Posted: 15 Minute read

Avon’s Digital Transformation: Growing a D2C Business Online

In partnership with our friends at Shopify, Yotpo, Klevu and, of course, Avon, we held a webinar on the 28th of June this year to give around a hundred attendees an overview of how Avon has transformed its already hugely well-known brand into a digital D2C success story, before answering some of the many questions the discussion generated.

The webinar

It’s unlikely I’ll manage to introduce the participants better than they did themselves, so - in their own words - our fantastic panel were:

Chairing the panel, from Shopify - Phoebe Bainsfair:

A merchant success manager here at Shopify [...] for over a year and a half [...] working closely with Avon and other high growth merchants to help them grow their business and be successful on Shopify Plus.

Phil Chamberlain - Avon:

For anyone who doesn't know Avon [...] It's a global brand, it's been around for 135 years, and it's fairly unique in the marketplace for its business model. It didn't used to be so unique, but our relationship selling model, getting products into customers hands through the extensive network of reps across this country and across the globe, is the model that we've built the brand on. It's worth bearing in mind as we continue through the Webinar. 

Most people know the brand, but you may not necessarily be a customer at the moment. A lot of what we needed to do regarding digital transformation was to attract people who knew the brand, wanted to buy cosmetics, obviously, but weren't familiar with or didn't think they had access to the rep model. 

I've been with Avon for nearly two years now. I joined just towards the end of the project launch with Velstar, so I've got plenty of knowledge about the transformation journey.

Gavin Parkinson - Velstar:

I'm Gavin, client services director at Velstar. We're a Shopify Plus agency based in Liverpool and extremely proud to have been Avon's Shopify development partner for the last few years. Velstar recently acquired a marketing agency called We Influence, so that's also allowed us to strengthen our digital marketing - so now we're not just able to support on development, but also make sure that Shopify websites we build are a platform for continued ecommerce success and growth, with services like SEO, content marketing, email, social media, advertising too. 

I've worked in digital for over 20 years and supported clients in the public, private and third sectors, as well as working in a variety of development and marketing roles. However, my career started in 1994, Tempin on the “night cream” line in the old Avon factory in Northampton, which is my hometown. So, thanks Phil and Avon for paying for my ticket to the Reading Festival that year!

To begin with, Phil outlined the issues that faced Avon in the run-up to their decision to shift to a dedicated ecommerce platform.

Most of our business is through reps, direct to customers, and those customers don't necessarily have digital experience, or didn't up until relatively recently. So the first thing we did in the digital space was to create a platform where the customers who already had a relationship with a rep could get hold of products without necessarily having to see that rep on the day. 

That's obviously a good thing for both reps and customers. They get hold of products, and sell products, more quickly and without necessarily having to get in the car. So the platform that we created inhouse was mainly to support that journey for the customer and that business model for the reps. So a customer who already has a relationship with their rep, they don't need to see them on every occasion. If they just want a top up of some commodity products that they already know and use happily, they can go on to the website that we created in-house. 

We recognised, however, that we needed to be able to reach customers who weren't currently part of the AVON experience, who didn't have a rep, didn't necessarily understand how they would go about getting a rep, but might want the products, might want to consider the brand. That was a market that was growing as ecommerce grows generally - a big opportunity that we were aware of - and we had a plan for a wider transformation across the globe because we are a global business and we need to provide a joined up experience for our customers. 

Obviously, the economy is a scale of having a global business and a single platform. So we were already on that journey. We'd already started to do our UX journey mapping and establishing what it was we wanted to offer to customers. But the big driver [...] was obviously lockdown and what that did to ecommerce in terms of driving that channel. That was obviously a big deal for us and everybody else, but prompted an earlier move for the UK market because we were already further along the ecommerce journey as a marketplace.

It [the UK] is also our biggest market in Western Europe, which is the area that I'm involved in, and we needed a solution faster than the one that we were prepping in house.

Following a question from Phoebe, Phil then elaborated on the problems of an in-house developed legacy platform.

Well, it's certainly the case that when you have an in-house platform, it's harder to move quickly with the times. The advantage is, obviously, it's yours - you can do what you choose to do with it. But the flip side is that the digital space moves so quickly that what you want to do with it, and what customers want you to do with it, might be two different things. When you only have one platform, everything you do for that platform, you do once and only you benefit from it at that moment in time. 

