Discover how Simon Rodrigue recently led Staples through a complete digital transformation in a fraction of time (and cost) using a best-in-breed “modular“ approach to ecommerce.
With over 300 retail locations, and a plethora of services (print, wholesale, school etc), plus managing unique pricing for the Staples Preferred program, syncing an ecommerce solution between it all that ties in seamlessly, managing pricing, curbside pickup, and other aspects was no small feat!
Simon is someone who understands ecommerce like very few. Staples is evolving, and so is their digital presence. This episode gives a glimpse into how they think about ecommerce, their approach to solving it, and how this sets them up for success in the future.
The best thing about Simon and Staples, is they really are just getting started!
Jay Myers: Simon. Can you tell us who you are and what do you do at Staples?
Simon Rodrigue: Hi everyone. I’m Simon Rodrigue. I’m the Chief Digital Officer at Staples, Canada. And I have the privilege of looking after our digital businesses, which have a consumer business, which is a staples.ca, and a B2B business, which is ‘Staples Preferred, which also includes a sales team.
Jay Myers: Simon. Can you tell us who you are and what do you do at Staples?
Simon Rodrigue: Hi everyone. I’m Simon Rodrigue. I’m the Chief Digital Officer at Staples, Canada. And I have the privilege of looking after our digital businesses, which have a consumer business, which is a staples.ca, and a B2B business, which is ‘Staples Preferred, which also includes a sales team.
Jay Myers: I think from that exact statement, I want to take it into something. So, you’re the chief digital officer for Staples, which I think a lot of people would refer to as one of the larger box brands in North America. But the way you operate is quite different. Before we get started, I just want to ask you, I think this is more on a personal note and I consider myself to be quite involved in e-commerce communities; whether that’s Facebook groups or LinkedIn conversations, and I seem to see you all over the place. And actually, I was talking to, I don’t know if you know this or not, this name might ring a bell. I was talking to the founder of a Shopify app called ‘Pushowl.’ His name is Shashank. He mentioned years ago that you mentored him. I see you involved in all kinds of Facebook groups. So, for a guy running an enterprise brand like Staples, how do you find time to be in all these communities? And “Why is it important to you?” I guess, is another question?
Simon Rodrigue: Well, I think there are two reasons. One is I just love being involved and active in the community and getting to talk to people like Shashank way back when he was just launching Pushowl. I don’t think he fully launched it yet. When I first was chatting with him. Just seeing how the industry’s evolving and where we are going to see the next evolution or revolution come from e-commerce. Being in corporate or enterprise e-commerce, you don’t necessarily see a lot of the groundbreaking advancements that go on, and a lot of that exists in that ecosystem today that Bold and Shopify all kind of play in. And the direct-to-consumer type stuff is so much more advanced than enterprise. So, getting to be at the forefront of that and talking with businesses and service providers and apps, you get an understanding of what we can leverage in the business.
And I think the second thing is one of the promises of Staples Canada is that we’re here to help businesses work, learn and grow. And so, a big part of what I do is if I have time available, I try to make time, as much as I can to just talk with businesses, whether they be digital or not, and just see how we can help them or how I can help them. At the end of the day, that’s kind of our role in the community; making sure that we’ve got this prosperous business community in Canada and doing everything we can to help it grow.
Jay Myers: Yes, I admire your involvement because you certainly don’t have to be involved. And I think it’s admirable. And on top of that, you run ‘Instant teas,’ right? As your side hustle.
Simon Rodrigue: It is the truest definition of a side gig. And it was a long road. Four or five years ago was to test the hypothesis of where e-commerce was evolving and getting to get my hands dirty with Shopify. And it just kind of stuck. It’s just me. A couple of times a week, I get to ship orders around the world and it’s fun and interesting. And it just shows how much e-commerce has changed. I go back, 15, 16 years ago when we were launching home depot.ca in Canada, the amount of time and effort and money being spent in building that platform. And somebody with an idea today can go to market in 24-48 hours and have a global business. The times have definitely changed and I think they’ve been sped up over the last year with the unfortunate events of COVID, but we’re truly at a pivot point in the economy and how humans shop and I think it’s exciting to be part of that.
Jay Myers: I think it just shows your passion too, for actually having your hands dirty in e-commerce. And one of my favorite things… I’ve been running stores since 1998 and now with Bold, obviously don’t have the stores anymore, but I think I might think like you because my brother has a store and one of my favorite things is just to help him with it. I don’t charge him for it, but I’ll log in and I start tweaking things and running email campaigns for him. And I get excited seeing it affect his sales and setting up different campaigns. And I think that’s really cool that you do that and you look at the site. I don’t know if the Chief Digital Officer at another massive brand like that would have a side hustle with a small e-commerce store. I thought it was really cool.
Simon Rodrigue: I definitely enjoyed doing it.
Jay Myers: Are you going to keep it going?
