Chris Parsons, Director of Ecommerce at Home Hardware

On this episode of Conversation: CX, Chris Parsons of Home Hardware shares his top tips for designing digital experiences for every persona:
- How to make sure your digital experience is true to that of an in-store one.
- Ensuring your foundation is strong to continue building quality content.
- Keeping your systems simple to keep customers coming back.

About Chris Parsons:

Chris Parsons has two decades of experiences in the digital world. He currently serves as the Director of eCommerce at Home Hardware where he is responsible for the strategic direction of the company and its online digital approach.

More info:

Chris Parsons's LinkedIn profile

Interview's transcript:

Put yourself in the shoes of a consumer, tell us about a memorable experience you've had either in the last 12-15 months or through the pandemic or lifetime, anything that stands out.

So I will jump over to my time with Newegg in Canada, which had been launched for a few months before I became part of the team. Basically what we found was in the US from a consumer perspective, they were really engaged with user generated content and feeding that platform with their expertise, but that did not translate into Canada. And when we finally started adding that user generated content, they started to become advocates and if a customer had a question, they would be able to respond. It was those moments that they created themselves that actually had a deeper connection with our brand and then what was fascinating is when we went to a conference in Buffalo, and it was all about the gaming community. Gamers in this community spend 12 or 15 hours playing games during the day or evenings, and they're actually neglecting their family and family time while they have this passion and hobby, which is great. But at the same time, when they start to neglect and the spouse feels neglected, there was a big disconnect there. So one of the things we tried to do is find ways to engage their spouse, their partner in the gaming. So it wasn't just them playing a specific game, it was “how can we reward their spouse for allowing them to spend this much time?” And we ended up creating a marketplace and adding jewelry and reminders for them to be able to thank and appreciate their spouse for being so willing to let them absorb all of this time. And it was that moment that I really thought stood out because it wasn't about just marketing to your core customer, it was how you relate it to the whole family that made a big difference in what we were doing. So I think that was a key standard for me, like just stepping back and not thinking about that one persona. But how do we engage with the whole family and make sure even if that spouse is not a gamer, we understand that it's a commitment. And there's you're going to have a sacrifice if you're living with a gamer.

And what inspired that was, while all of my colleagues went to the actual conference, I stayed at the hotel in Boston. But ultimately what happened was I was on the bus with a bunch of the people that were going to the conference, a bunch of the gamers and I sat there, and I didn't have my new badge on. I didn't have any new merchandise on, I just sat there as another gamer, and I was listening to the conversations and actually a lot of the people on the bus took their family to this event because they were spending a trip in Boston. So I decided not to go to the conference that day. I didn't want to meet with suppliers, I literally went back and forth on that bus, probably 50 times and I listened and connected to the customers in a real way. I just talked to them as if I was another gamer and understood what they were doing with whether it was a PC game or console game and how they interacted, the commitment that it took for them to be in the top rankings, understanding that, they should be outside cutting the grass, and they were neglecting that and how that whole relationship worked at home. And once I did that, it just changed my perspective : listening and understanding them versus telling them I need to sell the latest and greatest game.

You're engaging with the consumer and then spider webbing that out to the network of things that are important to the consumer also, that's going to create that sort of intrinsic drive to continue to engage with new AG in that example.

And we saw it. I think the key learning for any retailer, and I still carry this with me today, is that we're not just selling a product and if we think that we're selling a product, we won't have a lifetime value with a consumer. They'll cherry pick and they'll find their discount. Everybody can compete on price, you need to compete and put a package that shows value and create that rapport with the customer long term. If you do that, you'll have success. If you don't, and you just want to win on a daily deal, that's fine, you'll have success on those big promotions, but you won't have long term success. And I think that's where it gets missed. A lot want to just race to a Black Friday deal and be happy that we had a $2 million, $3 million day. But then we don't see that customer until next Black Friday.

How did you come to lead the team at Home Hardware?

