(The following article is property of Avenue Code, LLC, and was originally published with permission at TotalRetail on July 26, 2018.) 

Sameer Hassan is the senior vice president of enterprise product strategy and user experience at Williams-Sonoma Inc., where he heads up product management, UX and product analytics for the WSI brands. We caught up over lunch recently to learn more about WSI’s culture of innovation.

Avenue Code: At WSI, you’re working with cutting-edge technology such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). How would you characterize the changes in how consumers shop over the last few years?

Sameer Hassan: Honestly, it’s still early days when it comes to AR and VR. Consumers are still learning about the technology, and even the user experience patterns haven’t really developed yet. Everyone’s still learning about how people use these tools, and ultimately how to design them with the user experience in mind. For Williams-Sonoma, we see AR/VR as another opportunity to simplify home decorating for our customers. Our use of AR bridges the gap from a tactical space planning perspective, but also helps our customers imagine what their homes could look like. We’ve even created a feature that allows you to digitally empty the room so that you can play with different looks without superimposing them onto what’s already there.

AC: How well have these tools caught on with your shoppers?

SH: We’ve already begun to see increasing adoption among our shopper base as customers become more comfortable with these tools. But ultimately, I see it as akin to the way that mobile shopping developed. In the beginning, there were a lot of questions about whether people would actually shop this way — which today sounds absurd. I believe there will be the same tipping point moment where AR isn’t a shiny new object anymore, and that it becomes a part of the user experience just like mobile shopping is today.

A screen capture of Williams-Sonoma’s augmented reality technology at work. Image courtesy of Williams-Sonoma.

AC: How did you get started working with this technology?

SH: For us, it started with our partnership with Outward, Inc., a 3D-imaging company, which we've since acquired. We were also partnering with Google’s Daydream group to explore how we can use this technology to solve user problems. Once we started to get our heads wrapped around what it can do — and really, we’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s possible — we got excited and everyone was all in.

AC: What can we expect next?

SH: We’re very excited about all of the potential applications of AR/VR that will allow us to continue to simplify the home decorating experience for our customers. For instance, when we looked at the return data for our customers, one of the issues many of our urban shoppers were facing was that although the furniture may have been accurately measured and perfect for the space, the stairway or elevator to their apartment wasn't wide enough. One of the concepts we’re exploring now is the ability to wave your phone at your various entryway points and know instantly whether a product you’re considering will fit. Another example for AR extends beyond furniture to home entertaining. Imagine the possibility of using your phone to visualize your dining table for Thanksgiving, with different centerpieces and place settings.

AC: Looking at the big picture, what's the vision for innovation at Williams-Sonoma?

SH: At Williams-Sonoma, our goal is to create a culture and environment where the spirit of innovation becomes a shared characteristic embodied by each of us. We’re using creativity, experimentation and agile thinking to disrupt ourselves before we can be disrupted by others. Technology is a huge driver of this.

AC: How do you foster this culture and encourage innovation?

SH: That’s an important question that strikes at the heart of creating culture. It touches everything from who we hire, how we structure our teams, and the processes we put in place. For one thing, we try to design everything around measurability, so we can understand what’s working and what’s not. We also start small with each new initiative and then evolve the experience with iterative processes to test whether an idea has traction. Curiosity and the ability to learn and act quickly are central to our culture of innovation. And we’re particularly focused on these attributes when we’re hiring and selecting strategic partners. In fact, we created an award in honor of our former CMO Pat Connolly, who was brilliant and instrumental in shaping our company culture. This award, named the Pat Connolly Spirit of Innovation award, recognizes associates who propose innovative, practical ideas that have made a significant impact on our company.

Williams-Sonoma’s unique culture of innovation is evident at every level of the organization. Image courtesy of Williams-Sonoma.

AC: What’s an example of one of these moments from you or your team where you brought something entirely new to market?

SH: One example that stands out to me has to do with solving a customer pain point related to abandoned carts. We identified that one significant contributing factor to abandoned carts was shoppers switching from one device to another and needing to start selecting their items all over again. Rather than re-architecting and spending months solving for this in a traditional way, we came up with a quick and sustainable way to stitch your identity across devices. Rather than becoming consumed with a huge solution, we focused on efficiency and speed, and the end result for the customer.

AC: What was your biggest lightbulb moment in the last few years?

SH: The steps and conversations that led to our acquisition of Outward brought about a huge realization for me: this wasn't about changing one experience or one platform, it was internalization of the fact that in the not-too-distant future, commerce is going to look fundamentally different than it does today, and that technology is going to enable that. The way we shop online today simply doesn’t mirror the way consumers want to discover products. There’s a point where shopping gets turned on its head with personalized, immersive experiences, and emerging technology is getting us there. I’m excited to be at a company that's at the forefront of that revolution, and we're always on the lookout for great tech talent to help us achieve our vision!

AC: Sameer, thank you so much for sharing your culture with us. It’s clear you and the team at Williams-Sonoma are creating something very unique, and we’ll look forward to seeing what’s to come!


Holly Vander Wall

Holly Vander Wall is the Director of Marketing and Client Services at Avenue Code. She is an eCommerce enthusiast, a marketing guru, and an animal lover.