Merchandising: Discipline and Data
JoAnn Martin, VP of Marketing
Allison Lau, Site Merchandiser, Clarks
Allison Lau first discovered a love for merchandising back in the days of Myspace! Now a site merchandiser for the shoe company Clarks, Allison talked to us about how this 195-year old brand approaches ecommerce. She also shared the secrets to her success in the field: consistent performance tracking and real life customer intel that make for a world-class data-driven technique.
Connect with Allison on LinkedIn
Be the last place where people are shopping.
The truth is people are not loyal anymore when they’re shopping around. With 40% of respondents indicating purchases from new retailers and brands during shutdown, why not give the people what they want?
“What we can do is try to market it a little bit better, merchandise it a little bit better.”
Allison Lau reminds us that there are so many details that you want to make sure you’re looking at. With so many competitors out there who could be doing better than you, you have to be bringing your a-game in ecommerce right now.
Check out this week’s episode to understand how data and discipline in merchandising can make this possible.View / Hide Transcript
JoAnn: [00:00:57] Hi, Allison, can you introduce yourself for those listening who may not be familiar with you?
Allison: [00:01:01] Yeah, absolutely. So my name is Alison Lau.I am from Vermont, uh, went to school at Stonehill college. It’s right outside of Boston for those who aren’t familiar. I majored in marketing. After school, I kind of realized that I wanted to go into e-commerce just because I loved fashion, but I didn’t really want to be in retail.
[00:01:25] Like specifically in store, because I knew that the wave of the future was going to be all online. So that’s kind of how I got into e-com. I first started with, J Joe, that was like one of my first internships and I really enjoyed it. And then I started getting into Clark’s and from there, I fell in love with site merchandising.
JoAnn: [00:01:46] So from marketing to merchandise, what made that leap for you?
Allison: [00:01:50] Well, I’ll be honest, in school, I didn’t really love marketing. I thought it was gonna go cool and hip and like a lot to do with social media, which it does, but for me it felt like I just could have learned that on my own. I’m a millennial. So it’s like, you’re born with this marketing knowledge anyway. So then I was like, this seems like things I already know, but some of the foundational concepts that you learned in marketing do relate to e-comm.
JoAnn: [00:02:17] Have you ever seen the movie Goodwill Hunting? There’s that scene where he walks up and he basically comes out to the guy like you’re paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for an education you could get in $11 of light, late fees, late fines at the library. And it’s that concept that we have Google and I think most of them, like in our generation have grown up knowing that you don’t have to memorize things. You just have to know where to find them.
Allison: [00:02:41] Yeah.
JoAnn: [00:02:42] And it goes to your point and the internet is the future, but also the present . All we have to do is search something. We’ll find it.
[00:03:00] But I was looking at classes online and they were running maybe between like a thousand and $3,000. I was like, uh, I don’t really want to do that. I mean, like that takes a lot of time and I have to get a grade and it’s just expensive. But then I go onto Skillshare, which is this great website that has a bunch of classes on it, but for much cheaper prices. It was only $11, but I think I could have found some for free, honestly.
JoAnn: [00:03:24] You’re taking coding classes and I know you, you told me a little bit before this call, that that’s one of the kind of educational routes you’re taking as you develop your skills as a merchandiser. tell me a little bit about what prompted that curiosity and desire to get into learning the development side of things a bit more.
Allison: [00:03:42] So actually, um, back when Myspace was a thing, um, that’s actually where my coding interests, first started.
JoAnn: [00:03:51] I have to ask, did you have music on your profile?
Allison: [00:03:55] Well, I had a bunch, but I remember one song was “Everyday I’m hustlin” by Rick Ross.
JoAnn: [00:04:02] I love that. The beat drops when you arrive on Alison Lau’s Myspace profile.
Allison: [00:04:08] So MySpace was kind of where I got started with the coding. But then I started going out shopping a bunch with my mom and that’s just a hobby of ours. That’s how we bonded. We went shopping a lot and we would buy things at like a discount price.
