The inaugural conference of Practical Ecommerce, Ignite 2015, will occur in Dallas, Texas on Sept. 16 and 17. A keynote speaker at that conference is an ecommerce legend. He’s Richard Last, the creator of JCPenney.com, one of the first major retail ecommerce sites. He is now an educator, serving as senior director with the Global Retailing Research Center at the University of North Texas, which offers B.S. degrees in digital retailing.
He spoke recently with Practical Ecommerce’s Kerry Murdock about starting an ecommerce site in the mid-1990s, educating students for careers in ecommerce, and his upcoming keynote, “The Way Forward: Ecommerce for the Always-connected Consumer.”
Practical Ecommerce: You’re an ecommerce pioneer, having launched J.C. Penney’s ecommerce site in the mid-1990s. How did you do that?
Richard Last: I had a long career with J.C. Penney, which included over 20 years of ecommerce, believe it or not. We launched JCPenney.com in 1994. We were the first department store online. In 1998, it went from being research and development to a full-time investment. By 2005, we were the first apparel and home furnishings company to hit $1 billion in revenue.
I’ve always been involved in the [ecommerce] industry. I served on the board of Shop.org for many years, including chairman from 2006 to 2011. I got involved with the University of North Texas around 2009 with the board of governors and then joined the faculty in 2011 after retiring from J.C. Penney. I began the digital retailing degree program and a research center in 2013. I also recently launched a consulting firm called The Retail Think Tank.
PEC: What were the hurdles with selling products online in 1994?
Last: On the positive side, J.C. Penney had a long-standing catalog business, which went back to the 1960s. In terms of the backend, order processing, order management, warehouse management, pick pack and ship, returns handling, pick-up in the store, returns to store, a lot of the features that people struggle with even today, we didn’t have to worry about that. We could focus more on the web itself and digital.
At that time, who knew how big this could be and when, but we felt we had the assets, we had the content, we had products, we had images from the catalog, and we had products.
PEC: Shifting gears, what’s your advice to smaller entrepreneurs that are trying to figure out their place in the ecommerce world against huge sites like Amazon, JCPenney.com, and Walmart.com?
Last: The great thing about ecommerce and the web it is the great equalizer that can allow anyone to compete with the biggest guys on the block. There are three or four pieces of advice on what you really need to do to be competitive.
First, the product or service has to be a unique, something different, something special. Another important piece is to think of yourself as a direct marketer. With my background, in catalogs, I still think of myself as a direct marketer. You really have to focus your business plan around a customer strategy. How many customers will I need to support the revenue that I want to generate? How frequently will they have to buy and how much money will they have to spend? How many customers then do I have to acquire?
The toughest part for small companies and start-ups is offsetting the marketing cost of trying to acquire customers. If you don’t have a good retention strategy then they will keep falling out the bottom of that funnel and it gets very difficult to make any money.
Also, you can’t do this without partners. You have to find good partners, such as product suppliers, marketing agencies, affiliate relationships, technology relationships. Find those good partners that will help you be successful. And there’s one more: your team. No matter how small — even if it’s just one or two others — your team has to have a shared vision, shared goals, and a passion for the business.
PEC: You now work with students that are studying ecommerce. Do you encourage them to pursue ecommerce as entrepreneurs?
Last: I do. What surprised me from when I shifted my focus to teaching was how many of the students in my classes are already entrepreneurs. They’re already selling online, sometimes on their own websites. A lot of them are selling their own product on Etsy or on Ebay or other marketplaces.
PEC: Moving to the keynote address that you’ll be delivering at our Ignite 2015 conference. We’re honored that you’ll be spending time with us and speaking to our audience. The title of your address is “The Way Forward: Ecommerce for the Always-connected Consumer.” Why that topic?
Last: That topic is at the center of everything we do: serve the consumer. I think of it as the third wave of ecommerce. This third wave is the tsunami of a wave, if you will. It’s the growth center of retailing, ecommerce, and digital.
The consumer has extremely high expectations. A customer expects a seamless experience no matter what device she’s using or how she’s connecting with you. She expects that throughout the whole purchase process — from the initial exploring of your marketing programs, your social media, and the website, all the way through to order fulfillment and after purchase experience. It has to be flawless. That presents a lot of challenges and a lot of opportunity. Traditional retail is not really leading the way; it’s the smaller, more agile, ecommerce companies [that are].
To a degree you can try and keep up with the customer, that’s going to be the key to success. That means having the right team, having the right kind of training. Those are the kind of things that I plan to talk about.
PEC: You now run a nationally recognized ecommerce college degree program, the Global Digital Retailing Research Center at the University of North Texas.
Last: We have developed an end-to-end view of digital, retail, and ecommerce. We’ve studied the ecommerce platforms. We spend a lot of time on web analytics and then at the end of the major, the two big pieces are the capstone class, where the students are actually working in teams to create an ecommerce experience, and an internship. which is very important.
The way we run the program is a combination of in classroom lecture and industry involvement. We bring in speakers to the classroom and to the university, as well as taking our students out in to the field to really observe the practitioners, but also understand the different cultures of ecommerce companies.
Our biggest problem has been graduating enough students through the pipeline to meet the demand so far, but the program is growing. When I started in 2011 we had 18 students. We’ve got about 120 right now.
PEC: Students graduate with a B.S. in Digital Retailing?
Last: Correct. A lot of them will stay on and get dual majors. So far, we’re about 100 percent job placement rate within three months of graduation, which has been terrific.
PEC: Anything else?
Last: In addition to the university activity, I launched with four other partners a group called The Retail Think Tank. We help retailers and brands optimize their omnichannel businesses. We have all have been there, done that, and we give practical advice in helping with the implementation. That’s been exciting, and another way to give back to the industry.