Raj De Datta of Bloomreach: The Future Of Retail In The Post Pandemic World

An Interview With Jilea Hemmings

Jilea Hemmings
Dec 6, 2020 · 10 min read

The number one is curbside pickup. People know that they can walk into a store, or have an item delivered, or pick it up curbside. That’s been a big one. The second one is that major retailers are rethinking the categories they focus on and need to rapidly keep in stock where there is greatest demand. One of our customers is a party planning site that historically made their money on prom-related offerings and things of that nature pre-pandemic. Since the pandemic, they’ve been selling products for outdoor events and things of that nature. Third, safety measures and testing are a new reality in store locations and fulfillment locations. A fourth one is that businesses everywhere are doubling down on eCommerce. We’ve seen businesses that were maybe 25 percent online are now 75 percent online — so it’s just been a dramatic shift in resource allocation as well. And then the fifth is the focus on just operating through the pandemic, trying to treat employees well, knowing that they have margins to meet. I’ve seen some companies have to put employees on furlough, so it’s hard for some retailers, but in many cases I’ve seen really admirable actions from retailers to push hard to keep people employed. Yeah, the pandemic hasn’t been easy.

As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Raj K. De Datta, CEO of Bloomreach, the leader in commerce experience™. Bloomreach’s flagship product, brX, is the only digital experience platform built specifically for brands, retailers and B2B companies who want to grow their revenue online while delivering each of their customers a premium, personalized experience. Raj’s new book, “The Digital Seeker: A Guide for Digital Teams to Build Winning Experiences”, will be published by Columbia University Press in Spring 2021.

Before co-founding Bloomreach in 2009, Raj was entrepreneur-in-residence at Mohr-Davidow Ventures. Prior to that, Raj served as Cisco’s director of product marketing and was on the founding team of telecom company FirstMark/LambdaNet, which grew to $80 million in run-rate revenue. Raj also worked in technology investment banking at Lazard Freres. He holds a BS in Electrical Engineering from Princeton University and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I grew up in the Philippines and came to the United States as a student. At Princeton, I studied engineering before finding my way to entrepreneurship. My foray into entrepreneurship was accidental, but I’ve made a career out of it. In the past two decades, I’ve had my hand at three different companies — my latest venture is Bloomreach. The idea for Bloomreach came about after moving on from Cisco. I call this time in my life my two years in the wilderness. I spent this time thinking about my next venture and saw that while millions of dollars were spent on online advertising, less was being spent on the actual shopping experience. Bloomreach was created to power the best online buying experiences with AI-driven search and merchandising, content management, and digital experience tools.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

Raj: When I was fresh out of college, two entrepreneurs-turned-mentors approached me to help them start a telecom company in Europe. I had never been there, but they wanted me to move. I decided to move to Paris to set up our company but quickly learned there were a host of hurdles and hoops I needed to jump through to even complete simple tasks, like setting up a bank account. From there, I moved to London and helped start the company. From this experience, I learned it doesn’t hurt to try. I teach my kids to not overthink decisions that are inconsequential or reversible. If something can’t be reversed but isn’t important, then do it. If something is important but can be reversed, do it.

Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

Raj: Yes, we’re working on a number of new projects. One of the big ones is in the area of guided selling, and applying AI to guided selling. What I mean by that is that eCommerce today has been built for one to sell fairly simple products, i.e. t-shirts and shoes and electronics and things of that nature. What happens if you’re trying to buy a turbine, a medical device, or an elevator? It isn’t like somebody’s just going to type in elevator equipment, and go buy an elevator online, right? So, you have to guide them to exactly the right kind of elevators — whether for an apartment building, a big office building, etc. How many people does the elevator need to accommodate? Applying AI to guide people through the journey of finding the right product for the right need is a problem in commerce that we are actively addressing using a combination of AI, our content capabilities and our personalization capabilities to deliver unique and more guided experiences for complex customers.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Raj: I think the most important thing is to self-regulate, especially in the middle of the pandemic. You know, we can all be on back-to-back zoom calls and work 24/7, and it’s hard because a lot of the things we would do for leisure activities are close to us. In terms of traveling to places or meeting with friends, family or colleagues, we have to commit ourselves to carving out time to find new and improved ways to attach. I can’t say I’m the best in the world at doing that myself, but I try!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Raj: My first business partner/mentor, the one who sent me to Paris, was the one who pulled me into entrepreneurship, instead of engineering. I’m grateful he helped me discover the world of entrepreneurship and provided me an opportunity to jump in. I’m also grateful to my wife. She’s been there through the ups and downs of my three companies, and it wouldn’t be possible without her.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Raj: I think it’s all about what goodness means. I think goodness starts at home with one’s own family then one’s own business, and then the circles that go beyond that. As far as goodness to the world, I’m committed to reinforcing the values which started Bloomreach and that in accordance with our “commitment culture”, employees treat each other with kindness and respect. I’m also on the Board of the US Tennis Association and involved in its non-profit initiatives. As a member of the tech community, I’m also involved in the Civic Alliance, helping to create awareness of the resources available for civic engagement. I try to give back beyond the circles of family and Bloomreach.

Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share five examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?

