MACH in practice with Crate & Barrel
This post is a summary of a session Amplience hosted with Crate & Barrel at our Summer Summit in mid-2020. If you'd like to view a recording of this session it can be found here. In this post, we’ll be providing an in-depth overview of what a MACH-based solution looks like in practice with real-world examples, covering Crate & Barrel’s vision and recent implementation.
For those not familiar with the term MACH, MACH stands for Microservices, API-first, Cloud-native, and Headless. We’ve provided a brief outline throughout this post, but if you’d like a deeper dive into what this is, check out our MACH page that provides a great overview or visit The MACH Alliance for more great content. The MACH Alliance is a consortium of vendors whose aim is to guide and show the business advantages of an open-tech ecosystem that follows MACH principles.
MACH-based solutions aim to future-proof enterprise technology and propel current and future digital experiences with best of breed solutions.
The Crate & Barrel Story
Crate & Barrel was founded in 1962 and is a member of the German Otto Group, that also includes lifestyle brands CB2, Crate & Kids and Hudson Grace. Crate & Barrel are a specialty retailer in houseware, furniture and home accessories that engage customers through omni-channel physical stores and digital touchpoints. They curate inspiration for the home with hundreds of artists and designers all over the world across over 25,000 SKUs. They offer high-quality products, collaborations, and exclusive designs powered by digital design and visualization tools that provide a seamless shopping experience in-store and online. Crate & Barrel has constantly been at the forefront of digital innovation, having launched their first website in 1999.
“Our purpose is to help people love how they live in the moments that matter. We have a shared passion for the customer experience and we’re inspired to be the backdrop for some of the most important moments in people’s lives and part of their personal expression that they bring into their homes.” - Melissa Liotus - Director of eCommerce, Marketing & Merchandising at Crate & Barrel
Crate & Barrel operates a cross-functional agile eCommerce marketing team, consisting of business leads, frontend developers, copywriters, and designers responsible for content, promotions, customer messaging, and all marketing and merchandising optimization for Crate & Barrel and Crate & Kids sites and applications.
The team originally approached commerce and content as two separate and distinct parts of the site, this created a disconnect. Crate & Barrel recognized that they had a customer engagement problem and they needed to blend these together. At one point overcompensating with inspirational content that created a roadblock for shopping experiences. Crate & Barrel needed to aim for a healthy balance that scaled up and produced the right volume of content to engage their customer base with the right content at the right time. They set about solving this and transformed the way they engage customers in the digital context.
Crate & Barrel originally operated a home grown CMS. This CMS had key functionality missing such as version control, content production workflows, lack of visualization and an inability to launch and maintain consistent standards across hundreds of site pages. To make matters worse this CMS was not designed with the end business user in mind and was geared towards a developer-driven experience. Without an in house team focused on improvements, consistent bugs would arise. As content needs became more sophisticated in both velocity and scale across multiple devices, the cracks began to widen.
The Business Challenge
The existing processes and tools were simply not scaling with the business requirements, with the day to day maintenance required allowing no time for personalization, testing or optimization to create an engaging customer-first shopping experience. Content management was inefficient, prone to human error and unsustainable. Resource challenges were growing as development had become a critical bottleneck with copywriters and designer updates feeding into development. Content Managers, whilst closest to the business, were simply not empowered as they were dependent on development to make changes to live content.
“We were not reacting to the business as quickly as we needed to, we had little agility as a team.” - Melissa Liotus - Director of eCommerce, Marketing & Merchandising at Crate & Barrel
Where Crate & Barrel are today
To address the challenges facing the business, Crate & Barrel adopted MACH principles and executed a MACH based architecture in 2018 by leveraging Amplience's leading headless CMS, Dynamic Content and Content Hub.
From a content creation standpoint, Crate & Barrel have eliminated development bottlenecks entirely, enabling their marketing team to move faster, scale and be more agile. The modules and templates created by designers are upheld throughout the content creation process regardless of who is creating the content. Business users can review data, make changes and optimize content rapidly without waiting for a developer to deploy. Content visualization is embedded directly into the dashboard so any team member can create content before they push live. SEO and accessibility have become mandatory in the content production workflow making them impossible to forget.
