Hi Paul Rogers, eCommerce Consultant & Founder of Vervaunt. Please tell us about yourself and your background.
I started Vervaunt just over 6 years ago, with my best friend Josh (whose background is purely performance marketing, coming from a large agency background). Prior to starting Vervaunt (a ~50 person, London-based eCommerce consultancy and performance agency), I was doing consultancy projects independently, focusing on replatforming, technology selection or DTC strategy. Josh’s involvement came from filling gaps in my knowledge around performance channels and then later when he started freelancing for me on these projects, helping to build paid media into a DTC play / roll-out (this was back when most brands were primarily wholesale and / or retail) and also other forms of media into brand marketing / building activity. Prior to this period of my career, I spent ~5 years working for agencies and maybe 3-4 years working in-house, with a focus on eCommerce technology and general eCommerce strategy.
Nowadays, I am the Managing Director of Vervaunt, but I spend an unusual amount of time with clients and being hands-on with different areas of eCommerce, purely because my passion is around strategy and problem-solving, so I’ve doubled down on remaining hands-on to ensure I still have sufficient context and fully understand the landscape.
Why did you become so interested in e-commerce for fashion/lifestyle brands? What is it, for you personally, that makes it so motivating to work with?
When we started the business, we kind of fell into the lifestyle brand space, working with brands like Agent Provocateur, Sunspel, O’Neills, Linda Farrow, Jack Wills, MUJI and various others and we just found we could relate more to their businesses and also loved how respected the brands often were. Both Josh and I have always had an interest in fashion, so we just generally brought into these brands more, which we’ve also found with our team as we’ve grown.
Why did you start Vervaunt, and what's your vision for the company? What’s the company story?
I’ve kind of covered this above, but I can talk a bit more about the vision and how we’ve grown over time. Also, just to layer on some additional context, we’re now a team of 50, covering eCommerce consultancy, performance marketing, affiliate marketing and creative (purely for ads). The paid offerings make up 70-75% of the business and we’ve intentionally kept our consultancy team small so we can pick and choose clients and remain really strong. Our typical client is a £20m - £100m global, omni-channel brand (similar client to Grebban), with most being in and around fashion and lifestyle.
When we first started the business - our vision was to be a consultancy that went into brands and helped them build and grow their direct channel - we never wanted to be an agency; simply defining their tech stack, helping to build a team / capability and then building a strategy to capture more existing brand demand then grow net new brand demand. We’d only work on a few clients at any one time, be based in their office a day a week etc. This is how we started, but when we got to 4-5 people, the paid side moved more into conventional media buying and management, purely for eCommerce. From there, our USPs were that we were fully independent / agnostic from an eCommerce perspective and we were more strategic and technical from a paid perspective (only senior people for a long time and lots of cross-over with the eCommerce team).
Over time, the paid team grew and started to pick up larger brands and the team grew really quickly from the start of COVID. This side is now a team of ~40 and we work on a wide range of global brands, including A.P.C., Ganni, Dr Martens, Pangaia (one of our long-term hero clients that helped us grow), Osprey, The Frankie Shop, Stussy and various others (along with some more complex accounts like Travis Perkins or Demon Tweaks).
The eCommerce consultancy team remains just 6 people, although we are currently hiring for someone to cover CRO and insights, with a goal of testing across our group of similar brands and sharing insights and trends across them. I’ll talk a bit more about the services of the eCom side over the next few questions.
Time to sell! What is Vervaunt great at, and who should buy your services?
So, let’s start with the eCommerce side - essentially, we offer the following services:
- Technology selection (with roots around eCommerce platform selection / procurement)
- Technical governance + solution architecting
- Roadmapping (ideas + execution in places)
- Broad eCommerce auditing
- eCommerce strategy (usually via workshops or retained services)
- Project management and delivery
- Change management and planning
We’re quite niche, but I really like staying small on this side and just focusing on doing really cool projects and being involved in and driving innovation. Recent eCommerce clients include COS, MSI, OKA, Neptune, Stussy, Creed, Timex, Percival, The Frankie Shop and various others. We’ve also developed a bit of a niche or working with large businesses to scale on Shopify Plus, but I think the need for this is reducing as Shopify becomes more mature and agencies have got stronger in the key areas.