Simon Rodrigue: I think so. It’s definitely not a moneymaker. It probably could be if I put more time into it, but at the moment for me, it’s to test set the hypothesis. We’ve got a great product. There are actually some people that love it all over the world and restaurants and bakeries that use it. So, my wife and I want to make sure that we keep it in stock for them. But for me, it’s kind of what you talked about. It’s testing the immediacy and getting to play with things that my team won’t let me play with at Staples because the Chief Digital Officer probably shouldn’t be playing on the website and two; just getting to talk to different customers all over the world. I think it’s really cool. I shipped tea to Finland the other day and I thought “who would’ve thought I’d be doing that at this point in my career?” but it’s just neat. This is fun.
Jay Myers: That’s awesome. Okay. Well, enough about Instant Teas. Let’s talk a little bit about Staples. I just wanted to bring that up because I just thought it was fascinating that you’re still running it so, good on you for that. So, Staples; can you describe the digital transformation that you’ve helped lead Staples through over the last… I guess it started a couple of years ago.
Simon Rodrigue: Yes. Maybe taking a step back. So, Staples, Canada became an independent company from Staples North America. So, we consist of 304 retail stores, which have great brand penetration and presence all over Canada. It’s staples.ca, which is one of the larger e-commerce sites in Canada from a transactional perspective. And then ‘Staples Preferred’ where we have about a hundred people that help businesses buy better and position them for growth. And, two and a half years ago when I joined, we were starting a journey and it’s not just digital transformation. It was a whole company transformation.
And, Staples is a loved brand in Canada. A lot of people remember their first time going to school. They would go into Staples with their parents and pick up their pencil cases and their backpack. I was cleaning up my basement, it was during COVID, so probably six, seven months ago. I was going through some university textbooks and I found a pad of paper from Staples way back when. So, it plays in every part of life; your first corporate job, you’re starting a business. So, it was a really well-liked brand, but it was seen as an office supply store.
And we really wanted to reposition where Staples would be in five, 10, 15, or 25 years. And what we really narrowed in on is that Staples could be a company that can be here for Canadians when they’re learning and working. So, what we like to say is with the first working and learning company. And it’s a combination of our stores, our services, our digital footprint, and enough of a platform to really help Canadians work, learn and grow. And as part of that, we had to update our digital presence. We’re on an old legacy enterprise system. I get that it worked, it was great, but where we wanted to go is one; where possible reduce our cost of ownership, but two; control our destiny more. So, how do we build a model that we can accelerate and be agile with and grow and change with our customers as their needs adjust?
And it led us to where we are now, 18 months ago. And you guys were a big part of this at Bold. We relaunched staples.ca. And we’ve been constantly evolving and building on that. We continue to see on our roadmap going forward, how we can kind of move forward with it. But for us, it was creating that digital hub to support all of our businesses and all of the customer experiences across all channels. And we’re great. We’ve been really happy with it. We’ve got a phenomenal team, phenomenal partners that we’re working with and we’re seeing great results.
Jay Myers: How far in the journey are you? Is it done or are you still in the process of this transformation? Where would you describe where you are along the road?
Simon Rodrigue: It’s hard to say. The core things of “Hey, did we get the site launched?” Absolutely, that’s done. But I think if you stop evolving in the digital space or the e-commerce space or in commerce in general, you’re going to fall behind. And I think that thought has only accelerated even more as the business moves with what the last 12 months have brought it. So, we’re always going to be continuing to innovate. It may not be bleeding edge, but I think what we’re going to do is always evolve and listen to our customers and pivot to what they’re looking for. And I think that’s why how we took our approach to technology was so important to us. It allowed us to take a very product-focused approach where we could listen to our customers or stakeholders and then present them with the features and services to really support them in that journey.
Jay Myers: Do you think Staples corporate buys into the concept of the future being digital? Was that an important factor for Staples which enabled you to do your work in this transformation? When I think about a lot of other big brands, the decision-making process is so long, and often the way that you guys approached it might even be perceived as being quicker and therefore more cost-effective. That actually scares some big brands away too. They think “Why isn’t this more expensive? Why is this so easy?” Did you come across any of that pushback from leadership?
Simon Rodrigue: I think as a leadership group, we had already bought into the fact that digital was important to our future. And I think there are a couple of reasons for that. One is our B2B business, Staples Preferred is essentially a one hundred percent digital business today where we’re servicing hundreds of thousands of businesses over Canada with their office supplies, break room supplies, whatever they need to run their business. We’re doing that all digitally today. So, it was a key component of our DNA. Two; we saw the future in working and learning. If you look at the customers that were important, these were people that were accelerating; launching new businesses, driving new businesses, they’re learning. They’re almost a ‘digital-native’ type customer group
So, for us, it was very important that we build a platform that can service them. Personally, it has always shocked me how the cost of digital platforms has come down over the last 15 or so years. And it is shocking. I look back at what we would spend at Walmart or Home Depot or Travelocity to what we spend today and the platform for dollars that we get just blows me away. And it allows us to do so much more because we can pick great partners to work with. We can make sure we’ve got a world-class team that understands how to leverage that technology. And the business cases become more about how do we listen and service that customer. And I think there’s one point; hopefully, there aren’t still companies out there deciding that they need to invest in digital after the last 12 months. But it never should be about checking a box and saying, “Hey, we have a website. Hey, we’ve got ‘buy online pick up in-store’ available. Hey, we do whatever in the digital space.” Your customers are telling you that’s where they want to shop. And for us at Staples, it isn’t about having a digital channel or having a retail store. It’s about servicing our customers where they want to be serviced. So, shockingly, we still get orders by fax today because there’s a certain group of customers that hand an order sheet around the office and they want to fill it out and they fax it in. We still service them. That is probably as analog as you can get. Well, there’s probably more analog, but for us, that’s how customers want to shop. It’s the way they shop. We are going to try to force-fit them into something.
