Ian Marquis joined Stonewall Kitchen, a 28-year old specialty food producer, in late 2015 to overhaul the company’s ecommerce efforts as its ecommerce manager. The York, Maine-based retailer has grown tremendously over the last few years, now boasting a thriving ecommerce division, ten retail stores and more than 6,000 wholesale accounts in 42 countries—and it just completed a successful 2019 holiday campaign.
With NRF 2020 coming up, we caught up with Ian on the 2019 holiday season results. In this interview, Ian shares his thoughts on how the company navigated a compressed holiday buying season, the trends retailers need to pay attention to in 2020 and how Stonewall Kitchen is leveraging Salesforce to meet its goals.
Stonewall Kitchen and Salesforce are both headed to NRF next week – more details on our presence and how you can connect with us are found here.
Q. As we head to NRF to discuss this most recent holiday season and the future of retail, what have been your key takeaways from this past year and holiday season?
The 2019 holiday season had many retailers, us included, holding their collective breath, due to the late timing of Cyber Week and the compressed shopping period in December – something that last occurred in 2013. To prepare for this, we completely revamped our promotional calendar for November and December, digging deeper into a variety of discount strategies and incentives during time periods where we would previously have held back and been more conservative in our efforts.
Ultimately, I think what we found was that there is a limit to how much an incentive can redirect or inspire shopper interest and purchasing behavior. For example, it is next-to-impossible to drive Black Friday scale sales in early November, no matter how sweet the deal – and we’ve known and seen this firsthand for quite some time. In addition, when the timing of a season shifts as dramatically as it did in 2019, a dramatic shift in strategy is the right decision. Shopper trends put water in the well, a strong gift assortment primes the pump, and the right blend of promo strategy — in our case global discounts, shipping promotions and bulk purchase incentives — open the tap for that demand to be acted on. Had we not taken the time to arm ourselves with new tactics and been willing to take risks on untested offers, I think we would be looking back on a season with a very different outcome.
Q. Now that we are entering into a new year, what do retailers need to focus on to be successful in 2020?
With each passing year, it becomes increasingly difficult to retain customer loyalty – particularly to a brand. The “Amazon effect” hasn’t only changed customer expectations surrounding free, expedited shipping – it has also massively decoupled product loyalty from corresponding brand loyalty. For “pure-commerce” retailers who aren’t also manufacturers, this change has created ripples in price competitiveness and conversion rates – but overall, trends point upwards.
For brands like ours, there’s the additional challenge of finding ways to guide customers towards the scenarios where you have the most control over the presentation and merchandizing of your products – because that is where we present the strongest value proposition. By continually finding newer, better ways to keep transactions “in our court”, we can encourage acquisition of loyal customers and brand advocates who will return again and again – rather than customers who happen to be momentarily drawn to a specific product.
Q. How has leveraging technology, such as AI, helped Stonewall Kitchen succeed in the specialty retailer category?
One of our biggest challenges in e-commerce is translating the in-store experience a guest would have when shopping at one of our flagship company stores into a digital shopper journey, where paths-to-product are more numerous (and control over the exact context in which our guest encounters our product stories is greatly reduced). We have seen great success leveraging AI to “fill in the cracks” in that story, providing relevant recommendations and pathways to conversion in situations where we simply don’t have the time or data to craft the entire experience by hand. Whether we’re cross-selling one product from another, prompting action when a guest encounters an empty search results page, providing deep below-the-fold jumping-off points to products, or guiding a guest to products that help them meet a promotional threshold and complete their order – AI (like Salesforce Einstein) allows us to tell deeper, more consistent merchandising stories that our guests have responded extremely well to.
Q. What makes Stonewall Kitchen’s approach to ecommerce unique in the world of specialty retail?
As a manufacturer and specialty food and gift retailer, Stonewall Kitchen “wears a lot of hats” in the ecommerce space. Not only do we leverage stonewallkitchen.com to sell our own manufactured products directly to consumers (in which context, it serves as a virtual version of our brick-and-mortar Company Stores), but our website and storefront also functions as a vital brand resource for our business as a whole: providing detailed product information that aids both our brick and mortar retail shoppers and our wholesale division, serving as a post-purchase resource through our extensive bespoke recipe catalog, and more. Additionally, we drive a large amount of our annual direct to consumer revenue during the six-week holiday peak. All of this ultimately requires an ecommerce strategy that is flexible, innovation-minded, yet also stable to preserve a strong core.
Q. Can you talk about how Stonewall Kitchen is using Salesforce?
Our online storefront is built on Salesforce Commerce Cloud. We’ve deployed Einstein Recommendations, Predictive Sort, Search Dictionaries, and Commerce Insights through that storefront to aid in building an evolving, first-class commerce experience. We use Salesforce Marketing Cloud to manage our guests’ communication preferences, trigger and deliver all of our storefront’s transactional emails, handle our regular bulk email program, and drive smart email journeys based on guest behavior,including account creation and welcome workflows, browse abandonment recovery, abandoned cart recovery, and RFM-driven (recency, frequency, and monetary value) segmentation emails. As we move into 2020, we are in the process of deploying Salesforce Community Cloud to power an expanded resource portal for our wholesale customers, brokers, and sales representatives.
Q. How has your approach to your ecommerce business changed in recent years since deploying Salesforce?
Stonewall Kitchen entered the Salesforce ecosystem in 2015, at a time when we recognized that our digital commerce and communications technology stack and overall strategy were in need of serious expansion and overhaul. Our partnership with Salesforce, and our day-to-day use of the technology, has been at the core of our growth and success in deploying and growing a dynamic AI-augmented storefront, extending custom gift basket and expanded bulk offerings to our guests.
Q. How has Salesforce helped you in your role and growing the capabilities of Stonewall Kitchen?
Salesforce’s has been invaluable in providing us with powerful, flexible, scalable, and, perhaps most importantly, user-friendly tools that act as efficiency-multipliers for my team as we work to continually evolve Stonewall Kitchen’s selling strategy, digital presentation, and the overall functionality of our ecommerce business. Whether we’re carefully sculpting search results in Commerce Cloud to provide a highly-tailored guest experience, deploying smart product recommendations and dynamic product categories using Einstein, or caring for our customer and prospect database – my team and I are using Salesforce technologies to power those activities. Additionally, circling back to the user-friendly aspect: as my team grows and changes, the ease with which I am able to onboard new users and grow them into power users is huge.
What advice do you have for future Trailblazers operating in the retail space?
Today’s direct-to-consumer marketplace is more competitive than ever, and that trend shows no signs of stopping or slowing. Customers are inundated with options – so much so that it’s now virtually impossible to exert complete control over the sales cycle or even the context in which customers encounter your products. Because of this, it’s vital that you consider every aspect of your offer and how it’s presented to the customer: the product assortment, options for customization, opportunities for bundling or kitting, promotional discount strategy, shipping and delivery options, payment methods, customer service experience, supplemental materials, opportunities for pre- and post-purchase engagement – the list grows longer every year. Customers now want more than simply your product – they want your product, tailored to their needs, purchased on their terms, and engaged with in a way that adds value to their life.
To me, the most satisfying part of being a retail Trailblazer is finding ways to cut through the noise and chaos of today’s multi-channel, ever-changing DTC ecosystem and demonstrate the value and appeal of products that I know are winners. Sometimes that means reinventing an aspect of the shopper journey to remain competitive and avoid perceived “staleness”. Other times, it means branching out into an entirely new ways of doing business. Today’s shoppers crave meaning and context – they want products that are right for them, and that they can picture in their lives. As retail Trailblazers, we get to create that context. That’s a pretty powerful responsibility.