This week we had the pleasure of chatting with Charlie Cole, Chief Digital Officer and VP at Tumi. Charlie joined Tumi just under two years ago, ahead of their acquisition by Samsonite last August. Having spent an impressive career in e-commerce and retail, Charlie shared with us his unique insights on how retailers can survive and thrive in a rapidly changing market.
Avenue Code: Charlie, we’re hearing more and more about how the way people shop is changing rapidly. What changes have you observed in consumer behavior over the last several years?
Charlie Cole: The obvious change is that people are buying more online, specifically via mobile. I think mobile as a channel has only begun to catch up as a transactional tool vs. an informational. At this point it’s still only indexing about half to one third of purchases, but it’s catching up quickly. Mobile payments aren’t yet ubiquitous, but very quickly they will be.
The other big shift in shopper behavior is that consumers have gotten a lot smarter about webrooming - researching products online prior to purchase - and finding the relevant information regardless of channel. So, responsible retailers have to find their niche, know what they excel at, and commit to it.
Avenue Code: Tell us about that in regards to Tumi. Was there a moment where you knew that the brand was on track?
Charlie Cole: When I joined Tumi in January ‘16, it was clear that we had lost our way as a brand from a digital perspective. I’m not shy about telling this story, because it’s something I truly believe in and has become my #1 talking point. If you look at the 2015 calendar year, there were 110 days on which we were offering some kind of promotion on tumi.com. As a high end brand, that’s not sustainable. So, we took a huge leap of faith and ripped off the bandaid by taking away the vast majority of the promotions.
This was a bigger step than someone outside of retail might initially be able to fathom. As an industry, retail is obsessed with incrementality. So when you eliminate the tool that propped up your sales throughout the prior calendar year, and you don’t see that incremental week over week, month over month increase - that’s a scary reality to face. But our hypothesis was - and we had real buy-in from our CEO to give this a shot - that when we got to holiday, the demand would be there. Sure enough, we made it to Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and we started seeing volumes that were up 50% - 80% from the previous year. This was a huge confirmation that we had successfully rehabilitated the brand. That first year was really hard - but already this year we’re up close to 40%.
Avenue Code: Interesting. Would you say that an over-reliance on promotions gets in the way of success when it comes to today’s retail environment?
Charlie Cole: In a way, yes. I think if there’s a single ingredient to success, it would be protecting your brand from commoditization. For brands and retailers who have become super commoditized, I’m really not sure how they will disintermediate from marketplace sellers and resellers.
The really critical thing is to understand your brand and your niche. Going back to the previous point about webrooming, think of yourself as a consumer - what are you looking for? For Tumi, we have a heritage and well-known brand. We’re known for quality, and the differentiator cannot be price. You can’t win on price in today’s market, especially as a high end brand.
Avenue Code: You’ve got an impressively varied background as an executive leader in the digital and e-commerce space, having held positions at Lucky Brand, Schiff, The Line, and many more - in your own words, an eclectic career! What made you choose Tumi as the next step in your career, and what keeps you there today?
Charlie Code: Really for me the most important thing was that when I spoke with the CEO, I learned that he was willing to reinforce the premium brand, and expand it internationally. Then, with the acquisition by Samsonite, the ability to operate with a portfolio strategy is really exciting. Suddenly, you have 14 brands with a continuum of price points. We’re able to serve consumers with a very targeted experience.
Avenue Code: Charlie, you’re a frequent traveler yourself. What’s your favorite piece of luggage?
Charlie Cole: That’s right! I spend every other week at one of our offices, which means I’m traveling between New Jersey, New York, Seoul, and Santiago all the time. I have an Alpha Bravo that I LOVE. The front functionality has two little pockets, perfect for passports and cell phones.
Avenue Code: It’s easy to hear your passion for Tumi as a brand, as well as your commitment to upholding the integrity of its premium nature. It sounds like taking the plunge into a more value-centric messaging has turned out to be well worth the risk. We’ll keep our eyes on Tumi and the Samsonite portfolio - we’re excited to see what comes next!