At the 2023 NRF Big Show, Shawn Wilkinson, e-commerce program manager for personalization at Dick’s Sporting Goods, outlined how the pandemic accelerated the retailer’s push to leverage data to deliver relevant offers and communication to its “athletes,” a word Dick’s uses for its customers.

Dick’s path to personalization began in 2014 when the retailer took its e-commerce platform in-house. Dick’s had been using eBay Enterprise, formerly GSI Commerce. Wilkinson, who has been at Dick’s for ten years, said, “We wanted to manage our own road map and the optimization of the website.”

Dick’s first transitioned the Golf Galaxy e-commerce platform before overhauling its flagship Dick’s platform. Wilkinson, who worked for the Golf Galaxy e-commerce team at the time, said bringing e-commerce in-house enabled Dick’s to introduce new page templates and take other steps to reimagine the content and functionality of the site. The move also supported the retailer’s move to offer same-day delivery. He added, “The biggest activation point for us was personalization and being able to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to start personalizing website content for our athletes.”

At its distribution centers, bringing its e-commerce platform in-house increased the “speed and efficiency” of orders. At the store level, its in-house e-commerce platform supported the launch of curbside delivery which proved critical during the early stages of the pandemic.

“We’re meeting our athletes, where, when and how they want to be met,” said Wilkinson. “Ee want to be there whether it’s in-store or online, whether they want their order shipped directly to their home or your office, or they want to choose curbside pickup and come to the store.”

Wilkinson also noted how curbside pickup supported last-minute purchases. He said, “It’s the middle of the night and your son forgot that he needs baseball cleats for tomorrow’s game, you can order online and pick them up at the store in the morning.  Technology has been important for us all along the way.”

However, the pandemic-related lockdowns offered an opportunity for Dick’s to accelerate its personalization efforts to better reach its customers.

“Obviously, the pandemic was unexpected. We all thought the world was going to shut down,” said Wilkinson. “But the process for us was impactful because we ship product from stores. People weren’t shopping in stores, so we had to pivot into a pure-play e-commerce retailer, basically overnight.”

Wilkinson, who was working in the e-mail marketing space at Dick’s at the time, said it became critical to better engage consumers online, given the restrictions placed on in-store visits. He said, “We wanted to focus on getting the right messaging to the right athlete at the right time.”

At the time, Dick’s was sending batch e-mails to shoppers with “very general” messaging. Wilkinson said Dick’s launched a project to “identify” what its individual customers were looking for based on their browsing behavior and why the e-mails were not converting into sales. Said Wilkinson, “Working with our e-mail team we identified these athletes and re-engaged them and saw great productivity come out of it. It was a more manual process, which wasn’t ideal, and then scaling proved to be a challenge. But we saw such great results from this, we said, ‘Okay, there’s something here. There’s something that we need to uncover and tease out.”

After determining that the retailer could segment its web content as necessary and record analytics to determine customer behavior, Wilkinson’s team implemented its “Art of the Possible” program. The initiative lasted through the month of April 2020 and consisted of the team launching as many “lean, scrappy test experiences” as possible on the website to see what worked.

Wilkinson advised retailers wanting to undertake similar content customization initiatives. The suggestions included getting cross-functional buy-in, including not only the executive level but teams across the enterprise.

“You’re working with creative folks, marketing folks, e-commerce folks, our category merchandising team and there’s me who was trying to spearhead this initiative,” said Wilkinson. “I was looking for that buy-in all over the organization. And it’s about being open and transparent and saying like, ‘Hey, we’re trying to do this. We know it’s not going to be perfect. That’s okay. That’s fine. But we want you to be excited about this. We want to get your ideas. We want to help you move forward as a team. We’re in this together.’”

He also advised retailers to develop a “mission statement and vision” and stressed the importance of setting clear KPIs (key performance indicators) to measure success, iterate and demonstrate the value of the program to get further executive buy-in. KPIs could include increasing web page visits, clicks per page or reward members’ sign-ups. Said Wilkinson, “You want to have that concrete KPI where you can say, ‘We met this target, or we’re almost on our way to beat this’ …That’s what gets people involved and behind the program.”

He encouraged retailers to “start small” with personalization efforts by focusing on smaller, “bite-sized” tests.

“You don’t have to do these giant grand tests that stretch across your entire shopping journey,” said Wilkinson. “You can do something very small, very easy, and that’s the part that trips up a lot of people. You’re trying to go after this big idea because you want to… have this big impact. It’s OK to start small, and it’s OK for the test not to always work out.”

Relatedly, he urged retailers exploring personalization to embrace a “failure isn’t final” mantra to encourage experimentation and avoid becoming overly discouraged by challenges. He said, “No matter what you do, whether it works or doesn’t work, you’re going learn something from that.”

Photo courtesy Dick’s/New Hampshire Union Leader