Meet The Expert: Mark Chou at Away
Tell me about how you got your start in the retail industry. Any advice you’d give to someone starting out?
My first college internship in New York City was with Macy’s Merchandising Group, where I spent a summer focused on finance and product development. After graduating, I spent several years on Wall Street and in venture capital before joining Ralph Lauren, and I’ve been in retail ever since! My advice to folks starting out now would be to keep track of and read up on how retail is evolving – specifically around how online and offline retail are influencing each other.
Is there a typical day for you at Away? What does that look like?
Every day is a little bit different, but generally I’m up early to review tickets, Slack messages, and emails with our developers to ensure that everything is on track for the day. Mid-morning to mid-afternoon is usually filled with acquisition and retention marketing initiatives as well as data and analytics projects. Things usually slow down a tad bit by mid-afternoon, which is when I like to take coffee meetings or hop on the phone with external vendors. Evenings are devoted to going through my inbox and ensuring that everything is prepped for the next day. On Thursday evenings, we have an office happy hour!
You’ve worked at other retail brands, and no doubt you’ve read all of the headlines about what’s happening in the market currently. From your experience, is there a way out for these troubled retailers? If so, what are the main issues they need to address in order to turn things around?
While there have been many thought pieces written on both “the death of retail” and how “the death of retail is overblown,” from my perspective, it boils down to just one thing – never stop listening to your customers and how / where they want to be shopping. Physical retail isn’t going away quite yet (people sometimes forget that e-comm still comprises less than 10% of total U.S. retail sales), but it does seem like the Mall of America era has passed.
There’s a lot of talk these days about all the digitally native brands that are disrupting the retail space (including Away of course!). What do you think are the main reasons that brands like Away and Glossier have been so successful? Do you think it relates specifically back to the idea that these brands are more connected to experiences like travel or are there other key factors in play?
I think the main reason that digitally native brands like Away have been finding success in the retail space is because they have a direct-to-consumer model, which means not just that they are cutting out the middleman (perhaps the characteristic most associated with DTC companies) but also that they own the entire customer experience, ensuring that every single consumer touchpoint from discover to purchase to follow-up is aligned with the brand’s philosophy.
We’ve found that even traditionally “negative” experiences like a customer complaint can be transformed into positive, brand-building interactions as a result of our CX team’s incredible focus on the customer.
While Away is digitally native, you guys have also started venturing into physical retail as well. What have you been focused on delivering during that in-store experience (aside from just seeing the product up close and personal)?
When we think about physical retail, we want to continue the storytelling that is such an important part of our online experience. That’s why our very first concept store in New York City offered customers the ability to shop a curated selection of products from Sweden and Japan as well as our luggage. We wanted to turn the experience of shopping into a travel experience itself.
You work a lot with identifying the right brand partners, so how do you go about assessing whether a brand would be a good fit with yours?
Gauging brand alignment of potential partners is definitely a very nuanced process. We think about a variety of factors, including target demographic, how complementary a brand is to the travel vertical, as well as whether a brand is best-in-class in its category.
I know consumer research has been a major part of Away’s product development and marketing process from day one. What role does it continue to play as the business has grown?
We’ve built out both consumer insights and data and analytics practices within Away and both have been crucial in informing our company strategy. They influence a variety of business areas, from product development and marketing and even areas that may not be traditionally thought of as working closely with data and insights, like creative strategy.
How does the team incorporate data analytics into decision-making?
By examining demographic data and customer behavior across a variety of touchpoints, we can see what business and creative tactics are resonating with the customer and are successful drivers of the business. A key part of this was establishing a robust data stack early on in the company’s lifecycle.
Without a central repository of your customer information, turning data into insights can be a very difficult exercise.
For people who are trying to start or scale up a retail brand, what should be their priorities? What types of challenges should they be prepared for?
Maintaining a focus on both left brain (finance, analytics, growth marketing) and right brain (creative, content, brand marketing) initiatives is crucial. Having one without the other leaves a company unbalanced and less effective than it otherwise might be. Establishing excellence in both areas is easier said than done, however, and hiring the right people is definitely a challenge.
What other retail brands do you love and identify with? Why?
I’m a watch fanatic, and I love how many of these really old-school legacy brands are now realizing the benefits of reaching customers through their own digital destinations rather than relying primarily on brick and mortar authorized dealers as they’ve historically done. One of my favorite brands, IWC, was founded nearly 150 years ago and just launched U.S. e-commerce last month – a dangerous thing for my bank account now that I can shop from my couch!
I’m betting there’s lots of water cooler talk about where your next trip is to. Any interesting upcoming destinations?
We haven’t figured out where our next international team trip is, but my wife and I will be headed to Portugal in October to see my sister-in-law and her fiancé get married – I’ve never been and I’m really excited to explore Portuguese wine country. Saúde!