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The Rise of an eCommerce Ecosystem and the Leader Who Championed It
An interview with Sufi Khan Sulaiman, an industry pioneer.
Sufi Khan Sulaiman is the vice president of eCommerce and digital at FLIR Systems, playing an integral role in leading the digital direction of the entire company as well as overseeing the Lorex Technology brand. Through his career, Sulaiman has been an eCommerce visionary and pioneer.
We sat down recently with this storied leader to find out more about his career trajectory, how he has furthered eCommerce in the tech industry and his best advice to companies looking to expand their sales channels and adopt ecommerce.
Here's what he had to say. (Italicized passages are extra context provided by Lorex.)
Tell us about yourself, including how you came to work at Lorex Technologies.
Sulaiman: I've always been fascinated by computers. I taught myself HTML, Flash, PHP and SQL, which helped me land a role as a developer. In 2004, I was recruited by one of the largest ad agencies and put in charge of building front-end, back-end, multimedia and Flash tutorials for websites.
In 2007, my family decided to immigrate to Canada. When looking for a job, I responded to Lorex's post for an eCommerce manager. Two months after moving I began my job with Lorex.
When did Lorex decide to start selling its products online? Why?
Sulaiman: Lorex was founded in the late "90s, and always had a strong distribution model selling directly to Costco, Best Buy, Home Depot and other brick-and-mortar businesses. Lorex also had other brands under it, so there were seven or eight websites that needed to be managed and unified.
Due to the strong B2B distribution model, Lorex collected a fair number of returns and wanted to get rid of the returned merchandise. In an effort to liquidate the inventory, I started by setting up an eBay store, listing ads and consolidating our numerous websites to bring everything cohesively into one brand. It was a very early version of eCommerce.
How did it grow?
Sulaiman: I wanted to carve out a niche online, so I started selling products that were not sold through traditional brick and mortar stores, such as wired and wireless video camera combinations and other different configurations of products. We focused on white-hat SEO, which targets a human audience (instead of search engines), and on written content to expand our online footprint. With this strategy, we enjoyed 50 percent margins on our first million in sales. I was then given more budget to use toward advertising.
Lorex continued to grow, and the practice of eCommerce continued to pick up speed and prevail across numerous industries. As with any new technology, there were peaks and valleys as eCommerce became more thoroughly integrated throughout the company and moved to the forefront of the sales model. Lorex also made the decision to prioritize its direct brand eCommerce too. (Many other companies were primarily selling through third-party resellers instead.)
What are some issues and challenges Lorex encountered in managing a direct brand eCommerce?
Sulaiman: Product availability was a primary challenge for us in the very beginning. This was because we didn't have access to new inventory. Another challenge was pricing since SKUs were allocated to our retail departments first and we had to sell products for 20 to 30 percent more than retail did. This created some internal channel conflict, but we never hawked sales and would encourage customers to buy through a retail channel if that would best serve them. We ultimately never wanted to compete against the retail partners, but sometimes the interest of the brand does not always align with retailer's product assortment strategy.
What are the advantages for shoppers and brands in going the direct brand eCommerce route?
Sulaiman: There are many advantages of direct eCommerce. You can reduce conflict with retailers by combining efforts and provide a seamless customer experience, regardless of channel or device. The profit margins and gross profit margins will drastically improve with eCommerce as well. By selling directly through eCommerce, you can keep your price and own the customer (and their data).
Another benefit for selling through direct eCommerce is that it takes less upfront cash and production. You can put it on your website and gauge interest, then grow the inventory naturally based on demand. When you sell products through brick and mortar, you need to make products in a large quantity right from the get-go. The biggest win for eCommerce brands, in my opinion, is that you can develop content and messaging that addresses the issues and questions of your consumers, which allows you hypothetically walk in the shoes of your customers.
What went into building your direct brand eCommerce ecosystem? How do you continue to innovate?
Sulaiman: We used Microsoft technologies when I started with the company. In 2009, we decided to invest in an enterprise solution that could be scaled and integrated into our other tech. We made our code platform agnostic, which could be changed and adapted easily. I wanted to integrate the core technologies of eCommerce together from "Visit" to "Add to Cart" and "Checkout." This way we would really own the shipment process and set up a true customer retention program.