Whereas a commercially available platform is constantly benefiting from all of the clients who use it, and all of the feedback, and all of the priorities that are constantly being fed into the roadmap. An in-house platform is always going to offer challenges with moving quickly and staying abreast of all the latest developments in the marketplace and with customer expectations. 

So it's expensive to run your own platform, and increasingly so as the commercially available platforms mature and offer better and better pricing. So for those two reasons, an inhouse platform wasn't going to serve forever. 

When you consider how old the brand is and how we've grown up through the digital revolution, it's no surprise that we will have committed to certain pieces of architecture, not knowing what is ahead of us - because nobody has a crystal ball and digital continues to grow, so the decisions that you made for good reason a year or two, three years ago don't look quite the correct decision with hindsight, and that's true of everything, but when it's your own platform, you're committed. And that's one of the things that we needed to break with for a digital transformation.

On the reason the decision to replatform was made definitively in 2021, Phil responded:

It's worth pointing out to the people on the call that we're still progressing, exploring a global solution. But the UK just needed to move quicker. The opportunity was too big. The impact of COVID was too great. We had to do something in the UK market to make the most of this [the huge increase in pandemic driven ecommerce activity], the new shopping habits. And it also serves as a trial run. It's a testing ground to some extent. And we're constantly feeding back learnings into the bigger business project for the global platform.

On achieving buy-in from stakeholders across a global business:

[It] wasn't like we were coming in and teaching everybody about ecommerce for the first time, we already ran an ecommerce solution for customers who bought via their reps. But, on that platform, it was actually possible to buy without already having a rep.

We could see internally how those journeys work, and that there was some appetite for that. So, I mean, for internal stakeholders, the numbers speak for themselves. You can't open a newspaper, even if you're not involved in retail or ecommerce and not know that ecommerce is a growing channel, and is increasingly the way that customers want to buy things. 

So, I suppose you're pushing an open door to some extent but, having said that, it is still true that a very large part of our business doesn't have a digital touch. Of course, although we're all committed and evangelising for digital, everybody has to respect the fact that we have a core business that we mustn't lose sight of, and there's no danger of that happening, but sales is the final answer to all these things. 

If the sales are growing through the channel and you're driving more sales through initiatives, then these things do speak for themselves and everybody knows that it's the future.

We're working on an omnichannel basis, so it's not like we have to convince the business that the website is the future. The whole business knows that multiple digital touch points is where we need to be - and website and ecommerce is just one of those.

On why Avon chose Shopify Plus over other platforms:

So a big one [benefit] is the off-the-shelf nature of it [Shopify Plus], the fact that it's already constructed and optimised specifically for retail. And the number of products in our portfolio was aligned. The nature of the customer journey was already aligned, and the fact that we could so credibly build a roadmap and a target to launch quickly due to the pressures of COVID, and the fact that we knew that we needed to do a global transformation coming down the track.

We didn't want to reinvent the wheel, or create everything from scratch. We'd only be creating the same problems that we already had with our legacy platform if we were to do that. So the fact that it's modular, you can see any ecommerce function that you can think of - there's an app for it, you can plug it in, you can launch it in pretty rapid time. 

So, being able to launch the platform quickly was the big one; being able to develop it quickly through the app model was a big driver; and, on top of the “off-the-shelfness” of it, it is still configurable and you can develop the front end, and that was important to us as well. 

So between those three things, it [Shopify] was a pretty clear winner.

Next up was our very own Gavin Parkinson, who discussed how Velstar guided Avon through the process:

So, our relationship started when Shopify actually introduced us to AVON and their unique challenges. During our first conversations, with Phil's predecessor, we got to know the team and got a good feel for their brief. As Phil's explained, they needed a platform that would allow them to go to market as quickly as possible. Shopify makes that really easy, to be honest. Even on the Plus platform, which is much more configurable than the day-to-day version. 

It's a really quick and simple job to go live, relatively speaking. And then AVON also wanted great conversion rates from day one. Who doesn't? 

Shopify, again, is an ideal platform for that. I think in a nutshell, Shopify doesn't try to be all things to all people like some platforms out there, it just focuses on doing ecommerce really well. The other thing AVON wanted was, as Phil said as well, flexibility to expand their offering once the site went live. So again, Shopify is a great choice there because when I'm introducing clients to the world of Shopify, I liken it to your mobile phone apps. You've got a problem, you go on to the app store, you find an app that solves that problem.

