eCommerce Expert Perspective: Paul Rogers
Recently, YOTTAA had a chance to talk to Paul Rogers, Founder of Vervaunt, a London-based eCommerce and paid media consultancy that has worked with retail brands of all sizes, including Pangaia, David Austin Roses, MUJI, LUSH, Totême, and Sunspel. Paul also has an eCommerce blog and is also the Co-Host of the re:platform podcast.
During this interview, Paul discusses his experience from ~13 years in eCommerce, including Magento and Shopify Plus insights, balancing shopper experience and 3rd party tech, and predictions for the future of retail.
- Big trend: Brands are reviewing their technology and underlying architecture and many are either going broader with a series of best-of-breed technologies or simplifying and going down the SaaS route, with Shopify Plus being a very common choice.
- Caveat: Brands must understand that with a move to headless/a broader stack, they’ll likely need a more technical team/focus.
- Biggest Focus Areas: DTC growth, more eCommerce budget, and continuing to improve end-to-end shopper experience.
- COVID Influence: Since the pandemic, pushing direct to consumer (DTC) retail channels has become priority number one for many clients.
- Digital Brand Awareness: Paid media has become critical to brands as digital is the only real promotional channel.
- Shopify challenge: Brands get excited about easily adding features and end up impacting site performance and general theme quality.
Confidence and energy
Tell us about your professional background.
I’ve been in eCommerce and digital for about 13 years. I started off outside of eCommerce doing general web and digital work for a government company, and progressed into eCommerce from there. I worked in-house, and I used to co-own a Magento development agency. I’ve worked for other agencies as well, but I’ve been running Vervaunt for about four years. We mostly work with premium and direct to consumer brands. Some of our clients include Pangaia, The Conran Shop, Lush, Totême, Sunspel, David Austin Roses and various others. The business is split into two: paid media and eCommerce consultancy.
What about eCommerce has kept you in the industry for so long?
I love eCommerce, as it’s constantly changing. There are loads of interesting areas to get involved in. I love all the little parts of the ecosystem as well, like the little mini communities. Also, from a work perspective it is very measurable. So a lot of the work you are actually doing, like the optimizations, the tests, the marketing, is all very measurable. This is really appealing from both sides of the business.
What have been some of your most exciting industry accomplishments?
Good question. Overall it has probably been some of the replatforming projects we have worked on recently. Bulletproof was a big project for us about three years ago, which was a very early Shopify Plus migration, and was a really big brand (and site) for Shopify at the time. It was also a very complex project in places. I worked as part of the client team and together we delivered the project in just over two months, which was a really good achievement. They have some really smart people internally and I really enjoyed that project. They were based in Seattle though, so there were plenty of late nights. I enjoyed it nonetheless.
I also worked on a project for oneills.com about five years ago. That was a good project. It was a big Magento 2 build, pretty early in the Magento 2 days. More recently, David Austin Roses has been a cool project that I’ve worked on. We helped them simplify their technology stack and move a lot of catalog complexity from their eCommerce platform into a PIM, allowing them to then move to Shopify Plus. Then we’ve done some smaller bits for other clients that have been quite cool, around things like builders, internationalisation or subscriptions for example.
Why did you decide to start Vervaunt?
It was a natural progression from what I was doing — I was more of an independent consultant before we actually positioned it as Vervaunt. I was working mostly with brands, and often around replatforming (especially Magento) and technology in general, and Josh (my best friend and Co-Founder of Vervaunt) was doing freelance for various eCommerce businesses. After we started getting quite a lot of demand together, it made sense to start a business.
As much as we’ve become more of an agency on the paid media side, we still put a lot of time into getting to know businesses and being more consultative. We do a lot of up-front discovery when we take a new client on and we still spend a large amount of time in clients’ offices and we have shared Slack channels with every client etc. I guess the proposition is designed to be a closer, more technical paid media agency.
What does Vervaunt mean?
We had this branding consultant from Austin who came up with a name. There were various different options and Vervaunt is a combination of Verve and Vaunt. Which is essentially confidence and energy, which mostly defines us.
