Digital experience is a challenge but when achieved can be transformational

In the Age of the Customer, digital experiences provide a much-needed competitive differentiator

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with senior executives at an IR100 ecommerce business. Theses guys know exactly what they are doing and have an established track record of success. Their branding is smart and on-message, and their ecommerce storefront is hitting a lot of high notes (although areas still need work). During our chat, the topic of industry trends came up.

“What trends are you seeing in the industry now that’s significant,” one of these executives asked me (I’m using quotes here but really I’m paraphrasing).

My immediate reaction was to blurt out “mobile”. Had I been asked this question two years ago, I would have immediately said mobile web and mobile apps, both of which have completely redefined online shopping. Mobile was, and still is, at the centre of the known universe. Instead, I quickly said: “All I hear day and night from analysts at Gartner and Forrester and customers is the digital experience. It’s today’s competitive differentiator.”

In the age of the customer, when almost any product is just a click or two away and customer-driven change is remaking every industry, what’s to differentiate one ecommerce store from another? The digital experience.

If you’re not convinced of the power of digital experiences, consider these two real-world examples.

Digital Experience Deconstruction #1 - Omni-channel with small kitchen appliance retailer

I’ve changed the name of this business because my intention is not to celebrate a poor shopping experience, but to illustrate areas of opportunity. Let’s call this business Kitchen Mart. Based in Western Canada, Kitchen Mart is a very well respected retailer of electronics, housewares, and other household products. For ecommerce, the business runs on Demandware and it’s about what you’d expect from a decent but basic online catalog website. Kitchen Mart isn’t pure-play (i.e. online only) and operates more than 100 physical stores, which means they also operate the necessary physical infrastructure and logistical store support systems.

On a digital maturity level, as an organization I reckon they are a 7 out of 10 because they understand the importance of omni-channel shopping, offer ship-from-store, in-store pick-ups, and provide solid customer service. But for their execution of the overall “experience,” I have to rank them a 5 out of 10. Here’s why.

I recently purchased a small kitchen appliance from Kitchen Mart. It was on sale and the final price was lower than what Amazon was offering (despite popular myth, Amazon does not always have the lowest price). I ordered the appliance and had it shipped via regular ground courier. After arriving (good shipping time of about 4 days), I discovered that the product didn’t work. It wouldn’t turn on and the heating element remained stone cold. I double checked the electrical plug connection, tried other outlets around my kitchen, and re-read the instructions. No good. The poor thing was dead on arrival. I replied to my order confirmation e-mail to complain that the product didn’t work and wrote that I’d like to return it. I very quickly (within 30 minutes) received a helpful response. I was disappointed that the appliance didn’t work, but their quick and friendly response made me optimistic that they were going to make it right. They gave me a few options for returning it (I could exchange it or receive a refund, and either have a courier pick it up or return it myself to a physical store nearby). I settled for exchanging it at a store near my home. The friendly customer service rep gave me a Return Authorization Number and said the store would be expecting me. Like I said, I was disappointed but optimistic. My optimism abruptly ended when I arrived at the store.

The counter clerk seemed confused. She looked at the Return Authorization e-mail and asked me what she was supposed to do with it.

I lugged my dead appliance up to the “Customer Service” desk, which also had a sign reading “Online Pickups” so I knew I was in the right place. The counter clerk seemed very confused. She looked at my printout of the Return Authorization e-mail, and asked me what she was supposed to do with it. I paused, then recounted my story. Bought it online. Didn’t work. Spoke with customer service, who said I could bring it here for an exchange. Then the counter clerk actually said, “I really hate these online orders. All of our stores use different systems, so none of them work the same.” I said, “Yeah, that sounds frustrating”.

To be clear, this counter clerk was trying to be helpful and was expressing genuine frustration that was not of her making. It’s not her fault that store systems weren’t on speaking terms with each other, or that she hasn’t received enough training to deal with any online order issue. Truth is, this specific employee would be a goldmine of information about how to make the omnichannel experience better, because she’s on the frontlines and knows what’s really going on outside of head office’s boardrooms.

In the end, I didn’t get a replacement. They didn’t have one in stock, which is odd because the customer service rep said I could exchange it at that exact store. I left the store with my refund and a good example of how shopping experiences must be seamless across at all channels, or I’ll shop just elsewhere.

