Member Exclusive   //   April 30, 2024

Modern Retail Commerce Summit recap: How retail leaders from Bombas to Walmart are strategizing growth

It’s easy to start a brand, but it’s harder to grow it and keep the business afloat.

At the Modern Retail Commerce Summit, held earlier this month in New Orleans, executives from some of the most exciting brands spoke candidly about the strategies they’re implementing that are helping them grow and bring in new customers.

The speakers included leaders from Bombas, Kendra Scott, Walmart Marketplace and Shein. And they all shared their tricks of the trade for building out smart retail businesses and expanding into new commerce channels.

Below is a rundown of the most important takeaways from the event.

Expanding into new channels

Customer base expansion was a key talking point for brands, specifically how to explore new channels. Eastern Mountain Sports, the outdoor retailer that’s been around for over 50 years, has built a strong following among hardcore outdoor enthusiasts. However, it wasn’t able to grow alongside competitors like REI and Patagonia, and its former owner Eastern Outfitters filed for bankruptcy in 2017.

Now, EMS’ new owner is attempting to revamp the business and looking to attract customers who may not be outdoorsy but are seeking performance-based apparel. 

The first step of this, said Doug Reinart, chief operating officer at EMS’s parent company GoDigital Media Group, was figuring out, “What was the identity of the brand?” From there, the company has been embarking on a new marketing strategy to reintroduce customers to EMS. While EMS has closed some stores, it’s also in the process of opening other new ones – all in an attempt to get more people acquainted with the legacy outdoors brand. 

“Over the last ownership changes, there wasn’t that much put into brand communication – it became more of a transactional business,” said Reinart. Now, EMS is focused on both re-engaging its old customers and finding new ones. “It’s an attempt to differentiate the brand as being a more down-to-earth, accessible brand.” 

Gopuff, on the other hand, is turning to other businesses for growth. The company launched a new logistics and technology platform, called Powered by Gopuff, to help consumer packaged goods brands to rapidly deliver products from their own website. 

“Rather than just being another retail media network, we decided to launch a B-to-B capability,” Daniel Folkman, Gopuff’s svp of business, said.

The idea is that Gopuff can continue to be a consumer-facing quick-delivery app. But it can also work with brands so that they can facilitate their own quick commerce. “The idea is that it is this white-label fulfillment solution for big CPG to enable 30 [minute] or less delivery on their own website.”

Its first brand partners include Tums and Jif, but Gopuff plans on expanding the offerings to make an entire B-to-B business that lets other companies use the platform’s technology and fulfillment. 

“We’ve built all of the technology that powers everything from how we receive product and order it to how we get it to the customer,” Folkman said. “Over the last 10 years, we feel like we’ve successfully been the face of instant commerce.”

Gopuff wasn’t the only e-commerce platform announcing new channels and services. Walmart Marketplace also spoke about how the big-box retailer has expanded its e-commerce assortment and added new perks.

Walmart has many different channels, including its physical stores, its e-commerce marketplace, and its B-to-B marketplace. And one of the big focuses of late is bringing all of those channels together. This, said Michael Mosser, vp of categories at Walmart Marketplace, is intended to help sellers build out their omnichannel businesses, as well as give customers more options.

The latest example, which was unveiled at the Modern Retail Commerce Summit, was a new program that let Walmart Marketplace customers buy tires directly from tire sellers and then have them shipped to local Walmart stores.

“It’s a new service we’re providing for our sellers,” said Mosser, “to create a frictionless and seamless shopping experience.”

Marrying old strategies with new

Sometimes the new programs aren’t consumer-facing. At Crocs, for example, the brand had to completely rethink its tech back-end after acquiring the shoe company Hey Dude in 2021. Crocs, a legacy player, has built its entire online presence via Salesforce. But Hey Dude was built atop Shopify and used newer plug-and-play services like Klaviyo.

“We inherited a young brand that was very entrepreneurial,” said Feliz Papich, vp of digital product management and customer service at Crocs. 

For the first year, Papich and her team’s task was simply to figure out a way to get the two brands to work together under one roof. “Basically [we had] two different sides of the tech world that we are able to real-time experience and real-time learn from those,” she said.

Now, over a year in, Papich is focused on building new tools that will let the two brands work together, as well as create space for any potential future additions. The first step of this was implementing a headless CMS that could be used by both brands. From there, Papich is adding new features and testing out new software to make both tech stacks work interoperably. 

“At the end of the day what we think about is: How do we [acquire] the best technology — and something that’s really transferable?” she said. “It’s about [building] a capability that can be fluid.”

But it’s not only legacy technology that brands are still wrestling with – it’s also legacy marketing strategies. High-end mattress company Saatva, for example, has found that one of its best-performing advertising channels is linear TV.

“Everyone says you have to be targeted,” said Saatva CMO Joe McCambley. The problem is, “targeting costs money.” 

