Liza Landsman loves a challenge. For the past year and a half, she's taken on a massive one: overseeing marketing, branding and analytics as chief customer officer of ecommerce startup Jet.com as it attempts to compete with the retail Goliath that is Amazon. In August, Jet got some major firepower when it was bought by another retail giant, Walmart, to the tune of $3.3 billion.
Landsman is building the Jet brand around the promise of making shopping fun through a gamified process that aims to shake up the way people shop for everything online: from household products to books, music, appliances, electronics and groceries.
On Jet, shoppers can save money by paying with debit cards or opting out of free returns. The idea is to appeal to baby boomers and millennials with children, who make up the bulk of its audience—and snag a larger slice of the online retail pie in the U.S., which Forrester predicts will surpass $500 billion by 2020. With a background that blends financial services, data science and marketing, Landsman believes she is well positioned to help Jet shape the future of retail.
"I've said before that [building Jet] felt like we were pulling a sequoia out of the ground with our bare hands," Landsman says. "It's a mental image that has come back to me a lot over the last year or so. It's a cool, big, majestic, noteworthy thing that we're doing, but it's a labor of love."
No doubt Walmart felt the love for Jet. The retail behemoth's acquisition was surprising and speedy, as the deal was officially closed just a month after being announced. Jet will remain a separate brand post-acquisition, but the marriage offers Walmart an instant education in appealing to millennial shoppers, access to next-gen digital technology for its own site and an instant injection into ecommerce business. In return, Jet essentially benefits from Walmart's purchasing scale, sourcing capabilities, distribution footprint and digital assets.
Jet was an attractive target for Walmart because of its growth in its first year of business (it reached $1 billion in gross merchandise value in May 2016) and because the two businesses have similar ecommerce goals.
"Who we're going after in the market and our values and culture as a business are complementary," says Landsman, "and so are a lot of our cultural values, like transparency, fairness and treating the customer with respect."
The Jet story is similar to that of Dollar Shave Club, another online startup that was acquired by a major player in its field, Unilever.
"Jet is going off of the Dollar Shave Club idea, which is that saving money can be fun—which can be extremely successful," notes Brendan Witcher, analyst at Forrester Research. "The Jet acquisition makes a lot of sense. There are opportunities for Walmart to reach another segment of the audience that may not have been Walmart-specific shoppers. It gives them another revenue channel, while offering brands they don't carry. And it has a separate branding message that has a lot of value."
Math geek to marketing exec
That's where Landsman fits in. She started with Jet in March 2015 after a nearly two-year tenure as CMO at E-Trade, where she oversaw the brand's first post-talking-baby ads with the campaign "Type E," featuring Kevin Spacey. "Until that job, I never thought of myself as a marketer," Landsman explains. "I always thought of myself as a customer-focused businessperson."
Still, her pre-E-Trade career contained elements of marketing. Landsman spent a year as global head of digital at BlackRock where she headed the investment management company's digital marketing strategy. For the decade prior, she held senior management and customer engagement positions at Citi.
Landsman's unique blend of experience makes her well suited to her role at Jet, says Hema Widhani, CMO for digital and customer marketing at Prudential, who worked with Landsman at both Citi and E-Trade. "Jet is a totally different spectrum than Citi or E-Trade, and she's succeeding in all of those different roles because of the core skill sets she has," Widhani says. "Liza's one of those super-versatile business leaders that finds a way to make every business environment successful."
Rob Hughes, managing director in the global credit card business at Citi, who also worked with Landsman at Citi, agrees. "Sometimes when people move across different jobs, they can become generalists, but she really demonstrates a commitment to go deep into what she does and still has versatility that's pretty unique," he says.
Landsman also has had leadership roles at IBM's ecommerce and personal systems group units, and worked at a now-defunct payments startup, Flooz.com, in the '90s. Her first job was leading the new media practice at the literary agency Writers House.
"As I think about the connective tissue of my career, all of my jobs come back to the fact that I'm a big math geek and lover of data," she says. "I have a real focus at Jet of using data to inform better decision making. What has happened over time is that marketing and customer-facing functions have become more guided by smart use of data."
Jet.com, which went live in July 2015, was founded by CEO Marc Lore, who also started Soap.com and Diapers.com and later sold those sites to Amazon. As a relatively new-stage startup, Jef seemed like both a risk and an opportunity for Landsman. "Its future, while very ambitious in its scope, was clearly very uncertain," she says. "I hadn't worked in a startup environment for 15 years. It was a risk in terms of, would I be good at it, could I adapt to that kind of nimble self-service environment? The opportunity piece of it was really compelling. It was an ambition to help democratize ecommerce, to do something very disruptive, to do something basically from scratch at scale. Those are two things that don't often go together."
