It doesn’t get much more “brick-and-mortar” than Ethan Allen, the upscale furniture retailer that offers bespoke interior design assistance as a side benefit to customers.
But as it competes with cheaper imports at home and expands in Asia, the global brand is working intently to ensure that it’s not left behind as commerce increasingly moves online, CEO Farooq Kathwari said at an Atlanta conference.
Mr. Kathwari was one of many high-level speakers at the Symposium on Asia U.S. Partnership Opportunities, or SAUPO, a biennial conference organized by the Asian studies program at Kennesaw State University. During the all-day event at the St. Regis Atlanta, he and other executives addressed how companies are using technology to drive sales and forge customer connections in the U.S. and Asia.
The ease of e-commerce has brought the rise of the “born global” firm that can sell internationally instantaneous and can trade digital products that don’t have to cross physical borders, said Penelope Prime, a China-focused economist and professor at Georgia State University who moderated the panel.
With its large populations, burgeoning telecom infrastructure and wide wealth disparities, Asia is playing an important role in driving innovation in the digital space, particularly at the crossroads between digital and physical retail environments. In China’s cities, for instance, same-day delivery is often available for products purchased online.
“Asia has taken to the digital e-commerce platforms in droves. It is one of the centers of this development,” Dr. Prime said.
Ethan Allen, with 76 of its 300 design centers now in China, uses digital platforms to drive customers into stores where they encounter the brand’s main differentiator: personal touch. This is still vital, though most customers arrive at the stores better informed thanks to online “window shopping,” Mr. Kathwari said.
“People don’t want service, but they really want service,” he joked, noting that the role of the in-store design consultant has changed from pure education to more facilitation.
“They’ve come to the conclusion that service better be good; otherwise they don’t want to deal with human beings because they can go online and the experience is better.”
Ethan Allen has also used technology to share the spoils of online commerce with its physical outlets, and employees are now armed with tech tools to enhance the customer experience. Online orders are credited to the store in the region where the transaction originated. If an item ordered in-store is out of stock, employees can log in to the company’s global distribution network to fulfill it by mail.
“Today, people want it seamless,” Mr. Kathwari said.
That’s also what Delta Air Lines Inc. seeks to achieve across its nine digital channels, from websites to mobile apps to seat-back entertainment systems and beyond, said John Copeland, a Delta project leader for international e-commerce.
As it builds up its Asia-focused presence in Shanghai and Seattle and maintains its strong presence in Tokyo, the airline is moving beyond simply translating its websites into other languages in favor of “localizing” them with the end user in mind, he said.
In China, this type of targeted interaction is extremely vital because online is where the customers are, Mr. Copeland said. Delta recently became the first airline to accept Alipay, the Paypal-like service from Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. It also launched a channel on the Chinese social media and messaging platform WeChat, which boasts more than 400 million users. Delta’s WeChat account will showcase special offers and could eventually offer direct bookings, Mr. Copeland said.
Perhaps no one knows the changing tech and mobile landscape in China better than Huawei, the Shenzhen-based giant made its fortune selling telecommunications equipment in China globally but is now the world’s No. 3 smartphone seller behind Samsung and Apple despite being virtually unknown in the U.S. market. The company shipped 73.6 million phones in 2014, according to IDC.
June Wang, vice president of strategic partnerships in the company’s consumer business, said Huawei is becoming an “end-to-end” provider of products and services, a reference to its ubiquitous presence in the mobile industry, from switches at the infrastructure level that route data and calls to the devices consumers and businesspeople keep in their pockets.
Dr. Wang spoke two days after her company had launched the P8, a thin, sleek smartphone with a 5.2-inch screen that runs Google’s Android operating system. The company is also getting into wearables, tablets and the connected home.
“We try to reach different corners of consumers’ lives and try to satisfy our global users,” she said, admitting that there is still a “long way to go” in the competitive consumer business for a company that brought in $12.2 billion in revenue globally last year on mobile phones alone
However, it’s been slow going in the U.S., as Huawei has had major deals blocked over concerns about security and uncertainty about its founder’s ties to the People’s Liberation Army.
The company sees itself as working with its partners to add value and improve people’s lives, not to introduce undue competition, Dr. Wang said.
“In Europe we have recorded quite a lot of success, but the U.S. to us is an emerging market,” Dr. Wang said.
The e-commerce panel was one of two plenary sessions at the SAUPO conference, which also concurrent seminars on green energy, mergers and acquisitions, crisis management, globalization of education, corporate social responsibility, health informatics, commerce and new media, among other topics.
Visit www.kennesaw.edu/saupo for more information.