Brian sits down at eTail West 2019 with Ingrid Milman, eCommerce Strategist for Ann Inc (Ann Taylor | LOFT | Lou & Grey) . Ingrid talks about customer expectations in the digital age, clienteling as a culture, and how to lace kindness into a brand culture from top to bottom - from employee interaction to customer experience.
Brian sits down at eTail West 2019 with Ingrid Milman, eCommerce Strategist for Ann Inc (Ann Taylor | LOFT | Lou & Grey). Ingrid talks about customer expectations in the digital age, clienteling as a culture, and how to lace kindness into a brand culture from top to bottom - from employee interaction to customer experience.
We enjoyed getting to speak with Ingrid, and hearing how Ann Inc is stepping up to build out a positive experience for their customers!
Brian: [00:01:19] Welcome to Future Commerce, the podcast about next generation and cutting edge commerce. I'm Brian, and I am here live to eTail West. And I have Ingrid Milman, the Director of E-commerce at Ann Inc. with me today.
Ingrid: [00:01:35] Hi, Brian. How are you?
Brian: [00:01:37] Good. How are you doing?
Ingrid: [00:01:38] Good. Happy to be here.
Brian: [00:01:39] Good. Good. And I'm super excited to have you on the podcast today, because I caught your session yesterday where you were on a panel and you were talking about buzzword bingo and were drawing these like buzz words out of a hat and commenting on them, along with some other retailers. And as I was listening, I was like, oh, my gosh, I love the things that Ingrid's saying. And then you were like, oh, I think I'm talking too much. I'm like, no. Talk more. Talk more. I want you on the podcast. So I'm really excited that you agreed to come on, and that we could do this today. But anyway, tell me more about you. So what's your story? How did you get into e-commerce? Give me your background. Like, what's led you to this and why do you like it?
Ingrid: [00:02:28] So, yeah. Thank you so much for having me on. I'm really excited to be here and talk to you about this. I'm currently, like you said, at Ann Inc, and I'm the Director of E-commerce and Digital Marketing. And what led me here was actually I had started my career at Goldman Sachs, and I did a lot of...
Brian: [00:02:47] Cool.
Ingrid: [00:02:47] Yeah. And I did a lot of UX type of work and data work. And then I realized that I loved that type of stuff. But I didn't really want to be necessarily in financial services. But I knew I loved technology. So I left Goldman. I moved to Spain for a little while.
Brian: [00:03:07] Wow. Fun.
Ingrid: [00:03:07] And took some art history classes and learned all about that. And then came back, and I applied to a job at the Estee Lauder Companies which was asking of a lot of the things that I was doing at Goldman Sachs. So like UX design and product management, like digital product management and their e-commerce platform. So I said, this sounds great. It's perfect. And so I went and I actually spent six years at the Estee Lauder Companies developing their internal homegrown e-commerce platform and actually helped create their global code release process. So I really started in the back, back end type of thing. So lots of QA, sysadmin work, understanding like GitHub and code committs, and so a lot of the backend things. And after I sort of got the hang of that, I was like, hey, let's do some of the more interesting front end customer facing type of work. And so I got to work on really big brand partnerships for Mac Cosmetics. We launched the first Rihanna and Mac partnership, and it was cool because I got exposure into the consumer facing side. But then all of the information and experience that I had from the back end stuff actually made it so much easier to bring those type of experiences to life.
Brian: [00:04:31] Absolutely. Yeah, that's huge. I feel like it's not the path that many directors of e-commerce have taken. And so it's really cool to see someone like you who has that background knowledge and that technical foundation to empower them to be able to do the job better, which I mean, I really appreciate that. I think that there's a lot of brands out there that would love to have someone with that kind of background run their e-commerce. So that's awesome. Well, tell me... So tell me more about your role at Ann Inc. And also tell me about Ann Inc. You have several brands now...Ann Taylor, Loft, and others. So I'd love to hear more about that. But tell me a little bit about your role, and then tell me a little bit about Ann.