We’ve kind of covered the performance side, but we essentially manage global paid search, Google shopping, paid social and affiliate marketing accounts and then also now run creative services, again, primarily for fashion and lifestyle brands. Our differentiators are our technology (spend / waste a lot of money on internal tech), the knowledge of our niches, the experience we have around international (one of very few top-level partners for Meta and Google to spend more outside of the UK than in the UK) and the seniority of our team and us still being more technical than the average agency in our space.
We have been working together for a couple of years now with several exciting shared clients. Your independent advisory role is unique. Can you describe your approach and why it’s so successful in bringing in an independent e-com advisor?
I mean I personally love that we genuinely only choose the right and best solutions and partners on our projects - we spend a good 20% of our team on R&D around these areas and everything is selected based on relevance and merit. The majority of our team are obsessed with creative / art direction and brand and also have extensive experience with global, multi-channel setups - so I think one of the biggest selling points is also that we’re always considering these areas and balance functional best practices and brand well.
My view now is that development is gradually becoming more of a commodity (very gradually) and the value of creative, strategy and data is going up - I think we’ve got a good eye for these areas and are able to shape budgets and plan projects with a focus on these areas. This is also why we love Grebban.
One of your key areas is e-commerce replatforming. You help clients with a successful replatforming of e-commerce platforms. From your experience, what are the most important dos and don’ts when considering replatforming as a brand? And how do you usually help out in the process?
I always find it really hard to answer questions like this, as there are so many variables, but I’ve tried my best with the bullets below:
Ensure you have a detailed enough scope to get an accurate cost and time estimate ahead of committing to the build (this is where a lot of issues come from)
Do extensive due-diligence on any complex areas of your business and how they play out with the platform / tech stack you’re assessing (key to ensuring you have proper workable solutions)
Ensure you have the right skills, capacity and team to deliver the project (do an initial RACI and then map out where gaps need to be filled via consultants, contractors or agencies). Also key to define roles around things like integrations where there’s commonly ambiguity.
Be realistic and set expectations around the phase one scope + pre-plan fast-follow resource (more important if you have a set timescale)
Ensure key stakeholders are bought in from the start and remain up-to-date all the way through the project - also, setting expectations is key
Get things like integrations and data migration started / scoped early to de-risk the project.
Use specialists in key areas to assure best-in-class - if any agency isn’t experienced in integrations for example, pull in a specialist partner. If an agency doesn’t specialise in creative, use a specialist. The same applies to SEO and analytics / tracking - we’re very pro ensuring all key areas and risk areas have a designated specialist. Although it puts more work on the PM / PO, decoupling can often result in a better end product.
Ensure sufficient resources are assigned to UAT / QA and that test scripts are detailed enough to cover off all risk areas (particularly integrations).
Expect / sell in a silver bullet / significant growth - these change projects should really be seen as foundational, operations-focused projects in my view. Obviously there will be gains over time and net benefit, but business cases can often be very unrealistic so expectations are that numbers will improve day one.
Create siloes - this is key. It’s important to create consistent cross-team comms / visibility and ensure there are crossover points in the project etc, particularly if things like design and dev or dev and integrations are being separated.
Over-do the scope for phase one - again, this is where expectations setting is key, but you don’t want to build unnecessary pressure by offering lots of luxury features for the first phase. Also, you don’t need to move everything at once - e.g. new loyalty program, CRM platform, POS system, OMS etc - sometimes it’s better to get the platform moved and then phase other systems.
Leave ambiguity around internal deliverables / accountability.
Not have contingency plans (inc budget) factored in
You even have a podcast on the subject, the Re:platform. What is the podcast about and why did you start it?
So, I run the podcast with James Gurd, who is a good friend of mine and a very well-known and excellent eCommerce Consultant. The podcast was his idea actually and not something I’d say I’m naturally suited to (not the best speaker, prefer to hide behind the keyboard haha), but I decided to do it because it was with him (so I knew we’d create good content) and also as it pushes me out of my comfort zone a bit.
