we will be able to fulfill that order.”

Given that Browns was built on the prowess of physical stores and still relies on them for significant sales volume and operations, he says it must deliberately ingrain an ecommerce culture into the fabric of the company. Over the past few years, he says, it became evident to Browns and its people what ecommerce could do for the company.

“Now ecommerce has a really good momentum and we’ve reached the goal where it is crystal clear that ecommerce is a big part of the future of the company,” he says. “Once you get a momentum and you reach that certain point, ecommerce proves that it is not just an option, but a part of the mission.”

Bruce says key to the digital strategy of retailers like Browns is leveraging the assets they already have, notably the physical store network. That includes using stores, for instance, as distribution and customer experience centers that are not available to purely digital companies.

“You’re trying to connect the offline customer to the online customer,” Bruce says. “A lot of retailers understand that it is one and the same in a lot of cases, and that the traffic in the store is driven and influenced by a digital channel in some way.”

He says a challenge for less-resourced retailers is understanding where the gaps exist in their digital efforts by recognizing “what happens further downstream.” Paid marketing campaigns for the physical store can be synched to email campaigns on the digital side, for instance.

With back-office processes taking shape, Browns sees customer personalization through enhanced collection and analysis of data along with artificial intelligence as a key deliverable for the company moving forward.

“You want to be as driven as possible to what [customers]want when they need it and not just spamming their inbox or spamming their social media with simple ads,” Hubert says. “You want to be more specific to keep that connection alive and they will continue to respect you as a brand.”

M.V. Greene is an independent writer and editor based in Owings Mills, Md., who covers business, technology and retail.

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