But that being said, customers, today want to do things more digitally, whether it’s that first step before they go into the store; where am I going to buy? Or what am I going to buy? I’ll make that decision before I go into the store, or I want to save time and get that instant pickup, which is our buy online and pick up in-store, or I want that next day delivery, which is our regular digital channels and drive with that. So, for us, it wasn’t about thinking “Hey, we need to be in digital.” We were thinking “This is where our customers are going. They’re telling us that. We need to make sure that we’re there to support them on their journey.”
Jay Myers: Yes. I think the brands that either went out of business or hurt the most during this pandemic were the ones that saw digital or online sales almost as competing with the retail brick and mortar sales. And they saw them as two different worlds. They’re thinking “What are our online sales doing?” and “What are our brick-and-mortar sales doing?” For reporting metrics, sure. You can report on all the different channels, but ultimately, you’re one company. You want to make that customer happy wherever that transaction experience is going to happen. And I know this pandemic didn’t change the way you thought about it. I think if anything, you were in a very good place because of it. And maybe on that note, did the pandemic change anything, or did it just accelerate what you already believed and just put the gas down on it?
Simon Rodrigue: It accelerated the business gratefully. It’s very unfortunate, everything horrible that’s happened with COVID. It definitely allowed a transformation to how we work and learn. So, you see people learning at home, you see people working at home and it’s probably made a permanent change. And for us, it was making sure that we could service Canadians through that. You’re setting up your office at home. I remember back in March when the kids are going home for March break and we went home on the Friday and, I think it was over that weekend we were told that there’s going to be a three-week delay before the kids go back to school. And that became until the end of the school year. And for everyone you’re working at home, you’re supporting your kids learning at home. That was a very difficult time. So, for us, it was making sure that we were there to service and support and make sure that people have the products they needed to continue to run their businesses, to learn, to continue their education, support their children, et cetera. And I think a great example of what you were just talking about with the idea that ‘it’s not about the channel, it’s about the customer’, was what we were able to do with curbside. And our technology platforms were a part of this that enabled us to do it, but it was really about unified teams coming around a problem.
And probably early April, we started to see store closures in, I think Ontario and Quebec, and a couple of other regional places in Canada. But we have products that customers wanted and we didn’t have curbside set up. We had ‘buy online, pick up in-store’, but customers were saying, “Ideally, I don’t even want to have to go into this store. Through this, can you make it more convenient?” So, we got a SWAT team together of store operators, centralized operations, the leadership, marketing, the product team. You guys were involved at Bold. We had a couple of other partners like ‘Orderbot’ and in 72 hours we relaunched a solution to do curbside. And if I go back over my career, looking at the other technology stacks that I’ve used, it would have been impossible to do that.
And I think through the combination of the great teams, the notion that we’ve got to look after the customer, it’s not about the sale going into channel A or channel B and the flexibility and dedication of the team, we were able to pull that off. And to me, that’s a real example of being customer-focused and doing what you need to do to evolve the business to support that. And, even look at this holiday season. One of the investments and a real focus we’ve made is that we have our own delivery fleet. We have seven fulfillment centers across Canada, and then we’ve got a fleet supporting those, but 85% of our shipments ride on our fleet.
So, through all the volumes of COVID, which I think when we measured it, we had 50 black Fridays in a row, to this black Friday, which was a multiple of what regular black Fridays were to even now, it’s so busy, we’ve been able to maintain that customer promise of ‘next day’. So, we’re starting to see again, Canadians need help now. “I’m still running my business. I’m still going to school. I want to get a gift for someone.” We’re one of the only retailers that are still doing next day delivery in Canada. And we’re very, very proud of that. And again, it’s the people we have leveraging the technologies that we have to make that happen. And it’s exciting because it’s all about delivering on that promise.
