Episode 1: Paul Smith’s Journey to a Fast and Flexible E-commerce Platform
From the challenges they faced with their website to their decision to go headless, Hannah Bennett, Head of Digital at Paul Smith, shares valuable insights into pushing her team and improving their UX/UI. Tune in to discover the unique challenges of building a fast and user-friendly e-commerce platform and gain valuable knowledge in e-commerce, UX, and digital leadership.
Join Rachel Tonner, VP of Marketing at Klevu, as she talks to Hannah Bennett, Head of Digital at Paul Smith, about their journey from monolith to MACH. Throughout the podcast, listeners will gain an understanding of the unique challenges that Paul Smith faced when creating a fast, user-friendly e-commerce platform.
Hear about the challenges they faced with their website, their experimentation with AMP and PWA, and their decision to move towards a headless approach. Discover how Hannah’s unique experience of working her way up from the warehouse to leading the Digital Team gave her valuable insights into pushing her team and improving their UX and UI. This episode is a must-listen for anyone interested in e-commerce, UX, and digital leadership.
Hannah Bennet, Head of Digital at Paul Smith
Hannah Bennett is a digital leader with over 15 years of experience in eCommerce and digital development. She is currently the Head of Digital at Paul Smith, where she leads a commercial, data-driven approach to composable commerce. Hannah’s journey at Paul Smith began in the warehouse, and she has since worked her way up to her current role, giving her a unique perspective on the business. Her empathy and understanding of various roles in the company allow her to effectively mentor and lead her team. Hannah’s expertise in headless and composable commerce has been instrumental in Paul Smith’s journey towards a fast and flexible e-commerce platform.
- Paul Smith e-commerce store: https://www.paulsmith.com/
- MACH Alliance: https://machalliance.org/
- Klaviyo, e-commerce marketing automation platform: https://www.klaviyo.com
- Storyblock, an enterprise-level headless CMS: https://www.storyblok.com/
- Claudinary, media experience cloud: https://cloudinary.com/
Rachel Tonner: My name is Rachel Tonner. I’m head of marketing for Klevu. We’re an AI search and discovery platform. And I’m here with Hannah Bennett, who is our client from Paul Smith, head of Digital. I’ve been speaking with Hannah over the past week and I’ve been so impressed with her kind of as a woman in technology as a creative lead for her team. And I’m really excited to share the story today of Paul Smith’s journey from kind of monolith to MACH, so tell me a little bit about yourself Hannah first, and why Paul Smith and a bit of your experience there?
Hannah Bennett: Hi, I’m Hannah. I work at Paul Smith. Paul Smith is a real person. Not a lot of people know that we’re a fashion brand based in the UK. We have officers in Natia in London. Predominantly men’s wear, but we sell women’s junior home wear. Why Paul Smith? So Paul is from Nottingham. He was originally there, and so am I, I was studying footwear design at university. And decided I wasn’t gonna be a footwear designer, basically. We have a beautiful shop in an old house in Nottingham, and you go in and there’s just so many details. So when I was in my early twenties, there’s staircases with tape measures on all the stairs and artwork and it’s just an amazing place to be.
And I was like, okay, I like this place, this is what I’m into. So I quit uni, and decided I wasn’t gonna do that. Started again. I worked at Paul Smith, so I’ve been there for 14 years. I started in the warehouse picking, and packing, moved quickly into returns, moved into fraud, and moved into content project management. I’ve kind of worked my way up to the head of digital, which I’ve been in the role for two years now.
Rachel Tonner: What a unique experience that you have having been through like basically the entire business to then leading the team. What kind of insight do you think that has given you into like the new, role you have now?
Hannah Bennett: I think it’s really important. It’s nice that I can speak to anyone in my team and have that empathy and understanding, and I know now how to push them as well and help them progress. That is what I really enjoy doing now. My pop role is kind of leading and mentoring and how to get the best outta people and them to push me. My challenge to them is always like, what are we doing wrong? What can we do better? So, you know, what are you struggling with? What will make your job easier? So that’s that’s what really helps.
Rachel Tonner: That’s great! So you’ve been through obviously, so many iterations of Paul Smith’s e-commerce operations. What kind of made you realize that the MACH journey was the best next step for Paul Smith?