I've had a wonderful career, and a lot of great mentors that have coached me along the way. I started off at Walmart Canada in 2004. I was doing analytics and insights for them and I walked into a meeting late. They asked for someone to build out Walmart Canada's website. And I took a flight to Bentonville because I was late to that meeting. My boss said, “OK, you're now going to be the person to build up this website”. It was a punishment. And it turned out to be the greatest gift of my career. The biggest benefit of that is that most people who get into e-commerce focus on : "I'm going to work on email, or I'm going to be the social media person where I'm going to be the dev guy". I was everything, I was, everything I learned about coding, about how to communicate with the business from a tech perspective and a business perspective, about budgeting, about how to do paid media. So I touched all aspects of it and that has been the biggest benefit of my career. And going from one retailer to the next, I was a generalist. I understood every aspect of it and was able to connect the dots faster than my counterparts. So fast-forward many years later, I was interviewing here. I was in an iconic company that I've had on my radar for a long time and Rob Wallace and I had a number of meetings; it was almost like speed dating with seven different interviews, to come on board. And then the company changed gears and I didn't hear anything for a year. Then out of the blue, I got a text message, “Are you still interested?”, and I absolutely was. And then from that moment on, I've been here for two years now, and it's been the most fascinating and frustrating two years of my life because I really want to grow this company, and we're making great strides. But with COVID and with the growth that everybody else in Canada is experiencing, I just want to move faster.

I've put it into perspective, I've been working here in a COVID environment longer than I have in a regular environment. So everything that we've done is constantly pivoting and changing. So we had a roadmap to success. That roadmap went out the window six months into my job, and now it's just constantly, how do we get our DC up to speed fast or how do we, like, we are just moving at such a great pace and also growing the team, at that time, I had 6 people on the team, maybe seven, and now we're up to 23, closing in on 30 with our dev team. So you've got like flying a plane, rebuilding that plane while you're in the air and then training people how to fly it at the same time is what we're going through.

You mentioned frustration, but to try and change and improve, and it's a hard time to do that. So, Chris, if you can give me what you believe the state of digital buying experiences is today in terms of personalization. What's the scorecard look like?

So I launched the website for Walmart in 2004 - 2005. And the overall structure of e-commerce has not changed since that time, and how ridiculous does that sound, really! Look at a car and how often it reinvents itself. Look, how much technology and how fast we're growing. But yet the standard functionality of a website and how we all go to market and how many different personas we have. I think we have five or six personas that we're trying to speak to in our business, and we all have them come through the same front door. It makes no sense to me, and every retailer is doing it. I guess that's a good thing because it will allow me to be innovative and change that. And I know a lot of people are disagreeing with me right now, saying, Well, we have personalization, and we can put up containers that really understand you. And yes, to a certain degree, that does change the front end experience. But we've got to be better than this. Like, if I'm in our case, if I have a pro customer, should that pro come right to a home hardware dossier and see all the same messaging and navigation? No, they shouldn't. We should create a different experience for that customer. And do they even want to come to our website? Is there not another way to? Roles may be more engaged at our store level because they need to get those items to it, to a job site at 6 o'clock in the morning. How do we create an omnichannel or digital experience at store level that's easier for them to check out repeat purchases? So I just get passionate about this conversation because I find that what I did in 2004 is still relevant today and that that doesn't make sense. And there are a lot of principles that should remain the same, for sure. But that overall site experience, I think in this industry with how fast things are changing, we should have found a better way by now and if there's a supplier out there that has a better way. Let's talk.

So, in doing this right, you've been doing it since 2004, obviously, it's not a quick fix. It isn't something you can just plug in one day and make the changes you're looking to make. What real struggles are you seeing in your effort to personalize in that way? Why aren't more brands doing it? Why does it feel like it's still 2004 in a way?