Jay Myers: Well**, **you are one of the only ones because every single thing is backed up everywhere. And you’re probably seeing some of these posts in some of the communities cause you’re in them, but people are saying that UPS is cutting them off at a thousand boxes per day. They just won’t pick up anymore. And some brands have 4,000 packages to go out and UPS is only picking up a thousand and they physically can’t get the packages to the customers based on how many are ordering them. And launching curbside in three days is incredible. I think I remember… I was monitoring different companies and when it was available and it took others months to get that in place. So maybe from that, I’d love to dive into, I guess, how you think about e-commerce technology and your e-commerce stack if you will. So, you’ve got what I would consider a very forward-thinking approach to this which has enabled you to pivot, pass, to launch things like curbside quickly. And I know we’re aligned with your, the way you think about it here at Bold. So, what was your approach to building this Staples site, your e-commerce stack, or how you approached it? Just for people who don’t really know how staples.ca was built.
Simon Rodrigue: So, starting off, I think you win in e-commerce with people. So, we have an incredible team at Staples, Canada, and we pick incredible partners to work with. But making sure we have people that really understand how you leverage technology to deliver your business needs. The first thing we did is we built what I believe is one of the top eCommerce teams in Canada, if not around the world that really gets how you do large scale e-commerce. But we’ve always been believers and some of the people that are on the Staples Canada team had been at a couple of other places with me as kind of a roving gang. We’ve always been believers of ‘best in breed’ versus building. And there are some fundamental reasons that I personally believe that the better path is in e-commerce.
There are some occasions, especially very specialized in the service service-based industries that might have very specific, customized products where you can win through customizing your technology or maintaining your own stack. So, I’m going to custom-build something. I’m going to run with it. I’m going to win through technology. The challenge is for most players in the e-commerce space, you are going to win through your product, through merchandising, through better marketing, leveraging your data, all of those kinds of things. So, it’s a distraction to say, “I’m going to build my own tech.” I’m going to build my own store finder. I’m going to build my own checkout. I would have to build my own website. And there are successful companies, but they’re very, very large. One of them starts with an ‘A’, one of them starts with a ‘W’. They have billions of dollars to invest in their technology.
And that’s how they believe they’re going to win. So, I think for most retailers, startups, D to C players, it’s about leveraging technology and doing what you’re great at. So, for us approaching our re-platform at staples. We asked ourselves, “Do we maintain a legacy platform or do we go out and bet on what we call the next generation of cloud or platform?” And, for us, we went into this with eyes wide open, knowing that there probably were probably going to be some challenges going in, but we wanted to bet on the future. So, it’s the Shopify core at the platform with the open ecosystem that we could really run with. And then you guys came in and it was quite funny. We did all of this in six months, but Bold kind of came in month two through store-finder, and then ultimately ended up powering our checkout through Bold cashier, the PRE, which is the price rules engine. So, all of our promotions, all of those kinds of things where you guys really came in and took our platform to the next level. But for us, it really was about how we find all of these key partners that we believe were best-of-breed and be able to evolve it forward. So, Golia for search, Bizarre Voice for reviews, segment to handle our data layer. All of these key partners that we’re going to work with and together we’re and orchestrate this really powerful stack that allows us to move forward.
Jay Myers: We’ve been tossing around this term at Bold, calling it ‘modular commerce.’ And would you say this makes sense wherein if you approached it in a modular way and you look at the different modules of your stack, that you need to be able to deliver great service through staples.ca and there are core modules? So, you have your order management, you have your content management, you have product management, you have all these different modules. And when you say ‘best-of-breed’, just for listeners who may not know that term, that’s where you pick the best in that breed or that module and then you piece them together to create your solution. Now for a different brand, it might not be the same. One of those modules might not be the best for them, but for the way that Staples wants to do business, you piece together the modules that made sense for you. Is that an accurate description?
Simon Rodrigue: Yes, a hundred percent. So, you hit it right on. Whether it’s best-of-breed or modular, the idea is that we let experts rule their domain. So, for example, we’re never going to be able to build a better review experience for our needs than what Bizarre Voice has because of the sampling programs and things like that that are so important to us. Nor could we go out and get a better-suited order management system for our needs than Orderbot. So, it’s piecing all of those things together that really allows us to move forward and then say, “Hey, Bold cashier works. Let’s work together on a roadmap to take this product forward and then move it.” And I think that’s the really interesting thing about best-of-breed or modular.
You’re achieving your goals through picking your partners and it could be a little bit different for everyone else. I think a lot of these things are going to be best-of-breed for everyone, but there may be certain situations where you need an additional module or you need an additional partner to achieve something, or that may change over time as you evolve. And I think that’s the really interesting thing versus saying, “I’m going to custom build a stack” or “I’m going to buy a closed ecosystem.” You’re kind of stuck living in that world. So, I think they’re very similar. There are probably nuances to modular and best-of-breed, but very, very similar in approaches. Jay Myers: And theoretically you could in the future if one of those modules no longer fits or it didn’t make sense anymore… it would be a little bit of effort, but within either weeks or maybe a couple of months of work, swap out a module and swap in something else. It could be even for the parts that Bold provides, or your order management or your content management, you’re not stuck with any of those forever.
