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NORA’s First Online Retail Outing a Success
The inaugural E-Commerce Expedition kicked off yesterday, with a busload of professionals granted the privilege of visiting a number of renowned online brands such as OzSale and Appliances Online.
The business landscape has sometimes been described as a wilderness and a jungle, so it’s fitting that NORA and Australia Post would partner to take a number of e-commerce professionals on a veritable safari.
Yesterday, the inaugural NORA E-Commerce Expedition began in the lobby of The Star in Pyrmont, Sydney, with a welcome from Australia Post’s Sales Director for SMB Markets John Scholten and NORA CEO Paul Greenberg, who also took the opportunity to introduce NORA’s latest appointment of Anna Lee as General Manager.
“We are pleased to announce the appointment of Anna Lee as our new General Manager to oversee the operations of NORA and support its growth,” Greenberg said. “Anna brings invaluable experience to NORA from previous senior management roles with Groupon, Adshel and PwC.”
While there may not have been a large amount of promotion in the lead up to the event, 50 people from a variety of businesses had arrived to partake in the business tour.
Soon after, everyone piled into a bus and we set off on our first leg of the journey. The itinerary included a tour of three different online retail businesses in the greater Sydney metro area and if we were to have time for lunch (and a beverage at the conclusion), then time was surely of the essence.
Hot-footing it to Shoes of Prey
The first stop of the journey was a visit at the headquarters of renowned mass customisation businesses, Shoes of Prey and Sneaking Duck, where we were greeted and shown around by Co-founder Michael Fox.
The floor space may not have been the largest we were to see that day, but that is easily explained by practicality. Fox pointed out that as a mass customisation model creating one-off shoes or glasses for individuals, there wasn’t exactly a large need for warehousing space.
“When we started Shoes of Prey, we wanted to flip the traditional footwear retail model on its head,” he explained. “By doing so, we could avoid the usual problems of overstocks and out-of-stocks.”
The model also allows them to maintain a small, agile team – meaning more value being driven for employees. Of course, attendees were perhaps less interested in the employees hard at work at their desks than they were by the enormous swivelling door that had at first appeared as nothing more than a projector-screen.
“This is where you’ll find the compulsory ping-pong table,” Fox announced. As it turned out, his words were more apt than I would have first expected. Each of the offices we were to visit that day had the mandatory table tennis setup tucked away somewhere.
The Winning Group
“Our software engineers have taken over what was previously our boardroom,” John Winning, CEO of The Winning Group explained as we wandered down the central atrium of the company’s office. “When we first set up the team, I was told they weren’t to have any distractions whatsoever – so we had to give them a room to themselves.”
As we wandered the glass-walled rooms, it was easy to see how an engrossed software engineer might be distracted. Row upon row of desks were separated by low partitions, with hardly a solid wall in the entire place. In that sense, the design absolutely matches Winning’s business ethos.
“When it comes to our people, we want to be as transparent about our business strategy as possible,” he explained. He also wants to reinforce equality among team members wherever possible, hence his entire C-level team have exactly the same desks as the rest of the staff, without being sequestered into private offices.
The headquarters house employees from every department and branch of The Winning Group’s business, including Appliances Online, Winning Appliances and their supporting HandyCrew admin team. As a result, the majority of employees share space in the enormous, open-plan rooms, creating a sense of “one in, all-in” (another of the Group’s values).
We were shown the various departments and spaces the business utilised for its daily operations, before being treated to a panel-style Q&A with Winning and a few of his executive colleagues.
As we soon found out, The Winning Group’s top people are more than just a tight-knit group of professionals, they also happen to be Winning’s friends and family – a trend that’s more a result of necessity than design.
As an example, the Group’s Head of Customer Experience, Sally Boileau is also Winning’s aunt. Given that the Group sprang from an established family business in the first place, Winning has been keen to maintain the tradition.
“I’ve got a lot of friends working with me, and that’s literally because I couldn’t source anyone else to work with me in the beginning,” Winning explained. “Appliances Online started out operating from a fairly dark, dingy-looking warehouse and that seemed to turn a lot of potential candidates off.”
Given the current environment that Winning employees enjoy, there’s no doubt that some of those potential candidates are now regretting passing up on getting involved at the ground-level.
The panel proceeded to discuss the Group’s inner workings, technology and culture, before fielding a number of questions from the attendees. Of particular interest was the business’s approach to the integration of their various processes across their different brands.
“When I first took over as CEO of The Winning Group two years ago, I went about integrating and assimilating all of our infrastructure into a centralised system,” Winning said. “When we first began these various departments were all completely siloed, but after amalgamating we found that a completely integrated approach wasn’t necessarily beneficial either.”