Hannah Bennett: We’ve been through a lot. It was probably about three years ago now when we started hearing about the single-page applications and PWA. Before that, we were experimenting with AMP slightly and trying to see how that would fit into our model. And it didn’t, it wasn’t quite right. And then we were hearing more about single page applications and headless at that time, and we were, this is what we need. And I guess the challenges I was facing at that time when I wasn’t in this role, I was the web development manager, was just this frustration about our website. We have beautiful stores all around the world. We have the pink wall, which is the most photographed building in LA and a beautiful shop there. We were stuck with this Magento front end. We were designed by a committee at that time. It wasn’t Paul Smith. So as the pandemic hit and I became into my role, I wanted to use that opportunity to go, we need to really address UX and UI, make a fast site, and move away from those Magento restrictions that we were facing. That’s how we got introduced to the headless. And then I was first introduced to MACH last year. I was developing the site and through connections, I saw MACH, and saw the conference, and went into that conference not really realizing, I think there was a survey at the start going, how far are you in your MACH journey, and all of us voted, starting out.
Rachel Tonner: That’s so heartening for other retailers to hear. Because a lot of times there’s a misconception about the MACH Alliance and what it stands for, that it’s all-or-nothing approach. But that’s not true. I think brands hearing this today from you will know that.
Hannah Bennett: We can’t just pull Magento, and move and change everything, but, we’ve made really good steps now in the last year to get that best practice.
Rachel Tonner: You started with the front end. Why did you decide to start with a search?
Hannah Bennett: Customer basically! Understanding, what was our pain points on site. We knew it was the speed, it was product discovery. We needed to address that and get that digital flagship. That’s what we were lacking. At that point, we were an in-house development team which we are super proud of and we’ve built up a lot of good magenta knowledge, but there’s a huge gap there in our headless knowledge. We went out to the market and worked out. Who’s got that knowledge, we can’t do this ourselves. And that’s why we came across an agency called Limeshop who have been absolutely fantastic at holding our hand through this, this headless journey and really addressing UX and UI, and understanding Paul Smith. They’ve gone to our shops, they’ve spoken to stakeholders, we’ve done surveys on-site to really make sure we understand what UX we need and what is important to us as a brand. Not necessarily just having a website. It’s what’s important to a brand. That’s how we started a couple of years ago.
Rachel Tonner: You say you started that a couple of years ago. How much time did you actually spend on the UX and what was your re-platforming journey there?
Hannah Bennett: We spent a good five months of stakeholders and research and going through wireframes and UI and going back to the design by committee, making sure we weren’t doing that and making something that was true to Paul. The build probably took about a year from there. Once we got that structure in place, and at that time was where we were working out how that development work. As I said, we were in-house, we were used to just building, building, building ourselves into our own logic corners. It was just trying to release a little bit of work with agencies and partners to make sure that we are getting, or we can plug that in, so we can concentrate on this area. That’s a bit bit more tricky.
Rachel Tonner: And you actually installed Klevu there before you re-platformed?
Hannah Bennett: I guess there were two parts to that, the ease and then the friction we were having with our supplier at the time. We initially went with you guys for a search, we just wanted something simple. We’ve gone through many search partners in the past and they sell you this shiny toy that can do all these things, but at the end of the day, we were getting quite similar search terms and we were spending a lot of time on our eight store views to make sure that they were optimizing. We don’t need to spend that much money on these tools, we just need to keep it simple and let Klevu do search. Now it runs quite seamlessly, which is fantastic.
Rachel Tonner: What challenges did you encounter before the journey? Well, you already talked about the challenges before the journey to Mach, but during the process of doing that first re-platform on the front end and now where you are today, what challenges did you encounter on the way?
Hannah Bennett: I think the biggest challenge was just understanding how we work with an agency. We’d never done that before, and how we use our development team and what we can just get in and plug in. Historically we had custom-built CMS, for example, that was very specific to our layouts. At that point we realized we don’t wanna build a CMS platform that’s not… we’re Paul Smith, we’re a fashion brand, we’re not a technology brand in that sense. So we went to Market and found Storyblocks and we’re really impressed at how they already link with Cloudinary, for example. So that’s one headache taken away. That was a challenge for us to make that shift into like, especially with some people in the business going, you can do that, you can build that. We could, but that’s not the smartest way. That’s not gonna protect us long term. We need to be able to iterate and, and use best practices rather than build ourselves into that corner again that we’ve done.
