View from the C-Suite: Harry Rosen adds intimacy to the online experience

EVP Ian Rosen explains where the retailer is investing to get closer to its customers.

Ian Rosen

Harry Rosen founded his eponymous luxury menswear store in the 1950s with a retail philosophy that still rings true today.

Ian Rosen, the company’s EVP of digital and strategy since 2018, recalls his grandfather saying, “‘I’m going to listen to the client, get to know them, over invest in gathering feedback on the product, the assortment, the experience, and then I’m going to change to meet those expectations.’”

More than 70 years later, that philosophy remains central to the Harry Rosen brand promise, although the way in which it delivers on it has changed, says the younger Rosen. “Being a company with 17 stores and a growing online business, we don’t have the opportunity to know everybody.”

Harry Rosen was already a few years into a significant – although a mostly behind-the-scenes – digital transformation when the pandemic hit. With lockdowns in place, online sales jumped and they continue to grow at a significant clip. In a recent interview with strategy, Ian Rosen shared how the company is adjusting to the new ecomm reality and ensuring the founder’s business-with-a-personal-touch ethos does not get lost behind the screen.

Harry Rosen

In recent years, how have you worked to recreate the one-to-one in-store experience Harry Rosen is known for online? 

Since 2018, we’ve been rethinking the architecture and systems and digital technology strategy we require to drive the more integrated digital vision that we had as an executive team many years ago. Core to what we thought is we have to give full permission for our customers to shop us on their own terms. The customer [journey] we want to build moving forward is starting online, coming into the store, working with a clothing advisor – digitally, maybe over FaceTime, maybe in person. So there are so many avenues the customer could take.

We took a hard look at some of those systems that we required to power an experience like that. And it all came down to mobilizing information quicker. We spent about a year and a bit architecting the information that would underpin a lot of the digital experiences we would build – inventory, prices, promotion, customer information, linking customer identities – because Ian [for example] might come into a store one day and use one email, and then come online and use his personal email, and how do we join those two things together and Ian has no clue?

When COVID hit we had to get above ground and start building really quickly. We couldn’t hide behind the scenes anymore. We focused on the most important touch point in the digital experience, which is the website. We were on an ecommerce platform that was doing its job, but we wanted it to be more integrated with the information economy that we put together. So we replatformed our website, and we brought in a bunch of new softwares to power experience on the site – browse, discover, check out, login – you name it, we have a partner for it.

What new tools have you been leveraging? 

One of the unique things we invested in – and it turned out to be an important bet during the pandemic – [is our] proprietary application called Herringbone. It’s a tool that each one of our clothing advisors has that allows them to curate the website down to the individual.

So I could build you a personal page and select all the sizes that I already know would fit you in specific brands. The experience for you [as the customer] is to click a link [sent to you by your advisor], and then it’s legitimately two clicks to check-out. Version one launched in August 2019 – we focused on training people on some of the core basic functions of it – and then we did a full wreck and rebuild at the beginning of the pandemic.

You recently began working with an experience management company called Qualtrics. Where does it fit into your plans? 

We sat down and said, ‘Who’s the best out there at helping companies systematically poll, survey, understand their clients, and then mobilize around issues and opportunities?’ Qualtrics ended up being a great fit for us to realize the opportunity out there.

[With Qualtrics], we’ve learned about some of the ways our ecommerce items are packaged, and what customers find wasteful. So we’re looking into that problem a bit more. Could we streamline? Could we even save money and meet customer expectations more? We’ve also heard and seen examples of customers who didn’t have the best experience with having to return something. We’re able to mobilize against that.

[For example, there was one instance in which] somebody was very happy with their experience shopping with us, but he said he always missed out on the gifts-with-purchase stuff, because they sell out before he can get them. So we sent him one that we had in the warehouse. It was a good news story, because we got to hear from him and meet his expectations.

What impact have these digital investments had on your online sales?  

Our ecommerce business was [already] growing, but obviously supported by the lockdown situation and the general shift to online, our ecommerce business grew at 3x [over] 2019, and we’re continuing to grow at a significant clip. [2021 is] a weird year to comp against, because you’re competing against mass closures and the uncertainty of March and April of last year. But, we’re continuing to see good growth.

Our Herringbone-driven sales or attributed sales are consistently above 10% of our weekly trade online. So our [advisors] are materially impacting – by working directly with their clients – the outcomes that we’re seeing.

What other assumptions are you making about the future, and what changes are you making now in anticipation? 

It’s not like our best clients who started shopping online are going to all of a sudden hate the convenience of it. We need to realize that there’s been a bunch of profound changes in the way that people shop with us. Some people will [continue to enjoy] shopping in a store for some use cases and some experiences. But the store is going to be different.

The biggest thing is how our people are building relationships with clients. I also think that because online has become such a centre of gravity, we’re really rethinking our merchandising strategy to be less seasonal. We have our seasonal drop for spring, but [we’re going to] start to introduce stuff again and again – not necessarily like a big product drop, although we have some that we’ve been very successful with, including Roger Federer’s shoe [The Roger]. We just launched a bunch of New Balance sneakers that sold out pretty quickly. We launched the Fear of God collection with Ermenegildo Zegna and got good traction behind that. So we want to bring people back for more reasons. There’s always going to be something fresh.

And what about broader category trends? 

Although we’re not really being too loud about it, we’re thinking about what other categories we want to be in as a resource for our clients. We are building out our assortment in men’s grooming. Personally, I’ve always been very into beard shaving and grooming culture. I’ve been working with brands and our merchant team on assembling a modern [assortment] that a man can and should shop from that’s not exactly what you would find in a drugstore. Men are investing a lot in personal care these days.

Again, we’re evolving based on what the customer is asking for, which is convenience in a lot of ways, as well as demand for certain categories. As an example, we’re seeing a relatively good and stable suit business. It’s nothing like what it used to be. But the suits we’re selling are different – they stretch, they break apart into multiple outfits. We’ve budgeted down [in more traditional styles] and we’re compensating with other categories like sportswear, sports jackets, overshirts, casual trousers. We’re not kidding ourselves that we’re going to go back and be the same exact store.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It is part of a series for Strategy C-Suite, a weekly briefing on how Canada’s brand leaders are responding to market challenges and acting on new opportunities.