Executive Q&A: Alex and Ani Plans Digital Rollouts in 2015

The jewelry brand's VP of digital strategy sheds light on the company's approach to improving cross-channel experiences and where it will invest in digital next year.

Providing a seamless customer experience across channels has become the holy grail of retail. Jewelry brand Alex and Ani is one such company that has made a frictionless customer experience a focal point of its business strategy.

Founded in 2004 by jewelry designer Carolyn Rafaelian who named the company after her two eldest daughters, Alex and Ani has centralized its data and digital team across its stores, ecommerce site, and wholesale business. 1to1 Media caught up with Ryan Bonifacino, the company's vice president of digital strategy, to discuss the challenges to streamlining the customer experience, as well as its plans for digital enhancements in the New Year.

1to1 Media: What is Alex and Ani's philosophy on the customer experience?
Ryan Bonifacino: Our approach to customer experience aligns with how we structure our organization, which is the centralization of the experience across our stores and our dot com, and even our wholesale business as well. To control the customer experience, you have to centralize your business units, your touchpoints, and anything else related to the customer data. So you need all the customer data in one place, including transaction data, first-party data like CRM and social CRM, sales data, and product data.

How does cloud computing help you provide this seamless experience?
Cloud-based solutions reduce the reliance on IT to support the needs of the business. It's no longer about how many machines or people we need to provide support; it's just a matter of defining our business requirements, selecting a vendor with our partners, and then starting the project. It also means quicker time to market with smaller amounts of risk since we're not reliant on our internal capabilities. In fact, we buy a lot from Rackspace's cloud offering and we use Rackspace Digital as a consulting unit.

Rackspace features a case study with your quote, "For every second you're adding to the loading process, you're reducing the conversion rate by 7 percent." So what is the load speed of your website?
I don't have the exact number but it's down to a few seconds. It's a balancing act. You want to provide a rich experience, which leads to more of what I call stickiness, but you also have people who just want to get in and out of your site quickly, so you're always thinking about how long things take to load.

What challenges do you face in providing a great mobile customer experience?
We already have a mobile responsive website, but when we look at an app, we want the company to be ready, which means we're going through these readiness assessments. For example, are we able to put in KPIs related to an app that complements what we're doing in mobile browsers?

When it comes to an app, we have years' worth of user data, like transaction histories, what they've responded to from a digital marketing standpoint, what they like on social media, and the most important part-browsing habits. And when you look at our core strategy, the company was built on this idea of personalization. So our stance on apps is the rules should allow the experience to be driven at a one-to-one level. A lot of retailers don't have that one-to-one experience approach, and we hope to leapfrog those retailers, not just in sales, but in the overall experience. The app needs to have a highly personalized sales utility.

So you're still experimenting with ways to provide more relevant features?
We're a little past the experimental stage, we actually have an app in beta. Soon we'll release it to our employees and a select group of fans, and when we're ready, it'll go through public beta. So call it a 2015 project. We just don't know if it'll be the first half or the second half of the year. It's also powered by the same assets and the same CMS that we use for our other channels. We're just adding a variation to fit within the app experience itself.

What are your thoughts on mobile wallets? Do you see benefits to accepting Apple Pay in the near future?
If the customer expects it and the adoption rate is there, then there are tremendous benefits. Apple can do wondrous things for brands that are aligned with them and their products. Apple goes to the ends of the earth looking at data which leads to new discoveries, so Apple can be a marketing vehicle. So how does that relate to Apple Pay, let's assume that they'll promote companies that align with Apple products.

But when it comes to us making a decision on incorporating Apple Pay or any new technology, every single bit of analysis with respect to privacy and PII [personally identifiable information] must be done before that decision takes place. Before we jump in we have to look at the balance of privacy and brand discovery in terms of what Apple can do for us. But, we're also making sure we have the underlying infrastructure to support Apple Pay when we're ready to roll it out. From a tech perspective, I'd say we're about 95 percent there.

What else are you working on?
As regulators start to understand methods of tracking people across devices for marketing, we want to be ahead of that. We want to be in a position where we can offer a one-click-opt-out function that allows the consumer to be completely anonymous no matter what the touchpoint is, and I think we'll be ahead of our peers when we announce that to our customers. It's a massive project that we're working on with not only the NRF (National Retail Federation), but also with some of the consumer advocacy grassroots organizations. Once it's done, we'll have moved a lot of data, but we'll gain a lot of loyalty since ultimately we want to put decisions in the hands of the customer.