EP #60: Digital transformation lessons from Asia’s leading home furniture retail brand, Danube Home

EP #60: Digital transformation lessons from Asia’s leading home furniture retail brand, Danube Home

About this Podcast

Danube Home is a leading home improvement and home furnishing retail brand with a strong and ever-growing presence in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. Danube Home is ranked among the top retailers in the Gulf region, which has been growing at an average rate of 25% growth rate since 2011. 

After establishing its foothold through physical stores, Danube Home launched its new tech-focused online market called ‘Danube Home.com’ that operates in UAE, Oman, and Bahrain. 

We caught up with Mithil Ajmera, Head of Marketing- E-commerce at Danube Home to understand how traditional retail brands like Danube Home are leveraging digital technologies to build a strong e-commerce platform. 

Mithil shares his thoughts on:

  • Biggest challenges that e-commerce brands combat in terms of customer engagement and retention
  • The importance of reconciling customer data-points across both offline and online platforms to craft memorable customer experiences at scale
  • Personalization as a major conversion and retention lever across all channels
  • How AR can play a major role in bringing on-the-fence customers closer to completing the purchase
  • Major e-commerce marketing trends gathering steam in 2021 

Learn how Danube Home is building a strong presence across all their offline and online channels to grow their business globally.

Episode Transcripts

Pradyut Hande (host): Hi guys, welcome to another insightful episode of the MarTechno Beat, especially curated podcast series powered by Netcore solutions, here’s what you gain is cutting-edge insights from leading marketers, product champions, and MarTech influencers on all things, user growth, engagement, retention, and personalization. I’m your host Pradyut Hande and today I’m joined by none other than Mithil Ajmera, Head of e-commerce marketing at danubehome.com, a one-stop solution for all home interior needs, from furniture, decor to flooring solutions, lighting and fittings, Danube Home serves scores of customers across the UAE, Oman, Bahrain. And in fact, they’re in the process of launching their e-commerce platform in Kuwait next month. Welcome, Mithil. I’m so glad to have you on board with us today. 

Mithil Ajmera (guest): Thanks, lovely introduction Pradyut about danubehome.com. It’s a pleasure to be here on the podcast today. 

Pradyut Hande: Thank you. Thank you so much for being here. So for our audience in his current role, Mithil is a marketing tech and growth strategy leader with an entrepreneurial mindset and a proven prowess in setting up and scaling businesses. In fact, at his last bootstrapped entrepreneurial stint, he built one of India’s largest home interior e-commerce startups offering over 250,000 products to both B2C and B2B2C segments. He’s worked with industry leaders and MNCs to drive holistic growth through unique business models, aggressive customer acquisition strategies, and technology prime marketing, which is why we’re so excited to have Mithil with us today, as we’ll be picking his brains on all the latest trends and tech solutions that are reshaping the e-commerce industry, as we know it and as we speak, so what do you say Mithil? Should we get down to it?

Mithil Ajmera: Absolutely. 

Pradyut Hande: Lovely. So this is a question that I ask a lot of my guests on the podcast, and it’d be interesting to get your insights on this as well. So the pandemic of 2020 has really seen e-commerce takes center stage, like never before with consumption, migrating online, now in such a backdrop, what would be the three biggest challenges that a niche eCommerce player like danubehome.com, combats, especially in terms of customer engagement and retention? 

