Member Brief: Checkout is acquisition

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The lead article of Member Brief No. 40 is by Micah Rosenbloom, a talented and proven venture capitalist at Founder Collective in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In his most recent Tech Crunch article, there’s a great passage:

What strikes me as most unusual and unpredictable is that most of these companies were founded by entrepreneurs with analytical, business training. They’re strong on finance, marketing, and customer acquisition. It’s not what you would have expected in categories noted more for an ineffable “cool” factor than feature lists. Creative design helps a brand stand out, but accounting acumen is what keeps it alive and on its way to becoming a unicorn.

He’s mostly right. But let’s not forget the left brain skill set of appealing to a consumer’s psychology. It’s an amalgam of art and science that the lasting brands master and the trendy brands ignore. There are more dead-in-the-water DNVBs run by quant-types than there are successful ones. But for the direct to consumer brands that succeed, it takes a combination of the quantitative and the qualitative.

Look at the high flying DNVBs and CPG brands and they’re cofounded by industrial engineering-driven, business-minded, graduate school-educated, (likely) former consultants. When founding Mizzen + Main, Kevin Lavelle was still part time at his consulting firm. Bonobos’ Andy Dunn earned his MBA from Stanford. Rogue’s Bill Henniger graduated with an MBA from Michigan. And Away’s Steph Korey earned her MBA from Columbia University. As you may have guessed, the list goes on and on.

But somewhere down the line, spreadsheet-driven, logistics-minded leaders began to value the holistic nature of brand marketing. And that movement is beginning to separate growth companies from the also ran’s.

The winners in the space realized that brands have to move you and emotion cannot be calculated. From social media collateral to site design to the checkout process, brands are customizing the experiences to build deeper relationships with their target customer. This is no longer math or logistics, this is psychology. And it doesn’t get the credit that it deserves.

This past week, I tested three very well-positioned eCommerce brands: Kiel James Patrick (KJP), Chubbies Shorts, and Away Travel.  Though KJP is quite a bit older (it was founded in 2009), it’s important to note that the companies’ growth paths are each different. KJP is a bootstrapped retailer, the brand’s chief marketing tools are its Instagram and Tumblr followings – where the combined audience surpasses two million viewers. Chubbies has a more traditional acquisition program, including a robust paid acquisition model. With over $16 million raised, the company has an omnichannel strategy that accounts for nearly $25 million per year in revenue.

Comparisons aren’t necessarily 1:1. However, neither of the companies are small. By our measure, KJP is generating $7-10M per year in merchandise and Away will eclipse $125M in 2018. While Away is a bonafide behemoth, Chubbies and KJP are companies known to organically market through visuals and lifestyle branding. Each brands’ marketing is meticulous. Every pixel is by design – well, almost every pixel.


Re-read Issue No. 270: For DNVBs, Brand Matters. 

For aspirational products, consumers choose brands that fit their lifestyle, belief system, and goals. From the very beginning, Away achieved something that very few DNVB’s understand early on. Building the product is only half of the battle. This means that no matter what arduous regulations they may encounter, they will maintain a canvas to build products that are relevant to their community of passionate, millennial travelers. It’s likely that as traditional sales continue, you’ll see a growing number of SKUs, styles, and add-ons that are beloved by millennial travelers and commuters. Yes, Steph Korey and Jen Rubio sell luggage, but Away is a travel company. And Away will go where she wants.


Brands fail to optimize for customer acquisition when they ignore their checkout workflow.

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Screen No. 1: Kiel James Patrick uses standard Shopify

Here is the screen for Kiel James Patrick after a purchase. When you click on “view your order”, there is no additional pertinent information. There is no customization, no additional brand statement, nor a call to action. For such an exquisite experience from top of funnel to conversion, this is the universal “we convinced you to buy, now bye” screen. After three days of awaiting updates, I had to call them for updates on the shipment. This experience negated the good will of their exquisite customer acquisition funnel.

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Screen No. 2: Chubbies uses Shopify Plus

Because Chubbies is a bonafide volume seller, they use Shopify Plus. Shopify’s enterprise offering allows some customization here. But the experience still signals a shift from brand experience to platform experience. Every aspect of their sales UX screams individuality. Thanks to the handy work done by Brand Value Accelerator, a typical user cannot tell that Chubbies is using a cloud based platform. That is, until the product is purchased. Chubbies is one of the few retailers to maximize what’s possible on Shopify. Most Shopify Plus retailers rely upon the first format.

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Screen No. 3: Away Travel uses a custom built site (Ruby on Rails)

Away’s screen has two useful functions: this pop up and a call to action. The checkout screen is a continuation of the site’s brand and the embedded tweet function allows you begin the process of evangelization.

Web Smith on Twitter

Finally made the jump to @away and I have a few observations: 1. I ordered yesterday afternoon. 2. They shipped within a three hour window (rare). 3. It arrived this morning. 4. The tracking system is very efficient. 5. The unboxing / collateral experience is very good.

Checkout is acquisition. There are several moments upon purchasing a product that can trigger a customer’s desire to advocate others for purchase. Away does this successfully, by (a) collecting data and (b) influencing outcomes.  The ease of tracking and the unboxing processes continue the checkout process. This all feeds into what we previously discussed: The Infinite Loop. The process was so notable that I made the rare decision to discuss my purchase with the public.


Re-Read Member Brief: The Infinite Loop

When you think of shipping, you think of beautiful packaging, tracking, and delivery. Industry observers rarely consider the impact of returns and exchanges on a brand’s bottom line. Returns can eat into direct margins while stressing the logistics infrastructure of the company. Addressing this solution is where Loop will excel, but there is opportunity to address another growing issue in online retail – customer acquisition costs.


To combat this (lack of) cloud customization issue, another commerce provider partnered with Bolt to speed up the checkout process, allowing BigCommerce’s retailers to customize the experience from beginning to end. BigCommerce released a new checkout SDK to allow retailers to improve their experience.

With the new BigCommerce Checkout SDK, merchants or service providers like Bolt build a checkout page replacement rather than making changes to the existing checkout page. Essentially, retailers place a skin over the built-in BigCommerce one-page checkout with a completely new user interface that merchants can design themselves, BigCommerce says.

Katie Evans, Internet Retailer

Retailers like the one below can use BigCommerce’s checkout SDK to create the same ease of purchase as Amazon while also innovating the post-purchase screen like the fully custom stores (Away Travel, Glossier). Read more from Tracey Wallace here:

The Checkout JS SDK provides methods for building a checkout page replacement rather than a way to make changes to the existing checkout page. Essentially, you are replacing the built-in Optimized One-Page Checkout with a totally new UI that you design and build yourself.

The SDK provides JavaScript methods for completing the necessary steps of checkout, like displaying and selecting shipping methods, and communicating that information back to the BigCommerce backend.

Tracey Wallace, BigCommerce

Kettlebell-Kings-video

As brands begin to realize the importance of customizing every pixel of the digital experience, I’d expect eCommerce behemoths like Shopify to further innovate around this matter. DNVBs are highly concentrated on the Shopify platform. One thing’s for certain, product individuality is an important differentiator for those brands. And more than ever, consumer psychology extends beyond checkout and to sale confirmation.

Quants are especially important to direct to consumer retailers; optimizing customer acquisition costs (CAC) has become a sought after science for brands. But for eCommerce, customer acquisition is often built on the art of influencing consumers from top of funnel to confirmation. For brands, checkout and confirmation is as important as the first click. And emphasizing those final experiences will reveal that will help drive down CAC and increase lifetime value.

By Web Smith | About 2PM

Special note: Micah Rosenbloom is great. 

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