Sree Sreedhararaj – Sephora
Though Sree Sreedhararaj has spent his career bettering retail with technology, he was still caught by surprise with events in 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a retail game changer, even during the holiday shopping season that was starting as Sreedhararaj chatted with Toggle in November.
Though he’d anticipated the need for a stronger virtual presence before the pandemic, he did not expect it would be required as the main avenue for Sephora’s customers to consult with the company’s beauty advisors. Nor did he expect his efforts to create more convenient ways to buy Sephora’s products online would be needed so soon.
“We never thought we’d get the fruits of the transformation journey so quickly—we were thinking three to five years from now, and it came in six months,” Sreedhararaj says. “Though what we had in place helped us speed up. Still, there’s a lot more to do.”
Skin in the game
Now owned by LVMH Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, Sephora was founded in France by Dominique Mandonnaud in 1970. The company operates more than 2,600 stores in 36 countries, 500 of those in North and South America. Sephora U.S. is headquartered in San Francisco and has corporate offices in New York, Mexico City, Montreal, Toronto and São Paolo.
The company offers fragrance, skin care, beauty and hair care products for all ages, with 90 percent of customers coming back for more, and its Beauty Insider customer loyalty program is very successful, Sreedhararaj says.
Sephora launched its website in 1999, but at the core of its business are the consultations and advice its beauty advisors provide customers.
When Sreedhararaj joined Sephora in 2017, customers could already select its products online for home delivery, but he says the company saw opportunity in gathering and leveraging data to improve the customer experience.
He and his team began adding artificial intelligence to the platform for more personalized services, while improving the information flow between the website and stores. This later became the foundation for omni-channel initiatives. The process is ongoing, and Sreedhararaj says it has eliminated technology silos and duplication of processes, so Sephora also benefits from reduced costs.
It’s just that he did not expect to test the full capabilities so quickly.
“When our stores were closed from March to June, digital was the only source of revenue and that warranted the transformation,” he adds. “Even with stores reopened, customers are used to shopping online and the foundations are in place.”
Plenty of partners
In response, Sreedhararaj and his team added digital chat capability that could direct customers to consultations with beauty advisors while displaying an encompassing view of Sephora’s products. They also rely on know-how from a host of vendors to ensure they’re maximizing potential to reach customers.
In a business where timing is everything, Sreedhararaj says Apex Systems, a technology services business, provides the support for analysis and information when Sephora launches new products and programs.
“They help with how to hit the market,” he says. “They can analyze the conditions and they translate our business programs into technology needs, to make them work.”
Apex is not the only partner Sreedhararaj calls on for product management services, he adds. Silvia Quintanilla of iTalent Digital helps map what steps are needed to keep new and existing products at the forefront of customers’ imaginations.
“They understand what’s happening in the market,” he says. “We need to know we’re investing in the right thing at the right time and need somebody in the product management space to come in and explain how it works.”
Those are foundations Bigtincan helped build even before the pandemic arrived. It provided the platform to train and educate Sephora’s beauty advisors that is now used to quickly train store advisors for online interactions.
“Bigtincan helped speed up the transformations,” Sreedhararaj says. “As with all our partners, they’ve provided augmented support and services that are essential to the new ways we’re reaching our loyal customers.”
The vital digital approach does not spell the end of retail stores for Sephora, he insists, although Sephora is placing more emphasis on smaller local shops more centrally located than malls.
Since what Sephora customers wanted pre-COVID-19 is no longer as applicable, Sreedhararaj and his team need to weave together new omni-channel ways to bring customers in through what’s known as unified commerce.
The approach is developing through a continued partnership with Litmus7, a retail maximization company, he explains. Sephora and Litmus7 have collaborated for almost a decade, building solutions and frameworks that are supported by the analysis and platforms offered by other vendors, as well as Litmus7’s own innovations.
“They provide the thought leadership,” Sreedhararaj adds.
To ensure a customer enjoys the best experiences possible, he partners with GSPANN for consulting and tech services.
“We want our customers to have memorable, repeatable and cherishable experiences; that’s the way to build loyalty,” Sreedhararaj says. “The GSPANN team are specialists when it comes to bringing digital experiences to life by integrating new generation technology.”
A graduate of Mahatma Gandhi University in Kerala, India, with a degree in computer science, Sreedhararaj also studied physics, chemistry and mathematics at the University of Kerala.
However, he’s made a career in the arts and sciences, bringing retailers and consumers together since he joined Infosys in 2004 as a solutions architect and senior consultant.
“I’ve always been curious to know what consumers are looking for,” Sreedhararaj says. “Every consumer has a story to tell when looking for a product, so it’s interesting to know what emotions are behind every purchase.”
At Infosys, he consulted with Fortune 500 retailers while pioneering the practice of unifying digital and nondigital worlds.
In May 2011, Sreedhararaj joined Walmart Labs as a senior solutions architect, building new supply chain systems for the retailer to support its expansion to the Chinese market and build a reusable platform across other geographies. He was tasked with end-to-end operations from order fulfillment and management to billing and financial management, inventory management, transportation and warehouse integration systems.
In March 2015, he was promoted to senior manager in engineering and created initiatives like the “endless aisle” system that merges online shopping with an in-store experience. He also boosted the system to support 16,000 online orders per minute; a significant increase from the 2,000 it had previously processed.
When hired as senior director of enterprise architecture and applications at Sephora, Sreedhararaj says he was ready and able to guide the transformation and embrace new consumer trends and user-friendly digital approaches. The process has continued since his promotion to CTO in September 2019, but the pace has been accelerated by events in 2020.
“Being remote has proven we can be as productive, sometimes even more productive, than being in the office,” he says. “I’m really glad, but equally shocked, and it provides the motivation to keep working on the transformation journey.”
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