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eCommerce Fireside Interview with Nick Dozier and Megan Bowman

E-commerce should be a union between stores and suppliers, not a thorn in your side – and we want to help you get there.

On April 17 and 18 Supplier Community presented its Optimizing Online conference, which included a wide-range of topics and proven strategies to help you get online, stay online, succeed online, and keep you out of help ticket limbo, so your business can thrive in the world of eCommerce.

During that event, OneStone co-founder and CEO Bill Waitsman had the opportunity to interview former CEO of ATLAS Retail Technology Solutions, Nick Dozier and OneStone fellow founder and CIO Meagan Bowman. They discussed the ins and outs of working in today’s eCommerce space.

Resolving Challenges in the Supplier Community

One of the biggest challenges facing companies is the tremendous amount of manual labor that goes into their analytics. Everyone logs into Retail Link, downloads data, throws it into Excel – it’s all manual and all very time consuming. So when ATLAS kicked off seven years ago it started with the simple goal of mechanizing Retail Link and other big retail portals.

Since that time, it has evolved to include events, thoughts and best practices, and putting it all into content inside the platform, including a new division called Canopy.  

Canopy includes a variety of new tools and processes built around eCommerce best practices.  Dozier points out how eCommerce data is so different from brick and mortar, if only just from the scale perspective.

But it also differs in the types of information available. ECommerce data is public facing vs brick and mortar which is retailer portal facing. There is also digital, social, and a number of other platforms that go into telling an eCommerce story.

This new division offers a much broader scope with new best practices layered into software tools and other things ATLAS can share publicly with companies to help capture data and understand it.   

Measuring Success

Businesses have to make money, and in order to get resources, you have to prove numbers. Unfortunately for many on the eCommerce side, you’re dealing with numbers that don’t come anywhere close to what’s happening in brick and mortar.  

So how do you define winning in the eCommerce world?

Bowman says she and her team use a lead indicator/lag indicator kind of model. According to Bowman, there are a number of lead indicators you can manage, execute against, and prove out that will inherently have lag consequences.

To illustrate this, Bowman uses an example of weight loss. Mathematically speaking, unless you have another health issue, if you burn more calories than you take in, you will lose weight. In this case, the lead indicator is taking in less calories and the lag indicator is losing weight.  

If you maximize your character count at 198.2 in your title, you get eight points in the search algorithm. That’s a lead indicator. The lag is that you’ve hit the algorithm piece. But the algorithm might change so your lead indicators are then adjusted based on the results you receive from the lag.

Additionally, there will always be variables, and Bowman says the fun thing about running lead vs lag is that your lead indicators inevitably get better in every round because you get more data points out of the lag each time.

If your category is growing at 30% and you’re growing at 15%, even if your company is cheering you on because you’re in double digit growth, you know your category is growing at twice that and no one feels good about that.

So, Bowman says she sets a gauge, because it’s important not to just sit still. In this industry speed is everything, and it’s better to make decisions and break things than to sit still and wait for the perfect key performance indicators (KPI).

According to Bowman, you need to build your KPIs out, adjust them as you go, and make sure you’re doing the lead indicators that will (given what you know today) affect the lag indicators. It’s really important to set goals and to keep moving. Don’t get paralyzed.

Defining Your Universe

When Bowman meets with a new company, the first thing she does is take a UPC that is across the entire portfolio and track it everywhere it appears. She tracks it on eBay, Facebook Marketplace, Alibaba, and anywhere else she can find it, because despite any company’s strategic launch on specific channels, the algorithms that are driving search are actually tracing five times what you’re tracing.

She always tells new clients that their universe is probably a lot bigger than they know, especially when you add in third party sellers, re-sellers, and the like, so it’s important to get the universe right. It may not be the strategic catalog that you’re ultimately trying to push to consumers, but it’s how the computers are reading it, and if you can take share away from people who aren’t you, that’s your first step.

This process also allows you to establish how much share is just sitting out there, money that other people are making off of your product, and if you can get five or six percent of that back, it is definitely a win.

She then looks at where they are intentionally selling and basically forces rank against the competition using tools such as those that ATLAS offers. These tools allow you to get good directional data and understand where you’re sitting and how often your product moves around in the rank to Buy Box.

But Bowman maintains the importance of first getting your universe right, making sure you know what’s out there, and getting all of that data and input down, so you can start building your story from there.

Brick and Mortar Data vs eCommerce Data

Pulling data on the eCommerce side is very different than pulling data on the brick and mortar side.

On the brick and mortar side, there are Retail Link and other manual software platforms where the whole world lives inside that one portal. Every item, every store, every day – everything you want to see is in that one space.

There is a lot of data in Supplier Center, Vendor Central, and all the other different platforms across multiple retailers, but from a public facing perspective there’s so much more and things are much more fluid. Walmart and Amazon are constantly moving in rank based on sales that happened five minutes before, digital traffic that drives more traffic and constantly adjusts hit rates, along with a number of other factors.

And because this data is constantly changing, you have to keep a constant eye on it. One of the challenges ATLAS faces is keeping all that data, basically watching every SKU, every single second across any given category and bringing it all into one spot.

Another difference is the scale. Even though there are five thousand stores on the brick and mortar side, it’s infinitely bigger on the other side. According to Dozier, when you’re dealing with a Walmart buyer, they just want Walmart information. And even if they say they want to bring Kroger or Target best practices to the table, you’re not really allowed to communicate with your counterparts on that side so you’re forced to you walk into buyer meetings with only the sales and/or category specific information that you have.