Today our eCommerce platform is the center of our online ecosystem. It is the engine that drives our digital strategy. When innovating and building an ecosystem, having the right team matters as the ecosystem requires a lot of support. The key is teamwork and having the right people in place. I'm privileged to work with some really smart people who constantly keep me on my toes. External vendors also provide tremendous support since we share the same goals and vision.
Part of Sulaiman's strategy in growing Lorex's eCommerce sales was to continuously evolve and focus on catering to customers. He knew that buyers were beginning to expect more and more personalization, and that Lorex would need to deliver this to succeed.
What was your strategy for creating a personalized shopping experience?
Sulaiman: Our strategy was to mirror what the best retailers (like Amazon) were doing. When customers showed interest in one product, we'd morph the website to show them more of what they'd like to see. By segmenting and pushing content based on what each person was browsing, we personalized the experience.
How do you know that you're creating the type of content that customers want?
Sulaiman: We take our content seriously and have a two-fold strategy: product marketing content and user content. Our product marketing content is less technical and doesn't include tech jargon that can't be easily digested by regular people. Our user content, on the other hand, is intended to encourage customers to write reviews and post on social media about our products. We want them to post the good stuff, like how their camera caught a deer walking into the backyard or something funny their kid did.
We knew this strategy was working because of our data and KPIs we'd set to gauge our progress. Our sales numbers were a big motivation.
How much is Lorex forecasted to earn by 2018?
Sulaiman: We're on track to hit nine figures next year and be counted among the top 50 consumer brands.
With the fast rate of growth that Lorex has experienced, Sulaiman has been refining his approach and shaping his strategy to keep up with the fast pace of business. He and his team have made many intentional changes that have helped them sustain growth and delight customers.
How have things changed over the years in online sales, omnichannel sales and your messaging?
Sulaiman: eCommerce and retail sales have both grown. It's important that our customers know that our security cameras are not just about deterring perpetrators from crimes, but they're also about helping them to always be in the know with access to live video monitoring at their fingertips. We want to provide security cameras that are easy-to-install and offer unrivaled video performance. Ultimately, we want to provide our customers with a positive user experience from start to finish.
I think the biggest challenge today is the new buying opportunities and the wealth of information that are created by technologies that essentially allow customers to have immediate access to the internet at all times. This gives the customers instant access to whatever they want to find or learn. Unfortunately, there is a lack of good analytics tools at the moment, which creates a paradox between mobile and desktop content strategies. Additionally, some of the ROAS and KPIs are not very transparent right now, which makes marketing strategies more difficult to prepare.
At the same time, however, I also find this as the biggest potential opportunity where you can shape the customer experience with awesome and interesting content. This means don't just stuff online videos/ads down mobile technologies, but have a clear and precise content strategy that defines and maps user experience throughout the purchase cycle. It is important to consider content for both pre- and post-purchase cycles.
How has data influenced Lorex's business model and major decisions?
Sulaiman: When a product goes through its lifecycle, we collect data from our call centers about what customers have said. We spend a lot of time creating dashboards and share all this data with the company internally so we can be aligned. We also read all of our online reviews — good and bad — and read the bad reviews twice. Then we figure out what's gone wrong or what's going right with a product and determine how to move forward.
Lorex's story has been one of strong leadership and business success. Its past was marked by leaders who were savvy enough to innovate and to listen to their customers, and its present is the reflection of hard work and digital progression. So, what's next?
What products or services can fans of Lorex look forward to in the future?
Sulaiman: We're looking into new technologies to create easy to use products that you can interact with daily. We understand new technology cultures/trends and how the home is becoming smart, so we're coming up with more attractive technologies to lead the way. Our security cameras are great, but installing them requires time, so we're working on making them really simple to install.
You will see us using solar technologies more in the future, and we will be tapping into more smart video analytics that provide you very accurate notifications. The future would be to install the security camera and have it alert you about what's going on using machine learning technologies. Notifications like "UPS delivered a package" or "your kids just got home" for example will act as a virtual smart shield for your home.
How will Lorex improve in the future?
Sulaiman: At this point, each of our departments owns the customer at a certain point in their journey. We want the company as a whole to "own" the customer, and make every decision based on delighting our customers and enhancing their brand and product experience. That's what matters most.
Sulaiman's progressive attitude toward technology and improvement has led Lorex to uncharted sales heights. His emphasis on growing the company's eCommerce ecosystem has yielded impressive returns, and it looks like even more excitement is on the horizon for Lorex in the near future. This company — and its leadership — are surely ones to watch.
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