Simon Rodrigue: And I think that would mean there are some base rules too when you’re going into this. That interconnectivity or understanding of how things work. So, we have a couple of rules, for instance; everything needs to have a data flow that can work with Segment so that for all of our data, we can have that universal view of the customer. And then all of our partners need to understand that kind of Shopify, Bold, cashier-type ecosystem so that it’s not new to them. And then right away, we are eliminating some partners, but some partners then catch up and say, “Hey, we’ve got something interesting to put in.” But it allows us to plug and unplug things with relative ease. I’m sure some of the product management team would cringe at me saying that because over time, some of these things become very embedded in the tech stack. But the whole idea is that I don’t have this hard chunk of legacy code that I’m building and maintaining. I’ve got my partners that are continuing to evolve and over time, the needs of the partner ecosystem may change.
Jay Myers: Yes, fair enough. So, what would you say are some of the challenges then you had before this modular approach that were difficult for you to solve that are now considerably easier?
Simon Rodrigue: Well, our legacy system was a fantastic website. It was hardened and it ran well but it wasn’t something we could innovate on. We do one release a quarter and even to do simple things like building landing pages or changing templates required large code releases. You just didn’t move fast. And looking on Slack last night, we just did our second release since black Friday. It’s just mind-boggling to see the difference when you’re doing one or two releases a week now on tweaking things or changing things. Even just implementing small things that you can learn or help the business move forward at an incredibly low cost because you don’t necessarily need programmers to build things. You’ve got a lot of it in the end-users’ hands.
We look at what we have with our CMS, with Contentful versus what we had before. We can build the vast majority of pages that we would’ve had to require releases or template builds for on the old platform. So, I think for us, it’s speed and agility. And then the other really interesting thing about what we’re betting on is the lower cost of ownership because we’re trusting a lot of our partners to maintain these systems and uptime and things like that. Black Friday actually becomes quite boring if I look back at my past lives when you had on-prem systems or systems that you manage because you had people that were monitoring these dashboards. “These servers are running hot, they’re going to go down.” And here, we’re worried about that but we know that Bowls [inaudible 25:12] better than Shopify and you guys are the ones that are watching that and we’re just getting to watch the sales roll in. And instead of spending time worrying about if the server is going to go down, we’re spending time saying, “Let’s readjust what we have on the homepage. Let’s deploy an email” or “Let’s change around what the customer is seeing to really maximize and drive sales.” So, Beam becomes a little bit of a mindset change when you’re leveraging a platform.
Jay Myers: Yes, I agree. To me, that’s like you running a sale in a brick-and-mortar store on a hot summer day and your team is worrying if the air conditioners going to hold up and if the power going to stay on. You need to be focusing on your business and not the infrastructure it’s built on top of and you should definitely care about that, but that shouldn’t be your primary concern. And I think it is for a lot of brands on Premise legacy systems. They’re almost more concerned about their actual infrastructure than their business. So, I think you hit the nail on the head there. Well, what would you say are some of the pros, cons, strengths, and opportunities, let’s make it a SWOT analysis of the build that you did? What are some of the biggest strengths or opportunities, and then I’ll ask you are there any weaknesses, threats, or potential downsides of it?
Simon Rodrigue: I think from a strength perspective, we talked a lot about it. It’s the ability to listen to the customer, adjust to their needs, and quickly get in and out of things. So, I think we talked about how quick it is to launch something but because you weren’t having to spend a lot of time building something or launching something, there’s not a lot of investment to then back out of it.
So, the mindset is, “Hey, we tried this, it doesn’t work. Let’s go do something else now and move forward.” Regarding weaknesses, we’re very, very happy with where we are. Could performance be a little bit better? Sometimes when we’re stitching these things together, there’s probably an opportunity for us to do that, but you’re always working to optimize those things. And I think the big thing for us was when we went into this and when I said, we went in eyes wide open, we realized that, and I think this is the catch. Again, I’ll play ‘big enterprise’ now. It’s a tip for anyone that’s kind of going through this.
The way these big enterprise legacy platforms win the business is they pitch the notion that the platform needs to customize to your business flows. And we kind of went in and said, “Hey, there are probably some better ways to do things. And if we really want to leverage these platforms to the fullest; so, Shopify, Bold with PRE’s and all that kind of stuff. We should probably adjust some of our business processes to that.”
It allows us to maintain the updates a lot better. We don’t have to worry about all this customization and all of that. So, don’t go in saying, “Hey, if I can’t run promos this way, my business is going to collapse.” Because 99% of the time, that isn’t the reason. And it’s going to allow you to go to market a lot quicker. It’s going to allow you to evolve a lot quicker once you have it and if you ask, “What are some of the business processes that I can change?” And we did a lot of that. I think for us in terms of opportunities, it’s how we keep evolving. And I think that’s what I love with this open ecosystem that exists. There are so many people innovating all over the world that it’s an opportunity for us to learn and kind of improve the business. And there are a lot of interesting things that are going to be coming out over the next couple of weeks and months that on our scale are probably firsts in the Canadian digital space.
