This post was originally published at ZDNet

The retail industry is undergoing intense change, driven by e-commerce and shifting consumer expectations. Certainly, selling candy in stores and online appears like a commodity business, but retailer Dylan’s Candy Bar has found a way to differentiate its business with a unique customer experience.

Founded by Dylan Lauren, daughter of the famous fashion designer, Ralph Lauren, Dylan’s Candy Bar has distinguished itself by offering a “retailtainment” experience.

The company’s stores attempt to create a Will Wonka-style experience that touches customers emotionally. Bright colors and a warm environment make shoppers feel good, while advanced technology, such as on-demand 3D printing and personalization, offer features and capabilities that other retailers cannot easily replicate. The flagship store in New York receives over 2 million visitors per year.

An important part of the company’s strategy involves extending that emotional connection and customer experience from stores to online shopping. Accomplishing that translation is one of the firm’s most significant challenges: creating an emotional bond with the consumer online, using a combination of technology and smart design.

For Dylan’s Candy Bar, the end-goal is building an integrated and consistent experience through all its channels. This multi-layered combination of retailing, customer experience, and e-commerce shape the company’s core strategy and goes beyond typical notions of the customer journey.

It’s a fascinating story, so I invited the company’s Vice President of Supply Chain and IT, Erica Stevens, as a guest on CXOTALK. In effect, Erica functions as a CIO and is responsible for the technology that underlies the Dylan’s Candy Bar strategy.

In the short clip embedded above, Erica discusses how Dylan’s Candy Bar creates a seamless experience across retail stores and online commerce. 

NetSuiteThank you to NetSuite for presenting this video.

Video Transcript: Personalization and Customer Experience at Dylan's Candy Bar

Erica Stevens: For us, it’s as much of an experience as it is in just selling the product. You could buy candy, frankly, anywhere. A Kit-Kat bar can be found within a block of most of us. So, to us it’s not just that we’re buying traditional candy, it is the candy world. You can form people into…it is as if they feel like they’re in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory when they come into our stores.

It’s very hard to bring some of those components like the crazy music that’s all about candy, and the smells we can’t translate online. But what we do there is we still have the vibrant colors, the amazing products,

The other part is, personalization and customization. One of the things [are] when you come into our store, you can walk in and find these amazing bulk bins, where you can choose, in bulk, up to 500 different types of candy. And then you can mix and match to your heart’s content in a giant gummy bear, or a pink can, or some other vessel. So, in our online environment at the beginning, we were doing five or six mixes of candy that were really popular, but we wanted to bring that experience of choosing all of your favorites. So, we launched this year what we call “Design Shop” that allows you to truly customize your candy with not just the candy that you want inside of it, but also, you can upload a picture, and you can put that on the label of the pink can, or the chocolate bar, everything’s on the chocolate bar, the perfect gift [laughter], right? So, we are doing lots of those more interactive things online.

Michael Krigsman: So, the user experience for the whole thing is foundational to the success of what you’re trying to do.

Erica Stevens: Absolutely! People walk by our store and they see this amazing environment, and come in. But for us online is about keeping that experience going. First impressions are amazing, but we want to make them leave just as excited as when they walked in the door, or finish the checkout process.

Michael Krigsman: Dylan’s Candy Bar is about the customer experience in the store, and the customer experience and the user experience on the web, and from the customer perspective, that seamless transition, go here, go to the store, go to the web, is pretty simple and pretty obvious, and yet, from a behind-the-scenes point of view, it is very difficult to do.

Erica Stevens: We have people that are experts in retail and building that experience, we have people that are experts in the world of e-commerce and the traditional ways that you do e-commerce, and bringing all groups to the table and doing what makes sense is something that we strategically do, and I think that the technology needs to follow. So, a lot of retailers that are trying to get into both spaces, they are letting technology guide how they do things in those spaces, rather than saying, “Ok, we need to customize, we need to tell the technology what to do in this regard and think outside of the box as far as the mode in which we operate, to bring in this other channel that is working alongside it.

Michael Krigsman: What advice do you have for other retailers who want to create this kind of customer experience that’s also highly differentiated so that they, as you do rise up above the crowd; stand above/rise above the competitive noise?

Erica Stevens: First of all always stepping back and looking at what is our actual customer experience? Because I think that, you know, we all have so much to do and we all tend to get a little siloed in “this is how this works in theory”, or “this is how it works over there in that other department, that’s how that works”, but does it really? And is the customer seeing a seamless process, or do they get on the website and it could be a different company?

So, for me, in my professional career, a lot of it has been, “Yeah I know you’re not completely on board with these changes that need to be made, this investment that needs to be made, but go and try to return something to the distribution center when you brought it in the store. What happens?” And to think through every step for the customer, there’s often a lot of lightbulbs to say “Oh, wait a minute, how would that work?\

And if we don’t know how that works, then the customer is definitely not going to have a good experience in making that work.” So it’s that, again, the technology, guiding the technology rather than letting it guide you in your decision making. To some degree, we always have to make decisions based on some capabilities, however, looking for that flexibility and not having those brainstorming sessions outside of, “Well, it’s not going to work because the system won’t do that.” Let’s figure out a way to do that if we find out it’s most important to our business and our customers.