When business is going well, there seems little reason to make a big change. That’s the situation Wayfair.com executives were in back in 2010 when the e-retailer, then operating hundreds of vertical-specific sites, considered the future, said Mike O’Hara, vice president of engineering at Wayfair.com, this morning during his keynote address at the IRCE Focus: Web Design + Mobile Commercen event in Orlando, FL.
Wayfair, then doing business as CSN Stores LLC, was making money, and growing, O’Hara says. But the web-only retailer saw that the way consumers shopped online was changing, and so was the way Google Inc.’s search engine represented CSN Stores’ sites in search results. The e-retailer’s vertical-specific sites, such as Strollers.com and Luggage.com, were losing standing in organic search results as the search engine changed its ranking algorithm, and organic search was how consumers historically had found CSN sites since its 2002 inception.
Wayfair also saw that consumers were increasingly searching by retailer name, rather than by product. These changes helped compel Wayfair to embark on a major branding and design effort to consolidate its many sites under the Wayfair.com banner.
“Change is a lot easier to make when you are forced to make it, not when you don’t have to,” O’Hara said. “But after thinking about it, we realized the future of online retail was going to be about brands.”
A brand-focused redesign and consolidation was a special challenge for the e-retailer because it was built and run by engineers who had also focused on the technical aspects of e-retailing. “We were very creative-light. We were server-side focused,” O’Hara said.
The company hired a creative director and eventually filled out a team of marketers, copywriters, product managers, and more to expand its branding firepower. The move to consolidate the sites under the Wayfair banner also meant groups that previously worked by product category had to reorganize under a centralized system. Teams are now multidisciplinary. That was a tough pill for some groups to swallow, O’Hara said. “For vertical teams it meant a different way of thinking. It is hard to lose control and give up [autonomy] to a central authority.”
After months of work and an initial rollout of several test sites, the consolidated sites under the Wayfair.com banner officially launched in September 2011. Google initially dinged Wayfair.com for all the site redirects from its former URLs, and it took about 18 months for the e-retailer to regain its ranking in organic search, O’Hara said. But with the rounded-out and unique content Wayfair now has, it’s standing in search is better than before the change, and consumers are increasingly seeking out Wayfair as a brand when they search for home goods, he said.
O’Hara said research shows consumer awareness of Wayfair has more than doubled versus the consumer awareness CSN Stores had at its peak, and it is growing. Wayfair also has a repeat customer base now, which was rare for CSN’s vertical-specific sites. That’s helping drive down customer-acquisition costs.
The consolidation and branded approach is working for Wayfair, O’Hara said, noting that the e-retailer took orders for than $1 billion worth of products in 2013, the first time it has crossed the $1 billion threshold, resulting in $915 million in net revenue after cancellations and returns. While not addressed by O’Hara in his keynote address, Wayfair CEO Niraj Shah told Internet Retailer in January that the privately held Wayfair might consider going public. In October, Wayfair hired Michael Fleisher, an executive with a background in big company finance and public accounting, as its chief financial officer. Wayfair is No. 52 in Internet Retailer’s 2013 Top 500 Guide.