eCommerce Influencer Series: Thomas J. Vosper – aisle-3

Thomas J. Vosper

In this installment of our eCommerce Influencer Series, Thomas J. Vosper, Co-Founder and CEO of aisle 3, talks with us about how the challenges 2020 has brought for eCommerce and how we are going to navigate them through the future.

With over 12 years in eCommerce, Thomas has a long record of delivering growth for many of the largest names online. During over six years at Amazon, he led strategic seller acquisitions; executed new category launches; and delivered cutting-edge merchant services. After moving to Tesco, he tripled their marketplace business in twelve months.

He founded online marketplace aisle 3 in March 2020 with the ambition to aggregate all online retail products. Thomas has a detailed insight on strategy, performance marketing and operations across thousands of eCommerce sites, high street stores, and digital marketing agencies

Firstly, let’s get to know you a little better Thomas, how did you get started in eCommerce and what have you been up to in the industry?

I moved into eCommerce to join Amazon around 2007 to help build their marketplace. I walked in when it was an $11B business and the UK had just a handful of categories live – Books (of course), Electronics, Toys, Baby and Home!

Most of the stuff we take for granted on site (clothes, food, cosmetics) came through our team and I spent my time bringing on the very largest sellers like Clarks, Mothercare, M&S and The Hut Group and lots of independents that I hope have become millionaires!

After 6.5 years dotted around the various product launches within Merchant Services (FBA, Payments, Ads and Webstore) I moved to Tesco who were looking at bolting on a marketplace offering to their general merchandise site – Tesco Direct.

It was unfortunate that business became a casualty of the upheaval from the accounting scandal a few years back and the strategy moved to refocus on the primary Grocery offering.

After leading the efforts of a last mile locker pickup company for a year I moved to a price comparison site – called Pricesearcher – which sadly slipped into administration before the onset of Covid-19.

This was the opportunity I perhaps needed to back myself (alongside an expert team) to set about building our own eCommerce business that tackles some of the fundamentals of online shopping in 2020. Firstly, that aggregation in online retail is poor and there is no one place to go and see all of your buying options for all retailers and, secondly, that shopping is largely functional and it is often difficult to discover new brands and retailers when there is no direct comparison.

In March, about a week before lockdown, we founded aisle 3, quickly built it into a comparison site that sits amongst the largest Google CSS partners across Europe and we’ve signed commercial agreements with hundreds of retailers and digital agencies to help them reach new customers through our site – whilst saving money on their Google ad campaigns.

Having secured our first external funding in October we are rolling out our new site that aggregates product in three initial categories – Trainers, Toys and Baby Products.

Of course, my personal eCommerce journey has changed hugely after the events of the year and evolving consumer habits. I’m excited about what we can achieve at aisle 3 and also how we can all move forward – as online retailers – in meeting the needs of the modern (and ever changing) Shopper.

2020 has been an unpredictable year for everyone, where do you think the greatest opportunities lie right now for online sellers?

These may be unprecedented times, but often in a crisis the best first thing to do is to do nothing. When lockdown was announced many businesses immediately shutdown online budgets and, whilst there are always specific circumstances and variables involved, the sensible approach is to understand the impact as it happens and then make decisions based on data and, most importantly, the experience and feedback of your
customers.

As Warren Buffet famously said, “be greedy when others are fearful”. I think many advertisers have seen the pandemic as an opportunity to double down or break new ground.

Looking at the outcome from the 2008 crisis many winners were either created during this time of upheaval or increased their business as a result.

For example, when incomes where restricted it may be surprising that customers often turned to premium brands that they knew or trusted – this coined the term ‘lipstick effect’ from the success of L’Oréal.

Of course, it is not quite that simple when a retailer has a real estate of several stores that have been unexpectedly closed without any notice, and the uplift in online poses its own challenges concerning remote customer service, logistics and technology.

In my opinion, I think businesses should try and increase their efforts as much as they can, look for (and then double down on) any opportunities to de-risk and diversify their business and create their own niche that they are totally focused on servicing to delight their customers.

With the prospect of a global depression, not just a recession, how do you see the scope of online shopping changing over the next 2 years?