The next step in our relationship was what we call a discovery session, and for us, it's the most important part of any project we do with a client. It's something we charge for so that it allows us to really deep dive into a customer's needs and requirements, helping us identify the problems they're trying to solve at a really granular level - and that can be the likes of strange and exotic existing systems running on their current website, or taking diving into their SEO for their existing site and ensuring that those rankings are along for the ride and don't disappear when a new site goes live.

Ultimately, we capture all of that information in really detailed project spec, which essentially forms a contract of work with our clients [...] Most importantly, with that contract, and the whole discovery process, we can really accurately cost out a project so that there's no scary hidden extras at the end of that process, or at least we guarantee that as much as possible [...] and probably most important for Phil's colleagues at the time was we could tell them pretty much down to the week that we'd launch the site because we had a really strong launch plan.

On why AVON ultimately decided to partner with Velstar for their new site, Phil gave the following answer:

Obviously, we did our own [research] word of mouth, colleagues outside of the business, LinkedIn, looking around, who are the experts in Shopify Dev. Although we talk about the platform being off the shelf, it still has to integrate with our internal infrastructure, and that's super important to us as well, so we needed an agency that had specialist back end as well as specialist front end. 

We looked at a few, and it was pretty easy to select Velstar above the rest of the competition that came forward, that we looked at, because there's lots of agencies out there servicing, I suppose, smaller enterprises. Avon is obviously a global brand. It's a big player, but we're using a platform where there are lots of people offering services for much smaller players - for startups and lesser known brands - but we needed someone who could match us for professionalism, if you like. 

There are quite a lot of hoops you need to jump through to become a partner with a corporate brand like AVON. First up, they were professional enough to be able to negotiate that and not be frustrated by that onboarding process, and they’ve got the expertise to do the big integrations in the background and a brilliant front end team as well. 

So, it wasn't that hard for us to say, yeah, Velstar - they're the ones, and of course, the relationship that we have now is an output of the reasons that we chose them in the first place, so having that very personal interaction and relationship is like an extension of your own team without any of the distractions that you might... that your colleagues might have internally, because everybody's working on everything at the same time.

On the importance of choosing the right technology partners and on the key partners for their new site:

Yeah. Obviously, we talk about Shopify being a fairly complete solution, but then you've got all these apps that you can plug in, some of which are offering things that aren't necessarily native to Shopify, but many of which are offering things which are an enhancement on [Shopify’s offering]. Search would be one example of that.

Shopify has its own search functionality, but we chose Klevu back at the time because they were experts in search. And we're migrating to a new platform. It's a bit of a new journey. Yes, we did do D2C, but not to the extent that we knew we needed to. So we needed experts in each corner of the user experience, if you like, that we could work with and that could own it and carry it forward for us because otherwise we would be spreading ourselves too thin internally trying to be all things to all men, trying to be experts in everything and learning everything at the same time.

So, someone like Klevu, they offer very close account management and quarterly reviews and constant review of the success and advice on how to continually configure the tool. All those things were important to us.

That's true of Yotpo as well, for reviews. We need experts to cover off their corner whilst we continue with the core business of trading and skill up in some of those areas and we eventually make a decision whether to try and take that expertise in house or not, or continue with the experts in the field.

[Relationships are] important for AVON, especially in the D2C space. Obviously, when you've got a rep relationship, it's a one to one human relationship where you can demonstrate products where you talk to an expert and they can answer a few questions. It's an assisted sale. But in the web space, obviously, you don't have any of that, because we're finding, because we're searchable by brand and because we're driving our own organic traffic and our own paid traffic, lots of the people who visit our B2C site, our Shopify sites, are not necessarily “bought into” the brand yet, and we can tell them everything we choose to about the product on the PPP, but there's nothing quite like a recommendation and a review. 

It's a super important part of the evaluation process for the customer. So we absolutely have to have reviews. [...] Lots of our people are still considering purchase, but haven't yet bought anything when they come to the site. So we have to give them some confidence that despite the great value that we offer, it's also a quality product and you can see that in the reviews.

