A conversation with Luke Chatelain, the VP of Innovation at West Elm, about innovation in the consumer experience. Within the current retail marketplace, connected consumers have reshaped the landscape so fundamentally that brands that were strictly brick and mortar are now entering into the digital realm. How can brands extend their shopping experience into digital in a way that resonates with their loyal customer base? We discuss the art of striking a balance in the curation of experience.
[00:01] Welcome to Season 2 of It’s Worth Doing Right. I’m your host, Olivia Hayes: passionate pragmatist, and the Head of Product Strategy at Accomplice. In our first season, we explored the intersection of creativity and data with some of the best in industry. In season 2, we’ll keep that focus, but venture into specifics a bit to explore the concept of the connected consumer. From devices to social media, today’s consumers are interwoven into the digital space in ways that weren’t previously possible. In this season, we’ll explore how that connectedness impacts what we build for them – from cities to sofas.
[00:34] Within the current retail marketplace, connected consumers have reshaped the landscape so fundamentally that brands that were strictly brick-and-mortar are now entering into the digital realm. With so much buying happening on mobile, brands must extend their shopping experience into digital in a way that resonates with their loyal customer base. All of this can be a difficult balance to strike, and innovating an establish and beloved brand takes both an entrepreneurial spirit, and experience, testing, and iterating. We decided to speak with someone who has both.
[01:05] I’m Luke Chatelain, VP of Innovation at West Elm.
[01:07] West Elm is so ubiquitous, but it’d be awesome to hear your perspective on it.
[01:10] It’s surprising, you know, West Elm was part of the Williams-Sonoma brand, which obviously has Williams-Sonoma as part of its suite of brands, as well as Pottery Barn, Mark and Graham, and Rejuvenation. I think West Elm is definitely one of the most interesting and unique brands in that set, And in some cases, I don’t know if it always seems like it fits with the other brands. That’s just because I think of where we’re located: in Brooklyn, and in Dumbo, in New York. I think a little bit of our ethos, while it has really brought itself together in this world of retail, has been a digital brand in general for years. We actually do a significant amount of our sales both online, as well as in our stores.
[01:51] It’s nice, because I’m stepping into and being a part of a brand that, while it has a strong foundation in brick-and-mortar retail practices, jumped on the digital bandwagon very early – and for a retailer that sells home furnishings, couches, chairs, tables, etc, we do a ton of sales online. Which is actually, I believe, a much larger than a lot of our competitors, who are still very focused on sort of in-store brick-and-mortar. That’s given me and this team internally a leg up on thinking digitally, and I think the people that work here, because they’re aware of that. We do put such an emphasis on how things work from a digital perspective. It’s much more about infusing the culture with the ideas from the startups that I’ve worked at, and from the digital agencies I’ve worked at, than anything. Everyone’s excited about it, and they know they need to figure it out. So we’re just sort of taking that snowball and continuing to make it bigger to truly call ourselves a digital brand.
[02:53] What do you personally attribute that early adoption of the digital space by West Elm? What do you attribute that to? Is there something culturally that made West Elm spy that early on, and hop on the bandwagon earlier than the other retail brands?
[03:05] I think, the Williams-Sonoma brands as a whole really were aware they had to put emphasis on this. And I think that has probably happened for a lot of different reasons. The first and foremost is that some of our brands, like Williams-Sonoma specifically, end up becoming a pretty direct competitor to places like Amazon and the “unlimited aisles” sites. And because of that, I think they saw the writing on the wall well before some of our brands – maybe even like West Elm, I don’t know for sure – knew that they had to move to digital before they got their lunch eaten. So as a whole, we sort of got the rising tide that lifts all boats, or something like that. We all sort of acclimated to that, and pushed forward. We do at times struggle the same way a lot of brick and mortar retail sort of establishments struggle, in that we’re still learning about this stuff. It wasn’t as nascent or as ingrained in what we did early on. While we may be a little bit behind some of the more standard e-commerce-based providers, we’re doing a heck of a job to catch up. And I’m really proud of that job for sure.
[04:10] You were talking about more of the cultural aspects of thinking like an agile tech company. What’s been so far your biggest lesson learned in trying to help a more traditional retail brand adopt some of those agile tech company philosophies and culture?
[04:26] I think it’s just the mentality. There’s this idea that that I think is pretty stuck-in for a lot of retailers – especially when it comes to marketing, or when it comes to copy, or content – that everything has to be perfect. And you can evolve and iterate through different mocks and designs to get perfection, but in reality, what working for startups and working in an agile environment demonstrates and shows is that it’s more about getting stuff out in front of users, and getting direct feedback, and understanding how to utilize that feedback to iterate on what you’ve developed. I definitely have said the phrase “fuck it, ship it” here more than I’ve said at any startup I’ve ever been at. Because there is that idea of “let’s get it out there in the world, let’s see what happens, let’s take that risk and let’s see how it comes back.”