Online shopping will continue to grow, even before the UK government shut down the hight street for Christmas shopping. There is always an essential place for the high street, local shops and national chains and the key will be tying these elements together with the increasingly digital normal.

For years now I’ve heard buzzwords like ‘multichannel’ and ‘omnichannel’ banded around at marketing conferences and yet the events of the last year have actually forced many retailers to jump years into their future online journey to satisfy a different Shopper demand today with access to online one channel.

Overall, the changes in online shopping will vary considerably depending on the category and will always be linked to the risk/reward of where and how customers buy but the scope will only increase to include new categories and retailers.

I started ordering my groceries online a couple of years ago, with the occasional trip to the supermarket, however I haven’t set foot in my local supermarket this year and cannot anticipate the next time I will. Even the laggards to online grocery shopping (who perhaps prefer to pick out the fruit and vegetables themselves) may start to accept that the online process is working and that the odd cracked egg is a small price to pay for the convenience of avoiding the queues and crowds at the local hypermarket.

Online shopping was going to change anyway with the deployment of AR as just one example of bringing the physical product closer to the customer.

Shopper habits will change because of 2020 and this will open up previously unheard-of opportunities for retailers (and their technology partners).

It is now completely feasible to search for, view and then purchase a car completely online only for it to be delivered a few days later with a 14-day money back guarantee. The next category may have been imminent without a global pandemic – but the overall scope of what you will buy online in the future is already expanding.

Tell us more about your work with aisle 3 and what you are bringing to the market.

As one of our founders, I share the responsibility of guiding the businesses strategy, supporting our commercial partners and ensuring we relentlessly focus on our two customer groups – our Shoppers and our Retailers

At aisle 3 we challenge ourselves to tackle the very biggest issues that still exist in eCommerce today.

We have two missions. One is to completely aggregate online retail so that when Shoppers find a product, they can see all of their buying options from all retailers and can decide where to buy based on whatever their value system is (price, locality, delivery, brand, etc.).

Secondly, when products are unique, we want to help Shoppers find new brands and retailers either by better engagement with the seller or through social shopping, their close confidantes and specialist influencers and experts.

Ultimately, we want to tackle both parts of this experience through our site and deliver a fantastic experience for Shoppers that also provides a trusted, collaborative partner for Retailers and Brands.

We’re passionate about building a new customer focused shopping site that also supports Retailers and Brands to reach new Shoppers and grow their business.

Over the last few months, I’ve worked closely with some of the most interesting retailers in Trainers, Toys and Baby Products prior to our consumer launch.

I’m also very lucky to work with around 20 Digital agencies and we support their clients with a number of products and services – especially making sure that anyone running Google Shopping campaigns is picking up the discount of running via our CSS site.

With an uncertain future for many that often leads to a tighter budget for many households, do you think this potentially poses a risk to the likes of Amazon?

There are two elements to my answer. First, I believe people will keep spending. Whatever the economic turmoil, when people are at home, they are browsing their phones or laptops and will keep shopping. As eCommerce leaders we own to our Shoppers to ensure that they can see the best deals for them across all of their buying options.

Second, is that tighter budgets actually create opportunity for independent retailers and brands to stand out from the crowd, get closer to their customers and scale up their business.

Whilst the first part of lockdown meant that the only way to shop was online, research showed that website visits and online sales shot through the roof for most retailers. This creates the biggest threat to Amazon – other retailers and brands moving D2C.

Our research at aisle 3 showed that many Shoppers believe Amazon is the cheapest price, when that simply isn’t the case. We found that Shoppers can save as much as 33% on aisle 3 when they increase their purview of retailers – as our range increases, we expect to deliver further savings without changing habits or disturbing the shopping experience.

Personally, I find Amazon perfectly serviceable for functional purchases but not very much fun and very hard to find new products, brands or retailers. D2C brands will start to create immersive and engaging experiences and we’re already seeing how these ties in with better social engagement.

As Amazon continue to double-down their efforts to own product search and create an AdWords model to compete with Google I feel retailers will be better in finding partners who help drive traffic to their own selection so they retain ownership of their customers and have a solid foundation from which to grow their business – without the risk of creating a landlord.

