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Williams-Sonoma moves to e-commerce one step at a time

Help an important ingredient for online retailer

From strategic marketing to CRM and ERP, USWeb/CKS implements branding and advertising, systems integration, network design and e-commerce solutions. Its work with home products retailer Williams-Sonoma exemplifies not only KMWorld's category "Time to Market," but also USWeb/CKS' approach of "Time to Value."

Williams-Sonoma carries high-quality kitchenware, home furnishings and home and garden accessories. Through three retail chains and five mail-order catalogs--including Pottery Barn and Hold Everything, Williams-Sonoma offers a selection of premium home-centered products.

The company found that 75% of the customers in its database of 19 million names are Internet users. Extending its retail might online was a natural decision. But with the online home-goods market heating up, speed was paramount. Williams-Sonoma needed to move quickly to capitalize on its e-business opportunity and keep its Internet-savvy customer base safe from online competition. At the same time, it had to ensure that its online presence offered the same attention to detail and personalized service that its customers had come to expect.

The online retail location also had to be built with minimum impact to existing systems and processes. Williams-Sonoma developed a time-to-value approach, which USWeb/CKS describes as "transforming business for the digital economy through a series of high-impact steps that provide immediate value individually and long-term value collectively."

The approach calls for businesses to think and act in terms of swift "surgical strikes" rather than monolithic efforts. It requires making a holistic analysis of how a company's business-as-usual must be reinvented in the digital economy. That change is implemented with a sequence of high-value solutions that each deliver immediate results.

Williams-Sonoma's e-business push was segmented into several separate but connected phases, each designed to provide immediate individual impact. For the first phase, the company translated one of its most popular customer services--the bridal gift registry of its namesake Williams-Sonoma kitchenware stores--onto the Internet. Completed in time for the summer wedding season, the site generated more sales than the largest Williams-Sonoma store.

The online registry is integrated with retail and catalog channels, with registry status updated across all three channels simultaneously. A critical component of the project's first phase was to base it on a scalable e-commerce foundation that would not only support the initial bridal registry but the company's entire expansion into online retailing. That foundation was designed to mesh into Williams-Sonoma's existing back-end infrastructure, including its order management and distribution center systems.

"The constant and fundamental change in the economy where companies can succeed or fail overnight drove us to develop a way for our clients to understand the market dynamics, the new measurements of success, the necessity of speed and the ability to quickly provide value to their business," said Ian Small, chief strategy officer with USWeb/CKS.

Time to value balances the simultaneous need for speed and results to maximize business impact in the shortest possible time.

"This approach has been critical to our success with Williams-Sonoma," said Small. "It provided the underlying philosophy for stair-stepping Williams-Sonoma to full e-commerce through the functionality of the bridal registry site, and continues to be applied in helping Williams-Sonoma deliver a rolling launch of online functions and features.

"Our approach simplifies the setting of priorities by focusing on customer value--rapidly delivering tangible value to customers, who in turn deliver tangible results to the business. The approach has been so successful that we have been applying the same philosophies of incremental development and deployment to the Pottery Barn effort from the very beginning."

Williams-Sonoma was cautious about bringing its brand online.

"Our strategy from the outset was to take a careful and planned development approach," said Shelley Nandkeolyar, VP of e-commerce with Williams-Sonoma. "It is critical that we deliver the same high-level experience that our customers in retail and catalog are accustomed to."

Nandkeolyar described an elaborate evaluation process that allowed Williams-Sonoma to consider a number of potential partners, as well as the most sensible way to capitalize on its existing business.

"The principle has been to use our existing mail-order business rules and logic," Nandkeolyar said. "These have been tried, tested and proven to align with our customer's expectations. This is part of the advantage of creating an e-commerce site for a 40-year-old company with well-established customer service standards and systems."

USWeb/CKS advises its clients to work hand in hand with their consultants.

"With Williams-Sonoma, we did the heavy lifting in some areas and they did in others," Small said. "Working closely with our clients' in-house staff on these initiatives is key to long-term success--both for us and for our clients."

Williams-Sonoma launched its e-commerce site in November.

"In the first two months, we have become the leading retailer of cooking and serving equipment on the Web," Nandkeolyar said. "But to stay competitive, our e-commerce solution must reach even deeper into our business systems. I envision a solution linking our entire supply chain to our e-commerce front end, so suppliers would automatically know, for example, when to replenish our inventory."

Nandkeolyar also advises organizations making the step to e-commerce, "Each company should do its own SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunity and threat) analysis and match that to its core capability and skill set."

Small said that tying the online endeavors to existing systems is essential.

"The key to online success is to marry business model, brand and systems in a seamless implementation," he said. "For existing brick and mortar retailers, the biggest effort from a technology standpoint is to make sure that their back-end systems can support open connectivity to and from other systems. Retailers need to take steps to open up while leveraging existing infrastructure and code."

Through the next year, the company plans to bring all four of its brand names online. The time-to-value approach gave Williams-Sonoma a high-impact entrance into online retailing, which will enable it to keep momentum building as all the pieces of its e-business strategy are snapped into place.

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