[05:16] And the nice part is that you can minimize your risks through A/B testing, and lowering the percentage of traffic that sees different features, and just understanding how to build agile prototypes. Understanding that idea of “failing fast”. Honestly, that’s the biggest thought process – empowering and allowing people to understand that that is a method forward, and everything you put out there doesn’t have to be revised 300 times and checked off by everyone in the organization. You can learn about things in real time with digital, and get really quick feedback, especially with the amount of users that we get on a day-to-day basis on our site.
[05:51] Have you seen shopping behavior of consumers change as the brand evolves and becomes more digital? How has the evolution of that behavior impacted the way you position your products to those consumers?
[06:03] Shopping behavior has massively changed. It’s sort of interesting: I’ve watched a lot of things come and go. But at the same time, if you focus on providing really quality user experience for customers, that’s really what they’re looking for. So yeah, definitely – the shopping behavior of consumers has changed dramatically. For us, we’re not scared of that. It’s much more of an ebb and flow of the difference of communication methods, the different devices, the different sort of ways that people engage with your brand. And at least from my perspective, it’s really exciting because we are very good at connecting and creating really quality user experiences for our consumers. My job is really just expanding and extending a lot of the stuff that we’re very good at in-store from our customer support department, et cetera, into a variety of different digital channels that we know will have an impact.
[07:00] So I don’t know if it’s changed too much of the way that we position our actual tangible products that we sell. It’s still very important for us to curate and merchandise our entire catalog of products. But what it definitely does is it impacts the different digital products that we create. We have aheavy focus on mobile, as everyone will tell you, but we’re even pushing it into a slightly different direction than some people. We’ve completely skewed native apps where we have little to no native app presence, and we’ve put a ton of effort and focus into rebuilding our mobile web to be very app-like. Alongside that, marketing channels continue to grow with social and the different capabilities there. And in reality, as long as we’re providing really interesting, unique customer experiences both online and in-store, it’s not that big of a change in what we’ve always done. It’s just more about finding those different places to interact with consumers.
[07:54] I love the word “curate” that you used. I was thinking that West Elm is one of those brands for people where if you go to a location, you’re going find something that you want. So it’s less about “I need a sofa, so I’m going to go look for a sofa.” It’s like, “I know West Elm has stuff I like, so I’m probably going to look for my sofa there – and my sheets.” How do you retain the consistency of a brand like that while you’re trying to innovate and take it forward into new spaces?
[08:26] The first thing that talk about too is that curation and merchandising is definitely a huge piece of who we are. We want to leverage not only our ability to provide really great products on our site and in our stores, but also the fact that we have a full fleet of in-store design consultants who will work with you for free – or if you want to do bigger projects, for a fee. They’ll actually provide you with tons of really great recommendations to tie things together. Alongside that, we’ve taken the standard user experience that we provided in-store for free. And we’ve started to accelerate that online through a variety of different channels. We’ve added a whole grouping of capabilities to visualize our furniture through 360 renderings, and we’re working through VR and obviously have some AR tools out there as well. But at the end of the day, the reality is that we’re unique in this world because we provide quality products. What we’re really trying to do is provide methods to build great experiences on top of those quality products and services that we’ve always done. It’s just more about extending and adding onto that.
[09:40] How do West Elm’s retail spaces and digital experiences support each other in creating that full consumer experience?
[09:45] It’s definitely a huge part of our brand. We really do believe that the in-store experience is just as important as the online experience, especially for the type of good we sell. When you’re selling large-scale considered purchases, there’s a lot of interest in seeing stuff, and sitting on it, and interacting with it in a meaningful way. And a lot of people still are focused on shopping that way. What we want to do is continue to merge those two channels together. So we’re consistently thinking about building and looking into ways that we can give you an in-store experience in your home, and we can augment the in-store experience with digital through information, or potentially augmented reality, or all sorts of great things like that. My vision of where we’re trying to go is that this’ll be totally blurred – if you want to get a semi-in-store experience from the comfort of your home, we’re going to attempt to provide that for you.
[10:42] And at the same time, if you want to browse in-store like you would on the web, where you can have reams of information you can pull up, and can quickly and easily see different swatches or different colors of the sofa that you’re looking at? We want to provide that. For me, it’s definitely in this place where I want to just bring these two together as holistically as possible because of the value and capability that both of the different channels provide. And we thInk they’re both really, really valuable. That’s definitely core to our strategy of, like I said earlier, continuing to build these qualities or experiences. I’ll probably harp on that, because I just care a lot about building digital products that are beneficial. I hate technology for technology’s sake. It’s worthless to me. I like to build things that people think are cool and unique and interesting, but we want to make sure that they have benefit either for the consumer or for getting the consumer information. That is something that we really enjoy.