[00:04:22]When I was really, really into fashion in high school and middle school, I was only wearing my clothes, like once or twice so there wasn’t a point in me buying like expensive clothing. So I would buy my clothing for cheap and then I’d flip it on MySpace. I’d just sell it there. So that kind of sparked my interest with making my page look extra cool. So I would always manipulate the code, and try to get more people to come to my page.
JoAnn: [00:04:44] So you were fashion merchandising in MySpace days as a middle schooler. This was not a, like, get a degree and then go down a brand new career path. This was a passion of yours even before your career.
Allison: [00:04:57] Yeah, exactly. Fashion has always been a major interest of mine.
[00:05:01]I guess MySpace is kind of where it started at. But bringing it back into today, I didn’t really think that I needed to use it that much because there’s front end developers, you know? So you don’t really, as a site merchandiser, you don’t really touch that as much.
[00:05:15] The coding belongs to the coders or the front end developers and you kind of work with them a little bit. But at Clarks, how the site merchandising kind of works is I have, some control over the code. So, the format of the site right now and where all the creative assets are laid out there’s templates, template and code.
[00:05:36] So then I’ll just switch out the code every single week, or whenever we switch over the assets on site. So you kind of do need to know a little bit of code, but, it’s more so just replacing certain pieces within the code.
JoAnn: [00:05:50] Got it. Okay. You really looked at it and because you, of course, had “Everyday I’m hustlin” on your MySpace page, you’re very proactive and you’re a hustler and you want to get in there and make changes. Yeah, that’s awesome. Great.
Allison: [00:06:03] And not having to reach out to the front end developers all the time. If you’re able to edit the code yourself or change it to get what you need. That’s a really great feeling too, instead of having to ask someone else to do it and know what you’re actually doing.
JoAnn: [00:06:17] So I’m going to switch gears here for a second. I’m curious because Clarks has been around for over a hundred years. 1825, I think. So it is not a new, up and coming DTC brand that is a digital native, like there’s a very rich heritage behind the brand. And of course, for people who know Clarks, there’s some very iconic products as well.
So if you think about like Wallabees or the desert boot, you think that’s Clarks. As a merchandiser. How do you take such an incredible rich brand heritage, but also think about how you’re keeping things fresh and new and moving on the site?
Allison: [00:06:57] Yeah, absolutely, the desert boot and wallabies, those are a part of, what we call originals at Clark’s.
[00:07:03] So those are always going to be core to who we are. And of course we always want to, you know, push those and make sure that they’re merchandised well. However, those sets, they are the core of who we are, those kind of just sell themselves, you know, so people that’s how people know us. Right. So we don’t necessarily have to push those onsite like everywhere you go because it’s just easily found. You can just search it or easily find it in the navigation at the top of our page. So then we put our attention and focus on other styles by really having creative assets that feature those other styles.
[00:07:39] We want our customers to see that we do other things as well, and you’re still gonna get that great, comfort feeling from these other styles.
JoAnn: [00:07:47] So how do you think about that? I’ve noticed on the Clarks homepage, you rely a lot on categories to tell a story across that homepage.
[00:07:56] So you have your originals displayed in your also relying on very timely trends, like a spring category or a very specific, subset of a category on that homepage.
[00:08:08] How are you thinking about what’s performing on that homepage when you’re putting a really iconic category against a trending category? How are you measuring that and how quickly do you turn over that homepage to optimize it?
Allison: [00:08:21] Yeah, so we currently use a vendor called content square. There’s a lot of metrics that you can use to analyze the performance of your site and all these links on your site. So essentially what it does is it maps out your website and then it tracks these key performance numbers that you’re looking for.
[00:08:39] So like for example: the conversion rate, how long someone was looking at this page for, how quickly they exited the page and key metrics like that. So when I compare, when I look at the performance of the category lengths, week over week, I’m mostly looking at what the conversion rate is.
