Today we’re talking with Amber Engine’s Chief Revenue Officer, Jesse Akre, who has been a business leader in home furnishings for two decades. Jesse shares with us his insights on the challenges and opportunities he sees in the industry as they relate to Amber Engine’s focus: product data.
Can you share a little bit about your career in home furnishings? How did you first get into the industry?
I started off in early 2000 building an ecommerce company that sold pieces from more than 100 home furnishings brands. One of the things that attracted me to the home furnishings industry was the ecommerce opportunity. In 2000, you didn’t find a lot of people doing home furnishings online. You definitely didn’t see a brick-and-mortar business with a web presence. It was exciting to get into the ecommerce space because it felt very intriguing – we learned how to code, build a website, source products, and handle logistics, shipping, and returns. All of this provided a ton of learning.
As we grew and evolved, we realized we needed advanced technologies to support us, but there just wasn’t anything priced that met our needs. Everything was enterprise level. So in 2006-2007, we went out and raised some money to build our own platforms to support our needs. This opened our eyes to a more exciting opportunity in the space – we saw an ecommerce presence becoming a need for traditional retailers. So we looked internally and thought: why don’t we pivot and create a service and solution business for the traditional channel of the home furnishings community? We turned the company from being an etailer to a mechanism for supporting traditional retailers in their ecommerce and digital efforts.
Out of the gate, we started to make some pretty exciting inroads in a space we used to compete against. After 7 months, we were acquired by MicroD. This gave us the opportunity to join forces and look to scale what was, and still is, one of the most exciting changes this industry has seen in generations. I’ve since been fortunate to lead teams doing a lot of different great things in almost every aspect of this industry we enjoy today.
What about Amber Engine's mission to empower the home furnishings industry initially interested you?
Back when we started selling furniture online, one of our biggest operational challenges was managing product data from the brands we wanted to represent. For example, one time a sales rep from a large brand we were interested in carrying showed up at our location. The rep had with him three of the largest binders of product information I’d ever seen – catalogs, price sheets, all kinds of prints. Very quickly I understood this was his bag of tricks for working with other traditional retailers. I sat with him and explained that as an etailer, his binders did me absolutely no good. I needed this information in electronic forms. I needed it in a spreadsheet – not a binder. He didn't even know where to start.
Fast forward to today – that is still happening in this industry. Now, it has gotten better; brands and retailers have become aware of ecommerce. But one of the most exciting opportunities in the space remains fixing these product data challenges. Talk about an opportunity to really bring an industry around to a new era and start to see what the impact can really mean to an industry that's so legacy based. Imagine brick-and-mortar retailers doing as well online locally as in their traditional stores. There are so many exciting things that can happen when we solve this problem, and I'm excited that Amber Engine is leading the way.
How have you witnessed retailers and brands struggle with managing and sharing product data?
Brands typically have a traditional mindset when it comes to product data. They have a lot of legacy ways that are centric to physical products. For example, there are phenomenal product catalogs in showrooms; but are brands putting the same resources into the digital aspects of their businesses? I think brands can go a lot further in bettering this opportunity in their own businesses. It starts with acknowledging the opportunity and putting the resources into it, and understanding what it’s going to cost. Once you do that you can find the solutions and teams to make product data challenges a problem of the past.
On the retailer side, they have to take more advantage of the opportunity in front of them. Some are scared or intimidated by the web, or don't know where to start. But they have to understand it's the new way consumers research and shop. Brick-and-mortar stores won't become obsolete, but success is going to come from the perfect marriage of online and in-store. When retailers focus on the areas that scare them, they’ll find success. This definitely means they have to become more active in what great product data can mean for their business.
I’ve worked with hundreds of brands and retailers and they all have a different perception of ecommerce and digital, and adopting it into business models. Brands and retailers just aren’t talking the same language, and there are different levels of excitement, commitment, focus (and even paranoia).
That’s why ownership is really on both sides of the equation. Brands need to do a much better job helping retailers and retailers need to take ownership of this new consumer paradigm and get their arms around product data by employing things that are available to them with a refocused approach. The more retailers and brands can collaborate and align on things like how product data needs to flow from brand to retailer, the more these gaps and challenges will start to go away.
How would you define great product data?
Great product data is everything that a consumer would need to know about the physical product that you’re selling. Using the traditional showroom experience as a backdrop, if I walk into the showroom and I see a barstool, everything I’d need to know about the piece is right there in front of me – height, depth, color, accents, material, functionality – and all the other things I can experience by personal observation (how the chair swivels, to what degree, etc.).
That experience has to be translated online.
So when I say great product data, you have to think about it that way. That level of information is what the consumer is looking for when they are researching a product in the digital space. What we have today online are the basics, yet the consumers’ expectations are much bigger than that.
I don't think it's going to change overnight, but there has to be a pretty aggressive roadmap for brands to provide that level of information to the retailers that carry their products. Both will benefit when they do, because they’ll get more information about the things they want to sell in front of consumers.
How do you see brands and retailers benefiting from access to better product data?
Because today’s consumers are starting their purchase journey by researching online, they’re already armed and ready to make a purchase when they walk into your store. If you're not ready to influence that buying decision, you're missing an opportunity – and that goes for both brands and retailers. It’s about giving the consumer information that allows them to make an educated and informed purchase. So brands and retailers can either both win together or lose together when it comes to this product data and how it will impact everyone’s revenue.
When you think about the home furnishings industry five years from now, what excites you most? How do you envision the industry evolving?
I think there's a lot of exciting change ahead of us in this industry. Technology is definitely a big part of that. So is the consumer and the way the consumer wants to shop. Styles will change, but people buying home furnishings will remain a constant. The consumer is going to experience purchasing in this industry in a completely different way as the years go on. They’re already doing research on devices, and so I think we’ll see that experience become more life-like for the consumers through things like augmented reality.
I also see a significant a change in the product journey. You see players entering the space today with mattresses in a box, sofas in a box…these changes are just the beginning. People aren't buying legacy or heritage pieces anymore. They're buying with expectations that it will last 3-5 years (about the amount of time people typically stay at one place now). The consumer is changing as much as technology, and because of that, product offerings will have to change with it – and that’s very exciting.
I think the industry is going to do some pretty exciting things, but unless you’re willing to learn and become part of it, you can suffer the consequences – because the internet isn’t going away.