On the eComm side however, your buyers really care about what’s going on with Amazon and it’s exciting to try to get your hands on all that data. In fact, Dozier says, at this time they are at an interesting point where they have more data than they know what to do with and they’re still working to figure out best practices amongst themselves and their partner customers – a fun challenge according to Dozier.

Building the Right Metrics

When comparing data across retailers Bowman says it’s not apples to apples. Walmart sends it in one way, Amazon sends it in another, and then Amazon third party, the platform where over half the sales happen on Amazon, doesn’t have any data at all. As a result, when you’re making multi-channel or cross-channel strategic decisions – should I launch here, should I launch there, how is this going to affect pricing – you get into kind of a spin because the columns just don’t add up.

So, Bowman says the first thing her team does is acquire large amounts of data. After that, they stop and define the four key metrics, because while having a lot of data is great, in terms of real time decisions, it’s important to be focused on four or five key things and really drill those in, get those right, and build and execute your lead indicators to reap the benefits of your lag indicators.

Fortunately, there are tools such as Canopy and Profitero that can help you understand the metrics you should care about. However, Bowman warns that if someone comes to you and tells you they know the five key metrics you need or exactly how you need to do it, you should question that.

For every single category, and the way your product is positioned, even within that category, you’ll pull the data differently because of things such as how their ERP systems work, their inventory levels and ship times, and even where their dock locations are.

Make sure you’re building metrics that are appropriate to your channel, your category and your level of competition, then get a data guru to bring you the data. Don’t spend time gathering your data. Have your data delivered to you, make decisions based on those, and then track those decisions.

You’ve Got Great Content. What’s Next?

It’s been said that in Bentonville, Arkansas you have to get your content right. But there comes a point when it’s not just about the content. The content wave is starting to crest and it’s becoming more about paying attention to what people are saying about your products on social media.

This feedback has a big influence on Google. Walmart and Amazon may not necessarily care about what people say about your products on Facebook, but the bigger search engine, Google, does, and it can quickly move your SKUs up and down in rank.

And while the content wave will never completely end, once a SKU is online, at a certain point it’s going to stick there for a bit and then it becomes about measurement, about finding the last three or four percent you can squeeze out of it, because when you’re dealing with millions of dollars that three or four percent makes a big difference.

It’s also about finding other ways to drive traffic to your product pages, maybe working with local advertising agencies that will throw banner ads up on several different eComm properties, and monitoring that traffic against your page.

Finally, it’s about the up and coming trends. Google is quickly turning into a retailer. It’s working with some of the big names and trying to compete with Amazon to get that digital shelf correct. According to Dozier, the number one selling brand of dog food online isn’t even carried in brick and mortar stores.

It’s the Wild West right now and everyone is still trying to figure out best practices. It’s more than just the content, so now is the time for you to also look at best practices, and your SKUs and assortment from a brick and mortar perspective vs an online perspective.

The eCommerce space is fluid. Nobody knows what’s going to happen next. Walmart and Amazon don’t even have the end game yet, so those that adapt and take chances in this industry are the ones who are going to win.

Bowman also added that the content loop doesn’t end. You need to be obsessed with making sure your content is right and stays right, and when you think you can move on, you shouldn’t. Instead, you move it into a different phase of monetization, audit, reload, etc., and that’s also when you start bringing in things such as social listening or AI.

Static content is static content, and Bowman encourages her clients to tie in to what’s actually happening in real time. For example, if fuchsia is now the biggest color on the planet, then Bowman says she’ll automatically feed through any pink items she has online and upload them to fuchsia. She’ll let them ride out the trend, then eventually change them back to pink.

According to Dozier, this is an area where eCommerce is superior. When a company, large or small, needs to react on a brick and mortar SKU you have to wait to do mod relays and get the buyer to buy the stuff. It may be as simple as changing packaging, but it takes forever, and the buyers, design teams, and everyone else involved need to be thinking a year in advance about what the cool new things are going to be.   

In eComm land, while you still need to be thinking ahead, you can change things in an instant. From a content perspective, you may not be able to re-dye a shirt right now, but you can change the marketing message and the way you advertise it, and in most cases, you can react pretty much without the retailer or anyone’s permission.

This makes eCommerce much more reactive, and that’s why the small guys can be very disruptive to industry titans. One guy in his garage who looks at the right search terms for the category and puts his own money into it can take off, because he has the ability to react very quickly. If one style changes suddenly he just goes and gets the next new hot one and moves on.

But according to Bowman, even for those in big, slow moving corporations it’s possible to build teams within your organization and win as well. Bowman says she really believes that even if you’re a Hershey or a Clorox, and you feel a bit stifled by your machine, there’s always money in the banana stand. You can find a way.

The other thing she feels is important is platform expansion. According to Bowman, 99% of her clients’ Walmart business is suffering because their Amazon team can’t get the EDI sheets right, so she says it all starts with how you ship for Amazon.

If the Amazon operational metrics are down it will impact your entire eCommerce portfolio. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Bentonville or New York or Singapore – you have to be able to ship your stuff to Amazon when it asks for it and how it asks for it. If you get that wrong, then everything else is going to crumble, because if you’re on, your search is going to be impacted by what’s happening on the other platforms as well.

It’s important to diversify across the eCommerce platforms, so your UPC can have legs beyond the Walmart and Amazon ecosystem. This balances it out for you because the bots are crawling throughout the internet and the more touch points you have, the less vulnerable you are when Amazon or Walmart comes and asks you to make other changes that adversely affect your bottom line.  

The entire interview is available for viewing on our site. Click here to view the video.