Ingrid: [00:05:14] Sure. Yeah. So Ann Inc is an amazing place to be just because we service women in every stage of their life and every single need that they have. We try to fill. Right. So I think if you're looking at the traditional Ann Taylor brand, then we're looking at a working woman. Right? So what do you want to wear to you feel great at work, to get that interview, nail it on the head, to just feel beautiful and sophisticated and feminine, but also just sort of powerful as well? And the demographic for Ann Taylor is a little bit more sophisticated. I would say on the on the thirty five to forty five year old woman who's pretty much established in her career type of thing. And then we have Loft, which is also a wear to work brand, but a little bit more laid back. Very you know, we have great fitting pants, dress pants, but we also have great fitting jeans, and then we try to do sort of a work to evening solution. And then there's Lou & Grey, which is our, I would say millennial facing brand. Lou & Grey is a really cool brand. Kind of our cool little sister. And they're more about their amazing fabrics and fits. So they have this like plush fabric and soft serve teas and these really great comfort but stylish pieces that aren't necessarily like athleisure, but certainly go more into that and travel comfort. So when you want to look great, put together, but be really, really comfortable and a little bit more casual, that's Lou & Grey. So between those three offerings and then our outlet factory brands, we try to really service every woman, no matter who she is, where she is, and what her needs are.
Brian: [00:07:04] That's amazing. I love that. You focus completely on women, which I think really allowed you to get into the psyche of women and really not split your focus too much to focus on men, as well, which I think is unfortunate because I think you guys do such a good job with women. I would love to see you address men then like the whole market. I know that's not probably not in the plans right now for you, but I think you do such a good job with women. And I'm really impressed with how you've covered every age, all the way up. And also taking on an identity that I think is consistent across all the different brands. So I think that's really cool. Now you've done an interesting thing in that you've created different brands for each of these categories. So obviously the role of a brand is really important at Ann Inc. And so maybe you could tell me a little bit more about how Ann views brands and how to use a brand to address a specific market and tell a specific story. And then maybe how you're looking to use branding the future and maybe what you think about how brands are going to change in the future, because, you know, you've got Amazon, and you've got Wal-Mart, and you've got all of these larger players that are tinkering with brands right now. And you have so much, you know, almost over branding right now certain brands are starting to lose their voice. And so how do you find a way to cut through that noise? And where do you see using your brands going forward?
Ingrid: [00:08:51] Sure. Yeah, that's such a great question. And we think about that all the time in marketing, because I think traditionally brands have always tried to be very sort of self-congratulatory or talk about themselves as a brand. And I think there was a time and place where that made sense and people really reacted well to that. And so you've got these heritage brands that have been able to stand the test of time because of their brand identity and what they have created for themselves in the market. And I do think that Ann Taylor and Loft have cemented themselves in that sort of ethos. But I think the future of brands is so much more customer centric and solution oriented, where it's less about the brand and what the brand wants you to think about them, but more about the trust that you're able to develop and the relationship that you're able to develop between the brands offering and the solutions that they're able to give to you rather than, hey, this is the name of our brand. This is our color story and this is the way our models look. This is the way we style images, whereas those things are still really, really important, but they play less of the primary role than they probably did in the past. And they're much more used as a comfort calling card familiarity play rather than the whole existence or a reason for being.
Brian: [00:10:20] I love that. That's really, really interesting. You see a lot of brands that are so particular with their colors and their models and the way that things are portrayed, and what I hear you saying is that's actually secondary, secondary to how the brand is relating to the customer, which I think is a pretty big shift. Or is a big shift for a lot of brands. This idea that actually the identity that you've created is not as important as your customer's identity. That's huge. I love that. That's a very unique thought that I've not heard expressed very many places yet. So I think that, for our listeners, and as our listeners approach their brands, this is going to be new information for them. So interesting.
Ingrid: [00:11:12] Glad to hear that.
