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Endless Aisle, Short Wait

BY Dan Berthiaume

Providing in-store customers with enhanced online “endless aisle” access to products can boost sales and customer service. But if the wait for endless aisle connectivity takes too long, its effectiveness is impacted.

This is the situation specialty eyewear chains Sunglass Hut and LensCrafters, both owned by parent company Luxottica Group SpA, faced in the second quarter of last year. Tom Schuetz, senior VP and chief technology officer Americas/Asia-Pacific for Luxottica, explained how the retailers used advance caching technology to eliminate long waits for endless aisle content to load on iPad tablets that store associates were sharing with customers.

So Tired of Waiting

“We were using iPads for site access for the endless aisle app,” Schuetz said. “We had a standard 1.5 MG business DSL into the stores and a 2.4 MG home page.”

Pages took up to 90 seconds to load. Luxottica, an Italian company with corporate headquarters in Milan and U.S. headquarters in Mason, Ohio, was familiar with content management solutions provider Stratacache and quickly engaged the company to pilot its Retail Cache solution that locally stores online content and applications.

“Response time dropped to between 1.5 and three seconds, with no improvement on the site itself,” said Schuetz. “We performed a site audit on the home page and further reduced response time by about 60% by being smarter in how we manage content and tagging.”

Catch the Cache

The solution works by deploying a small cache appliance in each Sunglass Hut and LensCrafters store, which is programmed to automatically store frequently used content. Luxottica populates and preconfigures content for each store on a pair of parent proxies at corporate headquarters. The parent proxies are networked to the store appliances (or retail proxies) to allow transmission of additional content that has not been locally stored. Schuetz explained how during the third quarter of 2012, Stratacache engineers enhanced the solution further.

“We noticed caching images to our Adobe Scene7 application was taking too long,” said Schuetz. “Stratacache worked with us to strip out the process so we only performed add/change/deletes nightly rather than full refreshes.”

This reduced a previously four-hour content update process to 30 minutes. Every third day, local caches are updated to balance corporate bandwidth load and improve processing. In addition, Stratacache set up the two major cache drives in the data center to pre-cache content and push it out to store-level retail proxies. Schuetz said this allows smaller files to be transmitted to stores, increasing caching effectiveness.

Building on Success

Since moving to full rollout this year, Sunglass Hut and LensCrafters have extended the product assortment they cache for endless aisle. They also added internal corporate content, such as workforce management applications and internal operational communications and reduced paper in stores, consistent with the Luxottica Green initiative.

Luxottica has rolled out the caching solution to all 2,000 Sunglass Hut stores and will soon complete implementation at all 1,000 LensCrafters stores. Looking ahead, the company will test deployment of the new iOS7 operating system to 7,000 store-level iPads using caching, so employees will not have to download using network bandwidth. Schuetz left off with an impressive statistic from the Sunglass Hut pilot that illustrates why Luxottica is so bullish on the prospects for the Stratacache solution.

“We met the annual goal of our endless aisle program within the first three months of the pilot,” he stated.

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Custom Furniture, Custom Experience

BY Dan Berthiaume

The furniture industry is often seen as old-fashioned and perhaps a bit stodgy. But that isn’t stopping Smart Furniture from applying leading-edge technology to provide a highly personalized online means of browsing, selecting, purchasing and even designing furniture.

T.J. Gentle, president and CEO of Smart Furniture, which primarily functions as an Internet retailer but also runs a flagship store in its headquarters town of Chattanooga, Tenn., said the idea of using technology to personalize online furniture shopping goes all the way back to the company’s founding in the late 1990s.

“We wanted people to go online and design and customize their furniture in a way that suited their specific needs,” said Gentle. “We manufactured our own products in the beginning and offered a drag-and-drop user interface that let customers design their own shelving.”

However, as the years passed, Smart Furniture realized the concept of customer design was larger than a single product line. So in late 2008, the retailer partnered with office furniture suppliers Herman Miller, Steelcase and Knoll to provide individual customers and small businesses with the same access to made-to-order furniture that traditionally had been restricted to large businesses.