Can you briefly explain Vervaunt’s offerings? What size brands do you work with? Which platforms do you typically work with?
We are split down the middle, though our paid media side is actually bigger now whereas historically it was always the eCommerce side. Our eCommerce side arguably has a bigger brand and is better known. We mostly work with mid-market, multi-channel, premium brands and direct to consumer brands. As I mentioned, LUSH is a big client for us, Pangaia is a big DTC brand that we work with. Then we’ve got MUJI, Joseph Joseph, Antler, Christopher Kane, NIO Cocktails, Sunspel, and various others.
On the paid side, search, shopping and social are the biggest channels, but we do YouTube, Apple Ads, Amazon and various other smaller channels. We initially specialised in shopping, but are now pretty heavily focused on paid social.
Platform-wise, we do a lot with Magento and Shopify Plus. Shopify Plus has grown massively for us over the last couple of years. I would say that is right in the core of what we do. We also work with Bigcommerce, which we’ve been assessing with clients more and more. And we have a few clients on Salesforce Commerce Cloud as well.
We also find ourselves looking a lot at commercetools, Elastic Path, Centra and some of the more modern, best of breed solutions that are usually part of a broader stack. So, those are the eCommerce platforms, but we also work with lots of other vendors quite closely.
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Achieving a “best of breed” technology stack
What are the main drivers for a merchant to use a standard approach / UX on an eCommerce platform (Shopify/SFCC) or choose to make a custom UX using SPA/PWA technologies? Do you find merchants choose one or the other or a hybrid approach?
Usually, when we are working with a client who is looking at replatforming, they want to go one way or the other. Often, they want to go traditional with a SaaS platform for a few reasons: to reduce the cost of ownership, be more agile around development or to simplify in certain areas. The alternative is then going down the headless route as part of a broader stack / project.
The other direction brands focus on is achieving a more customizable, broader, best of breed technology stack — with more of a focus on scaling in certain areas. The eCommerce platform is then only a part of that, and potentially quite a small part. When retailers are looking at headless technology stacks, SPAs, and PWAs, there’s a lot of potential areas to consider. I would say that 75% of the brands we talk to that are already looking at headless are looking at platforms like BigCommerce, commercetools, even Magento. With headless Shopify, you lose a lot of the real appeal that made you choose Shopify in the first place, so it’s not as common for those looking at broader projects I would say.
There are new technology partners that are looking to bridge that gap with Shopify, with Nacelle and Shogun being the main two. These providers are gradually getting more mainstream and are starting to launch some big sites — we’ve had a lot of people look at these recently. Long-term, my hope is that these two in particular will allow merchants to still be able to introduce broader front end technology stacks and generally have more freedom, but still remain quite well-connected to Shopify and the app eco-system.
The PWA piece is really appealing and can add a lot of value, especially from a mobile/UX perspective. I don’t think it’s possible to match the speed and UX in terms of using standard templating within Shopify, Salesforce or any other platform. However, it’s really important for brands to justify the move and really understand the pros and cons of going down this route. For platforms like Magento and Salesforce, it does make a lot of sense as they aren’t super agile when it comes to front end development or introducing new features and they already require a fairly technical team / setup.
In terms of going down a hybrid approach for different areas, a lot of our clients are looking at this approach. A common example at the moment is product configuration. With Shopify, there are examples of brands taking this away from Shopify, allowing them to manipulate the product data more and improve the UX. This Revant Optics PDP is a good example (built by WeMakeWebsites). This is a big trend at the moment and again helps with performance (and variant limits in the case of Shopify). Similarly, there are then lots of brands using third parties to support this, such as Cylindo or Threekit for example. I would still consider this a bit of a hybrid approach. This is just one example area, but using vue or react apps or components is becoming more common to help solve problems or extend different aspects of the front end.
Overall, I don’t think there’s a right or wrong approach here — it’s the same with platforms, a lot of it comes down to business objectives, your team, budgets etc. There are pros and cons for each approach / technology stack and they’re weighted differently for different businesses.