From a content management perspective, Crate & Barrel shifted from a one to one update methodology to one to many, resulting in large efficiency gains for both creation and management.
With better MACH (Microservices, API-first, Cloud-native, Headless) tooling designed around optimal content production workflows, the existing team was able to scale up content production without additional resources.
“This shift was foundational for Crate & Barrel to effectively navigate the rapidly changing business requirements brought on by the 2020 Covid pandemic. Before we were using the entire team to maintain our website with limited personalization and optimization. Now we’ve been able to scale our teams workload across an additional brand and Canadian versions of multiple sites with personalized regional content. We now launch new and updated content daily.“ - Melissa Liotus - Director of eCommerce, Marketing & Merchandising at Crate & Barrel
With MACH architecture Crate & Barrels’ marketing team is empowered to make changes allowing them to take advantage of the digital medium with interactive and richer storytelling. Crate & Barrel are now able to rapidly prototype and iterate on customer feedback. Content managers are now driving a data-driven approach to testing, optimization and scaling personalization across the entire site. All roles are now able to collaborate and operate directly in a single tool that in the past was a slow handover approach.
From in-efficient funnels to embracing non-linear customer journeys
With this new foundation in place, Crate & Barrel began to work on a web content strategy, with a goal to create content to support the full product assortment, drive the conversion whilst reinforcing the brand. Content was to be fully and seamlessly integrated into the shopping experience. The marketing team began to develop category-specific content strategies through customer interviews, shopping usability studies and workshops with internal merchandising and store selling teams. The next step was to begin implementing a dual-track test and learn approach to content whilst redesigning templates to allow for this integration. Historically content was created outside of the shopping path which added additional steps to the shopping experience, where a customer would need to be directed to make a purchase on another page. This strategy would bring content to where the customer already was.
Customer expectations have never been higher, Crate & Barrel recognized that they could not assume that a customer had been to their homepage or visited an in-store location.
“Shopping can begin on Google or social media which means every interaction has to reinforce the brand at every moment in the shopping journey to differentiate and inspire purchase.“ Melissa Liotus - Director of eCommerce, Marketing & Merchandising at Crate & Barrel
Coupling this with Product Listing Ads (PLA*), the Product Display Page (PDP) had become the main entry point to the Crate & Barrel site. With every page having the potential to be the entry point Crate & Barrel needed an approach which took into account a customer experience that is truly non-linear. The marketing team had been over-indexing effort and focus on the homepage and that attention needed to shift to think through what a complete customer journey looks like, rather than a funnel to ensure the right content wherever the customer could land.
- PLAs are also known as Google Shopping Ads which are rich placements that include product images, titles and prices).
Crate & Barrel are now positioned to complete a major project site redesign that implements this content strategy. These content spaces are now used within the customer journey to inspire and educate. For example when shopping online for cookware, it can be overwhelming, without an instore expert to assist. Crate & Barrel can now fill the gap and educate themselves to select down to the right product for them. Content can now visually inspire a customer directly inside a dynamic, visual and interactive PDP with video and imagery that may get lost in more traditional copy and product descriptions.
From custom build gift guide landing pages to an integrated gift guide experience
Gift guides are created for every gifting season such as Valentines Day, Mothers Day and Fathers Day. This is brought to life through curated pages. In 2018 Crate & Barrel launched a custom built main page and 9 subpages - the marketing team had big ideas but were only able to deliver an MVP due to developer bottlenecks. These landing pages were not built into the core navigation and were therefore not accessible to mobile application users. Whilst these pages saw a 7% increase in conversion for customers compared to those that did not visit these pages this could have been far greater if there had been the time and resources available to execute the original vision. Crate & Barrel also experienced SEO issues as there is an evergreen gift guide page that is live all year round - this meant both these pages would end up competing against one another. This means that customers were not receiving the experience the marketing team painstakingly designed for them. Updating and maintaining these pages as new products and deals went out of stock was also impossible as these pages were static.
In 2019 Crate and Barrel integrated the seasonal gift guides into their ever-green gift guide site section, including new content to inspire customers wherever they were entering from.