Currently, we’re very focused on replatforming and covering topics around planning, de-risking, selecting partners etc and then also interviews with different brands and vendors. In the new year, we’re going to start deviating away from this slightly and covering more strategy-related areas also - I think we both know that this is where the value is in today’s market and we don’t want to become repetitive around some of the replatforming themes.
Listen to the Episode about the re-platforming project for J.Lindeberg from Salesforce Commerce Cloud to Shopify – with Anton Johansson (Grebban), Andreas Koschnike (J.Lindeberg) and Paul Rogers
An increasingly important role in the re-platforming process is RFP management. What’s a good RFP and RFP process, and what are your general recommendations around it? Who should use it or not?
I’m fairly controversial around this area - I’d say my opinion depends on the type of business and the type of stakeholders involved.
I’m generally not a fan of exhaustive RFP / RFI processes, I prefer spending a lot of time on discovery (and building a solid spec pre agency selection), due-diligence (getting more hands-on in key functional areas) and then speaking to a small selection of very carefully chosen agencies and talking through specific areas and testing chemistry etc. I would often get the platforms / vendors involved, but more to look at specific areas than just doing high-level pitches. Putting the time into the detail also allows us to better understand a true tech stack and things like finance, compliance etc - allowing for a more accurate TCO pre making key selections. This would be my ideal route for a conventional fashion brand with a few key stakeholders (whilst creating proper documentation for DD etc).
That said, lots of businesses and boards in particular want to see a proper RFP process to ensure due-diligence has been, so we do often do them, I’m just reluctant to allocate too much time to long processes and prefer to make meetings with vendors more focused on specific business and functional requirements (along with things like their ecosystem, roadmap etc). Hope that makes sense.
There’s DEFINITELY a need for detail when making these key decisions, but I prefer it to be more discovery-focused than a high-level sales process where everyone can essentially say the same things. You also need this to be able to truly see the direction of travel for platforms and be able to see where legacy platforms with great brands actually fit. Many will just invite the platforms from Gartner’s Magic Quadrant and end up selecting one of the legacy vendors who tick the most boxes on paper.
What’s your take on the headless vs non-headless discussion? You have worked with a lot of brands that have taken both paths, what’s your view on who should be choosing which direction?
I think the industry has ended up being a bit negative around headless, because too many small brands were either sold headless solutions or got bought into it through all the marketing materials that were out there. For the right retailer or brand, it definitely makes sense and can bring a lot of benefit, but I think it can be damaging for the wrong team / business. The only other caveat I’d add is you still need the right tech stack to fit your business and team - so, for example, for most of our clients I’d be comfortable with them going down the headless route with Centra or Shopify, but not CommerceTools. We’ll talk more about the platforms later on and how Centra and Shopify still have a lot of native functionality that reduces the on-going cost of ownership and need for bespoke functionality etc.
In my view, the need for headless should be driven by having or prioritising functionality that differentiates you or builds value to the brand, customer or trade. Many can achieve what they need via a Shopify Liquid or equivalent implementation and still have a great experience - but equally this may not be the right fit when it comes to complex omni-channel experiences, advanced order flows or just more unique experiences (e.g. super interactive). Overall, I think it’s hugely important to understand the impacts (usually cost per feature, maintenance overheads, sometimes some level of lock-in etc), but often the pros will outweigh them.
With your unique experience in the e-commerce platform market, what’s your take for 2024? Who should go with Centra, what are the different waves within the Shopify ecosystem, and what is happening around other platforms like Commercetools, Adobe, Salesforce?
I think most people that know me know that I'm an advocate of Shopify and I have been for some time - I’m very pro low-code and how Shopify has commoditised so much functionality, especially coming from more of a Magento background. I still see them as very dominant in the SMB and mid-market space and I don’t think they’ll be going anywhere any time soon. I also think they’re making the right moves as they look to grow in the enterprise segment (go-to-market partnerships, commercial proposition, the areas of the platform they’re opening up, strengthening the eco-system etc), but they still have some bits to work on for sure.