And some of them are things that you see in that D to C world or a smaller kind of pure-play digital player that we’re going to attempt to see how our customers interact with. So, the thing for us is that we’re just going to continue to try some of these things and improve that customer experience, make staples.ca seem more valuable to consumers and businesses, and move forward. As for threats, there are always threats and I think that’s the key. Stagnation is the largest enemy in e-commerce. So, if you can’t cost-effectively continue to evolve your platform, there are going to be faster, more agile competitors that are going to eat your lunch. So, I think for us, it’s being aware and nimble and focused on the things that are driving value.
Jay Myers: Yes. Are you aware of any other brands in your space or in the enterprise space that have approached the build the same way? Were you inspired by anyone or are you aware of any others that have approached it the same way you have?
Simon Rodrigue: I think there are some other brands now that are looking at it. I remember some of the initial conversations over at Shopify when we were talking about this. We were kind of one of the first to approach it at this scale and not trying to customize it. I think there are a lot of best-of-breed type models out there, but for us, it was the idea that we have a hypothesis. We strongly believe that this is the best thing for our customers and our business so let’s go into it and see where the journey takes us. We believed it was very de-risked because of the cost to get into it and the fact that there were a couple of proof points that it was going to work and it worked out really well for us.
Any site launch, any transformation of an enterprise business in six months is going to have its bumps on the road. So, it was a good six months post-launch period to get everything really delved down. But we went through that first Black Friday, we pivoted and made some adjustments to improve the customer experience, and then we thought we were going to get into a really good year of building. And then COVID hit, which really accelerated a lot of the stuff that we needed to do. And here we are today; the second black Friday through the platform, our second holiday season. And, it’s done really well. I’m really proud of the team. Our warehouses, our call centers. And for us, it wasn’t just the front end we transformed. At the same time, we said “let’s rebuild all of our customer service systems.” So, at the same time, we were refreshing the front end, we went on with Zendesk. So, we went from 11 systems to one system. So again, really simplifying the business there. And then from a data perspective, we piped everything together with Segment, which has been incredibly powerful because we understand what’s going on in every piece of our business and then can push that out to all of the other partners and advertising platforms as well.
So, it gives us a leg up. We modernize the whole stack in six months. There’s a couple of elements. We still have legacy pieces that we’ve isolated, but that’s essentially what you do modular for. Because if you’ve got key legacy components that you don’t want a big bang at the same time, you can move them along.
Jay Myers: That was one of the questions I was going to ask. Are there any pieces or legacy systems in your stack that’s still haven’t moved or may not be urgent to move that you’re going to in the future?
Simon Rodrigue: Yes, it wasn’t necessarily that it wasn’t urgent to move, but I think the concept of modular or best-of-breed is that you don’t necessarily need to take on all of the risks. So initially for us, Orderbot was an intermediary between Shopify and our old legacy OMS system. And over time, we’ve been working to have Orderbot become the main OMS. I think it’s the same thing on the front end with the PIM, you have all these legacy systems where product data information would exist that also feed other systems.
So instead of saying, we’re going to launch a new friend, a new call center system and a data layer, a new PIM, and a new OMS. Let’s put a Cuneo in. We can pull the data in, we can enhance the data, the Cuneo feeds into Shopify and over time we’ll take out these systems backward. So, we’re kind of, de-risking the whole initiative.
Jay Myers: Yeah, I know that Staples as a company and as a brand, you just mentioned too, you’re evolving your company alongside the technical evolution. What are some of the neat things that Staples has launched or is launching that you can talk about and that you’re excited about?
Simon Rodrigue: I think if you take a look at the stores and, we have five or six really great flagship stores now across the country, but you’ll see it in all the stores. There are new products. We’ve got a great partnership with Joe Mimran who is, building some really nice office accessories and pens. We’ve launched co-working. We’ve got five locations in Canada now where we have coworking. So that idea of the community hub. Really building on community. We’ve got great content tracks that you can find on our website or if you’re following on LinkedIn or Facebook. Discussions every day on hobbies like how to do calligraphy to how to do digital marketing or write great product content. Our service is business which is one of those things that people don’t know we do.
We’re one of the largest printers in Canada, but we’ve got digital marketing services, we’ve got tech support. That whole idea of how we support businesses through growth. We’ve got a lot of partners there that we can bring to bear. Our B2B business and this is for anyone that’s a Canadian or has a Canadian business on the call. If you aren’t part of Staples Preferred, just email me directly; [email protected], or message me on LinkedIn or wherever you want to. It’s an incredible program. We’ve got a team of people that are there really help you support your business and to buy better. You get discounts and you get all these perks and it’s kind of this unknown program that has over a hundred and twenty-five thousand businesses as part of it. We’re opening one of them. But it’s a great way to see Staples at work and help the business work, learn, and grow.