“We selected manufacturing partners based on the ability of their supply chains to handle mass customization,” Gentle said. “We launched an in-house-developed customer interface called Design on Demand that lets customers make a couple of choices on the design of a product and visualize what they look like.”

As the popularity of Design on Demand grew, Smart Furniture started considering how to make the online furniture shopping experience even more personalized and customized.

“When people buy furniture, they want to know if it will look right in their space,” Gentle said.

To that end, in July of this year Smart Furniture launched the beta of an in-house-developed customer-facing application called Smart Space that uses 3-D tools to help customers visualize exactly how a product will look in the dimensions of their personal space. The retailer used a responsive design strategy to allow Smart Space to automatically optimize its visual display for the customer’s Internet device. According to Gentle, Smart Furniture is working on applying responsive design to the rest of its site. The retailer uses a .NET development environment, having updated from a Classic ASP environment.

In addition, Smart Furniture uses a pricing tool from sister company PriceWaiter that allows customers to name their own price for a selected item, which the company can then evaluate for acceptance or rejection.

In one more move toward customization, Smart Furniture plans to roll out a customized site experience by the end of this year. Existing customers have been placed into one of 66 segments, based on factors such as style and budget preferences, using a Nielsen database. New customers are being segmented through an optional “Style Quiz.” All customers will have the ability to turn site customization on and off and also to adjust their segmentation settings.

“We’re solving a problem that can’t be solved without using technology, in or out of the store,” Gentle said. “The customer can get a color swatch, but can’t really see what it will look like in their own space.”

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Hands-on Shopping

BY Dan Berthiaume

Hointer Inc., a Seattle-based denimwear retailer, may be new (the first store opened in April 2012) and small (two branded stores in Seattle plus a pop-up inside a Levi’s store in New York City), but its goal is impressively large.

“We want to build a different store experience of the future,” said Nadia Shouraboura, founder and CEO of Hointer. “The store is divided into two parts, a showroom and a microwarehouse in back. We took traditional piles of clothes out of the showroom and into the back, where they are packed like sardines. That leaves a massive floor space where we can present the product in great detail.”

The first major encounter customers have with technology is the Hointer mobile app, compatible with any Android, iOS or Windows device. Customers without a mobile device are provided with a Nexus tablet.

Customers with NFC-enabled devices can tap products to bring up a page that works like the product page of an e-commerce site, offering a product description, Instagram photos and even competing prices. Customers without NFC-enabled devices can scan a QR code to load the page. If a customer wants to try on a product (mostly pairs of jeans), they can add it to their shopping cart and type in specific colors and sizes.

“It works like mobile site shopping,” Shouraboura explained. “You shop with a mobile device while everything flies around you.”

As customers add items to their shopping cart, the cloud-based “software brain” running the store sends a signal to the microwarehouse to prepare their delivery to a dressing room. Store management software runs on a public Amazon Web Services cloud, but everything else is proprietary.

When a customer is ready to try on merchandise, they are either assigned an open fitting room or wait to be notified by a buzzing sound on their device that a room is ready. An automated system provided by a German manufacturer picks items and delivers them via chute to the dressing room within 30 seconds. Shouraboura could not divulge specifics of how the system works, but employees with tablets can also manually pick items and send them through the chutes if needed.

Customers place unwanted items in a return chute for automatic return to the microwarehouse. Different sizes or colors of items they return can be automatically requested for delivery with the app.

“There’s no need to leave the fitting room,” Shouraboura said. “The system finds the item in the size and/or color requested and delivers it.”

To check out, existing shoppers can simply leave the store with selected items and have an account automatically charged. New customers or those who do not want to register with Hointer can also check out using in-store kiosks or by entering credit/debit card information into the app.

“Returns are almost non-existent because the customer can try on so many items with no wait,” Shourabora added.

Future plans include a current pilot of personalized suggestions offered through the app, with features such as Instagram videos of models displaying the product on a runway. Hointer is also experimenting with in-store stylists who can recommend items to customers based on their preferences and add items to their shopping carts with mobile devices.

“We’re a technology incubator,” concluded Shouraboura. “We run daily experiments.”

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