“We saw a 77% increase in site visitors YoY, a 40% decrease to bounce rates and a conversion lift of 10% compared to the previous year.” - Katie Patt - Manager, eCommerce Brand Marketing at Crate & Barrel
Dynamic Category Pages for Mother’s Day Promotions
In another example, for 2019 the Mother’s Day page was a custom built landing page from the ground up but in 2020 Crate & Barrel were able to bring content modules directly into their category page template dynamically. The biggest win here is promotions, Crate & Barrel were able to launch new promotions with daily deals. Content managers were able to create and schedule dynamic promotions in advance whereas in previous years this would be coded by hand.
Guided Selling Experiences
The Crate & Barrel team conducted user research to understand customer priorities by category. They learnt that bedding by material was a gap of knowledge for customers, where the customer did not know which material would be right for them and help them to sleep better. As traffic has increased, Crate & Barrel’s strategy was to bring guided selling to life for each category. Customers that don’t go into the store will have access to the same information. Crate & Barrel created a visual, dynamic material guide to enable customers to compare materials in a single view. This information will be re-used throughout the site at relevant points such as the homepage and PDP so the customer can be informed at the right moment.
The Frame - single long form content destination
In March Crate & Barrel launched a single destination for all blog, SEO and branded content. Prior to this Crate & Barrel maintained a separate blog site and posts would only be linked to for a short period of time. The Frame brings all of these cross-functional pieces of content together. Crate & Barrel developed templates that the marketing and creative team can use to build content that was not possible before. We recently launched search functionality that Crate & Barrel will use to serve relevant content to visitors to The Frame.
Bringing discoverability to traditionally category pages with “what’s new” pages
The Crate & Barrel team curate seasons each year enabling the customer to see the latest trends from a single page. Exit rates decreased by up to 60% and conversions increased by 17% for visitors to these pages. This year Crate & Barrel are taking a new approach where more stories are brought forward into one scroll where a curated experience of statements, styles and trends are being launched in fall with more stories than ever before.
Scaling content production workflows
Since launching on Amplience, Crate & Barrel have structured the workflows and tools to put business leaders, marketers and designers in control of content creation and planning. This has enabled an expanded workflow with no development bottlenecks or increase in resource headcount. The current Crate & Barrel team size to deliver these customer-first experiences is a total of eleven, split between four business leads, five designers & two developers. Each business lead supports a different area of the site so they are able to work with designers quickly to bring new ideas to life.
Prior to Amplience, the idea of scalable personalization was laughable. Katie had a non-negotiable requirement that personalized content must be managed from Amplience. Crate & Barrel now have 5 segments across homepages and sub-categories. This has enabled Crate & Barrel to move to a data-driven design culture with built in ID fields in each Amplience template, enabling the team to track every content interaction and attributed revenue and conversion rate. This data is brought back to the design team to enable rapid iteration cycles, test new ideas and templates. In the past year Crate & Barrel have launched over 80 tests, from A/B tests, design layout, copy changes, new features and more.
“Now, nothing is too big or too small for us to tackle.” - Katie Patt - Manager, eCommerce Brand Marketing at Crate & Barrel
Creating relevant, personalized customer experiences
Crate & Barrel has two main segments, Houseware and Furniture, Crate & Kids has a further two segments; Baby & Kids. A 5th segment when Crate has no information on a site visitor is defined as the “Fallback”. Content is personalized based on customer browsing behavior, enabling the site to adapt to the changing needs and wants for each individual customer. These personalized experiences have led to an increase in conversion of up to 60%, decrease in bounce rate by 20% and an increase in revenue by visitor by up to 40%.
Testing & optimization the customer experience
No dead ends - At the bottom of every product listing page (PLP) the Crate team added content blocks so if a customer did not click a product listing they would be more likely to continue exploring other top areas of the site that we had selected. This led to up to a 20% increase in mobile conversion and 5% on desktop conversion rates.
Lead with Inspiration rather than promotions - The team tested the positioning of promotional sales content in the hero and whether the sales would still be made if this content was relegated to the 2nd piece of content (just below the hero). This turned out to have no negative impact enabling Crate & Barrel to lead with inspiration, reinforce brand messaging and continue to make the same level of promotional sale orders.