What Saatva did instead was purchase nationwide remnant TV inventory that had CPMs as cheap as $2. This, McCambley said, helped increase Saatva’s search volume, which, in turn, helped grow its market share. Before, the company had previously relied heavily on search, but it found this more analog strategy helped it diversify away from increasingly expensive performance channels.

“We were able to reduce our dependence on search,” he said. 

Building community

With customer acquisition being trickier than ever, community building has been a key marketing tactic for brands. Several brands, including baby formula brand Bobbie, jewelry company Kendra Scott and apparel company Bombas have been developing strategies to get people deeply invested in their brands. While each brand has its own strategy, they all ultimately share the same goal of building a loyal customer base.

For some, such as Bobbie and Bombas, building a community around their brands requires social impact. Bombas has made a commitment to donating a product to a person facing homelessness for every product they sell. Bobbie, on the other hand, has been attempting to destigmatize the baby formula category by offering support to parents that are relying on these products. 

“The mission came first before the business idea,” Randy Goldberg, co-founder and chief brand officer at Bombas. “Part of being a brand over the last 10 or 15 years is the idea that… you have to come across as real and authentic.”

In Goldberg’s session, he described the ways Bombas markets itself – often focusing less on products and more on the social good aims of the company as a whole. For example, when Bombas donated its 100 millionth item – part of the company’s core principle to donate one item to a person experiencing homelessness for every product it sells – it launched a major out-of-home marketing campaign. 

This type of marketing strategy – focused on authenticity more than conversion – has helped Bombas grow while still maintaining a connection with its customers.

Bobbie’s approach was even more focused on direct engagement with its shoppers. The baby formula company hosts Zoom sessions with new parents to answer questions. It also has WhatsApp groups for customers to connect directly with each other. Kim Chappell, chief brand officer at Bobbie, said these types of programs “create a flywheel.”

In the case of Kendra Scott, building a community means offering the space for people to gather. Michelle Peterson, chief marketing officer at Kendra Scott, said that the company is allowing people to use its stores for charity events and even birthdays. Its effort to rally a community around the brand has been rewarded in the form of loyalty. About 70% of Kendra Scott’s revenue comes from repeat purchases.

Content can also be a powerful tool to keep people invested in a brand. E-commerce giants Shein and Poshmark have both invested in in-app livestreaming to get people to open the app more often and stay on the app longer. Shein has built an in-house content creation studio to allow the brand to produce content at a rapid pace and keep people entertained when shopping. Meanwhile, Poshmark has been developing new features for its new liveshopping capability, called Posh Shows, and is encouraging sellers to go live by providing training on best practices when hosting a show.

“We have clocked over a billion minutes worth of people watching Posh Shows since it started,” said Steven Tristan Young, chief marketing officer at Poshmark. “There is something about live shopping that is incredibly addictive, incredibly interactive but also at the end fulfilling.”

Finding the right audience

Channel mix is not a zero-sum game. In fact, one of the biggest takeways from the Summit was that the best-performing brands are the ones that understand what each sales channel does and how it complements the overall business.

“I think there’s this old narrative that it’s us versus them,” said Jeanelle Teves, chief commercial officer at the premium baby product brand Bugaboo, referring to fears of sales cannibalization. However, she said, “that’s not the case – there’s a role for every single account.”

Target, for example, has one of the best registry offerings in the business. So for a company like Bugaboo, which is best known for its stroller, it’s imperative that it sell in Target. Similarly, boutiques, Teves said, provide one-to-one concierge service.

Even Amazon – which was once considered a brand killer – is important to Bugaboo. “You definitely want to be present there,” she said. “It is pretty much the primary destination outside of Google in which parents are looking for reviews.”

It points to a growing thesis that brands need to be strategic with all the different types of shoppers they have, and embrace the way they buy products.

Shein works similarly, despite the fact that it predominantly sells its product via its app. For its part, Shein has been building out its live shopping channel, which it says has become a core way to engage its customers. 

​​“The pace in which we drop products is so rapid that the content strategy has to keep up with that pace,” Marisa Runyon, Shein’s head of content creation said. “We have to be very reactionary and move very quickly. So what I wanted to create was a studio that gave us the flexibility to do that really quick turn content.”

This strategy has led to Shein growing its weekly livestreams to hundreds of thsouands of viewers. And with that growing viewership, Shein has figured out how best to showcase its products.

“We’re all about getting people to buy,” Runyon said. “Adding in an element of entertainment or education adds to the experience of the show.”

Prose was another company that has long been focused on expanding its customer base by expanding into new areas. For example, the company first launched as a hair care brand but has since expanded into skin care. 

While these types of expansions cost money, they helped the company reach profitability. “A major step with a spirit of reaching profitability [was] we launched skin care in 2023,” co-founder and CEO Arnaud Plas said.

And to keep those customers in the flywheel, Prose has found that introducing discounted first-time offers alongside subscriptions actually helped the company reach new eyeballs and keep them loyal. 

“If you’re in a subscription business, you need to almost give your first order for free,” he said.