Rachel Tonner: Those are hard conversations to have. I guess you being in the business for 14 years, you know the business very well. I bet your team trusts you quite a lot, but how did those conversations go?
Hannah Bennett: I think they are hard saying no, I’m sorry, we’re on a code freeze for a year because we’re doing this project. It’s never a nice thing to have to say in meetings. But I don’t think it’s just reassuring the company why you’re doing this and what the benefits they’ll see once that project’s live. I think what made it slightly easier, it was a tangible project, in terms of, we’ve got a shiny new website that we can touch and feel and talk about. That definitely helped get those conversations and bring in the rest of the business along with the journey. So I do monthly updates. This is what our PDPs are gonna look like. This is search and navs gonna look like. That was a nice way to just reassure people of that, bread-curing them through the project.
Rachel Tonner: Absolutely. Internal enablement is actually important. It’s nice to hear that you implemented that as part of the project, which is probably why it’s been so successful for you.
Hannah Bennett: Yeah. And empowering the teams when we are going out to market, ok, we need CMS provider. Bringing those people that are gonna use it day to day, get them bought into why we’re changing and letting them speak to the partners of what their struggles are. And you know, the ones we went with all resolved those issues, which was.
Rachel Tonner: That’s amazing. And it gives them more ownership than in their day-to-day and their, their decisions. So what could you not do before that you can do now with your new stack?
Hannah Bennett: Quite a lot. The speed. Now being able to react to demands and content. We’re a content-hungry business as a brand. Paul, because he’s passionate, he’s still working. There’s exhibitions in shops and collaborations that we’re doing. Building engaging content is much easier now that we can react to displays and stuff. But then one of my challenges was getting that amazing content in front of customers. You know, most of our customers are going to categories and shopping or searching, go into products, but we want to put that storytelling layer into those product pages. We’re lucky to have in-house photography as well, so, challenge our copywriters to think like sales assistants, not just I don’t want bullet pointless, so I want you to really describe these products. We’re much better at content enrichment through the work with lime sharp and how those designs work. Also with Klevu, one of the real exciting things is do is adding that content into search. Historically you search for bags, and bags come up and now if you search for bags, we’ve got a really nice little strip of like the stories that relate to those bags and what factors we’re using and what collaborations we are doing and why is that bag so great compared to this bag. That’s a really nice feature that we’ve got.
Rachel Tonner: Absolutely. It looks beautiful as well, so I do encourage, go to the website, maybe buy something too. . . Why you mentioned discovery of content and product together? Why is that so important for Paul Smith?
Hannah Bennett: Product is king. Our directors, they want us to sell, sell clothes, and we can’t do that in unless product discovery is easy. Paul Smith, we’re predominantly men’s wear, but as I was saying earlier, we sell socks to suits, to cycling helmets, to vintage sofas. It’s, it’s always changing, so getting the right product to the customer. We have a lot of female visitors to the site, and that’s probably because they’re buying gifts for men rather than shopping for themselves. So having that intelligence search and merchandising on the site is really important. We’re laying results that are relevant to customers rather than necessarily what we always think. That’s the balance that we’ve managed to hit really nicely. Now with Klevu, it’s good. AI running in the background, but as a brand, we also need to go, actually this is hot right now. You need to be looking at this product. So we can nicely blend that mix of AI and, and brand together.
Rachel Tonner: That’s brilliant. How much of your success, cuz we are in hard economic times at the moment. How much of that success do you contribute to your journey towards MACH towards MACH architecture?
Hannah Bennett: I think we’ve had a really smooth transition to the headless front end. We had, there’s definitely learnings there around kind of SEO and reporting that we probably could have maybe learned a lot from and talking about space to failure and stuff. I think that’s where we would’ve liked to spend more time. When you mention that question and speak about MACH, I think what’s interesting is, I hadn’t really thought about this, but the three brands that we work with closely in the MACH Alliance, I sit back from, they just work really nicely. I was saying to you earlier that, we don’t need constant handholding, like your push is where we need push in, but it just works. That’s really great. So it gives me the head space to look at the pain points. I don’t need to be told about the good all the time. I, I wanna know what’s wrong. I need to know what’s sticks in that.
Rachel Tonner: Considering your future plans, when we were speaking on the phone, you mentioned that you go to the Mark Alliance website first just to see who’s in that category that you’re looking for.