Mithil Ajmera: Look Pradyut, I mean, no matter how much we talk about how COVID has impacted all of our lives, it’s never going to be enough and we’ve seen businesses change their business models, we’ve seen businesses change their business plans overnight because of the COVID. And at no point in time anyone was prepared for this but I’m sort of glad that organizations were able to weather the storm to a large extent. I mean, to be very honest, I personally feel that organizations are either in the survival phase or the stability phase, or a scaled growth phase. But when COVID stuck, we were all sort of held by the scruff of our neck and put in the pocket of the survival phase. And all organizations like your organization, my organization; we all have short term, medium-term and long term plans. And when COVID hit, it sort of condensed the entire time then of our long-term plans into microtome plans. So whatever we had to do in a couple of years’ time, we sort of had to implement and execute an incredible amount of stuff in two months’ time. So I mean, listen, it has hit us bad but we’ve come out positively, when COVID hit and in fact, I still feel that it’s going to take some time before the world is beyond COVID, the supply chain was the biggest challenge that we were facing. Most of our inventory is about 75, 80% of our inventory is privately billed and it’s sourced internationally. Now imagine when you can’t have international trading going on because of COVID. The other challenge was the 20% of our inventory, which was sourced locally because we support local manufacturers, was again hampered because of the cash flow issues at the local suppliers. So we sort of figured that we need to focus on whatever inventory that we have currently and what you have to bundle it with the fact that there was a surge in the number of online orders. Because people weren’t traditionally able to go to the store, they would touch it, feel the goods. They weren’t able to do that. And that is why the number of orders just peak over and beat overnight. And our tech had to take up the challenge of scaling servers. We had to become more transparent and we started sort of backward calculation in terms of our logistics, our supply chain as to how we could improve that, which we also sort of analyzed. And this may sound very simple but it actually isn’t. So whenever a product from Danube Home gets shipped, there is usually a driver in the van. There are two helpers in the van and there is one technical installer in the van because we could not operate at a hundred percent workforce. We decided to cut that into half. And in every van, we only had one driver who also played the role of the helper and one installer. So we had to improvise there and increase our efficiency there. So as to be able to deliver more products with only the given set of resources, I personally also feel that we had to change like all organizations. We changed our narrative completely. So instead of becoming a more discoverable platform, we became a more conversational platform. So we’ve all noticed, and we’ve all seen people getting crates and crates of sanitizers of toilet paper and hoarding food supplies when there was a lockdown. So, we understood that people are very anxious and they are sort of unsure as well. So what we did was we opened up multiple communication channels. And one of the biggest things we realized is after having started and launched our WhatsApp chat, there was so much communication from the customer in terms of their dispatch status, questions with regards to the products. , these sort of would have never been able to realize that there are so many questions and, and you, when you are a business, you’ve sort of look at a business from a business perspective, but COVID-19 sort of introduced a totally different perspective where we had to look at the business from the customer’s perspective. One of the other things that we did to overcome the conversational challenge is we gave a platform for customers to video call us. And we had a few employees in the store and they just over the video call, they explained all the products, they took the customer around the store so that they could virtually get a feel of the product, and that sort of worked out well in our favor as well. And to sort of capitalize on that, we are going to introduce a walkthrough of the store very shortly on our website. So apart from that, our call centers of course had to work day and night to ensure, and we introduced a lot of Arabic-speaking call center employees as well so as to cater to the customer’s requirement. In terms of technology, as I said, the number of visitations overnight increased 10 times. So we had to scale up our servers in no time. And to be very honest, it is very difficult for any organization to hire tech employees or tech resources overnight, so what we did, and we’re very lucky to have some very nice freelance partners who were able to help us out through the tough phase. So, these are the three challenges. I think the major one being the supply chain hit and inventory hit the other one being communication channels because we all understood that people were anxious. And of course we had to alter all our marketing techniques as well because what we had an earlier plan was to push a particular product in terms of their arrival status as well, but that arrival status was sort of got delayed by a couple of months and even more, so we started focusing on products that were available at that point in time and products that would, that could also be delivered contact lists. And in some cases, if we were pushing available inventory in furniture, which required installation or in outdoor products or garden products, which required installation, we ensured that the communication was very clear in the ads as well. So that way we had to change a lot of things in all the business verticals. 

Pradyut Hande: Very interesting. And I think one point that truly stood out during the response was the effective leveraging of WhatsApp as a chat, because I think that’s the one channel that was there and thereabouts, but brands weren’t quite sure on what potential use cases it could be solving. So not only is it a channel to drive transactional messaging, but, you know, really build that customer engagement, trust and loyalty at a time like this. And I’m sure that there were a few other use cases that you benefited from along the way. 

Mithil Ajmera: Thank you so much for outlining those.

Pradyut Hande: Now, you know, when it comes to Danube homes, it has both an offline business angle and an online business angel. And for businesses like that, it becomes really important to reconcile relevant customer data points across genders and platforms especially when you’re trying to deliver really memorable customer experiences at scale. So what would be your advice to marketers operating at such brands? 