The Q&A

It was great to see the conversation generate so many questions - and the answers the panel gave were just as impressive. First off we have Phil answering a question on trends in ecommerce:

Yeah, I suppose the big trend that everybody talks about is AI, of course - and there's lots of movement in that space, lots of people offering products, but it's not as brand new as everybody or the media would have you believe. Anybody involved in digital commerce would know that these technologies have been around for quite a while.

Text mining and price optimisation and the like all use machine learning and AI. Those things are going to carry on. We expect search algorithms to improve dramatically. I don't want to go into too much detail about what AVON has planned, but I don't expect our models to be wiped out by AI in the alarmist fashion that the media would have you believe at the end of the day. 

People still want to shop, they need to know about their products up front, and all of those immutable laws of marketing and ecommerce will continue, and we’ll continue to work with partners that we have great relationships with. So yeah, lots to be excited about, but I'm not worried.

Answering, again on trends, Gavin had the following to offer:

I really believe, especially right now when everyone's not got much cash in their pockets - and that's businesses and consumers alike. I think customer attention and customer loyalty have got to be right up there as priority one. If not for the fact that advertising costs are soaring year on year - I'm constantly seeing Google CPCs doubling for particular client products, and it doesn't seem to be ending anytime soon. 

You've got saturated social media markets too, where it's increasingly challenging to get your product in front of the right audience and get them to engage. So once you've got that customer and they're “bought in” to who you are, what you do, and how you do it, I think it's incredibly important to earn their loyalty, to get them to sign up for email campaigns, to get them on loyalty programs and keep that relationship going with the client.

It can be equally as challenging as acquiring them in the first place - but the likes of allowing engagement with your brand, with UGC, engaging in a positive way with people's reviews and feedback to your business, can help you genuinely grow your business. Also, in turn, just shares a bit of love between your brand and the consumer and keeps that relationship going.

On the importance of considering SEO when migrating, Phil answered:

Yeah. That's a big yes, of course. We have a lot of SEO expertise in-house. We also work with agencies to help us with that. It's a whole discipline all of its own, and absolutely essential, especially as budgets get squeezed in recessions or cost-of-living crises, etc. You need experts at the front end of your funnel. Unless you are already an expert, you will definitely need to engage one. You might think you're doing well, but there's so much opportunity in that space. You need someone who really knows what they're doing.

[SEO is] an essential stream in a migration project. You've got to be looking at where your website sits right now before the migration, and then have a clear plan from your agency for what they're going to do to ensure it's still there at the other side of that process.

Final thoughts (TL;DR)

Although the panel wasn’t able to get to the dozens of questions that were asked in the time allotted, there was still a huge amount covered during the session. 

The common thread of the main conversation was, for me, the importance of niche expertise. It’s incredibly easy - especially during periods of economic uncertainty - for businesses to broaden their offering beyond the limits of their expertise in order to offer tangentially related services to boost revenue. However, what AVON’s digital transformation shows is the importance of area expertise - AVON were able, at each step on their Shopify Plus journey, to select a specific expert where they needed them.

This is not only what attracted them to the partners they selected, but also to the Shopify platform itself - Shopify’s app ecosystem allows brands to work with partners that are dedicated to the problems they are experiencing and who, thanks to this niche focus, are able to offer a tried and tested solution which not only answers their needs in the short-term, but is feeding into the custom CMS that they are developing within the wider business.

In terms of the panel’s answer on upcoming trends, it’s difficult to argue with the answers given by Phil and Gavin. Generative AI is now probably somewhere around the peak of what Gartner refers to in their as the Peak of Inflated Expectations - just a little further along than where Gartner placed it last year, while I’d say AI for marketing is somehow both overhyped and under-used, making its place in the Trough of Disillusionment difficult to assess. In reality, AI in general seems to exist in a kind of superposition between the peak and the trough.

As for loyalty - the cost of keeping a customer has historically been estimated at anywhere between 5 and 25 times less expensive than winning a new customer and, during periods of economic turmoil, that can be the difference between a brand that survives and one which thrives, making efforts at customer retention among the most important for any business.

Finally - the internet is overflowing with horror stories about brands of all sizes from sole traders to multi-billion dollar enterprises that have mismanaged a site migration and destroyed their visibility and, once it’s gone, it’s no simple matter to win it back. As Phil said, SEO is essential for a good migration - or to put it another way:

Overall, we were really pleased with how the event went and will look forward to more in future. If, in the meantime, you’d like to chat about working with an expert Shopify Plus agency - get in touch!


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