To recap, here’s how this digital experience could have been improved:

  • Store inventory and product availability data must be synced across channels (web/mobile, distribution centre, in-store). Remember, customers don’t care about channels and shouldn’t have to.
  • Provide adequate training for in-store staff.
  • An often-overlooked area of a digital experience program is people. Recruit employees from across the entire organization – head office, in-store, online, distribution center, etc. – and build a team around the digital experience program that’s agile and supports innovation. The goal is to transform the digital experience program to that of a technology evangelist and digital business catalyst.

Digital Experience Deconstruction #2 - Apparel

In this example, I evaluated the online store for Aritzia, a well-known and innovative women’s fashion boutique. Unlike the example above, I’m naming this retailer because the experience was quite positive and they rightly deserve the credit.

Like many mid-market retailers, Aritzia is also running Demandware (now owned by Salesforce, which plans to rename the platform Salesforce Commerce Cloud). Aritzia leverages magazine-style content to appeal to its demographic and strengthen its brand. It also offers a “shop this look” feature, which allows you to purchase all of the elements of an outfit at once – blouse, scarf, skirt, etc. This isn’t rocket science in the ecommerce world, but it’s a nice touch.

Overall, for Aritzia’s digital maturity level I give them an 8.5 out of 10. Aside from a few minor glitches on the checkout flow (which are more Demandware’s fault than Aritzia’s), the online experience was excellent. I was able to purchase the Wilfred Ville Scarf with a floral print for $68. The product detail page also offered pairing recommendations for a shirt and shorts from the same line.

I was expecting something akin to Amazon. I was wrong. My first hint that I was in for a treat was the outside of the box.

In order to test their customer service, I purposely entered an incorrect shipping address during checkout. After the order was placed, I phoned their customer support line and said, “Oh, I just purchased something online and I just noticed that I entered my address wrong. Can you fix it?” The customer support rep was super friendly and fixed the issue lickety-split.

Where Aritzia really stood out was the experience after I received the package. I was expecting something akin to Amazon, where the outside of the box contains some branding elements – maybe a logo – but is otherwise just a box with the product neatly contained inside. Whoa, was I wrong. Aritzia pulled out all of the stops to offer an unboxing experience on par with what I’d expect from much larger and deep-pocketed world-class brands.

My first hint that I was in for a treat was the outside of the box. The brown packing tape around the box had a fancy pattern that matched the company’s branding. Yes, they actually branded the tape. Here’s what it looks like:

Opening the box, I was greeted by an unexpected scene. Inside, the product (a silk scarf) was contained in a plastic envelope adorned with a beautiful photo. I felt like I was opening art.

The order receipt was contained in a sleeve embossed with Thank You on it, which was also branded. Here’s what it looked like:

If Apple were to sell silk scarfs, I’d imagine the unboxing experience would be a lot like that.

What Aritzia has done here is more than just ship their products in a fancy box. They’ve created a holistic “experience” that transcends the online store. They’ve taken responsive online shopping, paired it with excellent customer service, and delivered on their brand promise with an upscale, smart, and fashionable unboxing experience.

Here’s how Aritzia’s digital experience could have been improved:

  • Product reviews were absent from the site at the time I evaluated it. At other retailers I’ve worked with, product reviews can double the site conversion rate, so they might be leaving money on the table. For a higher-end brand like Aritzia, implementing product reviews might boost the conversion rate although it they should seek out ways to ensure that the design and display of the reviews appropriately reflect the brand.
  • Fix issues with the checkout flow, such as payment screens. As I mentioned, this is more Demandware’s fault. The folks at Baymard Institute offer what I consider to be the definitive guide to ecommerce checkout that every ecommerce manager should read (


Customers experience brands via digital touchpoints. The digital experiences that customers have through their mobile phones, websites, and via social media are imperative to business growth and profitability. Companies that manage to execute digital experiences well are positioned for the long haul.

Getting digital experiences right is a challenge but when achieved can be transformational. It has the potential to be a self-sustaining force within your organization, not just a never-ending series of technology projects.

Postscript: You might be wondering how I arrive at a digital maturity score for a business. Analysts such as Forrester have a quantitative model for calculating an organization's digital maturity level based on a variety of factors, such as executive support for digital strategy, digital staff resourcing, how success is measured, and business functions/IT relationship effectiveness. My evaluation here is more subjective, but along the same lines.