Then I also love Centra - I think they’ve got an incredible offering for fashion, their portfolio is fantastic, their agency ecosystem is particularly impressive and, most importantly, I really like their direction of travel. I often recommend Centra and I think if you’re a mid-market or enterprise fashion brand, they have a very impressive proposition and I think they’re a serious competitor to Shopify.
I’ve worked with a few brands that have used Centra and I do also think the nature of their offering encourages them to build more unique experiences and deviate away from the norm. The same applies to some of the functional areas they prioritise. The main advantages or strengths that Centra has over others in my view is their native international setup (markets is really well architected and also gives flexibility in other areas too, such as VIP), the order management side (more flexibility around logic + native order routing etc) and their wholesale offering, which is quite unique to the market.
I then like BigCommerce as a platform, but I think they need to innovate more and maybe invest more time and budget in areas that Shopify doesn’t offer. Through no fault of their own, as Shopify has developed their headless and B2B areas, there’s not enough reason to choose BigCommerce over Shopify for the average brand, as much as I do like their platform and their team.
CommerceTools has a place in the market for sure - they’re really well suited to genuinely complex businesses where they want a solid core for a broader tech project where there’s need for heavy customisation. The issue I have with CommerceTools is that they have been selling the product to the wrong market for the last few years - outbounding lots of small businesses where there’s not a valuable fit. Although competition is getting hotter, I think they have a very good proposition (including their ecosystem) for very large projects.
Other platforms I’d say I look at in a positive light include Scayle (new and still learning, but winning some good brands and have an interesting proposition) and CommerceLayer (similar to Scayle, but winning some good brands).
I don’t see Salesforce Commerce Cloud or Adobe as too relevant for our clients anymore, due to lack of newness and investment in the platforms. I think Hyva has helped some build better sites on Adobe, but I still think the base costs and orientation aren’t competitive with most. That same sentiment is the same with Salesforce Commerce Cloud - it’s still powerful, but the eco-system and agency partners around the platform mean everything costs a lot more than it needs to or should (e.g. £40k for implementation of ApplePay).
What other 3rd party services for e-commerce companies inspire you now? Who are the innovators you think more e-commerce companies should know about?
Customer data - I’ve put this as a category as I think there’s a lot of innovation happening here at the moment. With the demise of cookies and also increased costs of acquisition, first party data has become super valuable to allow for better tracking, personalisation and general retention activity. Klaviyo is commoditising good CRM and have recently introduced the first iteration of their CDP offering - I think this is giving people a lot more agility and also allows brands to collect and enrich broader customer data. CDPs in general are very popular at the moment - many of our clients are building out broader data capture and enrichment approaches across different channels and consequently looking at different options here (mainly built around accounts, which is a big trend - Saloman is a good example of a nice proposition). I have to mention our app Census, which is a post-purchase survey tool for Shopify - we use this to capture more data around the user (e.g. gift vs self-purchase, interests etc) and then also feedback and attribution data, amongst other things. Then there are lots of tools that dynamically present options and information to prompt the user to give more data - Octane AI is a good example in the Shopify space. Your client J Lindeberg is a great example of an account-based program where there’s some great data collection - with sizing and sports interest being examples. Eton Shirts is then another great example where they encourage users to give them sizing details so they can better surface options and availability throughout the site.
Visually - this is a very new tool that’s currently Shopify-only, but I was really impressed with Visually’s no-code and / or low-code approach to MVT and A/B testing. Their solution combines a really solid visual editor (along the same lines as a Canva) and has a really tight integration with Shopify to also build in customer segmentation and personalisation data. Over time, I think these guys could help to really reduce the barrier to entry with testing and will hopefully start a movement with this kind of stuff. Their pricing is also way more reasonable than some of the other tools out there that do this well. I would caveat that I’m not saying it’s the best testing tool in the world - but I like that it could feasibly bring the principles to smaller dev agencies and in-house eCommerce teams.