Hannah Bennett: It’s definitely that new way of thinking, our old site was nicker bucket of the glory of a site that was so custom to Paul Smith, and this is how it’s gonna work, and this is how it’s gonna look. Now we’ve really changed our mindset now, okay, who’s, who’s a good partner to work with, where we can then plug that in, they’re a specialist in that area and use them. So going forward, as our kind of roadmap continues, that’s definitely now front of my mind of how we. Redevelop, on that digital side.
Rachel Tonner: So on that kind of what’s next, what are you looking at next?
Hannah Bennett: Omnichannel big part, we’ve definitely done a good amount of omnichannel work. We have retail spaces, so trying to make that seamless experience, but, we have 52 shops around the world that we now wanna open that stock up to our customers that are online. Oms piece is really important. Looking at how we can surface that stock and move in our checkout to be headless as well. That’s the next phase of our site.
Rachel Tonner: Yeah. How you’ve done it is maybe not a story we hear so much actually within the MACH space. Thank you so much for telling us your story. Starting from the front end and then going into the nitty-gritty of the business processes and stuff. You don’t have to necessarily buy a fully composable platform right away and then start plugging everything. That’s a really hard way of doing it.
Hannah Bennett: I think it’s that balancing of, so this was a very customer-focused project that that’s what we needed to address first. That’s brings other challenges cuz internally, you’re relying on the customer to tell you that, that’s not working, you need to fix that, rather than internally. The next phase is that internal challenge and sometimes a little bit harder to adapt, to change. And given that space for learning, like our development teams and agencies we are working with are still learning and still trying to, okay, how can we get our core with vital scores done Now that’s gonna mean a change to how we build content and how we cash and how that content’s built. We’ve got this customer part running smoothly, it’s now about how we can develop further into that, that back office.
Rachel Tonner: And has that required a lot of internal process changes?
Hannah Bennett: Yeah, completely. It was a lot of just internal knowledge, key figures in the business that just know how things work. Really going back to basics, of these are our flows and documentation and understanding that that workflow so that we can then disrupt it. So that’s the change that we’re kind of going through.
Rachel Tonner: Getting the information out of the head of one person in engineering. And into a place where you can analyze it. And make it work for you and discuss it, and understand, why is that sending that data there?
Hannah Bennett: Could we not do it this way? Yeah. Could we not do it the smart way?
Rachel Tonner: It’s brave! You’re brave for doing that and it isn’t easy. Well done! What advice would you give to other brands considering starting their Moch journey or who might think, oh my gosh, where do I start? What advice would you give?
Hannah Bennett: I think it’s what do you need to change first. Is it the internal process of making sure your team are empowered or is it your customers? So I think they’re the two pillars that I kind of see that you would maybe choose your focus on first and then find that area. And at the MACH conference, someone said getting into the, and there’s gonna be dead ends, there’s gonna be, you’re gonna have to go back and rework that. I think it’s just getting in there and using the community to really understand what’s the best way. Like there’s sites out there, there’s a knowledge out there, it’s trying to get it out of people.
Rachel Tonner: I’ve heard of stories of re-platforms to MACH technologies that only took six weeks, and then at the end of it, the business users don’t know what to do and it’s, a little bit of a mess, but then, you have to have that room to fail, right? When you’re trying to get a project sponsor for this, they’re not gonna, they can’t expect it to be a six week project and that everything’s gonna work well.
Hannah Bennett: Yeah, definitely. I think it’s, I think that’s it. It’s really ensuring that you’re doing this for the right reasons and doing your homework on it. I don’t personally see the point in rushing projects or that, two windows within the year where we can deploy something as big as a front end or, or a backend change. So yes, there’s that pressure there, but it’s making sure you pick the right one so that you can, you can learn from your mistakes and if something needs redoing, just making sure you have that time and doing it the best way rather than the quickest way.
Rachel Tonner: Do you have any final remarks to say or anything else you want to add?
Hannah Bennett: I think just being around the MACH Alliance has just been really enlightening to see the community here and the knowledge sharing. So I’ve really enjoyed talking to the people here that are on the journey and what products can do to really help brands. That’s what I’m passionate about is Paul Smith and how they can help us grow and be more engaging and sell more.
Rachel Tonner: Amazing. Well, thank you so much Hannah. Thank you all for listening, can’t wait to see what you do next.