Century 21: E-Comm in an Off-Price World

Balancing brick-and-mortar and e-commerce is a challenge for most retailers, but it's even trickier when you're an off-price retailer selling designer merchandise at discount prices. It's one thing to sell last season's designer merchandise in your off-price brick-and-mortar locations. It's quite another to offer it online where you can reach a much more vast audience, and where the distinction between your offering and that of the brand name site may not be as clear. After all, your vendors don't want you watering down their business or their brand by offering what may be the same or similar merchandise at deeply discounted prices in a similar online environment.

That's a challenge for Century 21 Department Store, acknowledged Sarah Dorsett, the company's vice president of e-commerce and keynote presenter at the Apparel East Conference in New York in October. As one audience member noted, concern about upsetting its vendors was likely one of the reasons behind off-price retailer Tuesday Morning's decision to shut down the e-commerce portion of its site two years ago. Today, its web site offers a good way to browse merchandise, but to purchase it, you have to make your way to one of its more than 800 physical locations.

Beyond vendor concerns, e-commerce is a particularly tricky business for an off-price retailer. Its appeal  ? the ability to offer low-price merchandise by purchasing excess inventory and off-season fashions — can be a drawback for an e-commerce environment. When you're dealing with a constant stream of one-off items or one-time lots of merchandise from a variety of department stores and manufacturers, it is more difficult to ensure that you'll have the inventory to meet e-commerce demands, or to be able to keep a website updated with current merchandise.

E-comm and brick-and-mortar: finding the balance
This is the environment Dorsett stepped into when she took the job as Century 21 Department Store, which is known for designer merchandise that is offered at 40 percent to 65 percent off the original retail price. Established in 1961, Century 21 is headquartered in Manhattan, and today has 10 brick-and-mortar stores, most in New York and New Jersey and one in Philadelphia, and plans to open several more, including one in Florida.

Since she began, Dorsett has been working to establish the "right balance" between its e-comm and brick-and-mortar presence.

What does that look like? For one thing, "we do not have same assortment in stores and online," says Dorsett, who says that the Century 21 customer profile is wide-ranging, with "some who just go for the designer racks" and some who buy much more across its categories, which include women's and children's apparel, footwear, outerwear, lingerie, accessories, cosmetics and home goods.
The team is also trying to identify the best balance of content and commerce to hit the sweet spot with customer engagement, and it's found benefit in bringing its creative and business teams together when it comes to moving closer to that goal.  Also helpful? "Trying to keep it simple," says Dorsett.

One reason the company is replatforming its e-commerce site, in fact (which it hopes to relaunch in January), is because its current platform doesn't allow for the simplicity the team would like to achieve. "We want the customer to walk away [from the web site] with a good experience, not an order number," she says.

There's a lot of trial and error that goes into finding the right marriage between its e-comm and brick-and-mortar experiences, and one of the ways it is trying to do this is by letting e-comm guide the message Century 21 is going to share. "We've tried to tell a story online [and create an] immersive experience," says Dorsett. Recently, the e-comm site was "talking about coats, and we shot it in Iceland." Another focus has been about kicking off the holiday experience. "We try to fill the screen, and to have interactive content, so it's not only a flat experience, but also has motion." Century 21 uses videos to connect the story, which Dorsett says she thinks resonate with the consumer. "Of course we use brands and promotions too, but this immersive experience works well."

Building on a foundation
While all of these developments are important, Dorsett stresses the importance of not becoming distracted by the idea that you need to be constantly spending on technology. What's really important, she says, is that you have a foundation first. Century 21's site needed some foundational updates that it could build upon appropriately.

"The easiest thing is to have a strategy first and to keep it simple." It's not always easy for senior execs to understand what you're trying to do, she says, so you need to be able to tie your efforts to a clear strategy that demonstrates ROI, or if there isn't one, that clearly demonstrates the benefits. "For example, will this change enable us to not have to hire a lot of people?"

In designing its site, the company focused on making it very mobile, high touch, responsive and built as wide as it can be. "The mobile experience was important. We included a lot of filtering options that make it easier to shop." With so many consumers now browsing and buying on their phones, finding ways to connect the mobile experience to the in-store experience is top of mind. "What tools can you put inside the store to create an interactive experience? How do you make the customer understand that there is this possible experience in the store?"  One of the areas where Century 21's site is not strong is in search, and this is by design — the site is more product-focused vs. brand focused, and that goes back to that all-important relationship with its vendors.

As for social media, the opportunities abound, and Century 21 is testing to see what works and what doesn't. "The amount of information on Facebook allows you to do some amazing things that can scale. You have to change some of the KPIs … but we've been able to do some exciting tests. Because that data is there we will be able to use it." In addition to Facebook (where the retailer has more than 226,000 fans), the company has a presence on Twitter and Instagram.

Ultimately, "the goal is to embrace change," says Dorsett, but to do so in a balanced way that is smart for your company's business model. When the internet first got going, you could hardly find anything to buy online, she says. "And then when you could, all you had to do is write a promotion and everything would sell out. Now the challenge is, how much does the technology really cost, and how can you automate really fast? It takes a lot of cost and time to get product online. I'm not sure if those challenges pan out if you have a smaller assortment."

Jordan K. Speer is editor in chief of Apparel. She can be reached at [email protected].
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