Brian: [00:11:12] Yeah. One thing that you hit on there that I think plays into a theme that we've been talking about quite a bit, and this is a bit of a buzzword, so back to your buzzword bingo session that you did. I kind of want to hit on some more of those buzzwords, and I feel like, like I said, I wanted to hear more from you on certain ones. And so you mentioned relationship to the customer, which to me, my ears perk up, and I hear the theme clienteling, which is something that we've been really excited about on the show coming into this year. And we think that this year is the year where brands start to take clienteling even more seriously than they have, both online and in-store and finding that connection. So for you this coming year, do you see this as a year where you can make some leaps and bounds in terms of how you're connecting with your customers on a long term basis, on a first name basis and obviously personalization plays a role in that, as well, but I'll let you talk about this.
Ingrid: [00:12:15] Sure. Yeah, clienteling is super important. And I think what's great about our field is, so we have for Loft specifically we have about 500 retail locations. And it's kind of amazing when you walk into a Loft store, the associates are friendly, and they're not just friendly to the customers, they are friendly to each other. If you ever hear, you know, a person at the register talking to someone who's on the sales floor, they're really kind to each other. And I think that makes a big difference. And I think figuring out a way to bottle up that kindness and thinking about, you know, making fashion approachable and easy and breaking down those frustration barriers, I think is really important. So figuring out and finding out what the biggest issues in terms of the customer experiences are, whether they're in-store or online, and peeling back the layers and trying to find solutions to those problems. Right? So in the physical store, you're in the dressing room, and how do you change your size or how do you get information on, OK, we have all of these sizes that are available, not just standard sizes. We have petites, we have tall, we have maternity, we have plus sizes. And so how do you get the sales associate to help you understand your sizing and be able to play into all of those amazing offerings that we have? And then digitally, it's the same thing in terms of How is this going to fit me? What does it feel like? Discoverability... We just have so many different products. So how do we make sure that she's finding when she's looking for in an efficient way and she's inspired? So those are all things that we're all trying to figure out every day. I don't think that you're ever going to nail that on the head, but the goal of waking up every day and using that as what you're trying to accomplish is really important.
Brian: [00:16:09] So do you have any tools that you found to be really helpful with that? Oh, are you passing any data back and forth between the online experience and the offline experience, in order to better develop that relationship?
Ingrid: [00:16:21] Yeah. So we're working on that. I think we're actually working on connecting with Smarter HQ, which is gonna sit on top of our email service provider, which is Cheetah Digital, and their whole idea is that they're tracking the online, the email performance of products, and better understanding, OK this is the type of person who really responds well to dresses. And every time there are new dresses that are available, we give them special access to this and just making sure that our email communication, which is such an important sales channel and communication channel, to be a little bit more specific. Right? And then eventually taking that on to the site experience and serving up the products that they're needing based on the category that they're in or customizing their home page experience to really be able to sort through what our offering is to personalize to their needs.
Brian: [00:17:17] And how is that relating back to the physical store? Are you able to push that data down there, as well? Or is that something that is aspirational still a little bit, you're still working through that?
Ingrid: [00:17:29] Definitely still working through that. One of the things that I have experience, not just at Ann Inc, but a lot of the places that I've been at is just data feeds. And the way that we all store information was the right direction to go at one point. And then things have changed and evolved. And a lot of times, again, not just that Ann Inc, but kind of everywhere. You could have a system that you're not as efficient with, and it kind of blocks you from being able to be as suped up or innovative as possible. It's almost like the least sexy thing to talk about, right? Like what is your POS? Or what is your data management system or whatever? But it's kind of like you can't do any of the supercharged stuff without eating your peas and carrots first. Right? So I always say, like, don't buy a Lamborghini if you haven't built the road yet.
Brian: [00:18:23] Absolutely. Yes. On this show, dealing with data flows is kind of sexy because we all know that you can't do the things that you want to do with your customers until you've found a way to manage your data. And also, I mean, this is a huge year for like GDPR lawsuits and, you know, dealing with data such that it's transparent to your customer. And it's an interesting time to be dealing with data right now and so important to do it right. Which makes it even harder to implement. Right? Because you've got to do it in such a way that your customer feels comfortable with the level of data that you have and the way that you're using it. And so no, I totally get it. I think you nailed it. This is a really common challenge for a lo of retailers. I think, 2019 is going to be a year where we're going to start to see some of this get untangled a little bit more, hopefully.