Raj: The number one is curbside pickup. People know that they can walk into a store, or have an item delivered, or pick it up curbside. That’s been a big one. The second one is that major retailers are rethinking the categories they focus on and need to rapidly keep in stock where there is greatest demand. One of our customers is a party planning site that historically made their money on prom-related offerings and things of that nature pre-pandemic. Since the pandemic, they’ve been selling products for outdoor events and things of that nature. Third, safety measures and testing are a new reality in store locations and fulfillment locations. A fourth one is that businesses everywhere are doubling down on eCommerce. We’ve seen businesses that were maybe 25 percent online are now 75 percent online — so it’s just been a dramatic shift in resource allocation as well. And then the fifth is the focus on just operating through the pandemic, trying to treat employees well, knowing that they have margins to meet. I’ve seen some companies have to put employees on furlough, so it’s hard for some retailers, but in many cases I’ve seen really admirable actions from retailers to push hard to keep people employed. Yeah, the pandemic hasn’t been easy.

In your opinion, will retail stores or malls continue to exist? How would you articulate the role of physical retail spaces at a time when online commerce platforms like Amazon Prime or Instacart can deliver the same day or the next day?

Raj: I think we need to think about a retail location with a very different mindset. So yes, retail stores will continue to exist, but they will serve a combination of purposes. One is that they will be entertainment venues. And the second is that they will be brand and marketing venues. The third is that they will be supply chain outlets. Historically, retail stores were built so that people could walk in the door and buy your product there. Going forward, businesses won’t care whether somebody actually buys the product in the store. What will matter most is if the business is promoting its brand well. Physical locations can do a great job of promoting brands — we see that with online businesses that also set up stores. Apple could very well sell exclusively online, but their Apple Stores are a form of marketing and entertainment. It’s fun to be there, it’s fun to try stuff if you can have an experience. There’s a reason to go there. And finally, if you can go get something really quickly, because your retail locations can fulfill demand from a supply chain perspective in a given local market vs. some distant warehouse, then that’s an advantage for businesses as well to get products to people faster. So those will be the rules of future retail locations.

The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?

A: I think profitable retailers really make this leap faster than others. Lululemon is a bit of an entertainment experience, certainly a brand that people know, and is synonymous with yoga and all kinds of other things. So, they’ll embrace those key trends faster than others. And then you’ve got a different category of retailers which are really in more essential goods areas, like grocery stores. Visits to grocery stores have only gone up with the pandemic, they haven’t come down. If you’re in luxury fashion; however, you can’t compare your experience with the grocery experience — they’re two completely different categories of retail. Each category has been impacted in very different ways by the pandemic.

Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise to retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

Raj: I think it starts with knowing what you want to be when you grow up as a retailer. The traditional retail model — with large numbers of stores and products sourced from other people, primarily offline, just isn’t the model of the future. The model of the future, increasingly for retailers, is where online is the primary transactional vehicle. I think most retailers have understood that. But if you go deeper, I would say that every retailer of the future that’s successful, will ultimately become either a marketplace or a brand. Amazon is a marketplace, ultimately. It competes on selection, and the sheer volume of things you can buy on Amazon at an affordable price. And we’ve seen the success of retailers like Walmart and Target follow Amazon’s marketplace model. They’re doing great, because they can match the selection, they can provide service, and can scale in a way that is comparable to Amazon. So if you’re a retailer that is in that category, maybe even in a specialty category, that’s one way to compete. Or you can compete the other way, as a brand, such as William Sonoma, which announced record profits in Q3, does. And so that’s what I mean by seeing retailers of the future as either marketplaces or brands — one way or the other.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Raj: I really believe that our great challenge of today — in this country, as well as in most countries in the world — is understanding each other. And that in the short term, while we may have great disagreements, when we think in the long term, even those of us that might have inherently different political views, religious views, ethnic views or geopolitical views, actually agree on most things. Provided the time horizon is long, the movement would be about influencing policymakers and government to think, not about what matters today, but what matters for our kids. Because when you ask the question about what matters for your kids, it turns out almost everybody has everything in common, and tend to agree on many matters.

Where can we find more information on Bloomreach?

Raj: Visit Bloomreach.com, follow us on Twitter @Bloomreach_tm, or on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/company/bloomreach. You can also follow me directly on Twitter at @rdedatta. For updates on my new book “The Digital Seeker: A Guide for Digital Teams to Build Winning Experiences”, coming out in Spring of 2021, email us at TheDigitalSeeker@bloomreach.com.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

About the Interviewer: Jilea Hemmings is a staunch believer in the power of entrepreneurship. A successful career revamping Fortune 500 companies was not enough for her entrepreneurial spirit, so Jilea began focusing her passion in startups. She has successfully built 6 startups to date. Her passion for entrepreneurship continues to flourish with the development of Stretchy Hair Care, focusing on relieving the pain associated with detangling and styling natural black hair. For far too long, people with tender heads have suffered in pain. Until now.

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film…

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Jilea Hemmings

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Founder Nourish + Bloom Market | Stretchy Hair Care I Author I Speaker I Eshe Consulting I Advocate For Diversity In Beauty

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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