[00:08:59]If you’re gonna relate it to originals, I mean, a lot of the times originals just converts really well for us, because again, that’s just the core of who we are, but then you go back to other, we still have to promote, categories that aren’t doing well and we’ll feed you with them.
[00:09:14] And over time it kind of depends. So if you were going to put the DRA or like boots in the category in the middle of summer, and then also have the sandals category there, obviously the standards are going to have a much higher conversion than the boots are, and then vice versa. When you go into winter sandals aren’t converting as well, but the numbers will show that way.
[00:09:36] Some things that are not as obvious, like maybe clogs, those might do well year round, or in the colder parts might only do well, during the summer fall type of time.
JoAnn: [00:09:48] What is one thing that you believe about site merchandising that you think a lot of people or fellow merchandisers might disagree with you on?
Allison: [00:09:57] I’m not sure if this is a viewpoint that merchandisers do have, but, I know that some people might get in a cycle of not constantly tracking the performance of the categories or product pages or the performance of products selling in general.
[00:10:14] They might launch something, check it after one week or two weeks, and then just kind of let it slide after that. In my standpoint, you gotta constantly be checking things all the time because maybe something is performing well for the first two weeks or one week or even the whole month. But then after that, it starts to decline.
[00:10:34] And if you’re not constantly checking it, how would you know that it’s starting to decline? And then how would you know to do anything about it? With how quickly things are changing e-commerce you need to be on top of your game at all times.
JoAnn: [00:10:47] I love that standpoint. I mean, measurement in merchandising, marketing, the overall performance of your site is so important for moving quickly.
[00:10:55] And you see that there’s definitely this spectrum in e-commerce of I’m going to launch my shop and tada. It’s done. We’re launched. This is our brand. This is our site. This is how we’re curating our products. And from there on out, we’re going full on promotion.
[00:11:13] And then on the opposite end of the spectrum, you have people like you who are looking at merchandising and saying, okay, yeah, it’s launched. That’s the beginning. Now we’re going to get into looking at how very specific parts of the site, specific categories, specific products, specific functions, or navigation points on the site are performing, and we’re going to move the needle for the business in optimization from there going forward.
Allison: [00:11:38] Yeah. I think, especially nowadays with COVID and, how horrible it is and how these businesses need to deal with it these days, you really need to be quick on your feet. Obviously everyone’s very reactionary right now and we don’t necessarily want to be, but you have to be, you gotta move quickly and just come up with things as quickly as possible.
JoAnn: [00:11:57] Yeah, let’s talk about that, tell me how you’ve thought about that going forward.
[00:12:02] I mean, all of us obviously have the personal ways this is affecting us. So it’s not just an external business impact. Our entire worlds are shifting constantly in our personal lives, with our families financially in terms of our future and how we look at that.
[00:12:19] When you come into work, you’re saying, we need to be on our toes, we need to be proactive. A lot is changing. How have you done that to today and how are you doing that going into planning for a holiday season that might be the most fluid, unique online shopping holiday season yet?
Allison: [00:12:38] Yeah. I’ll be honest it’s just like crazy what’s going on.
[00:12:42] And a lot of times you don’t know what’s going on. So people are not used to dealing with this. And so e-commerce, it’s a little bit different because you can be on, you’re open 24 seven, right? But do people really want to buy what you have? I mean, especially with Clark’s, we have a lot of dress shoes.
[00:12:59] We have brown work shoes, right. So that’s a lot of what our assortment is. So do people really need that right now, especially if they’re not going into the office and knowing that, what do we need to do to get people onto our website and buying what we have to offer? So I know that a lot of companies are just easily going to promos, which we’re doing right now too, but it’s not what we want to do.
[00:13:24] We want to sell full price as much as possible. So it’s a lot of making sure that we’re merchandising to the best of our abilities, and that there’s no, mistakes so that, if a customer is going to our site versus another site and shopping around, we want to make sure that they’re shopping, with us last, we want to be their last stop.