One of my personal missions with aisle 3 is to ensure that we are creating a collaborative way for sellers to build their own businesses and benefit from the aggregation of retail in parallel with a new, engaging way to find unique
brands and products.

How that impacts Amazon? At this stage of my business it would be far too punchy to suggest.

What would be your main piece of advice to online sellers who currently only sell on marketplaces?

Simple – diversify.

Marketplaces will deliver volume but online sellers need to work with partners that help them build their brand and own their customer.

Amazon’s decision to disrupt sellers FBA service to favour their own first-party sales at the onset of lockdown was the biggest warning to sellers constricted by one channel and route to market.

We’re seeing a trend already of Brands trying to develop D2C strategies and take more control over the customers experience. Whilst I am not suggesting that every seller has the security of Nike in withdrawing from Amazon’s platform there has never been a better time to leverage a wide range of products and services to create and market your own site with the right technology and marketing partners.

Many years ago, I launched The Hut Group on Amazon and we’ve seen over the years how they have distanced themselves from the platform before standing alone and successfully closing a $1B+ IPO during the global pandemic.

Amazon is a beast that is both an incredible source of income for thousands of independents and a crutch that sellers will struggle to ever leave. It has built its reputation on fast, reliable delivery and first-class customer service and somewhere in that the individual sellers and brands have become an afterthought.

At aisle 3 we have ambitions to work closely with advertisers to offer fair, transparent value to build their brand and collaborate to deliver a world-class Shopper experience together.

I’m passionate about ensuring that Shoppers enter the retailers and brands ecosystem and that they own the customer – which I feel is the most important consideration for marketplace sellers.

Finally, what do you think will be the most important developments in eCommerce over the next 5 years?

The lines between eCommerce, tech and the internet of things will become increasingly blurred. Amazon will host the Superbowl and Shoppers will be interacting and buying in ways that even the most visionary cannot predict right now.

The winners will be the businesses that adapt and execute on opportunities quickly. Having worked for and studied Amazon I look to the constants that we can change or influence and base long-term decision on that.

However eCommerce develops, we know that Shoppers will want better prices and more selection. But many more elements are coming into consideration that we should aim for – Shoppers will want to feel closer to brands and retailers, they’ll shop local, think sustainable and ethical.

I think we’ll see continued regulation against Big Tech which continues to operate tax-efficient models within businesses that have the GDP of entire countries.

In 2017 the EU took action to break apart Google Shopping and create competition for Comparison Shopping Services and similar actions are underway against Apple’s store and Amazon. The US is also continuing anti-trust actions against the very biggest platforms – including recent investigations into Google.

The ramifications of these actions may set off a chain of events that creates incredible challenges across the wider business ecosystem.

As a society I just can’t see how the job market in eCommerce will pan out positively without some support. The main impact with be in the supply chain where boots on the ground will decrease. The likes of Amazon have made it perfectly clear with the acquisition of robots and creation of drones they plan to eliminate their biggest costs from the production line – people – whilst asking for the governments to supplement a universal basic income.

I think Shoppers will gravitate towards local and transparent shopping experiences. And I see relevant, trusted shopping experiences with a social influence becoming increasingly important. They’ll want to compare and make sure they get the best deal – whatever the best deal is for them (price, speed, locality, sustainability, etc.).

The winning retailers and brands will find the platforms to operate within their niche but as part of a wider ecosystem.

One of the challenges we’re trying to tackle at aisle 3 is how Shoppers can better engage with brands and retailers without having to battle through endless ads or untrustworthy review. We see a vote from a friend being worth more than 10 anonymous reviews.

Over the next few years this transparency and collaboration between Shoppers, Retailers and Platforms will be increasingly important and whatever develops in eCommerce over the next 5 years we’ll need to relentlessly focus on these founding principles to guide our decisions and adapt accordingly.

Price, Selection, Availability, Locality, Sustainability, Ethically Fundamentally, the complete aggregation of online retail products over the next 5 years will revolutionize eCommerce and return value directly back to retailers and brands in parallel to delivering a first-class Shopper experience.

We want to thank Thomas J. Vosper for sharing his knowledge and insight about eCommerce and we are excited to see how aisle 3 is going to make its mark in the eCommerce landscape.

To learn more about aisle 3, please visit their website at https://aisle-3.co/

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