From catalogues to chatbots: The next stage of Boden’s digital transformation

Boden’s director of digital experience on ‘re-establishing’ the brand online and enhancing its customer experience.

British clothing retailer Boden is making its biggest ever investment in digital and technology as part of a renewed focus on the customer experience, that moves it beyond just selling online.

The brand launched its ecommerce offer in 1999 so it is no digital newbie, but 2015 was a tough year, with profit down by 25% and sales flat for the third year in a row. To counter that decline, Boden realised it needed to accelerate its digital proposition, and in 2016 brought in Phil Lewis from Ralph Lauren to implement the next phase.

As the company’s first director of digital experience, he is responsible for ensuring Boden survives what he calls the metamorphosis process – “where the caterpillar effectively goes blind, eats itself, creates a pool of goop and reconstructs itself to become a butterfly” –  thereby “re-establishing” the Boden brand online.

In a growing and increasingly competitive ecommerce market, Lewis says that means being innovative, creative and disruptive – all of which tie in with Boden’s renewed focus on improving the customer experience.

READ MORE: Boden’s founder on growing the brand online

“When I joined, we’d almost de-branded through the conversion and optimisation wind tunnel,” says Lewis, speaking to Marketing Week at Adobe’s Experience Forum event on Wednesday (21 February).

“We’re trying to recapture where we were earlier in the digital track. The catalogue doesn’t go away and that’s important to understand…but there are bigger investments going into digital, we’re starting to move much more into brand campaigns.”

Refreshing the digital experience

The Boden brand was built as a catalogue business and still doesn’t have a huge high street presence. It opened its flagship store on London’s King Road last year, and has an outlet at Hanger Lane in London as well as concessions in some branches of John Lewis. But more stores are on the cards, according to Lewis, who says the brand hopes to open more as part of a three- to five-year roll out plan that could include international markets.

And Boden is already experimenting with new technologies that will help it merge that offline presence with the online shopping experience. This includes image recognition, which Lewis believes can play a key role in both making Boden’s 1.8 million customers’ lives easier and transforming the purchase process.

If you don’t [disagree with each other] then no one’s pushing boundaries.

Phil Lewis, Boden

For example, Boden is looking at how it can use image recognition to take a picture from the catalogue as people are browsing and bring that into their online shopping experience – whether that’s finding out details about the product or adding it to their wishlist or cart.

Boden is also experimenting with how chatbots might play a role, alongside traditional mobile apps.

“Rather than having to go through the catalogue and write Post-It notes the whole way through, how can we blend those two experiences?” Lewis asks.

Currently, 95% of Boden’s sales come through the website. It has seen huge growth in mobile since it made a conscious effort to improve the mobile experience 12 months ago, with weekly mobile revenue now starting to outperform other devices such as desktop.

Mobile payments are another area Boden is looking to invest in but Lewis says they remain a “blockage area” for a lot of customers owing to security concerns, so his team are trying to figure out how to make it something customers will feel comfortable using.

However, Lewis is confident Boden will have all this new technology in place within a year, giving it a “much more refreshed digital experience”.

Lewis says Boden is also using new targeting tools to understand its customers better from a behavioural standpoint, including contextual, demographic and historical data, so it can “really start personalising those experiences”.

Growing the brand

Boden sees itself as having transitioned from a purely catalogue business to a multichannel, customer-centric organisation. But what does being customer-centric mean in 2018?

“Customer-centricity is almost an old term so feels like it’s having a renaissance in itself, but it just means that you start with [customers]; you’ve got to understand their mindset,” Lewis says.

“It’s a shift of mind from being more broadcast and product-led to really understanding what it is those customers want and need and how we best serve it to them.”

READ MORE: Why one sportswear group is hiring 60 marketers to fuel its growth drive

But Boden doesn’t only want to understand its existing customers; it wants to get to know the people who don’t shop with the brand too, which Lewis says is another key area of investment.

“You can’t base everything you do on what your current customers do or what they tell you because that’s not going to lead you to success, and it can make you step into directions where from a brand standpoint you start to lose [your] identity,” Lewis says.

“For Boden it’s about both understanding our existing customers but also stepping back and looking at the broader consumer base we’re trying to grow into. We know this about our customers, what do we need to do to attract more of those particular types?”

The healthy tension between marketing and digital experience

Boden currently employs more than 1,000 people and trades in 60 countries. Within digital – which was pulled from the marketing department to “make sure it was servicing the whole business” –  Lewis runs three teams: trading, product and user experience, and insight – the latter of which he’s only been in charge of for the past six months.

He continues to work closely with the marketing team. “While we create the experience and provide the insight, very much around how the customer is interacting and engaging with us, they’re looking at customer segmentation, customer groups, what do we need to do for those different areas, what do their individual markets need?” Lewis explains.

“It’s a two-way conversation; we really use their expertise and knowledge of the customers in their markets and their deep skill there, and then articulate how best to deliver that through a digital medium – whether that be around prioritisation of range, different types of content, or timing of delivery for their markets.”

It can create tensions, “but it’s healthy tension”, he says. “If you don’t [disagree with each other] then no one’s pushing boundaries. I wouldn’t say there’s any problems there but if both teams don’t push each other then you never really move forward.”

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