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At Zulily, 'Analytics Is The Bedrock Of The Business'

For Zulily’s newly appointed VP of analytics, it is not enough for a brand to meet customers’ expectations. 

“Of course we want people to find what they need when shopping with us,” said Tim Ragland, “but our real goal is to give them what they want, even before they tell us. That’s the power of data and analytics.”

This strategy has paid dividends for Zulily. Founded in 2009 as an online children’s apparel shop, the company has become an e-commerce powerhouse, reaching $1 billion in revenue after just five years in business. Zulily now employees nearly 3,000 staff and has built a reputation for delivering highly curated shopping experiences for its large and loyal customer base.

The most telling result for Ragland—who, with a background in finance, joined the company in 2016 after nearly four years at Sephora—is that the vast majority of Zulily’s orders come from repeat buyers. “Ninety-two percent” he specified, stressing that this is a rare display of loyalty in today’s e-commerce environment.

“We deliver personalized experiences that are equal parts simple and serendipitous,” Ragland told CMO by Adobe. “If you’re looking for a pack of plain white undershirts, you might be happier ordering from a traditional retailer, but our customers want a tailored experience that offers more, and that’s why they keep coming back.”

Data, Data Everywhere

According to Ragland, Zulily’s success is in large part due to how it puts data at the center of its operations. The company rolls out roughly 100 new products each day and serves more than a million customers globally. Operating at this scale creates an enormous volume of data, and the ability to extract actionable insight from this information is central to Zulily’s personalization strategy.

Indeed, Zulily uses machine learning algorithms to personalize its website for individual shoppers based on their profiles and purchase histories. Doing this for millions of people requires Ragland and his team to create millions of versions of its site, which would not be possible without automated processes and advanced data analysis techniques. As Ragland pointed out, it takes a great deal of vigor to ensure all the content customers see is relevant and timely.

“We’re investing in new tech, such as artificial intelligence, and talent to take our analytics to the next level,” he said, pointing out the company's recently hired its first VP of data and machine learning, Olly Downs, formerly director of consumer analytics at The Zillow Group.

The retailer’s approach to personalization also includes predictive modeling. It still draws on customers’ digital history to predict their shopping behavior, but it also analyzes campaign data to better predict marketing performance and roll out more tailored offers across Zulily’s digital channels.

This evolution has been instrumental in helping the company serve up relevant experiences at scale, while also benefitting the thousands of lesser known brands that sell via its e-commerce platform. Zulily carries household names like Cuisinart, Levis and Ralph Lauren, but most of the products it carries come from smaller business that are still building their market share.

For Ragland, this is an important differentiator for the business.

photo of Tim Ragland, VP of analytics, Zulily
“This is where the discovery element of Zulily’s customer experience really shines. We put the right products in front of the right people at the right time, inspiring shoppers to build relationships with new brands instead of always sticking to what they know.”
Tim Ragland, VP of Analytics, Zulily

The rise of mobile commerce has also been a boon for the business. While adapting to a mobile audience initially added more complexity to Zulily’s data analyses, the company's early investment in a mobile-ready platform helped it to adjust quickly. According to Ragland, 74% of its orders were made via mobile this year.

“Our vision has always been for customers to have flexibility in how to interact with us. Our core demographic of mothers with young children are just as likely to be browsing our website in bed as they are to be logged into our app while commuting or waiting in line for a cup of coffee,” he said. “What’s important is that we’re there with them and can customize their experience no matter when, where, or how they’re engaging with us.” 

Combining Creativity With Insight

Ragland’s broader vision is to bridge the gap between art and science in Zulily’s decision-making, which requires closer alignment between marketing and analytics teams. Such collaboration is also necessary to break down data siloes, develop a complete customer view, and avoid myopic decision-making, he said. Ragland has hired a number of marketing engineers to help drive this transformation at Zulily. As technical experts with a sales remit, these individuals have brought a valuable commercial mindset to Zulily’s analytics function.

“What keeps me energized is how much data we have and how much freedom we have to make the most of it,” Ragland said. “Our employees don’t have much red tape holding them back, which means we can develop a clear vision for a new service and actually bring it to life.”

For example, from analyzing feedback data from its most loyal shoppers, Zulily learned that in 97% of cases, it offers a lower price than the competition—significantly, Amazon and Walmart. This prompted the company to launch a "promise comparison tool." The premise is simple: Shoppers can compare the price of products on Zulily alongside their prices on Amazon and Walmart and make an informed decision about where to buy from.

“I see analytics as the bedrock of the business,” Ragland said. “We’re here to deliver solid insight to the teams who need it and to keep enhancing their level of customer understanding. This is a particularly exciting time because we can finally analyze the impact of investments in the customer experience in the same way that we look at returns on marketing investment. That puts us in the ideal position to show off what all the data we collect can really do.”

'Always Striving To Do More'

Looking ahead, Ragland said he intends to expand data’s role in the organization even more.

“It’s about building on what our engineers and analytics experts have done by taking advantage of new technologies and building closer relationships with customer-facing departments,” he said.

A top focus for Ragland is to establish the members of his analytics team as genuine business partners. In addition to making data more accessible, they will provide marketers, merchandisers, and people across the organization with valuable guidance on how to craft the best digital experiences.

Zulily’s data-driven approach also continues to shape its corporate culture and processes, from training and skills development to the way teams tackle new challenges.

“What’s foundational for [Zulily] is to test, try, and keeping improving," he said. "When my team is analyzing data or evaluating the quality of a new digital experience, I encourage them to ask whether what they’ve delivered is a local maximum or if we could go further and make it a true global maximum. No matter how well we perform, we’re always striving to do more.”

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