The business now shares an ERP system and many other functions, but some combined systems and teams needed to be separated out so that each brand maintains its integrity and dedication to serving its customers. To that end, each of The Winning Group’s brand relies on a separate e-commerce platform, supported by dedicated support teams.
“I wanted to ensure that when an Appliances Online customer service representative takes a request, it’s from an Appliances Online customer, thereby ensuring consistency and a quality experience.”
Attendees were then treated to lunch and provided time to network before the tour’s next event took place. At this stage, we were joined by Mark Coulter, Co-founder of Temple & Webster, who proceeded to interview Jane Cay, Founder of Birdsnest and Sally-Anne Newson, ASOS Australia Country Manager.
Both Birdsnest and ASOS retail fashion and have a clear mission to fulfiling the needs of their customers, it’s here that the similarities end. ASOS has quickly become a global phenomenon, remaining a pureplay operation while expanding globally; ASOS caters for 20-somethings of all genders, shapes and sizes. By contrast, Birdsnest has a focus on female customers, is best known in its home territory and was considered for Multichannel Retailer of the Year at the recent Online Retail Industry Awards due to the innovative work it has put into the in-store experience in its brick-and-mortar outlet (look forward to reading more on this topic in the coming weeks).
Despite these differences, both Cay and Newson exhibited a passion for both their product and their target consumers, describing the strategies and results of the various initiatives both brands have been working on, each in their own way.
Last, but not Least
As the day was fast approaching its peak, 30+ temperature, the tour group enjoyed the air-conditioned ambience of the bus as we travelled the 45 minute journey out to OzSale‘s offices. It was here that we were greeted by Co-founder Carl Jackson, who was more than obliging in giving us the grand tour.
Just as in the case of Shoes of Prey, OzSale’s working space is dedicated primarily to the processes required to maintain the business’s website, supply and content. While the flash sales model required OzSale to have regional distribution centres, it doesn’t actually have as great a need to warehouse stock as a traditional retail brand might.
“From a supply chain perspective, we don’t actually own any stock,” Jackson told us. “We’re primarily a consignment model.”
While the brand might not own any stock, it does have some need to hold a certain amount of it, Jackson elaborated. In order to improve delivery times and keep its maximum, 21-day delivery period promise to customers, the team discovered that having more stock on hand alleviates many of these issues.
Another interesting point of difference we discovered at OzSale’s HQ is its photographic content-creation capabilities. Upstairs, models flaunted fashionable apparel in front of campaign-themed backdrops, while downstairs the same gear was shot on a white background in order to capture the multiple product angles required for product-page imagery.
These processes have been honed almost to the point of becoming a science, Jackson told us, with the capturing of product imagery treated almost like a production line – a necessary requirement for a business that may need to capture up to 50,000 products in multiple angles per month.
Not only that, but OzSale maintains similar studios in each of its regional sourcing locations, which includes the US and the UK. Any one of these studios processes upwards of 5,000 images per day from start to finish. In fact, the brand’s efficiency and experience in both campaign and product imagery have become so well known, that Jackson is getting expressions of interest from partner brands.
“Some of our brand partners in the US have even begun enquiring about outsourcing their own photography needs to our studios,” he said. “I like to think of us a discount retailer that is still able to provide quality content and service to our customers, even though we’re not charging anything close to full price on our items.”
After that, the whirlwind tour of Sydney’s online retail businesses was drawing to a close, and the bus transported us back to The Star for a quiet, celebratory drink.
All in all, the day was lauded a success by attendees and hosts alike, as everyone expressed their excitement at seeing behind the scenes of some of Australia’s best-known e-tailers, while also meeting and getting to know new compatriots.
“We are thrilled at the success of the inaugural eCommerce expedition. The positive feedback we received from our members from this event only highlights the need for supporting the education and insights piece for retailers in Australia,” Greenberg said. “NORA will continue to actively drive this with similar events in the future.”
The team at NORA have already begun to receive messages of praise for their new event, while the host retailers themselves also highlight the tour’s significance.
“The Australia Post and NORA eCommerce Expedition serves as a great tool for up and coming online retailers and demonstrates how our local industry has really come of age,” said John Winning, CEO of The Winning Group. “Appliances Online and a handful of other great retailers laid a foundation for online retail in Australia, so when I started out there wasn’t a lot of case studies and people that I could connect with. I ended up making connections with retail entrepreneurs in Europe and America, who became my mentors. Now Australian based eCommerce start-ups can connect with local retailers who have overcome challenges to achieve a level of success and growth that is being recognised both nationally and internationally. These expeditions will ensure that we can keep our local talent onshore and nurture them, ultimately growing our eCommerce industry.”