This past week, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Marion Thomas, whose most recent role is director of Global Site Merchandising at Wayfair. Thomas has a tremendous amount of experience when it comes to selling online, and she was kind enough to both impart her knowledge to me and let me recount our conversation for this column.
I’ve edited down the discussion below, focusing on Thomas’s tips around fostering mutually beneficial supplier-retailer relationships, along with her valuable recommendations for effectively marketing high price-point products online.
Q: In your view, what does a good supplier-retailer relationship look like?
A good supplier-retailer relationship needs to be centered around the customer, on both sides. A good retailer focuses on solving for the needs of their customers — understanding what they are looking for, what problem they need to solve, and helping them find the right product for that purpose.
A supplier needs to learn from their own research — and also from the retailer — what the customer is looking for, and make sure that their product is designed to meet those needs and is merchandised in a way that is going to address what the customer is looking for.
If both sides focus on the customer, it’s a winning relationship.
Q: What does the opposite look like? Some of the common pitfalls you’ve seen?
A bad relationship on the supplier side usually originates by just focusing on price. No party gets good results if you just look at your financials, what your spreadsheets tell you, and then try to optimize for profit margin without really understanding what drives sales up or down, or returns. Part of a winning relationship is really utilizing the insights generated on both sides.
To that point, the retailer needs to understand what the customer goes through. What does the customer journey look like? What are the questions they have when they call sales and service? Why do they return a product? Are they satisfied?
Then, they need to funnel that information back to the supplier so they can use that insight to improve their next product line, improve their existing merchandising and make the product experience better.
Q: Do you see best practices in terms of this consumer focus across the industry, or is it more scattershot?
I went to a trade show recently, and I started meeting people who are directors of marketing on the supplier side. These are people who create the content for e-commerce. That’s a very new role, but a lot of suppliers don’t have them.
The reason for the oversight is that many suppliers still think of their sales cycle as buyers coming in, buying a bunch of things from their collection, for brick-and-mortar stores with a finite inventory, and then it’s the role of the retailer to merchandise it.
But that burden of merchandising the product is falling increasingly on the supplier’s side, and that’s going to continue to happen more and more. Especially because with e-commerce, the retailer relies on the supplier to create their own differentiation points. The customer is going to pick what’s most important for them, based on the ability of the retailer to showcase that product in a way that’s going to solve for the needs of the customer.
I think this is kind of a new way of thinking for many suppliers. Especially in furniture, which is not yet fully on e-commerce. They’re still shifting.
Q: With your background in furniture, what are your recommendations for compelling consumers to purchase items that cost hundreds to thousands of dollars, and doing that online without touching and feeling the product?
There’s not a magic formula that you can apply to every single product. There are some high-end products that don’t need much content to sell. For example, something like a KitchenAid mixer is highly branded and highly recognized — as a consumer, you may already know that you want that mixer. You just need to know where to find it.
Where it becomes more complicated is for expensive, big and considered purchases, especially something that is going to be the focal point of your house. A lot of the products that I focus on fit this category.
Again, I think you need to understand who your customers are. What are the different types of journeys your customers will go through? What is it that is driving their need for that product? What’s their time frame? For example, are they looking for something immediately, or is it something that’s part of a remodel or moving? What is the reason for their purchase, and also what’s important for them? Is it quality? Is it style? Is it durability? Is it all of the above?
Then you need to make sure as a supplier that you address all of these questions from your customers with the right type of content on all of the different retailer websites.
The right type of content could be images. Everybody’s got images of their product, but not everybody’s got the right type of images. When you think about furniture, for example, you want to be able to see the product by itself, but also see it in an environment, and potentially in different styles. If it is a piece of furniture that could fit in a traditional or a modern style, you want it stylized in different ways so that people can picture it in their house.
Along the same lines, I think suppliers need to invest in videos, but not just video for the sake of video — it needs to help answer specific customer questions — things that you cannot do with pictures, for example. Let’s say your product has a mechanism, something that you need to see in action — develop video for that.
Written and structured content is also very important, especially for findability. Am I going to show up in the filter or on-site search? It’s important to avoid the desire to oversell your product. When you’re writing about your product, it’s very easy to go a little overboard. But what creates a good relationship between the supplier and the retailer, and ultimately the customer, is really selling the product for what it is.
If you say it’s a high-end nightstand but it is made out of particle board. When the customer gets it, they’re going to be disappointed. But if they understand that they’re getting a good quality product for the right price up front, they can be very satisfied with that same piece of furniture. Properly setting expectations is very important, because the customer cannot see or touch the product.
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