Airtable - as I mentioned above, I really like the low-code / no-code movement and how it’s helping businesses and eCommerce professionals do more things, faster. Airtable is something that I’m quite new to, but I’d put it in this bracket and I’ve seen some of our clients do some amazing stuff with it - PIM being the one that’s most relevant to us. I always saw AirTable as quite scrappy, but you can actually implement a lot of guardrails and validation layers, as well as workflows to push QA etc also.
AI - I’ve also included this as a category as there’s obviously such broad scope around AI in eCommerce at the moment. The best use cases and implementations I’ve seen so far are:
- Analysing, summarising and categorising data - we’ve done quite a bit of work with OpenAI to analyse, summarise and categorise qualitative data for clients, be that via Census (which has this built-in now) or manually. Good use cases include survey data, product reviews, merchant reviews and search data. The bit that I love also is that you can include translations within your prompt - allowing you to input lots of broad data and get really concise summaries or outputs in different languages.
- Customer services - I really like how retailers are starting to push chatbots more, integrating across different areas to provide a better experience in a more efficient manner. Ingesting and surfacing CS content is the obvious one, but I’ve also seen this combined with order lookups and actions.
- Translating data - I’ve already covered this, but a few of our clients are now using OpenAI for base-level translations and then adapting manually on top. I think this will get better and better and become super powerful.
- Media - Another fairly obvious one, but lots of brands and retailers are using some of the AI services for low-level editing of assets and content, but, again, this will get more advanced over time and I think the usage will become a lot broader.
Elevar - Again, Shopify-only, but I love how Elevar takes an increasingly complex area (all aspects of tracking) and turns it into configuration. They cover off most forms of tracking and have built server-side setups for most, as well as having a number of pre-built dataLayer setups. I like how focused they are and they’re growing really quickly.
Wanna - there are lots of fully or partially AR-focused third parties on the market, but Wanna is the one I’ve been most impressed with for fashion. Unlike many others, they’re focused on making products that actually represent fit / usage, offering virtual try-on for clothing, watches (can actually snap to the wrist) and shoes (snap to feet). I think they’ll get better and better in this area.
Harper - I really like Harper’s proposition for premium brands - offering very premium last-mile services that allow the user to try the product on, order different sizes, get minor modifications etc. Lots of our clients use this and also really benefit from the insights their team are able to capture. Alongside this, they’ve also just released a try-before-you-buy solution which is said to be performing really well for brands like Rixo.
I also like what tools like Mechanic and Alloy Automation are trying to do for integrations and automating operational tasks.
Vervaunt has also built a couple of products, Census is an excellent example. Can you explain what it is and who should use it?
So, Census is a post-purchase app that myself and Liam Quinn (our Technical Director) spend a disproportionate amount of time on. We built the app to capture on-site feedback initially, but now we use it to capture first-party data, get specific feedback from specific markets or for specific pieces of functionality, collect on-site feedback, attribution and lots more.
More recently we’ve started pushing data into other systems (e.g. first party data), integrated with OpenAI for monthly summaries, integrated with Swap Commerce, introduced embeddable surveys and lots more. It’s been really fun working on the product and we’re almost at break-even now, which is exciting.
You can see an example of the front-end and some of the insights below.
While discussing Vervaunt’s different offerings, Grebban is a proud sponsor of Vervaunt Pulse, the best conference for fashion and lifestyle brands in an e-commerce context. Why did you start the conference, and what’s its vision? Who should come?
I always felt there was a need for a really solid conference in the eCommerce space, focused purely on content. When I was getting into digital, I attended the Distilled conferences and BrightonSEO, which were super focused on content and education - most of the eCom events are more focused on networking and selling. The other thing we try to do is keep it quite separate from Vervaunt - we don’t really talk about Vervaunt at all and the focus is purely on the content and speakers.
I also wanted the speakers to be from brands that are really doing well and people are interested in (such as Skims, Me+Em, Stussy, Jigsaw, The Frankie Shop, Ganni, Represent etc) - more modern, contemporary brands rather than high street and just big brands / organisations.
My hope is that it’ll continue to grow and attract super smart people - ideally with some kind of US footprint at some point.