Ingrid: [00:19:20] I hope so.
Brian: [00:19:20] Yeah. Yeah, definitely. Ok. So here's another...along with the personalization and clienteling aspect, this is the year I feel like... We've been talking about omni channel strategies for like five plus years now. And I think that everyone has obviously been exhausted with this word. It was a terrible word to begin with. But I think some of the solutions that we've been talking about for a long time finally have the budget and the buy in and all the the resources in place to actually execute on these things. So how has buy online pickup in-store, 360 view of the customer... How have those concepts been playing into what's happening with what Ann is doing?
Ingrid: [00:20:09] Yeah. So omni channel... It's funny because every time I type it into an email or in Word it's still underlined with the red squiggly like what, WTF is this word?
Brian: [00:20:19] Yes.
Ingrid: [00:20:19] And I'm like, the computer's right. Like, what is this word, and how do you untangle it? And I think the answer that I always try to go back to when making decisions or judging whether something is working for us or not or might work for us, is to just go back to the customer experience and just always ground yourself in she doesn't look at, you know, online versus offline, in-store experience versus app experience, or she's like, oh, I'm interacting with Loft, and so I should expect what is happening in the store to be similar to what's happening online and email and vice versa. So just understanding that you're there to solve a problem, you're there to inspire her, you're there to make her feel great about herself and to find products that are going to solve real problems in her life. And so there's so much noise and these lots of like products and offerings that are deeming themselves as omni channel, but they don't really solve an actual problem, or they might like bring digital screens into your store, and, you know, people don't really care unless they're actually doing this really great thing. Which I think they're fully capable of, I think we all just need to, as arbiters of these brands and stewards of these brands, to make sure that those solutions or screens or features that we're exposing our customers to really solve a problem. And I think that's like what you have to ground all of your omni channel directives and KPIs against.
Brian: [00:21:55] I love that so much. So I think another thing you touched on there, which is, we've heard words like augmented reality and we've talk about that a lot on the show, and progressive web apps, these really ominous terms... We've talked about how those aren't really things that customers care about or want to talk about. They just want to use things and use tools. And so it was actually really funny in the session, they pulled out the PWA, progressive web app, buzzword, and literally no one on the panel had any comment on it. And they even asked the audience if anyone in the entire audience had a comment on progressive web apps, and not a single person dead. And I think, we've talked about progressive web apps on the show and what role they're gonna play, and they are going to play a role in the future of the web, but it gets back to your point that you just made. It's not really about a specific term or a specific technology. These are just things that customers want to interact with. So point well made. So we're kind of running out of time here. I think the last podcast in this booth went a little long. So we're going to run a little bit long, too. But before we go out, there're two things that I want to talk about. One is your new initiative, Infinite Style by Ann Taylor, which I know that you just launched. And I know that it's a new initiative. There's a lot going on behind the scenes that you probably can't talk about yet. But I would love to just talk about the concept of... Well, actually, let me give our audience a real quick summary of what this is, or actually you can probably give a better summary. I'll let you do it.
Ingrid: [00:23:50] Yeah. So that whole concept is that you have this infinite closet, basically, and you use the site to order X amount of clothes per month, and then they send them to you, and then you can just wear them at your leisure, and then you send them back, and you get a whole nother set. So it's kind of like this infinite closet.
Brian: [00:24:11] That's amazing. We've talked about similar ideas on the show quite a bit. And the idea that physical goods are becoming more like digital goods in that they're just completely, they're just there for you all the time. Kind of like, you think about Spotify and playing songs on Spotify, and we don't even think about owning music anymore. We just have it, and we just play it when we want it. And so, you know, how do you see this evolution of how physical goods are being processed by consumers? Are they just expecting them to be there? And how does that play into their purchasing habits?