[11:38] To take it back to the beloved nature of the West Elm brand, that’s what you’ve been doing all along, whether in an analog manner or a digital manner. I think about the West Elm store that’s here in Austin: it’s downtown, it’s really close to our Whole Foods, and a lot of times, people will walk through it like it’s a museum or something. Just to look at the pretty things, and touch the pretty things. And then maybe they go home and they shop online, but the experience of walking through the space is so enjoyable for them that they treat it kind of like an activity.
[12:13] Totally. And for furniture like what we sell, and for big pieces that you’re not buying from us every day or every week? There is a desire to go in and see what you might want, and see what you might aspire to get in the future, or what you might ask for for Christmas. As people do stuff like that, we contInue to just want to provide them with tools in-store that can continue to increase and enhance that experience. So yeah, sure, if you want to come in and passively look around? That’s awesome. Take a look. But if you want to interact? A lot of the things we’re working on try to bring multiple pieces of furniture together in AR and VR environments, so that you can see how stuff will work together. And to see how it will actually end up in your home. We think that stuff’s really important, and honestly, it actually goes alongside a little bit of the thought process we have around each individual store itself. All our stores are super unique; they’re all run by a shopkeeper. The shopkeeper has the ability to bring in local items that are specific to the area. No one in our headquarters dictates what they bring in. A lot of this stuff that they bring in for the stores is really only sold in that store, specifically. Often times it’s not even online. Allowing that and hopefully making it a destination, and adding other digital capabilities to make that more interesting will keep our retail environment strong, as they have been for quite some time.
[13:36] It’s also that curation piece that you mentioned earlier.
[13:40] It’s huge. It definitely is. And like we mentioned earlier too, that’s definitely a big selling point for us. That’s where we feel we can compete with the unlimited aisle type of vendor. It also really comes into why we’re focusing a lot on personalization. Not that that’s a new thing – every brand is focusing on personalization. But for us, when we don’t have an unlimited aisle of things to serve you, we have to really work to figure out like, “Oh, what is your style? Let us provide you with products that match that style so you can quickly and easily find them and sort of see what matches,” you know. What you’re really looking for.
[14:17] That’s a completely different value proposition, because a lot of times, what we see is the overwhelm of endless options. Creating an experience that is more curated and tailored to your style is actually more impactful in terms of conversions than just presenting people with unlimited options.
[14:36] That’s our goal. To be honest with you, we built this thing called the Pinterest Style Finder and um, it was funny. It was like a little hackathon project we built in like two weeks, or something – probably under that, I can’t remember now. And we got a FastCompany write-up – and that was great! Like hey, great, awesome. But the reality of the situation was that we were trying to create a unique way to do image recognition, and allow users to give us a Pinterest board – which we know is a very common thing they do in our store. A lot of times people come in with a Pinterest board and say, “this is my style, can you help me find some products I’d be interested in?” So we built this small tool that you can just use with your actual Pinterest board online, and we’ll ingest it and do image recognition against our suite of products. You sort of tell us what room you’re trying to fill, and we’ll provide you with another curation against our current set of products that are more specific to the imagery that you’ve given us. And that’s the type of stuff we really are focusing a lot on. It’s how can we bring that to the consumer, how can we give them that capability to even get further curation so that we hopefully can find that exact product that they’ve been dying for.
[15:39] Absolutely. That’s really rad. You were talking about how you’ve invested in your mobile web experience – what insights from your mobile web experience have been most impactful to the way that you think about moving West Elm forward?
[15:51] The reality of the situation is that… well, pretty much everyone on the internet at this point, our mobile traffic has spiked. Now we’re seeing more mobile visits than desktop visits. And at the same time, we understand that we need to provide elite experiences for mobile web in general that can be impactful to users while they’re passively waiting in the line at Starbucks, or at the post office, or while they’re actually in our store, or while they’re looking to check out. That’s what we’ve really thought about and focused on. Some of the other pieces that we’ve done that are just from a mobile experience perspective is that we’ve really started to utilize the gesture-based way people interact with their phones, as well as taking a lot of cues from social media. We’ve actually moved our mobile beta site, which is out there at mobile-beta.westelm.com – and we’re currently testing and iterating on it. We actually have gone to a full-bleed lifestyle image, instead of the multi-crossed, white silhouette-based images, and that’s led to increase in numbers and increase in revenue per visitor. We think it does have to do with the fact that we are giving people experiences that are very similar to what they’re used to interacting with. Those are the places we’re really starting to gain insights from, and are starting to evolve how we think through the mobile device. For a long time, most sites just took their desktop site, us included, and sort of squashed it into a mobile device. But what we know and what we’re starting to figure out is that the usage of these devices happens at a variety of different points that are somewhat different than the way that the desktop site is used – which is very specifically one or maybe two different tasks-oriented. We know that this takes a different role and place for people.
