Staples shares its mobile e-commerce Web development lessons learned

Staples' digital investment expected to pay off as the company ups efforts to bring more e-commerce to the enterprise with a new mobile website.

Office supply giant Staples Inc. has overhauled its mobile retail efforts this past year to meet the demands from an ever-growing mobile customer base.

It's a move many corporations have had to make in recent years to participate in the mobile e-commerce market.

"Mobile a year ago was cool and trendy, and now a lot more is happening in certain areas of e-commerce that requires nimble, agile and faster [implementation of the business strategy]," said Prat Vemana, director of the Staples Velocity Lab of Cambridge, Mass.

The Velocity Lab, located separately from Staples' Framingham, Mass.-based headquarters, was built to create new and innovative digital e-commerce strategies and technologies for its business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) markets.

When Staples created the Velocity Lab, the company focused on collaborating with high-performing teams across the company, tapping into the local talent from colleges such as MIT and Harvard, and commercial and academic research that was readily available, Vemana said.

With the goal of improving its mobile e-commerce efforts, Staples reviewed its simple mobile website and took the step: remodeling it to further develop the company's mobile strategy.

Mobile devices are problem solvers, and Staples needed to understand how mobile could provide significant value to the customers said Vemana.

"We took a step back … [and] went to the customer base and asked questions [such as] 'What would you do in mobile and what problems [does mobile] solve?'" he said. The information and lessons Staples learned from conducting customer research could be applied to its B2B enterprise efforts, as well as its B2C strategy.

Customer research was crucial for Staples to incorporate new and innovative development in its company.

With that information, Staples has re-engineered the roadmap, said Faisal Masud, executive vice president of e-commerce.

Developing a mobile e-commerce website

Along the way, Staples learned that developing a new mobile e-commerce website and application was not an easy task.

The mobile redesign started with research on competitors and companies in other industries that performed well in the mobile space, said Kim Lanoue, director of usability at Staples.

There were 30 to 35 people involved in the process as Staples created a cross-channel team to ensure it had stakeholders from the online and retail marketing departments, as well as the product development and business groups.

The company also prioritized product development's focus, said Beth Beiriger, mobile product manager.

As a result, Staples found it needed to re-architect its mobile website to accommodate for a more mobile-friendly and modular design. The new mobile website provides a much more clean, simple and easy-to-navigate interface than its previous iteration.

The company recently launched its new mobile website. It supports a modular development architecture to make it more mobile-friendly, enabling each page to be independent from the rest, said Gustavo Pospischel, Staples' mobile architect. The team used a variety of tools including open source components and different frameworks.

"We don't have one tool that you [use to] develop one to many," Pospischel said. "We do all the basic development in-house and extend [development] to the platform." According to Pospischel, Staples developers model the websites to the mobile screens, which generally fit a variety of devices.

Staples draws on lessons learned

The company's mobile e-commerce investment is about to be put to the test. Later this month, Staples' enterprise customers will use the new e-commerce platforms the company already started offering its consumer buyers when it launched its mobile website last week.

Staples is also in the pilot phase of its B2B public platform, and the company is targeting this month to release its new e-commerce business website, Vemana said.

Enterprise customers are unique compared with consumers, and the website must understand who the customer is and what they buy, Vemana noted.

"It is order, flow and reorder management. The underlying [site] design is common, but what comes up on your homepage and how [one] navigates … is very unique for the enterprise," Vemana said.

Staples will use its offline and online big data warehouse to personalize the customer experience and perhaps give it an edge over its competitors. Staples wants to build services and other sister sites that address pricing fulfillment, personalization and more, Masud noted.

Staples also has to stay on the cutting edge by using new technology to enhance the customer experience.

"[When we] deployed the tablets in the store, [we] did a lot of experimentation with MDM [mobile device management]," according to Vemana. "How do you secure the tablet and distribute apps?" Staples has had to test the use of the applications with enterprise customers in the B2B space and resolve issues such as building container apps for them, he noted.

In 2012, the company sold more than $10 billion online, making it the second largest internet retailer after Amazon. Whether Staples' investment in digital and mobile e-commerce will pay off remains to be seen.

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