JoAnn: [00:13:45] You brought up a great point there that’s. ” Do people want or need what we have right now?” And you see a lot of brands out there that are kind of bundling or repositioning products. They’re no longer yoga pants. They’re work from home pants. Right? So like, how are you thinking about that?
[00:14:01] And with the product that you have, I’ve seen your site and you’re not selling work from home clogs, but like, how are you thinking about being empathetic to your shopper, as you know, that they are probably thinking about things very differently right now while also keeping your message and offering on your site, very compelling for those shoppers?
Allison: [00:14:24] So, like you said, I think that a lot of companies are switching over to comfort, and, what you can wear at home. So lounge wear everything comfortable because no one’s wearing a business suit at home. No, one’s wearing dress shoes at home.
[00:14:36] We can’t change our assortment obviously. This was the assortment that was delivered this season to us and we need to still move through, all of the products that we have.
[00:14:44] But what we can do is try to market it a little bit better, merchandise it a little bit better. So instead of putting focus on a category called dress casual or casual shoes, I’m going to create a new category and call it at home comfort. Something that ties back to the reality of what we’re in today, and then throw in styles that are more relatable, like slippers, slip-on shoes, sneakers.
[00:15:08] It’s definitely difficult, because they’re not shopping the way that we would want them to shop. So that’s kind of what we did to really deal with that issue there.
JoAnn: [00:15:15] Are there things that you’ve seen through this time period for you personally, as a merchandiser that you want to carry forward with you?
Allison: [00:15:23] Advice that I want to continue to take forward for myself is to make sure that if you have a weekly task that you do make sure that you do it, even if it’s like a thing that isn’t completely necessary, like constantly tracking the performance.
[00:15:35] I set up a tracker to see how creative assets are converting every single week. Are people interacting with this creative asset? Yes or no? What’s that conversion rate week over week?
[00:15:45]And those are some things that I don’t necessarily need to do every week. It’s not a priority compared to checking the selling, but I think that you should stay on top of those types of things because I want to see if I can use that asset again.
[00:15:58] And then you have to look back at all the reporting. If you forgot to report that week, then you’re slowing yourself down when right now we’re in crisis mode and you need to work quickly, find things correctly and get what you need.
JoAnn: [00:16:08] That is such a good picture of discipline and preparation. So for folks who are not yet merchandisers, but on their teams, they’re fulfilling a lot of merchandising functions… think of a marketer or an overall e-commerce manager who does a lot of the day-to-day of merchandising, but they want to get into the level that you’re at, where you’re a focused site merchandiser or really amazing brand. What advice would you give them?
Allison: [00:16:35] I would say brush up on your Excel skills.
[00:16:38] In college I feel like we just weren’t taught that well enough but they tell you all the time, you need to know Excel, but then they don’t really teach you it that well in college, at least that was my experience. And then I get out in the real world and I’m like, Oh, I don’t actually know Excel. A lot of merchandising is reporting. I’m in Excel all the time. it’s just pulled up on another screen of mine to the left while I’m working on something else, but I’m constantly using it, building reports and that’s how I analyze performance.
[00:17:07] So if you don’t really know it well, then that’s really going to be a huge part that sets you back. But if you do know it well, no pun intended, but you’re going to Excel, you know?
JoAnn: [00:17:18] If you’re not careful, Microsoft’s going to hire you away just for marketing their Excel product.
Allison: [00:17:24] Excel is huge because there’s a lot of analytics within site merchandising. Number two attention to detail. And I think that this is advice and like any type of role, but specific to this role too, because, like I said earlier, you want to be the last stop where people are shopping because people are not loyal anymore when they’re shopping around.
[00:17:43] They’re going to go wherever they have the best price, really. But there are other things that you can add in to make them want to shop with you, right? So making sure that your site looks the best it can be, especially compared to your competitors. So noticing, simple things like spelling errors, or noticing that the images aren’t set up correctly, like they’re not in the correct order or that your product descriptions need to be a little bit more descriptive so that customers can read a little bit more and know what they’re actually buying.