[17:46] As we move into a world where there are more device-connected consumers – and you’ve mentioned AR and VR – but what do you see as some of the emerging opportunities for retail brands?
[17:56] The funny thing is that anything I say right now is going to be something that someone else’s said, right? You know, you’re going to say personalization. You’re going to say VR. You’re going to say machine learning. You’re going to say image recognition. You’re going to say, I don’t know. A handful of other things. The interesting thing, and that the challenge that we have, is that it’s not so much that we have to figure this stuff out first. It’s more that we have to figure out how to really implement this in a quality way that’s meaningful and impactful for our users. And that’s what we’re really focusing on: how do we take some of these things and bring them into either the environment in store, or the environment online, and make them impactful?
[19:49] So as with all innovation, we’ve got to find a way to implement these things in a realistic way. What’s the biggest take-home for brands that want to try and find a way to work with these ideas in a meaningful way?
[20:00] For me, it’s definitely finding the tactical use-cases for things that can continue to move the ball forward today while being prepared for those larger things that probably won’t impact or really change the way that we look at our retail world for another few years.
[20:16] What do you feel like is the most important quality that you bring to your role?
[20:22] First and foremost, all we’re attempting to do and my small innovation group – and again, we’re small, we’re scrappy, we run ourselves like a startup. We “use the startup stack” where if a piece of technology works, you use it. What we try and do is validate or determine if new technology and new capabilities is important for us to utilize to provide better experience for consumers. That’s the ethos that we run in. The most important quality, getting back to your actual question, is just more an entrepreneurial mentality. I honestly bring what I’ve done at startups and what I’ve done in agencies to the forefront, and just try and accelerate it in a world where it hasn’t been accelerated quite as hard as I think as it needs to be.
[21:11] I look back at my time working with R/GA for Nike, and helping to work on things like nike.com and the Nike skateboarding app. Nike was looking at us to basically be a nimble-ish startup that was thinking through new ideas and helping them implement them. And I do think that it’s interesting, because I am seeing more and more brands start to try and bring innovation labs and implement what I would refer to as an agency-like model in-house – and give someone a little more freewheeling and capability. And I think if you can bring that entrepreneurial spirit, if you can bring that mentality, for me that’s been the most important thing. I’ve been happy because people have been very receptive to that. You do have some naysayers. Always have, “oh, well, that’s not how it’s done,” or “you can’t do it that way.” But often times, if you can show them that it can work, and it could possibly work better that way, people will fall in and see the light. And often times, that leads to bigger and better discussions that move the organization forward in more meaningful ways, besides the little work that we’re doing over here.
[22:16] So what projects are you working on right now, either personally or professionally, that you’re excited about?
[22:22] That’s a good question. I’m working on a couple of things right now professionally that I’m really excited about. A lot of it has to do with taking the different methods that people are using to interact with their devices, and bringing those to the forefront in a more meaningful way. Specifically when we talk about presenting user experience on a mobile device. We’re really just reaching out and taking cues from basically every part of everyday usage of your device. So think the Tinders of the world. Think the Snapchats of the world, think the Instagrams of the world. What we’re challenging ourselves to do as a little bit of a fun project is trying to understand how we can infuse the mobile experience with different gestures that have become the norm, specifically for people who are under the age of probably 40, maybe under the age of 35.
[23:11] The other thing that’s really exciting is that we challenged ourselves from a technology standpoint – since that one’s definitely from a user experience standpoint – to rebuild all of our machine learning algorithms that we always wanted to have from the ground up. We’ve challenged some of our backend engineers who had really only taken a course in machine learning, and we provided them with the capability of learning about it, and expanded their skillset. And so far, we’ve been insanely positive with the work that we’ve done, and the capabilities that we’ve had, and the deployments we’ve had. Not only from user perspective – from internal people are excited, and are utilizing some of our machine learning algorithms to try and predict the next product that they should place, or predict the style that they think will go well. That one’s really, really amazing as well.
[24:00] Innovating within a connected consumer space should work like ripples in a pond: taking the ethos of a brand, and impacting every touchpoint of the consumer experience. For West Elm, this means focusing on their unique value propositions around curation and personalization, and extending those into the digital space in a meaningful way. Creating a quality experience for their users is a key tenant of their brand, both online and in-store.
[24:26] No matter what the environment, companies that vet new ideas through the lens of their ethos and value propositions create a consistent experience that consumers can trust in a brand built to scale in whatever direction the future takes them. Thanks for joining us on today’s conversation. If you’d like to learn more about our family of agencies or give us feedback, visit us at itsworthdoingright.com, or drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. And remember: if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.