Inside Dooney & Bourke's E-commerce Replatform

For leather goods company Dooney & Bourke, a much-needed e-commerce replatform in October 2014 was at least six years in the making.

"We innovated heavily until 2001, and then we stopped," says Peter Beaugard, director of brand strategy for Dooney & Bourke, which was founded in 1975 as a men's belt and suspender brand, operates a couple dozen U.S. stores, is in 700 doors as a wholesale partner to retailers such as Macy's and QVC, and has expanded from its signature handbags into a lifestyle brand that offers accessories, leather goods, and apparel.

The company's first web presence emerged in 1997 as an evolution of its mail-order catalogue business through a site powered by Oracle's iStore — received as a freebie because it was already using the warehouse and order management systems from the software giant.  Beaugard, speaking at the Fashion Digital New York conference, describes the platform as "not built for our purposes" and says Dooney & Bourke's version of the iStore was unsupported after 2008.

Over the years, the brand's e-commerce team managed to cobble together a site that worked, tapping eight to 10 individual vendors each managing specific functions, from search to international shipping to color change. But the wake-up call finally came two years ago when a newly hired executive vice president took a fresh look at the business and determined that Dooney & Bourke was sorely underindexed in e-commerce: just 10 percent of total business was coming via web sales. And although the writing had been on the wall for some time, Beaugard says, the e-commerce team convinced senior leadership to pull the trigger — or miss out on the holiday season, which accounts for as much as 35 percent of annual business.

"When we started the process we just wanted to [catch up to] our competitive set," Beaugard admits. "That sounds terrible but there were baseline expectations that weren't being met with our site."

And so the company embarked on the replatform, joining ranks with the 21 percent of e-commerce execs who also have a web store overhaul underway, according to Forrester Research's 2014 report "Is it Really Time to Replatform Your E-Commerce Site?," while another 34 percent are planning such a project in the next two years. Moreover, replatforming topped survey respondents' investment priorities (52 percent), and nearly three quarters said their current platform wasn't up to future needs around scalability, business complexity and volume. "That's what's driving the frenzy right now," adds Chris Langway, vice president, e-commerce business strategist for Optaros, a systems integrator that worked on the Dooney & Bourke replatform.

Like many companies today, Dooney & Bourke's goal is for e-commerce to become the flagship for the brand, and Beaugard's team looked for vendors that offered the kind of "table stakes" features such as guest checkout, ratings and reviews and cross-merchandising that were lacking from its old site. Because customers often searched by collection, material or usage, the e-commerce team resorted to painstakingly cross-merchandising each product in three separate areas of the site. The brand had also enlisted a third-party SEO firm to boost its search rankings with little result.

With the mantra that "rising tides raise all ships," Beaugard says that the replatform was envisioned not to compete with its wholesale partners but to augment their business, serving as a social commerce hub that further captured a highly enthusiastic core customer base. ("We had incredibly high engagement with consumers but I don't know why they were so engaged" other than the great product, he says of the old site that was little more than transactional.)

Fairly quickly Dooney & Bourke whittled down a list of contenders to Demandware's Commerce Cloud (favored by competitors such as Tory Burch and Kate Spade), Magento (which offered what seemed to be the best brand experience, Beaugard notes), and Oracle, which soon became the "dark horse" — although Optaros offered up a reference application that could significantly shorten the Oracle implementation timeline. "We were able to look at the three platforms and work backwards from constraints," he explains. "It's important to understand what has to be true to make sure your project is successful. We wanted an implementation timeline of less than six months, which made it difficult for Magento to work."

Hosted versus on premise also emerged as a key consideration; at Dooney & Bourke's co-located headquarters and factory in Norwalk, Conn., winter storms have been known to knock out power from time to time. "So essentially that means e-commerce would be down and the cost would be enormous," Beaugard explains. "We realized a service model was what we needed, and that started to fracture the field."

Working with the directors of IT, e-commerce, and advertising, as well as a marketing associate and the "in the trenches" e-commerce guys who essentially keep the website running, Beaugard (at the time an external consultant) says the team was staunchly split between the merchandising and marketing staff who preferred Demandware and its superior customer experience and online marketing capabilities, and the IT and back-of-house executives who were leaning toward Oracle, which seemed to offer better synergies with backend systems.

In the end, however, a careful comparison of Demandware's revenue-sharing model with Oracle's licensing model revealed which was better suited to Dooney & Bourke's business. Licensing made a lot of sense until Oracle noticed that Dooney & Bourke receives fairly high traffic, especially around a promotional event in December that yields nine times the average volume. "That pushed us into a different category from a licensing standpoint, which made revenue sharing not that much more expensive than licensing," notes Beaugard. Senior leadership reviewed the TCO models and found Demandware and its ability to provide a consistent, responsive web design across devices to be the clear choice.

Of the top three platforms, Demandware's innovation seems to be the most focused on the fashion vertical, observes Beaugard. "There are other e-commerce sites that are very good about omnichannel, which isn't a big concern for us, so we don't want to buy innovation that we're not going to use," he says.  "All [providers] innovate, and rapidly; make sure it's appropriate innovation for your needs."

Dooney & Bourke also underestimated what worked out of the box — and what out of the box means once it becomes your box, Beaugard notes. "There were a lot of systems that could do what we wanted but it started to fall apart at the customer experience," he says. The company uses between nine and 11 integrations to provide various features — which likely would be true for any platform, he notes — from social login, customer reviews and alternate payment methods to gift cards and international shipping. Optaros leveraged Demandware's basic catalog structure to design highly visual shoppable lookbooks, a more cost-effective and efficient approach than building a custom solution that wasn't out of the box.

For Beaugard, one of the most important takeaways from the process is that working with a systems integrator is like a courtship. "This is the most [trying] time in our relationship," he says of the day Dooney & Bourke went live with the new site in October. "We've gone through courtship, fell in love, stayed in love, and now … the fists are out the past four weeks. We're hoping to have a long-term relationship, and I think you have to have difficult conversations to build these lasting relationships. You have to push the limits of the relationship before you know how strong it is."

What's more, he says, it's the systems integrator, and not the software platform itself, that can make or break the process.

Beaugard also encourages other brands considering a replatform to seek out companies not necessarily in the fashion vertical but willing to share information. "E-commerce is evolving so quickly that there's no playbook in front of you," he adds. "It's kind of triangulating information from three or four sources."

Though it took some time for Dooney & Bourke to come to terms with the revenue-sharing model, with endless internal debates raging on over cost versus investment, Beaugard notes that senior leadership had the right attitude toward Demandware: "‘I'll give them two percent more if they can promise me an additional eight percent in revenue."

Jessica Binns is a Bay Area freelance writer specializing in fashion, retail and technology.

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