[00:18:10] So there’s so many details that you want to make sure that you’re looking at because there’s so many competitors out there who could be doing better than you and then customers might shop there instead. Another thing would be, constantly shop other websites. I’m browsing other websites all the time.
[00:18:28] I look at a lot of our competitors, see what they’re doing if they’ve implemented anything new, and recently on the Clark’s website, we just implemented Klarna.
[00:18:37] It’s a buy now, pay later service. For example, if you bought four pairs of shoes today, and that’s just $400 and you didn’t necessarily have that, you go through Klarna, and they technically pay for it, but you pay for the installments. So instead of paying $400, you’re only paying a 100 today.
[00:18:57] Then it opens up opportunities for more people to show up on your website.
JoAnn: [00:19:01] We do that at Searchspring a lot where, of course everyone right now shops online to your point and people will just be shopping in their off time and find a really great example of site merchandising. It immediately goes into Slack and people in the company are inspired by that because that’s our clients, they do site merchandising.
[00:19:21]What are some of the more recent trends or things you’ve seen some sites do that really inspire you to think differently about how you merchandise your site?
Allison: [00:19:30] This isn’t really that new, but it has a huge impact and that’s UGC, user generated content because customers can really relate to it.
[00:19:39]I mean, just speaking on a personal level, when I see UGC and when I see other, influencers or just other customers, wearing the shoes or wearing this dress and having that be on a website, I’m definitely more likely to buy whatever the product is that they’re trying to focus on just because I know it’s like a real person and I have context. It’s another person who is similar to me and that has a huge impact on conversion.
[00:20:04]And then for our customers, it’s them knowing that it’s not just like a company trying to push a random product. Other customers like this product too, and it looks good on them.
[00:20:14]Steve Madden does a really good job of it. All of these trendy websites these days, like those ones that you get hit with all the time with ads on Instagram, those are the ones that use a lot of UGC, but honestly, sometimes I’ll shop them because of the great UGC that they have.
JoAnn: [00:20:29] Oh, yeah, I’m totally with you. I have maybe a more air quotes, athletic body type than the average fashion model. and so if I see a particular item on a model on a site, quite often, I will think that’s not going to look like that on me. And you kind of take a moment now, I think on the shopper side, like as a shopper, you kind of have this not distrust, but there is a moment of hesitation or friction if you’re not able to visualize it for yourself.
[00:20:58]And so I fully agree with what you’re saying, having real users, real customers in context, like a picture of a person wearing something to brunch with their friends and this selfie there is so powerful against a shot on a model.
Allison: [00:21:12] Yeah, exactly. Another cool thing that I’ve seen with that is, what Puma and Timberland have been doing is that beyond just going out and getting these images from influencers or just from day-to-day people, there’s now this feature where customers can upload their own images to the site.
[00:21:30]Of course the brand has to approve them or not before just letting anything go onsite. But it kinda makes the customer feel special as well, like, wow, this is a great opportunity for me to potentially be featured on site, you know? So it kinda makes the customer feel special as well.
JoAnn: [00:21:45] And you start to see this almost influencer culture around UGC.
[00:21:50]You definitely have your Instagram influencers that are very common now, where they will promote a company’s product very often just to eventually become a paid influencer of that product. And I’ve started to see that a lot more in user-generated content as well, where you’ll see a very highly stylized, high personal branding value picture on a fashion site. I don’t know if you’ve seen this on some sites where you’ll see the same person across multiple sites, almost building a brand out of just submitting UGC, which I think is such an interesting kind of outcome or accidental outcome of that trend.
[00:22:31]What are some of the other things you’re seeing, in fashion, but also how do you borrow from outside of your space?