Building a brand
Though it's too early to prognosticate about Jet's success, Landsman is putting a lot of effort into differentiating the site from the competition, and helping consumers connect with the brand on an emotional level.
"You have to get the products you want," she explains. "It can't be bacon-scented detergent—although I think that would be a great idea; I would buy it. It has to be a great product selection at a compelling price, and it has to be delivered on time. The emotional connection we create through investing in live customer service—those people take care of our consumers—and by being a brand that, if you read our shipping policy, you can tell has a sense of humor. It has a design center and purpose built for the millennial mom. The digital natives were first in our thoughts when we thought about our policies, who we're building out our things for."
Jet's target audience is represented across almost every age and socioeconomic cohort, Landsman says, although it overindexes among millennials who have children and are college educated, and slightly overindexes on baby boomers. "Our audience cares about value, they care about convenience, they want to make their life simple, and they care about service—all things we're focused on profoundly," she says.
To maintain customer loyalty, Jet is focusing on service, price and the aforementioned gamification experience where customers receive savings by foregoing free returns, paying by debit card or buying certain combinations of items.
"Our value proposition is reengineering the supply chain—but that's not a sexy communications platform for consumers," Landsman says. "Consumers find the experience really fun and engaging. We want everyone, while they're on Jet, to get a little dopamine hit. We jokingly talked about having something at the top of the cart where it says, 'Make it rain,' but we haven't done it yet. It's addictive, and people will come back over and over again to see if they can get even more deals."
Not everyone shares her confidence. Billy Hulkower, senior analyst, technology and media at Mintel, notes that lowest price is generally the only motivating factor for making a purchase for online retail. "If we're talking about a gamification scenario where you get cheaper prices for buying more products, that might be appealing to 5 to 10 percent of the population," he says. "I don't think we're going to see more people shopping at Jet just because it's a novelty."
"Our customers tell us in so many ways that they truly love our shopping experience," says Landsman. "We see this in our higher-than-industry average repeat rates on our core customers. We actually don't think our value proposition is about buying more than you already do, it's about buying things together, just like people do in the real world."
Another challenge for Jet is increasing awareness of the site, which it's doing through cheeky ad campaigns, like this year's Super Bowl spot from R/GA which touted the actual—or, "super"—bowls you can buy on Jet.com.
"Not everyone in America has heard of us yet, so we want to bring people in," Landsman says. "The ads also let people know about the feeling we want to create. One of the things we want people to believe about us is, there are human beings behind ecommerce, and many of them are just like you and have senses of humor. They think shopping can be functional and fun."
Landsman also wants Jet to truly disrupt ecommerce—and that means taking market share from Amazon, another enormous challenge for the startup. "We don't think ecommerce is a winner-take-all proposition," she says. "There's obviously a dominant player in the market, and we think consumers, retailers and brands deserve multiple options. We think we've been well positioned, and we think this latest potential deal [with Walmart] will position us to do it even more strongly, at an even faster pace."
But with 23 percent of consumers in the U.S. doing all their shopping on Amazon, per Mintel, that could be a tall order.
"We're reaching a point where more people stop doing a search and go straight to Amazon," Mintel's Hulkower says. "People's original interest in online shopping to save money has been overwhelmed by a desire for convenience. If it's a TV, they're going to shop around. If it's a bar of soap, and you have a Prime membership, you're not going to look somewhere else. Amazon has reached a tipping point where its dominance dwarfs every other player."
That said, you can't be taken lightly when Walmart is your owner, he adds, giving Jet a better shot at disrupting the market. "If they can integrate Jet successfully, it seems like there's potential for there to be two giants in this market, Amazon and Walmart. It's not a next Monday kind of thing, though; it will take a few years."
If anyone can help Jet pull it off, it's Landsman, says Hughes, her former colleague at Citi.
"There are a lot of questions around Jet—around the viability of the business model, how they can compete with the Amazons of the world," he says. "Liza's been exposed to different ways of thinking, and because she has that background, she takes a very commercial orientation to everything she does. Which is hugely beneficial to Jet because they're trying to figure out what their model is going to look like."
Sumaiya Balbale, vp of marketing at Jet.com and Landsman's No. 2, agrees. "The rapidness with which we have grown from a small startup to a large business has been incredible, and that speed requires a lot of operational focus and flexibility, which Liza's great at," she says. "She keeps the larger perspective in mind about what we need to build toward. She's decisive; she's a truth teller. She doesn't mince words when it comes to providing direction, but she's also incredibly funny and kind and lovely to work for."
Landsman is confident there's room for growth in ecommerce, and Jet is poised to claim its share. "It's funny to me when people say, 'You're nowhere near the size of Amazon.' It's like, 'Right, my son just started college and isn't a successful graduate student yet,'" she says. "One year out, I feel fantastic about where we are. Let's see 21 years from now where we'll be."
This story first appeared in the October 17, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.