Mithil Ajmera: First of all, incredibly proud of the fact that we are doing very well in terms of retail stores, as well as e-commerce, and until a few years ago, e-commerce was considered as one of the business verticals by Danube. But now it is seen as a key business vertical supporting retail stores as well. To be very honest, in most cases where the organizations have both retail stores, as well as e-commerce stores, the product sort of, or the data sort of sits in silos. And, there is always a discrepancy between the data that is there at the retail store end, and the data that is there at the e-commerce backend, and people are trying to resolve it with the help of CRMs and stuff, but I’m not really sure of their ability to do that. We’ve also looked at multiple solutions in terms of getting the 360-degree view of the customer. But I honestly think that CDPs have today come to the fore today and these customer data platforms are a little better in terms of identifying the customers. So now when you are looking at a funnel of, where you would have the typical item model of awareness interest. And now it’s sort of a flywheel. When a customer is actually being looked at from a sales, marketing, and service perspective at a single point in time, and you have to do that kind of advancement because you seriously want to consider all action points or all data points of the customer and then provide the most relevant solution. So, what I would suggest is identifying the first step would be identifying the customer in terms of the basic data points, which would be their name, demographics, location, contact information, a lot of the CRMs today known. But they’re unable to figure out a customer’s basis, multiple browsers. And that is a black box to a lot of CRMs that are unable to sort that out. And I think CDPs with the help of tagging, sort of able to resolve that issue, where if the customer of today I’m browsing a particular website through Safari and tomorrow, if I’m browsing the same from Chrome, they help of tagging, they’re able to sort of identifying that this is  Mithil Ajmera. So for all marketers, I would suggest it’s very important to have a CDP in place. It sort of helps you identify customer data in terms of location, contact, social information, account information; you also have to sort of filter the data as descriptive and quantitative, which would give you customer identification in terms of their hobby or their lifestyle. And quantitative will sort of like you’ll be able to identify the kind of transactions that the customer is doing and the kind of email responses that a customer is giving and then finally you have to figure the qualitative data in terms of why the customer purchased a particular product. How did the customer hear about a particular product? So CDP is really helping give the 360 to customers. And to be very honest, it should be at the core of any marketer’s growth strategy, because once that is in place, and once you have an idea of the customers that you have, you can do a ton of things with respect to marketing and data today’s considered to be oil. It’s purely because of this reason and it’s not only because you have multiple data points, it’s because of the advancement of AI which will help model your customer journey, modular automation journeys, model of communication accordingly. 

Pradyut Hande: True. I think it makes a lot of sense. So essentially your core advice is that marketers really need to look to build a foundation of, and for customer data in order to even think of an engagement and retention strategy, that scale makes a lot of sense. Now we touched upon customer data and why it’s so important to deploy a CDP at some level. And we spoke about the various data points that our marketers should be gathering and tracking whether it’s demographic, geo location, or device type of browser level data. But one thing that I think a lot of marketers struggle with or combating with is making sense of behavioral data. And that’s something that is more than just a trend, which is essentially personalization and personalization has truly emerged as a media conversion and retention lever over the last seven to eight years. And it’s gone beyond just being a buzzword today. So just wanted your thoughts on what does personalization actually mean to danubehome.com and how do you guys go about implementing this across your digital channels? 

Mithil Ajmera: That’s a great question Pradyut. I think personalization as a word is misunderstood and misconstrued words; it sometimes can also be scammed if you’re discussing things out with agencies. Look, we are far beyond, as you said, personalization, as they evolved, and we are far beyond stages where e-mailers would have your first name. It’s something we’ve all seen and grown beyond that. I personally feel, as I said, that once you have customer data points in place you need to work together with your tech team in terms of giving them directions as to how you’re able to make the customer experience more conversational and more experiential now. But by that, what I mean is today, if  Pradyut Hande comes to my website and he’s looking at, say, living room furniture, all right, tomorrow I will, in all probability, offer him products relevant to only the living room furniture pieces or allied products. So what a lot of the organizations aren’t able to do with respect to personalization or hyper-personalization which accordingly is a buzzword again, is that they’re not able to make the customer experience experiential. So we’ve all seen Netflix do it really well. They sort of identify the kind of teasers that sort of work well with a particular set of customers. 