Reduce bounce rates on entry - As Crate had more site visitors entering on product pages than ever before a solution had to be found to keep visitors on the PDP and Crate & Barrel site rather than clicking back to Google. This was accomplished by offering additional product options to encourage visitors to browse deeper into the site. With this strategy bounce rates dropped by 4% and conversion increased up to 15%.
Investing in Richer Storytelling Experiences
With MACH architecture, Crate & Barrel were able to leverage more control over the frontend shopping experience with increased interactivity. This included the introduction of hotspots to weave story-telling through a visual page (live example) and shoppable imagery with additional hotspots (live example).
Site Performance + Accessibility
“A one second delay in load time can impact conversions by up to 20%, so every millisecond matters.” - James Conroy, Senior Interactive Developer at Crate & Barrel
Crate & Barrel are known for high quality products and timeless style and it was important for the experience to reflect this quality. Therefore the Crate team needed to use high-quality images and assets without sacrificing performance. Large, high quality images typically lead to performance concerns.
Amplience enabled Crate & Barrel to use image best practices without constant developer input. Designers and business users shouldn’t have to worry about performance or lazy loading. The Crate & Barrel development team were able to leverage best practices into their frontend modules so the non-technical teams can focus on what they do best. As technology changes and further iterations are implemented, these can be rolled out to the site with no impact to the existing content and no downtime.
Since launching on Amplience, even with increased traffic due to the Covid pandemic, the site has seen no performance issues.
Amplience also handles increases in traffic levels and spikes over time with consistent response times below 125ms. Accessibility was also a top priority for Crate & Barrel going into 2019, ensuring they adhere to W3C’s WCAG 2.1. Again business users should not need to think about these requirements when they are designing and developing new content. Amplience helped the development team build in focus states, appropriate color contrast, font selection with minimum state and readability in mind and all images receive alt tags where necessary. The development team now has the ability to constantly monitor a11y and the Crate & Barrel website is consistently achieving high scores of 94+ in Google Lighthouse accessibility score with no further input from developers as the content is created.
“Amplience allowed me to step away from Crate & Barrel for 9 weeks of paternity leave with no performance, content creation or accessibility concerns.“ - Senior Interactive Developer at Crate & Barrel
Impact of COVID-19
Covid has had a dramatic impact on Crate & Barrel, as with the majority of businesses through 2020. All Crate & Barrel stores closed and the business became a 100% eCommerce brand overnight. Traffic levels immediately increased to cyber level traffic volumes every single day for the past 3 months. This led to the Crate & Barrel team re-evaluating their planned roadmap and company strategy. Typically Crate plans 6 months out and this plan had to be completely reassessed, resulting in the team needing to work quicker than they ever had before to react to the daily unplanned needs of the business. The team began meeting twice a day to make quick decisions, review creative and make pivots quickly.
Crate & Barrel leveraged Amplience as not only the content creation tool but also their content production and workflow management tool. Business owners were able to create and deploy content as needed multiple times a day. In the past, this would have had a serious impact on our ability to rapidly react and execute.
Customer led Content Creation
To stay relevant to their customers the Crate & Barrel strategy shifted dramatically; promotions and messaging planned were now no longer relevant. The team pivoted to create content that the customers wanted. As customers spent more time at home they were looking to seek content on new subjects, such as ideas for how to create a home workspace, how to work from home with kids, what is a virtual happy hour, and how do I run one. The shift in sales to the home office, wellness, wine glasses and decor categories also directed content production.
Crate & Barrel are happy to report that stores are now open in some capacity but they are still experiencing high eCommerce traffic and sales. Curb-side pickup and high converting store visits are also common now that customers are more intentional with in-store visits. Whilst the last few months may have taught the world that we may not know what the future holds, Crate & Barrel are well-positioned with a customer-first content-led strategy.
We hope you found this post highly informative and useful in your own decision-making process and content production strategy. If you’re considering a MACH solution for your next project and would like to speak to one of our solution experts we’d be happy to help, advise and provide recommendations, just get in touch!