And I think for us, again, it’s all about listening to the customer and things that are going to be important going forward, working from anywhere. We believe we’re very well positioned through our great network of stores and our digital network to help support Canadians they work. It could be as simple as something being broken on your computer. You can leverage our tech services to drive that. The new school, back to school. Canadians love us for that. But schools have changed. So how do we continue to evolve our offering to support students and their learning? Another place that Canadians have come to us through COVID is them asking us; “How do I get my PPE? How do I disinfect my business?”
Our partner company, Staples Business Advantage supplies hospitals and schools, and businesses. So, we’ve taken a lot of that knowledge and we shared it with a lot of small businesses and with consumers in terms of how you protect yourself. So, I think for us, it’s just listening to the customers and noticing the trends that are out there and find out how we can support them. Canada’s going through a change. More and more people are going to be working from home, more and more people are going to be learning from home. We expect there’s going to be a big boom in new businesses and entrepreneurship in the country. So, it’s how we at Staples position ourselves to continue to be able to support Canadians as we always have. And we think we have a very unique value proposition to drive that.
Jay Myers: It must be exciting to be able to rattle off all those things. And I think you even left out a bunch. I was just thinking about ‘school tools’ too which you launched, Was that last fall? I thought that was a fantastic tool to look up your school, find your teacher, and the list of supplies that your kid needs right there. And now people can just order it online or you could make a list and go to a store. But to be able to innovate that fast and you’ve orchestrated an environment now that you can build on. I think the future has probably never been brighter for Staples even with everything going on in the world. I applaud you for everything you’ve done to put that company in such a fantastic position. And I guess I want to ask before we run out of time here, I have a bit of a lightning round. One last question, before we jump into the lightning round. What are you most excited about for the future of Staples?
Simon Rodrigue: I’m just really excited to see that we’ve got an incredible team and a great group of partners and how we’re going to continue to evolve to serve the customer. A lot of people are saying we’ve advanced five to 10 years in digital. We did. The reality is it’s not digital. It’s retail that has advanced. And the people we have at Staples, our passion for the customer, our passion to deliver that promise of helping Canadians work, learn, and grow, whether it be in a store or a call center, a fulfillment center warehouse, a service depot or on the digital team; people are here and living that every day. And I look at what we’ve accomplished over the past year and I know there are going to be some great things we accomplish in the next. And I often get to join on conference calls like this and take the accolades, but it hasn’t every little to do with me. It all has to do with the team and it’s an incredible team and I just love working with them and it excites me. And that’s what I’m looking forward to for the next year.
Jay Myers: Well, I’ve had the opportunity to speak to some members of your team and they speak just as highly of you, so it sounds like it’s a good, healthy working relationship over there. All right. Are you ready for the lightning round?
Simon Rodrigue: Let’s give it a go.
Jay Myers: I don’t know if you read through some of these questions, but I’ve got a few quick hitters here. What’s the biggest mistake in e-commerce you’ve made or you see other brands make?
Simon Rodrigue: I think waiting too long to make a decision now. In the digital world today, you should be able to make decisions, look at the data, and improve on your product. Making it perfect is only perfect in your eyes. It’s not in the customer’s eyes.
Jay Myers: So true. Do you have a pet peeve when you shop online?
Simon Rodrigue: The sites that still are not mobliy [sic] optimized. It blows my mind. I was on one the other day and I just couldn’t believe it wasn’t mobily [sic] optimized.
Jay Myers: I think if anything, I would be forgiving to a site that wasn’t desktop optimized, but it should be mobile-first.
Simon Rodrigue: I don’t get it.
Jay Myers: What’s your favorite thing about your job?
Simon Rodrigue: Working with the teams and the partners. I’ve got a great group of innovative people that push me every day. And it’s exciting to, I was going to say come in, but it’s exciting to log on every day and engage with a great team.
Jay Myers: What’s your favorite online store besides Staples or the last place you bought something?
Simon Rodrigue: The last place I bought something was actually at Staples yesterday. I bought some Christmas presents. They were delivered this morning at eight o’clock. So that’s where I’ll end that question.
Jay Myers: I’m not going to lie. I have some last-minute shopping to do and this is a really good reminder that, well, this probably won’t make it out before Christmas, this episode, but for me anyway, it’s [inaudible 38:26]
Simon Rodrigue: [inaudible 38:28]
Jay Myers: And besides Staples, do you have any favorite online store or one that you really like?
Simon Rodrigue: I just like great experiences. It’s going to be sad. I can’t pick one off the top of my head, but I love looking at entrepreneurs and start-up businesses and seeing their approach to bringing great products to market and I spend a lot of time just cruising around or on Twitter when somebody mentions a site, often buying products that I probably don’t need, but just really seeing people bring ideas to life. And I think that’s the most exciting thing for me when I’m online.
Jay Myers: What’s the number one thing you think stores could be doing to grow sales, but they aren’t?