Pradyut Hande: Yes, right down to the thumbnails that they use for each of their customers.

Mithil Ajmera: Absolutely. It’s all dynamic for them. It’s all powered by AI and multiple algorithms running at the back end. So they make it so personalized that you actually want to look at a particular watch, a particular title. And there’s so much that you can do with respect to personalization. You can sort of offer modified products to people from a particular catchment. And as you said, we are spread across the UAE, Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait currently, it’s like you can do a temperature wise personalization module on your website. So if it’s hot in UAE and there are so many times when it’s hot in a particular location in UAE, and it’s not very hot in Oman, you can give them customized offerings with respect to garden products, which are good too to sort of sell inventors, you can do that. We’ve all seen fashion brands are sort of personalizing experiences if it’s a gender wise experience. So if it’s a male, they only showcase those products which are masculine. If it’s a female, they will show for a minute products or feminine products only. And we’ve all seen again, some fashion brands sort of only provide, or showcase products based on vest size. If you’re looking at trousers, you will not, you will see all the larger or smaller sizes at the bottom of the particular page. And at Danube Home we are trying to give customers a very similar solution. So if you identify that a particular customer is looking to buy a particular mattress and then we will eventually showcase some blankets, some comforter set pillow sets and some bed sheets. So we understand that if a customer is looking at a mattress, then we can probably sell those products but that’s not about it. That’s a basic module that comes through I mean, your platform recommendation engine, but how you have to modulate as is with respect to the color combinations that our customer has been looking at the price points that the customer has been looking at the kind of products that are selling well in a particular catchment areas, a particular catchment area. So we sort of use all those things at the backend to give a more customized experience to the customer. And it’s not always about selling, more selling and more selling, but personally feels it’s always about selling more relevant products to the customer. 

Pradyut Hande: Right, it makes a lot of sense. And as you rightly mentioned fashion and apparel and lifestyle brands have been doing this for a while now, they’ve sort of laid the template if I could call it that in terms of what e-commerce personalization actually looks like. And for you guys at danubehome.com, saying they create that for the range and depth of products that you guys offer to customers. I think that’s a fabulous job done. And you realize as you go along, when you’re building that personalization strategy that there are so many factors and parameters that can be taken into consideration by personalizing your recommendations or the entire shopping experience for individual customers. 

Mithil Ajmera: Yeah. You should see a data team working, someday in the office and you realize the amount of data that they keep on churning to understand and identify the customer requirements. It’s just amazing, kudos to the data team, and kudos to a lot of our partners who have been able to give us those kinds of modules, which enable customers to buy relevant products on the website. 

Pradyut Hande: Now it makes a lot of sense. I’m sure this episode will also be a huge shout out to the amazing data team at denubehome.com. 

Mithil Ajmera: It certainly will, Pradyut. 

Pradyut Hande: All right, awesome. My next question to you is that we’ve understood the kind of products that danubehome.com and Danube home generally have sort of detailed comfortable platforms such as yours using the touch feel and the visual look and appeal of the product becomes really critical to see. Now I just wanted your thoughts on how in such a scenario augmented reality or AR technology can actually play a major role to get those customers who are sitting on the fence to actually go ahead and make a purchase. We’ve seen the likes of cosmetics brands and paint brands that are leveraging AR to a certain extent on their e-commerce platform, but how does it sort of fit into your scheme of things?