In terms of paid media, what are the typical investments brands should aim for, and how is that determined?
This is an interesting question because it varies so much for clients, and a lot of it is based on goals. We’ve got DTC brands that have huge percentages of income based on activating new audiences and brand awareness, alongside more ROAS-focused activity. But equally we’ve then got some clients that are probably more like 2% or 3%. It depends on the team, the goals, how well educated the consumers are, how much they believe in some of the paid activities (from an attribution perspective), general profitability and cash flow etc. There are lots of variables really.
With the pandemic, we’ve definitely seen more demand. A lot of the brands we’ve started working with since the start of the pandemic are brands that historically are more wholesale lead or physical retail lead. They’ve had a direct-to-consumer channel, but they’ve not pushed it that much. Whereas now, it’s priority number one, activities have gone digital-first, and there is a lot less focus on traditional marketing, particularly offline advertising. There is now suddenly a lot more focus on brand awareness online and net new customer acquisition — to help counter deficits in other channels or to capitalise on increased online demand. A lot of these brands need to show growth. Many of our customers have investors, and paid has become critical to them as digital is their only real channel. We see a huge amount of demand, and a lot more spend being allocated.
With the rapid complexity of Shopify sites, and the easy ability to add functionality and 3rd party technologies, what is the best advice you can give brands looking to boost shopper experience?
We tend to have a lot of clients that are trying to build internal processes around the key areas, with a performance culture being a really important one in particular. Internal teams get really excited; 3rd parties, rushing deployments, rich content etc. — they can all have a really big impact on performance. That has been an issue for a lot of our clients, more so historically as Shopify has improved a lot from a performance perspective. It’s really important that brands build a performance, accessibility and usability culture to govern this side of things and they’re being factored in before anything is deployed to production.
I would say you never want to forgo features like user generated content, personalization, or a richer search experience. It’s more about how you balance it from a performance perspective and always be mindful of how you are implementing these things. As well as how you are building the themes, managing content and everything else. That is one of the issues with Shopify; brands get excited adding features themselves and end up impacting performance.
Are there certain 3rd parties you consider a “must-have” for your clients?
Although it differs a lot, for our average client we would recommend a 3rd party search tool on the average platforms, since most platforms have pretty weak search functions. For user generated content, we work with Yotpo a lot, there are a few others we like as well. CRM is standard practice, and is something I would say is a must. Loyalty is fairly standard for some of our clients. Customer service tools are important. These are some of the key ones.
Here at YOTTAA, we know first-hand that 3rd parties can have a large impact on site performance. How do you approach the conversation around balancing a fast site with rich functionality?
Everything needs to be brought up and discussed on a case-by-case basis. How much value do we think it’s going to add? Is there a real business case for this? Content personalization as an example is something that can really impact performance and the front end experience. Do you really need it? Can the content be delivered in a different way? Everything is about trying to quantify the impact and value, and then think about a balance and kind of solutionize from there. If brands have been in a lot of pain around performance and front end stability, it’s a lot easier to create a business case.
We do a lot of educating people on the impacts of things like third parties and different types of assets can have on performance, with a view to governing it alongside the teams we work with. Different people in the business will get exposed to different 3rd parties — things like new JS widgets or an interactive content provider could have a really big impact on performance for a key landing page and all of this kind of stuff needs to be guarded – which is the role we’d usually cover.
The biggest focus should be DTC growth
Do you expect to see many brands replatforming in 2021?
We have already seen so many brands looking into it — so much has changed for businesses over the last 12 months now. Brands just want to invest more in DTC and gain more control over content and experience. As of now, we’ve seen a lot of brands either looking at a SaaS platform like Shopify or looking at more of a best of breed technology stack; or potentially introducing headless as part of an existing platform. Recently, I’ve had a lot of CEOs reaching out asking if they should be looking at headless, PWAs, or even just replatforming. It does feel like everyone is reviewing the technology and underlying architecture at the moment with a view to either simplify or create good foundations for DTC growth.
It feels like a lot of these brands are looking to do CAPEX projects to ensure that they’re in a good position from a technology and CX perspective.