Ingrid: [00:24:50] Yeah, I think it's fascinating. And I think we still have so much to learn in this new world and this new offering. And I think that's one of the exciting things both from a customer standpoint and from a brand standpoint. I think that there's a lot of different boxes that this checks off. Right? So you could be someone who has limited closet space, and you could always want to wear different things like something for work, or something for weekends. And then you're like, oh, well, now everyone's already seen me on this. And how do I get, instead of having to constantly buy new things and then increase... You have the space for it, right? The other issue is sustainability. So a lot of people are thinking about how do I dress myself in a modern and trendy way that I can always stay up with what's happening currently, but then not keep buying up lots and lots of very inexpensive clothes, then discard them. Right? So Infinite Style allows you to have an infinite amount of clothes without necessarily having to keep owning things and then adding things to a landfill.
Brian: [00:25:59] My gosh, I love that so much. I think this is the future of clothing. This idea that you're going to browse it like you browse Spotify, and you're gonna have it at your door in two days, and be able to wear it. It's amazing. I love it.
Ingrid: [00:26:15] Yeah. There's one more element to it, too, that is worth noting is that a lot of women fluctuate in size so regularly. Right? And so you can be a size 8 and then you can be a size 10 the next time, and or you can be a size 14, and then you can scale down to a size 6. And, you know, you want to be able to fluctuate with your weight and your lifestyle and the things that are happening in your life without having to constantly redo your entire wardrobe, which A) saves you money, and B) is better for the environment.
Brian: [00:26:48] I love this so much. I really wanted to be available for men because what you just said is something that my co-founder and I have talked about a ton, in that he has actually lost a ton of weight and has gone through this experience himself. And so as he varied in size, he was like, this is ridiculous. It's so hard for him to deal with his wardrobe. And so I really hope that someone brings this to men, as well, because it's such a good idea. And I really love how you have executed it as a company, and I'm really excited to see more in this vein down the road. Okay. Final question. So we always ask in the end of our show, what near-term recommendations do you have for merchants? What should they be working on in the next six months that you feel like would be really helpful for their business? And then what should they be looking out ahead for in the next five years?
Ingrid: [00:27:44] Sure. Yes. Near-term. Honestly, it's just taking a very, very clear and sober look at your systems and looking at all of those issues that we were bringing up earlier in terms of data management and your POS systems and your in-store data systems and all of those things, and making sure that the insights that you're able to glean from some of these great new features that you're potentially looking into or investing in, that you can actually action on them, because a lot of times you'll go and you'll buy the Ferrari, but you haven't built the road or the road has a bunch of potholes that, you know, it's going to screw up the tires and mess up that smooth ride that you've just invested all this money and time in. So it's again, like that not very sexy thing, but it's just looking at your infrastructure and making sure that you can supe yourself to be able to take action on these new cool things that are coming down the pipe very quickly.
Brian: [00:28:42] Love it. And what about long term, in the next five years?
Ingrid: [00:28:45] Yeah. So long term, I think you're right about the whole Infinite Style thing, and just looking at clothes the way that we look at music or movies, Netflix is sort of the same exact thing. And also just understanding that people's lives and the way that we live them is changing so dramatically, even more so than it has in the past 10 years. So overall style is becoming a little bit more casual, a little bit more fluid in terms of gender, and so that's for the fashion specifically groups, so just knowing that men's and women's a little bit later on won't necessarily be as clear a defining line. Right? So knowing pantsuits and comfort and high quality fabrics are something that brands should be thinking about.
Brian: [00:29:35] I love it. What a great way to end it. Thank you so much for listening to the show. As always, we love your feedback. So hop online, come over to our site, FutureCommerce.fm, and leave us a comment or on LinkedIn, or Twitter, or wherever you want to interact with us, and leave us some feedback. We'll get back to you. And as always, retail tech is moving fast, but Future Commerce is moving faster. Thank you very much.