Mithil Ajmera: So Pradyut, it’s there, we should have AR and 360-degree product views on the portal in the next three to four months. And to be very honest, we’re a little late to the party. We’ve seen bigger brands execute augmented reality for furniture products back in 2017 -2018 itself. But nonetheless, we are putting our best foot forward right now. Look, you can’t really fight reality. That is going to be a significant difference between buying physically and buying e-commerce. It’s just that you have to keep on thinning that particular line so as to ensure that the customer does not feel a significant difference, so we’re working on three or four things right now. And as you rightly said, AR has come to the floor. So as I previously mentioned that we are launching something called a virtual walkthrough which will sort of help the customer feel like they are in store. And they can sort of pick up click on a particular product which would enact as if they’re picking a particular product. And they can look at the particular product in a 360-degree view on our e-commerce platform.  We are also going to start showcasing our products from all angles so top bottom, right, left, whatever side you want to look the product from, you will be able to look at, and that it’s already live on the beta version, but we want there’s testing going on and should be live in the next couple of months on our actual website as well. And the third thing that we’re doing is we’re going to launch an AR-based app, which is to happen rather than we’re going to integrate the AR module or on mobile app. So let us say, you want to see how the sofa looks in your particular house. You just pick up a particular sofa and open the mobile camera through the mobile app, and you’ll be able to see the sofa sitting right there in your house, and you’d be able to visualize better. And then you can pick and choose whichever so far, whichever center table that would go with that sofa. And so, so we are going to utilize AR in terms of better visualization and better feel for the customer to understand, because a lot of the times what happens are even with a minor variation of the fabric color, in terms of what is shown on the website and what the customer thinks of the color to be, there are issues with respect to customer expectations. And we don’t want to predominantly tell the customers that what you see is what you get. And we want to make sure that the customer likes the product. The customer should be very sure that this is a particular product that goes in my living room or bedroom or my balcony, and we are coming up with something very incredible. So that’s again a project that the backend team has been working on for the longest time, which is a view of your home. So basically what we’ll do is you can just take a photo of your living room and based on that photo our AI tool will sort of generate four or five different layouts in terms of your color specifications, in terms of your pay specification and in terms of your design specifications. So if tomorrow you want to refurbish your living room and you want modern style furniture in a light gray palette, for less than 10,000 dirhams, we will give you four or five options and you can immediately buy the products. And within two to three days, the product will be delivered at your home. So that’s a kind of experience that we are trying to give the customer. And the last thing that we’re doing is a video call option on our website, which again, should be live very soon. We will have a video call option, right next to the products, wherever, whichever are readily available in stock. And the customers can actually click on the video call button. If the agent does not have any more customers in queue, the agent will sort of show the particular product from all angles to the customer. 

Pradyut Hande: Wonderful. I think you did a fantastic job elucidating and encapsulating all of that. So from what I understand, this underlying technology will help build product confidence. It’s going to bridge that gap between a physical shopping experience and a virtual shopping experience. It’s actually going to also help you increase your average order values, because not only are you showing them potential sofas and center tables that go together, but you are telling them exactly how they can do up the retired living room from scratch, so it makes a lot of sense. And at the end of the point that you mentioned about video calling is essentially humanizing the entire shopping experience. So it’s fantastic insights from you on that front end. Mithil, that actually leads to my final question on this particular episode and my favorite question also because it helps me get really futuristic insights from some of my guests. And I’m sure you do a fabulous job answering this as well. So what I want you to do is just sort of put your thinking cap on, get your crystal ball in place, if you will. And I want you to share with our audience today, what do you believe is the biggest e-commerce marketing trend that you foresee gathering momentum in 2021 and beyond as well?

Mithil Ajmera: All right. So as I said, I think that three key pillars of marketing are going to be experiential marketing.  And let me just give you the three pillars. It’s going to be Experiential, Conversational, and Personalized. And I think everything, every tool which sort of gives customers these three modules will come in handy. When I’m talking about personalized, we already spoke about personalized solutions to the customer, more relevant products. When I’m talking about experience, I’m talking about understanding the customer and giving a unique experience on the website. And when I’m talking about conversational pillars, it has to be more open, more transparent to the customer associates, or resonate well with the brand, understand the brand narrative, and then decide to buy from the brand. And then of course there are going to be advancements in terms of social media, marketing acquisition techniques, SEO, etc. But I think in the next three years, the pillars of marketing and customer acquisition will have to be Experiential Conversational, and Personalized. 

Pradyut Hande: Wonderfully summarized. Thank you so much. And that actually brings us to the close of today’s episode. I’m sure that our global audience spiritually benefits from all the razor-sharp insights that you’ve shared with us today. Thank you so much for the time and for joining us today, Mithil.

Mithil Ajmera: Thanks a lot Pradyut. It was great communicating and sharing my thoughts and some really interesting questions there. 

Pradyut Hande: Thank you so much. I’m going to take some of that credit for asking you those tough and pointed questions along the way. Big thank you to all our listeners and subscribers as well, for more such awesome content, do continue to subscribe and follow The MarTechno Beat.


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