How To Focus On Your Customer: Focus On Your Technology Platform

Hear from Solmaz Shahalizadeh, VP & Head of Data Science and Engineering at Shopify, on why a technology platform is the key to fast, resilient retailing, plus three best practices to make data more effective in service of the customer.

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Ecommerce has never been more important than it is right now, and Shopify is at the center of this. We handle everything from marketing and payments, to secure checkout and shipping, for more than a million businesses worldwide. This makes Black Friday and Cyber Monday the most important time of the year not only for Shopify, but for our merchants too. In 2019, our merchants sold over $2.9 billion during the sales weekend, and early trends indicate that the pandemic hasn’t impacted interest in shopping sales.  

This year, we are offering our merchants a faster way to make great decisions about their business: online reporting within seconds. For online retail businesses, it’s the difference between reading, discussing, and reacting to customer behavior over a period of days or weeks, versus reacting to things as they happen. Real-time reporting in areas like marketing will enable our merchants to serve their customers better. For example, merchants can analyze fresh data around their marketing campaigns, pivot resources to well-performing campaigns, and put their sales in front of shoppers looking for deals—all critical to a successful Black Friday and Cyber Monday. 

As proud as I am of our team for delivering this new capability at a critical time for retailers everywhere, I also see it as part of the new reality for any retailer. Fast, effective data about their customers—whether it’s retail shoppers or the stores themselves—plays a critical role in understanding and designing their technology platforms. If what we do for our merchants helps them have a successful Black Friday and Cyber Monday, it can almost certainly lead to more innovative solutions for them beyond this sales holiday. 

Why a technology platform is the key to fast, resilient retailing

We look to cloud platforms to help us scale up our products, services, and processes by automating and streamlining activities such as updating software and adding servers. Google Cloud, our cloud computing partner, provides computation, data storage, and networking, on which Shopify delivers its core value: a streamlined platform for setting up and managing an online store. 

On top of that, we offer our merchants access to data analysis and visualization tools in easy-to-use ways that they typically wouldn’t be able to build or afford on their own. Our data platform, powered by Google Cloud, is at the heart of our customer success in areas like marketing and advertising. 

It's how Shopify merchants will be able to act on real-time data this Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Minutes after launching a new marketing campaign, they'll be able to track the new traffic coming in and confirm it is performing effectively. 

The insights we get from our data also fuel our own strategy and product creation, enabling fast and informed decisions. For example, after COVID-19 hit, we quickly saw traditional, physical retail lose a lot of business. Many businesses in Italy and Spain (two of the first countries to go into lockdown) started online stores. Some of them were newcomers and economically challenged, but we had existing data on the success rates of new entrants that encouraged us they could succeed in their new businesses, if they only had funds and time for learning. As a result, we decided to roll out a global, 90-day free trial program to serve this new segment of retailers. 

The data also told us that many shoppers were seeking local delivery options from Shopify merchants, so we added that feature as something a merchant could add to their checkout page. Additionally, we assessed that many merchants could grow their businesses if they had more capital. We expanded our product, Shopify Capital, powered by machine learning algorithms based on probabilistic models, to more countries and confidently offered merchants quick and easy access to funds.

Getting more from your data: 3 best practices 

I believe many of the things we've done at Shopify to make data effective in our merchant-obsessed platform can be replicated at any business, no matter the size. Here are a few tips.

  • Commit to consistent foundational data models across your business. How are you collecting and labelling the data? For example, does your company record a sale when someone pushes your "buy" button, when the goods ship, or when you get paid? Does everyone in the company agree on the definition of when a sale takes place, and is that definition implemented in your foundational data models, so everyone across the company uses the same definition? If not, your organization is unlikely to move in a quick, unified way and that will hit your business hard at the time of crisis. This can be an issue for data around supply chain, customer relationships, and many other parts of the business.
  • Prepare in advance for data discovery. When people are attempting to get, say, a better understanding of a certain demographic, is there an easy-to-use guide, directory, or search mechanism? Is the data labelled in ways that can be understood across the company? Can they show their work and share their results easily? All of these things add to the speed and quality of the work of both data analysts and the people who depend on them, and that makes your data more effective. At Shopify, we created our own tool to make data discovery even easier.
  • Hire data scientists not so much for their number-crunching, but for their curiosity—then give them the tools to succeed. Really successful people in this field are curious, and have good tools to explore their curiosity. That includes curiosity about what is not in the data. We still spend plenty of time talking with merchants about the new things they are seeing, and experiment with hypotheses about what's going on in our market. Well-understood data relates to known products, events, and processes, but it can't tell you what you don't know. Human curiosity helps that enquiry.

When people say that COVID-19 compressed years of technology change into just a few months, they usually talk about the shift to remote work. For me, the shifts we're seeing in ecommerce and the use of data are even more dramatic. Our new, real-time online reporting tools are creating fundamental positive changes for our merchants and the retail industry during the biggest sales moment of the year. As we move beyond the holidays and into a new year, we’re going to continue innovating by expanding our tooling to enable more accurate inventory management, improve consumer satisfaction, and empower our merchants for many more shopping seasons to come. 

There’s more: Shopify and Google Cloud are excited to announce a great open-source addition to the secure software supply chain tool box: Voucher. Learn how Voucher secures the supply chain for their thousands of production workloads.

About the author

Solmaz Shahalizadeh, VP & Head of Data Science and Engineering, Shopify

Solmaz is the Vice President of Data Science & Engineering at Shopify, leading the teams responsible for leveraging data and machine learning to reduce the complexities of commerce for over one million businesses worldwide. In her role at Shopify, she has built the company’s financial data warehouse, played a critical role in their successful IPO, implemented and scaled the company’s first machine-learning products, and led multiple cross-functional teams. In addition to this, she champions a company culture that makes ethical, data-informed decisions and is passionate about building high-quality data products to improve the user experience.

Prior to this, she worked at Morgan Stanley as an analyst and McGill University as a cancer researcher.

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