Digital transformation: Keeping e-commerce moving even when everyone is stuck at home

When social distancing made Avon International’s direct-selling model unworkable, the beauty company’s tech chief used digitisation to create new ways to sell to customers.

How the CIO is changing again to focus on future growth

Getting staff working from home when the coronavirus crisis started was just the first step for beauty company Avon International: next was working out how to to keep its vast network of sales reps productive while stuck at home.

Nick Burton, chief information and digital officer at Avon, and his team initially focussed on helping the firm's thousands of employees around the world to work remotely. Their work during the past few weeks has been to use IT to support the firm's door-to-door sales representatives. 

Avon has used a direct-selling model for 130 years, but it's also a model that was all-but-impossible to continue during lockdown.

SEE: How to become a CIO: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)

Avon normally sells its products through reps who call at clients' doors and collect orders from a paper brochure. The representatives place one or two orders a month and receive a big box of products. These products are then hand delivered by hand to customers. 

The answer to this challenge came in the form of a rapid digital transformation to allow the reps to carry on selling. The IT team focused first on putting in place a mechanism that allows reps to ensure that the orders they take are delivered directly to Avon's customers.

"We didn't have that capability before," says Burton. "Now when the rep gets an order – which could be through WhatsApp, a text message an email, or a phone call – they can key it in and say where to deliver it to. That change immediately meant that our reps could continue to operate while at home."

Switching the delivery address might not sound complicated, but as the company has as many as 60 different enterprise resource planning systems around the world and more than 200 back-office systems, changing the delivery address meant modifying a range of ordering and invoicing processes.

"We've implemented that new approach on top of the legacy platforms in 30 markets in six weeks. So massive credit goes to the team for the work they did so quickly. We probably had to change about 25 or 30 systems to do that, everywhere," says Burton.

The IT team's second key focus has been to support sales through the firm's e-commerce channel. While Avon has traditionally focused on door-to-door direct selling, it has also started to develop a stronger e-commerce platform. This focus on digitisation has been one of Burton's key priorities since joining the firm in 2019.

The company's e-commerce presence includes a URL with the Avon reps' personal store name. When reps share that link, and people come and shop through the e-commerce platform, the rep gets commission for driving those sales. Burton says sales through the e-commerce channel grew by as much as six times in the first three weeks following lockdown.

Digital brochures have played a key role in the continued development of e-commerce. Having traditionally sold most of its products via paper brochures, the company has started to produce digital brochures that can be updated far more easily. During lockdown, Avon started creating digital brochures on a weekly basis, with different offers for particular products.

These digital brochures are far easier to share, with some reps sharing these digital brochures via social channels. Rather than being restricted to a local geography, that means reps can go online and sell to anyone – and the tracking and tracing built into the online sales model means that they still receive the commission.

Whereas Avon usually sends big packages to its reps, who then distribute goods to their customers, the switch to e-commerce means it's now sending more and more smaller packages direct to shoppers.

"The challenge of how you manage that flow, how you manage the warehouse-management system and the physical layout of the warehouse, together with social distancing, was a real focus big in the third and fourth week of COVID-19. It was all about how we were going to handle that peak," says Burton.

Avon has built its business on face-to-face human interactions; sales reps and customers know how the system works and they like how it works. Convincing people to switch to digital channels overnight would have been an even more complicated cultural task than the technical challenge involved in modifying the firm's legacy systems.

SEE: Return to the office: Now CIOs face their next big challenge

An enforced switch to pure e-commerce might have meant Avon lost loyal customers and even representatives. Instead, Burton and his team's modifications to legacy systems meant everyone could carry on buying and selling. "It puts the rep in control of being able to make sure they can still serve their customers," he says.

By finding ways to maintain both its traditional sales techniques and to beef-up its e-commerce channels, Avon has managed to keep its customers and reps happy, gaining new clients along the way.

There's general agreement amongst industry experts that technology has played a key role in allowing businesses to continue operating during the coronavirus pandemic. For Burton, there is no debate about the value of technology at Avon: his IT team has played a critical role in helping the beauty company to not only carry on working but to find new ways of reaching its customers.

"I genuinely think we've been a really key part of keeping the business going through this period," he says.