You work with a lot of different e-commerce agencies. What’s your view of the e-commerce agency market? Who’s winning? What are you looking for when you are searching for exceptional work? And what do you look for when you advise your clients on choosing an agency?
Overall, with the type of brands we work with - we’re usually looking for agencies that (via both design and build or just build) have a portfolio of excellent front-end experiences and well-built themes, along with a partner who is nice to work with, flexible etc. The reason I say one or both is because often with our projects design and development will be separated, which I will come onto. Relevant experience would be the other one, so in most cases experience with international projects and then design or UX experience within premium fashion, for example.
This said, I do think this differs by platform - if I was looking at Centra, the above would be equally as important, but I’d want demonstrable experience around headless, the tech stack being used, key functional areas (more important when broader than just front-end) etc. I think given that there’s more risk, the project team would also be critical.
In terms of agencies, I’d say By Association Only, AskPhill, Half Helix, WeMakeWebsites are examples of agencies doing great well and doing really well, as well as some of the new entrants like Astound. I know this article is on the Grebban blog, but I did also originally meet you through recommendations and I think your portfolio is as strong as any agencies. I’ve always been very impressed with your design portfolio in particular.
One of Grebban’s most important offerings is within e-commerce design, so I want to catch your thoughts on that in this interview, too. What’s your view of how brands should approach e-commerce design in 2024? What’s your opinion on having a separate e-commerce design agency and development agency?
Over the last few years, my views have changed - when working with brands - from seeing UX, CRO principles, trading and function generally as P1 going into a client relationship to now - whilst still seeing this as critical - seeing brand and art / creative direction as P1. We’d usually put this right at the forefront of a project and it’d either be a big part of a single agency selection criteria or a reason to separate out. This doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone, but I think if you’re a premium brand now the importance of the end-to-end experience, photography, storytelling, content etc is so key, especially if you’re acquiring a lot of net new, single-channel traffic / users.
As stated at the start of this very long interview, I also see creativity and brand as things that are going up in value and quality development becoming easier to find and lower barriers to entry. With so much competition and many OPEX costs increasing, investing in creating something that a new user can really buy into is key (unless you’re a broader brand). There’s a big shift towards the story-telling piece again at the moment, with even brands like Nike (previously very simple and minimalistic around content), doing more story-telling across their site.
I think from an approach perspective, we still advocate all of the core usability and UX pieces, but we’re also very pro leaving room for uniqueness in places where there’s no compromise to the user or key journeys. Self-Portrait and The Frankie Shop are two recent projects we’ve worked on where there are some really nice little touches in places.
What do you find most interesting in the world of e-commerce in 2024? What trends, shifts or phenomena are you currently thinking about?
- Order management - most eCommerce platforms seem to be investing time into things like order routing and allowing brands to better utilise stock across different locations - I think this is very high potential for a lot of brands so I’m excited to see more improvement in this area (also via third parties).
- VIP / loyalty / membership - big trend at the moment, in-part driven by the customer data piece I mentioned at the start and in part driven by retention levers. Loyalty (beyond just a points-based program) is a big focus for lots of brands this year.
- The customer data piece - already mentioned this, but enriching customer data and better understanding customers are two areas that are very high on the agenda for our client-base at the moment
- Reporting - I don’t necessarily find this the most interesting, but this is another big investment area for many at the moment, primarily because of GA4 being a nightmare to use.
- AI - already touched on this, but AI really excites me going into 2024, even for us as a business.
- Creative and content - excited that so many brands are investing in this area at the moment.
- Traceability - quite enjoying this shift and brands doing more to surface this information.
Which brands do you think have done something spectacular or exciting lately? Why? What are your favourite brands from an e-commerce perspective?
- Civilist Berlin - cool ways of showing product on high-trafficked pages. New and all. Just a bit more unique again.
- Salomon - like their account proposition on-site and in-checkout and then also how they’re using things like these in-line questions to capture data and also better curate products.
- On-Running - very well built theme and good content
- AiAiAi - creative direction + content
- J Lindeberg - account area + data capture
- Nour Hammour - cool site built on Hydrogen
- Mammut - creative direction + content (this is one of the best campaign landing pages I’ve seen)