Yeah, I think what it has to do is companies have grown so much they're leveraging legacy systems, and those investments into those foundational systems is where things fall apart. Everybody wants to get into e-commerce. That's no longer a discussion, so it used to be considered the fad in 2004-2005. People would say, you know, this is not going to last. People want that social interaction. They want to go to the store, touch, feel, smell things. And that's true to a sense still today. But ultimately, if I'm a 32 waist pair of jeans and I know my length because I'm short as a 30 in length, I don't really need to go back and into the store and see those jeans again. I can just hit a recurring cart and buy those in my life that actually frees up some time. But overall, where I think where we're struggling is on connecting the dots from a foundational perspective we jump into. We want to launch E-Commerce and we want to launch something like ship the home, but we're not taking a step back saying, OK, foundationally, do we have the content right? Do we have the descriptions? Do we have the attributes? Do we have images, 360 images, the video quality that needs to go with it? All of that needs to come first, before the commerce aspect of the site, and we all have to find a way to balance that out because otherwise we'll be waiting two or three years before we launch an e-commerce platform. But it does have to be a parallel roadmap of when those improvements are happening. And then that's when I think you'll start to see true growth on your e-commerce platform. Make sure those foundations are right. And I talk about something any time I go on stage and speak, it's called the Three C's, it's Content, Community and Commerce, and I still believe that we have to get the content right first before you'll have the success. And I mean, I'll dive into that topic for another day.

How does this actual local shopping factor into your personalization strategy with that in mind ? Sure. E-commerce might be quite a bit different than that. How does it all work together ?

Yes, I think really that core concept of the store visit is exactly what I want to replicate online. So when our customers, were a store of the community, were in every small town across the country, pretty much. And when you walk into one of our locations, you probably know the store staff by name. They know they certainly know you by name. They know your last project. That's the type of understanding of our consumers, our stores do, and you don't get that in most retailers, but our dealers are fantastic with just being a part of the community, whether they're sponsoring hockey games or teams sponsoring local events. They just integrate themselves so well into that. So you're not in e-commerce, you're not just a screen, you're not just a transactional portal. And from an online perspective, we need to take elements of that and it comes back to my experience at a future shop (Best Buy) here in Canada, what was in Best Buy now has rebranded them all. But when I started out there, they taught us something called guest, and it's great to "understand, educate, secure and think" that was your sales track. If you did those things right, you gained a rapport with your consumer and online doesn't do that. We may have put a cookie on you, we may track your shopping experience, but we're not creating any rapport understanding. So an example I would like to get to when a customer comes to the website and is looking for, I don't know, let's say, a TV. How are we understanding who's going to be using that? Do they need a pitcher and pitcher because their spouse is watching something? And I just really need to watch the baseball game up in the top corner. I really don't need to listen to it. It's not that exciting, but I want to keep tabs on it. If we just were able to ask five-six basic questions and understand our consumer in that shopping journey, we would have less returns, we'd have a more satisfied customer and a lot of times customers come in looking for a specific item on the site because they saw it advertised or on a flier. But that doesn't mean that's the best item for them. So how do we help the customer when they get to the site that they're inspired by for a specific product to make sure they're getting the right product? And I think that's when we'll have some real success, too, is when we can take that element of the store conversation and dialogue and dial that up on our websites.

Can you go into greater detail on your actual vision for someone as a pro consumer versus a regular consumer hitting your site. How do you actually see and what is your vision for addressing all of these varied personas digitally?

So ultimately, I think as I started with the personas, I think we need to be very customer centric. Let's plot those customer journeys out. They all shop with us differently, some of them are going to be shoppers that shop during the day, some of them are going to couch surf, some of them are going to be coming in through referrals or because they're in the pros. So I'm trying to map out those journeys and ask what is the best tactic to be into? So our tagline here at home hardware is here's how. So we better make sure that we are teaching them like : here's how to do stuff, so a great channel to do that is, YouTube. So customers are always looking for how to build a deck or how to build a fence. Let's teach that step by step very clearly for consumers and then find a way through once they've watched that video, do they necessarily have to come back and transact on the site? How do we connect with our YouTube partners or a video service company to make sure that they can transact through their mobile device as they're watching that experience and not necessarily have to come back to basically a virtual digital catalog, like, I don't need to show them my forty five thousand items. They just told me they're engaged in specifically wanting to build a deck. Why don't I curate my content to show the top five thousand products that are specific to that dream that they want to build their deck? Then I think you're going to have a lot better conversion because the curated items that you have will be more specific. You won't be cluttering it up with all these other items and just distractions because, you know, as you digitally surf online, how easy is it to go from one item to the other? Your mind just lets yourself go. But if I can help a customer stay on point and build that basket to what they truly want it to build, then I can encourage them later with an email or another campaign to buy into other categories. So that's part of it. I want to really make sure that we have the resources for confidence. And what I mean by that is I can't even hang a picture at home without taking three holes. Thankfully, I never filled them up, I just hang that picture finally and with the three holes behind it, I rather write a check or give someone my credit card to do stuff around the house versus be a do it yourself, but we have this great do it yourself for audience, and now we got to make sure that we're providing them an easy way to go through. If we have 20 drills, I think we have 20 too many. Here's a good, better, best premium. We've done the shopping for you. We are so confident in the assortment we're picking out. We don't need 30 different drills. We're making it easy for you to buy into whatever your expenditure or limit is, so you can buy the right item based on your budget and I think so many times we just want to have this endless aisle and it causes greater confusion, especially with the product recommendations these days.