Simon Rodrigue: So, I think in the enterprise space, and I’m going to use a horrible word because they don’t mean it this way, but that growth hacking. I think a lot of enterprises are still focused on what I would call traditional digital marketing and I think there’s a ton we can learn from the small brands, the startups, emerging brands, and how they approach digital marketing.
Jay Myers: I know exactly what you’re saying. I don’t know the right word for it, but this is why the Unilevers of the world have to acquire Dollar Shave Club because they can’t replicate that. And the massive brands acquire the small ones that figure out that marketing. If there was a way that the bigger brands could be as nimble and as close to the customer as these, I don’t know what you want to call them startups or emerging brands, or I guess it would be the D to C space, but yes. You’re a hundred percent right. And it’s not growth hacking, but I know what you mean though.
Simon Rodrigue: That’s what I said. It’s a horrible word there, but a horrible word in the sense that it’s not meaning the right thing. But what happens is I think for a lot of [inaudible 40:10], we’re pretty good at it. Staples, probably not as far as we need to be. But that whole idea that it’s about campaigns and big spends versus “I want to just talk to a group of customers that is interested in my product” and then that’s going to amplify and grow is what I think a lot of enterprises miss today. Jay Myers: Yes. I think we start focusing on maps of countries and the world and geographies, as opposed to talking to a single person. And that’s why these startups can come in and eat the lunch, I guess, of bigger brands, but then they eventually get acquired. Okay. The last question. A lot of our listeners are business owners and entrepreneurs. Do you have any favorite quotes or any advice or something that has impacted you in your life that you can leave them with?
Simon Rodrigue: I think there are a couple of things. And I think one is, I really love the concept of failing fast and it’s just human nature to hold on to things too long. So, as you’re going through this whether it’s always learning or whatever, remember that the core tenet to really evolve is that you’ve got to be willing to walk away from things when they are working and then try something else. And the second piece is, as you’re scaling your business, simplify, simplify, simplify. And it’s one of the things that I take from working at Walmart and one of the largest… it is the largest retailer in the world. Focus on how I simplify the business.
If you add complexity to a business, it will kill you. And I think that’s what sometimes happens as you grow a business or evolve a business, you add complexity to it to grow, but it’s just a short-term growth because the complexity you add actually makes your business less agile, less flexible, and less able to grow into the future. So, I think it’s something that I always talk about and I challenged the teams on. Are we simplifying it or are we making it more complicated? And the more we simplify it. the faster we can get that flywheel going.
Jay Myers: Can you give me one example of that? Are you talking about internal processes, simplifying ways of doing things, or decision-making or simplifying things for customers?
Simon Rodrigue: Everything**. **You’re just thinking about it. Complexity can kill a business. So, you start thinking about, decision-making. How do you empower your business so that decisions can be made? So, not everything needs to come to me for decisions to be made. Pushing decisions down in the organization, understanding risk tolerance, understanding where it is, and doing it. But it’s even talking about market approaches. How do you go to the market where you have a common offering and it’s easy to understand? So, for us, we’ve got retail pricing and then we’ve got preferred pricing. And there are a couple of tiers in that. But we don’t want to have 10,000 custom prices going in because that adds complexity.
It adds data layers. It adds all of these different things that you need to run the business. You’ll often see it in the sense that “I could go after that target market but I need to do this differently.” So, it could be that I need a refrigerated truck or I need whatever it may be. Well, that’s going to add an incredible amount of complexity to your supply chain. I might even be ordering and all of that. Is that growth worth it? And it may be, then I’d want to go after that, but how am I doing it in a way that’s not going to add a bunch of costs or complexity or people to the business? Because it’s just going to make me less agile going forward.
Jay Myers: Yes, there’s no trophy for having a complex business model and certainly your customers need to understand what you do and why you do it so they ultimately can buy from you because of that. And I think it’s one of those things and businesses have to fight against it because the natural path is to add complexities. And one of the things we think a lot about at Bold is the concept of “policies versus principal.” And I know that was something I was thinking about as you were saying this. One strong principle in decision-making can answer a question that you would need a policy book with 200 policies for. But if you have a principle that says you should do everything in your power to make the customer happy… Zappos used to have principles like this; You can make any decision up to $100 to make this customer happy within your power. And then it wasn’t a case where you had to ask, “Can I send this customer flowers if I find on the phone that a family member just died?” or whatever, but one principle can answer that.
And so, I love it. That’s great. You’re the first person that’s mentioned that. I asked these questions to a lot of people, so that’s a good one. Well, Simon, thank you so much for being on. I know your time is extremely valuable and I know our listeners will get a lot of this and you’ve been so gracious to be involved in all the different communities. Can you let us know one more time? Obviously staples.ca, but where do you like to hang out where people might find you.
Simon Rodrigue: I think if you’re going to message me probably LinkedIn or Twitter is probably best. But again, I’m more than happy with people emailing me at my staples address, which is [email protected]
Jay Myers: You are one of the most gracious people I think I have ever met. Thank you, Simon. Thank you so much for coming on. I really appreciate it.
Simon Rodrigue: My pleasure.