Allison: [00:22:39] So for inspiration of how I can be a better merchandiser myself I also work a part-time job on the weekends. So I also work at Ministry of Supplies, an apparel company, dress wear, but all performance based. It’s kind of techie and it’s actually a really cool brand, a really great brand that I’ve been working with for over three years now, but I work in their retail space.
[00:23:01]So what’s great about it is that I’m selling both in person in brick and mortar, but also in e-commerce. So I can kind of tell how people are shopping in person and I can directly just ask them any question that I want, versus if I was online, you can get reviews or you can have people coming to you, but I can’t directly ask the customer like.
[00:23:21] Oh, why did you shop this way? Or why did you do this or that, but in person, I can observe them in real time, which you can kind of do online too, but it’s a little bit different and it seems like it’s a little bit harder. But in person, it’s easier because everything that you’re doing is right in front of you.
[00:23:37] So your answer is right in front of you. And kind of how I translate it and get inspired, with what I do online, because I know upfront, firsthand, how people are shopping.
JoAnn: [00:23:47] That is such a unique perspective to be able to have very frequent conversations or interactions with a shopper in person and then be able to translate it to thinking about it online. As a digital marketer, a digital merchandiser, it can be very easy to use your site and your site metrics as a disconnect between you and the shopper. So instead of thinking about the shopper, you’re thinking about my conversion rate or product performance or whatever is strategically important at the time, as opposed to thinking a person comes into the store, how can I help them?
[00:24:23]It’s not numbers. It’s customers. Like how are we speaking to a customer? That’s a really cool point of view.
[00:24:30] So I have one last question for you before we wrap this up. What do you wish for the future of e-commerce? Think five years ahead, we’re all on hoverboards and driving electric cars and everything’s automated, and we have cell phones that can read our minds. What does e-commerce look like for you there and what are some of the things that you feel the industry should be doing to accelerate getting there?
Allison: [00:24:56] I think that there’ll be shifting away from retail even more. So the focus is going to be on e-commerce and how we can deliver things quickly and efficiently and in the format that customers want to experience.
[00:25:12]I mean, this has always been a trend less about what businesses want to deliver, but what customers want delivered to them specifically.
JoAnn: [00:25:20] What does that mean for you as a merchandiser?
Allison: [00:25:24] I can’t forget that we are, we’re selling to customers, even though we’re online. They need to be at the forefront of every single thing that we do.
[00:25:30] So put ourselves in the position of a customer, how would you shop? How, how do you shop on Amazon? You know, and why do you like that place so much? Because it’s quick and efficient. and everything is on there and they have great prices. some of those things, you might not necessarily be able to compete with, like in relation to Clarks per se, but, we got to constantly be innovating.
[00:25:53] Think of new ways of just making sure the customers are having, they’re getting exactly what they want and they’re shopping how they want, but we got to make sure that we tailor our experience to them.
JoAnn: [00:26:04] Love it. Alison, thank you so much for joining us. If people want to find you and connect with you, follow up with you, what’s the best way for people to get to know you more after the podcast?
Allison: [00:26:16] Yeah, absolutely. You can always find me on my LinkedIn. My backslash is Allison C Lau, And then also I have a food Instagram.
JoAnn: [00:26:26] Yes! You didn’t tell me about this!
Allison: [00:26:28] I should’ve started at the beginning with that, but that’s another way I’m always welcome for any types of questions, especially food.
JoAnn: [00:26:37] What is your food instagram handle?
Allison: [00:25:39] My handle is @Chinesefoodgod.
JoAnn: [00:26:42] Oh, okay. I’m going there now.
Allison: [00:26:46] But yeah, those are two ways that you can reach out.
JoAnn: [[00:26:49] Awesome. Well, thank you, Allison. I have had an absolute blast talking to you and geeking out on merchandising!Hide Transcript
Highlights Worth Hearing
Merchandising since Myspace
How this 195-year old brand stays fresh
Do people really want what your selling?
What consistent performance tracking looks like
User-generated content, customers, and conversions
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