So, we watch those stats all the time about the stickiness of our site and some people measure it based on time spent, how many page views and sometimes you do something on the site and the time spent goes way up because consumers can't find anything and it's the reverse effect. So you think it's a good metric to see that they spent an extra 30 seconds a minute on your site? But in reality, those customers are just frustrated because they can't find what they were looking for. So you've got to manage those KPIs and really understand what a customer journey looks like. And if you're measuring the right KPI, but that content piece is always content. Whether it's a video, whether it's a blog, a buying guide, it always comes down to the content. And then, you also have to think about the education level of your consumers who you're writing for. So if I have to sit there and read through pages and pages to understand the pros and cons of an item, I'm not going to do it. But if I can easily consume either an audio book or a video, you're going to connect with me much more than reading through an SEO driven blog.

Tell me about delivering E-commerce and your vision for your podcast.

Not a lot of companies allow you to take on an extracurricular activity like this, especially when I'm giving tips and practices on how retailers can become better at e-commerce. But the approach we took when we had the dialogue of getting approval on it was, "I'm going to learn from the people I'm interviewing, they're going to learn from me. The market is still very immature in Canada, and while we've made great gains, I think the concept of being collaborative overall is going to benefit all of us". So, once we bought into that, my whole reason is that I grew up with a learning disability and I lacked confidence for my first 20 years. And basically, school is great. I encourage people to go out and get a great education, but the way I learned in the way school taught it didn't connect and it wasn't later on until I was going into college, where I started to have success because those classes were more lectures and I was able to not take notes. I was able to listen and I was absorbing information at a faster pace than I was when I was in high school, and I was listening to a lecture about trying to write notes. And it just wasn't connecting. So later on, fast forward, I started coaching sports and I was working with parents and kids, and some of the kids had learning disabilities as well. And the parents were like, "Oh my God, they're getting such bad grades in school" and then I just had conversations with those youngsters about how to not focus on where they were. Yes, you have to try to improve those skill sets, but you're going to have other strengths. So work to your strengths, bet on yourself, work on those strengths and you'll be fine and having those dialogues with those kids, they all start to improve their grades and it was just something that now started to become a passion for me. Now I'm in my forties and I've had some great success with different retailers. I've got, you know, when my teachers told my parents that I will not amount to anything, put them in a trade, get them out of the education system because he's not going to amount to anything. Those still resonate to them today. Like, I really feel like I need a therapy session now. But ultimately, that's not to make light of it, it's just it was a motivator as well. And basically, what I'm trying to do with this podcast is educate my network because a lot of people need help connecting it to fifteen thousand or so people on LinkedIn, and I don't want them to make mistakes. I don't think this is competitive. I want to build people up. We should all be building each other up and then get, if I am lucky enough, revenue and sponsorships from it. I want to take that and donate to kids with learning disabilities and help them at a young age. Not to go through the same struggles and make it sound like a real struggle of my life has been a pretty privilege. So but at the same time, I don't want them to go into a lack of confidence in their 20s because of a school system that is right for the majority, but it's not right for all of them.

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