Rob Veliz got into digital media while attending the University of Washington, where he worked in the school’s distant learning program and built some of the first online courses available anywhere. “We were hand-coding everything,” he says. “It was very experimental for the time, and led to my next job at Microsoft.” After his days in Redmond, Rob worked at Scholastic in New York City and later dove head first into the ecommerce business at the cosmetics giant Sephora. Today he is Vice President of Digital at Porter Novelli, where he oversees a global suite of marketing and commerce services for the agency’s clients.

What was your first job in ecommerce?

In 2005 I began building ecommerce sites through a small consulting business I started. Later I helped to vet new ecommerce platforms at Scholastic and started working within the Magento environment. In 2011 I joined Sephora and dove deep into the ecommerce business with the Oracle ATG platform.

Enterprise platforms like ATG and Hybris are not simple, out-of-the-box solutions.

The tough part about enterprise-grade platforms is the amount of development involved. A good amount of potential error is introduced because of the complexity of the code. The depth of code can make customization and iteration difficult to manage unless you have a very consistent team of developers and really good documentation.

What do you think of ‘plug-n-play’ platforms like Shopify?

They are great for what they do best, which is to get small businesses up and running fast. You can spin up an ecommerce instance in less than a week! That said – they come with all of the limitations of your typical “out of the box” solutions, which can make it difficult for businesses that need to scale or require a more complex environment. Like when I need to place a pixel in the head of the order confirmation page… that should be relatively straightforward and I shouldn’t be limited by the platform’s infrastructure.

Those solutions are certainly user-friendly, especially for non-technical users. But many ecommerce business owners find themselves backed into a technological corner when they need to scale.

In my experience, when you stop innovating, you die in ecommerce – you can’t stay in the same place. And that means eventually facing some technology challenges. As you scale there are more features to integrate, deeper data that you need to get at, more marketing channels to consider. Thinking your ecommerce business through 2-3 years in advance will help you make smart, scalable technology choices today.

What scalable technologies do you see making the biggest impact for ecommerce businesses?

To me, scalability has a lot to do with delivering products into the hands of customers a lot faster. So as enterprise-level businesses scale, implementing specialized, 3rd party Order Management Systems (OMS), with the goal of shipping orders faster, becomes more important. Having a robust OMS in place allows retailers, for instance, to accept an order online but fulfill via in-store pick up.

How can small and medium-sized retail brands that want support an ecommerce business compete with a behemoth like Amazon?

That is certainly a challenge many ecommerce businesses face. There is no silver bullet for competition within your vertical or with other sellers/distributors. But I think there are two key initiatives that can help brands to stand out:

— Make sure you are investing in the right marketing channels. As marketers we often toss money in a lot of different directions. We might be monitoring, but not necessarily A/B testing, how well those dollars are being spent. Testing is really essential.

— True multichannel, multi-device marketing. If you were looking for a silver bullet, this is probably heading in the right direction. It’s a tough technology problem to create a consistent customer experience from ecommerce to brick-and-mortar, or desktop to mobile. Enterprise companies are utilizing beacons and things like the [Adobe Marketing Cloud] customer ID to begin creating consistency across all of those experiences. There’s cool stuff happening in this space, and it’s an area where we are going to see a lot of advancement in the years to come – our experience with brands will be personalized and consistent no matter where we are or what device we use.

In particular, great mobile experiences need to be a priority. 

Designing mobile-first is key. Even menu interfaces that were previously unique to mobile are now changing the desktop experience – we are seeing mobile-first design and UX in a lot of places. And the number of customers doing a full lifecycle of mobile shopping is increasing exponentially. It can’t be ignored.

How do you recommend ecommerce pros get the most out of their platforms?

A solid A/B testing tool is essential. Get that plugged in, and get someone on point for testing. From affordable options like Optimizely to advanced tools like Adobe Test and Target — anything you plug in is going to provide benefit.

Combine that with deep analytics around your marketing channels and focus on what works. Always be testing, always be tracking and looking for the behavioral patterns that your site visitors exhibit, and use that information to your advantage. Be deeply involved in your site analytics by the hour and it will become serendipitous — put the energy in and get the results back!

The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the individuals and not representative of the individuals’ companies or employers.

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