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How Liberty navigated a site relaunch during a pandemic

We speak to e-commerce director Eric Fergusson about the challenges and opportunities for growing online retail in 2020

Liberty London's Tudor-revival building illuminated at night

Spring 2020 marked the 145th birthday of the iconic department store and retail brand Liberty, and the company had some big plans to celebrate the event. It was decided to coordinate its ambitious rebranding project with a much-needed relaunch of Liberty’s website, collaborating with data and e-commerce experts Threepipe Reply.

What Liberty couldn’t have known was that relaunch would also coincide with the global COVID-19 pandemic, which precipitated a near-complete lockdown across the UK and most of the globe. IT Pro spoke to Liberty’s e-commerce director Eric Fergusson about the challenges – and opportunities – presented by the pandemic to his organisation and other retailers looking to refine their online offering at this time, and how the company was able to achieve a successful website relaunch.

The case for change

The previous Liberty website launched in 2015, and had grown complicated and difficult to manage over the years. “We had been making monthly updates to that site’s codebase,” Fergusson tells us. “Over five years it had ended up quite messy.” This led to excess page weight that was harming the user experience, as well as unintended interdependencies. “So you add a new feature or you make a tweak and then something in a completely different area of the site which you thought was completely interdependent goes awry,” he continues. “Which meant that we had this heavy site which took longer to make improvements to and to QA.”

Coinciding with the Liberty rebranding and the sunsetting of critical third-party infrastructure, early 2020 became the ideal time to move ahead with a wholly new website. “What we were trying to achieve commercially was a faster site with an exciting new UI and a codebase that was easier to change, easier to monitor and easier to do QA on,” says Fergusson. Liberty is one of the many online retailers that have seen a huge uptick in e-commerce in recent years, which has only been accelerated by lockdown conditions. Streamlining operations, ensuring clear metrics and reporting, and smoothing and simplifying the user experience are all essential if a business wants to take full advantage of the online boom.

The relaunch allowed Liberty to diversify, moving from one website serving the whole world, to operating a second US subfolder domain enabling some localised functionality for customers across the Atlantic.

“Threepipe Reply has worked with us for over three years, and they are a key partner for a number of reasons,” says Fergusson. “They provide analytics insight and other kinds of mechanical and advisory expertise, which for any digital business is absolutely critical. You need reliable numbers. You need to be able to understand as best as you can the causes of what you observe – orders, visits, conversion, whether that's coming through channel, through device, through product category – to then be able to know how to respond.

“Threepipe Reply also helped us in the early days by setting up sophisticated web funnel reporting at category level, which helps us track on an ongoing basis whenever we made enhancements to the site and see whether they were driving improvements in the key stage of the journey. We now work through a monthly cycle of releases and improvements to the site.”

A chief concern for Liberty’s e-commerce team was that moving to a new site would herald a potential loss of insight and a lack of perfect mapping. But working with Threepipe Reply, the team was able to maintain “robust, comparable and continuous insight” throughout the transition. “The main thing is that we've made the structure of our data more complicated by moving from one site to effectively two,” says Fergusson. “And we haven't lost any of the richness or detail compared to what we had before. It's remarkably common for insight and analytics to be a bit wonky at launch, and if you've got a week of dud data you're stuck with that forever. Avoiding that is really valuable.”

Navigating the pandemic

It goes without saying that coronavirus wasn’t in the original plans for Liberty’s site relaunch, and has had a huge impact on the rollout, as well as the focus and importance placed on its success. The transition between websites had been planned for a period that was expected to be quiet for online sales – when the proportion of web mix in the overall retail mix would be relatively low. Instead, the new site went live at a time when – as was the case for many businesses operating a combination of digital and bricks-and-mortar stores – web accounted for 100% of sales. “So, the consequence of web being offbeat for a couple of weeks would suddenly become more sizable,” says Fergusson.

There were benefits, too. With the flagship store on London’s Regent Street closed, “IT was able to deploy more resource onto this project because they didn't need to support as much across the business as normal. The risk was greater, but we had more resource to be able to deploy against it,” notes Fergusson.

E-commerce is inevitably going to come under increased scrutiny from the wider business for any retailer during the pandemic, and even more so during a full site relaunch. Stakeholders had many questions for Fergusson’s team. There was a strong incentive to come to grips with the changes and understand which would prove temporary and which were likely to become lasting. The initial data coming in from a new website can be unpredictable, and not all of it is statistically significant. “We've got a really broad product catalogue,” says Fergusson. “The performance on any given product can be quite volatile. In those high energy moments post-launch, it's very common for senior stakeholders and retailers to want to know the answer immediately as to what's worked, what hasn't worked, what we need to fix.” As a partner, Threepipe Reply was able to urge caution and give a steer on which data were relevant and which were likely to be anomalous, and in doing so back up the e-commerce team and reassure other stakeholders.

That data is of ever-increasing importance to online retailers is impossible to overstate. Fergusson points out a shift in the traditional focus on budgets thanks to the volatility and unpredictability caused by COVID-19. “Normally retailers love budgets. You need a budget because you have to buy stock in advance. Many of our categories were committing stocks 6-12 months ahead of time, so budgets are really important, and often very rigid. But the activities of this year have meant that budgets for most businesses have been more out than they've ever been.” Instead, trend data and the insights supplied by Threepipe Reply have proven a more accurate and reactive tool for planning and predicting how Liberty will perform, putting less emphasis on budgets than had been previously. “It's been really important for us to have robust and comparable and continuous insight,” says Fergusson.

For retailers considering a similar site relaunch at this time, Fergusson emphasises the need for capital investment. “If you're in a category where customers are increasingly shopping online, and therefore have that customer supporting wave behind you, you need to try and get the finances to support you to catch it. Businesses are going to find themselves in one of a couple of situations. They've either got a good tailwind driven by this unforeseeable year, and they need to go out and get cash to take advantage of it. For someone like ASOS, online is not new for them. They're experts in this, but they went out and purposely fundraised to make sure that they could catch the behaviour and storm ahead. And then you've got companies like H&M, who have been later to the e-commerce world, but are investing and driving change at a rate that's outstanding. You want to try and be someone like them. But we can't be blind to the fact that a lot of businesses are really going to struggle to find that money, and that doesn't mean they're bad businesses that don't know what they're doing.”

For those in the position to bolster their e-commerce offering, a strong grasp of the data is essential. Since working with Threepipe Reply on the website relaunch, Liberty is reporting a 16% increase in its conversion rate, a 13% increase in add-to-cart and a 7% increase in tracking accuracy (from 93% to 98%). “The whole process of working with Threepipe Reply was pain-free,” says Fergusson. “They are a trusted partner that you can rely on to deliver it. It's been a great relationship.”

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