Starting with the launch of BestBuy.com in 1998, its re-platform to ATG in 2003, and its re-platform to MACH starting in 2011, Best Buy has consistently been years ahead of its competition. This case study is a prime illustration of why MACH leads to more innovation. For example, it was one of the first major U.S. retailers to offer contactless curbside pickup in response to COVID-19. That innovativeness is what has allowed it to go head to head against Amazon and thrive as a retailer in a very difficult retail climate. In this case study, the former Chief Architect of BestBuy.com, Joel Crabb, recounts Best Buy's eCommerce journey in his well-read blog.
Question: What’s the highest praise a retail brand can receive in today’s technology-driven world?
Answer: “Your brand is Amazon-proof.”
Best Buy received that accolade from writer Andria Cheng in a 2018 Forbes magazine article, “Why Best Buy Remains Relevant in the Age of Amazon.” After presenting a litany of statistics directly from the CEO’s 3rd quarter earnings call and providing a list of tangible examples of the brand’s most recent marketing initiatives, she boldly wrapped her story with the proclamation, “Best Buy looks to have made itself Amazon proof.”
Who knows if the praise ever reached Joel Crabb, the visionary IT architect who joined Best Buy in July 2010 and 9 months later disrupted status quo at the then 44-year-old company by spearheading an initiative to move its single vendor on premise technology platform onto the cloud. He shares his version of the 3-year project that transformed BestBuy.com, into a “completely distributed, infinite scaling eCommerce platform” in his 22-post blog series, “A Digital eCommerce Transformation – A Multipart Series.”2
He kicks off the series by establishing that, while the cloud and AWS existed in 2010, non-technology-related enterprises were dismissive of its potential. “At the time, large retailers had not yet awakened to the new reality that a company’s prowess in software might decide its future outcomes.” (Part II)
Best Buy’s first retail store, The Sound of Music, opened St. Paul, MN in 1966. By 2003, the company had over 600 stores in the U.S. and had started expanding into Canada.3 While it launched BestBuy.com in 1998, corporate leadership viewed eCommerce as a “sideline business, a necessary evil.” (Part XIII). By 2010, despite a continued “inability to fathom online shopping,” (Part II), bestbuy.comBestBuy.com had become the “fourth-highest scaling eCommerce site in North America, with revenue approaching $2B.” (Part XXII)
“BestBuy.com was failing and needed help, there was no clear path and no engineering team that owned the site. It had been operated as a dumping ground for external integrator’s code for so long that everyone and no one claimed ownership.”
At the time, the brand’s business teams handled site management, adding new items, changing pricing, removing items from the site, fixing orders, making content, creating sale landing pages, emails, etc., while the IT teams constantly scrambled to maintain stability. ”(Part V) Of course, it didn’t always work – there were outages, caching was slow, and small changes cost a small fortune and took forever, etc. This was standard for retailers at that time. (Part II)
The problem at its core was the architecture of the 10-year-old ATG-based eCommerce platform could no longer support the size and scope of BestBuy.com. And, while everyone knew it, as is typical of large enterprises, organizational silos and political bottlenecks continually prevented buy-in or implementation of an actual rewrite plan that could deliver a robust, single solution. “There were at least three teams who felt they were responsible for rewriting [BestBuy.com]. Additionally, the software development on the ATG platform was spread across multiple divisions, multiple vendors, and multiple countries.” (Part IV)
In March 2011, seven months after Crabb’s hiring, the Chief Architect of his team quit. Crabb says, “I knew the time had come to step up, it was time to put together a comprehensive plan to rewrite [BestBuy.com]. I dropped all my current responsibilities and did what anyone at [BestBuy.com] did when they were pursuing investment capital, made a deck.” (Part VII)
His plan focused on evolving from the current state to the future state of BestBuy.com which required completely rebuilding the site on a modern infrastructure platform deployed in a cloud. (Part III) He presented numerous times, generally receiving the same response, “We’ve heard this pitch before, why should we believe you?” (Part VII) Then, out of nowhere, his opportunity presented itself when the CEO declared his intention to double eCommerce revenue in three years. Crabb was handed $13M and given 18 months to launch his rebuild, simply, he says, because “it was the only plan available.” (Part X)
In Nov 2011, funding for the project came through which allowed Crabb to begin ramping up his team. To acknowledge the restraints put on him, which included the stipulation that “business must remain unaffected by our efforts” (Part III), his plan called for building and transitioning the site in small pieces, starting with the all-important home page and PDP pages.
As he was keenly aware of the importance of “Holiday” to overall retail sales and had seen firsthand the stress it put on the site at the team, he set Nov 2012 as the deadline to achieve two goals. First, to deliver a new browse architecture for BestBuy.com that would “allow fast changes and high scale utilizing the CDN for more caching and isolating all calls to the cloud layer” (Part III) and, second, to pull off a holiday without issues. (Part XV) Accomplishing these goals would validate his vision of moving the entire system to the cloud. (Part III)
He explains his logic was that coupling the front end loosely to the platform would allow the front-end teams to move quickly and change the site content in real-time if necessary – which as he pointed out – is the speed at which the business needed to move. (Part IX)
Over the next three years, Crab managed his team of 200+ engineers to outcomes. “We had to deliver a flexible, maintainable, layered cloud eCommerce platform that scaled infinitely, or we were failures. “ he wrote in a 2020 blog post. “We implemented Product Management and Agile and morphed into a Product Engineering team that brought BestBuy.com into the modern world and did our part in the overall turnaround of the company."4
When Holiday 2012 rolled around, the Cloud Home page and Cloud PDP pages were in place, passing tests and scaling beyond expectations. ”Over the course of Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday, Best Buy had its most successful online holiday ever, as competitor eCommerce sites melted down all around us. Virtually every retailer was down at some point over that time period, but we survived.” (Part XXII)
That win was exactly what Crabb needed to move forward. Over the next 3 years, the brand invested well over $100 million to support the complete transformation of the site to MACH architecture. By 2015, the foundation for the fully automated future that supports brand growth today was in place.
Without it, the brand may have ended up, in Crabb’s opinion, “as another retailer on the trash heap of history.” Instead, in 2014 they became one of the first brands to offer to buy online/pick up in-store and has achieved steady 30% growth online. “With an eCommerce platform that allows for intra-day changes, the business teams have the tools they need to drive growth and make up for lost revenue in the stores.” (Part XXII)
Best Buy’s quick response to COVID-19 crisis is a perfect example of the power of the brand’s adoption of MACH. Within weeks of the pandemic hitting the US, they built and deployed a contactless curbside pickup ordering solution that could meet the increasing demand for home office equipment and kitchen appliances while increasing the safety of employees and customers.5 While other retailers were shutting down across the country, Best Buy was serving the new needs of consumers via BestBuy.com and the Best Buy app, driving revenue, and supporting the country’s economy.
While making Best Buy “Amazon proof,” may not have been part of Crabb’s vision, he acknowledges having the right architecture enables them to respond quickly to change and “achieve both known and unknown outcomes”. As the first eCommerce MACH architecture put in place by a retail brand, it has delivered value year-over-year by enabling Best Buy “to flex, scale, and build new capabilities overnight.”6
1 2018 https://www.forbes.com/sites/andriacheng/2018/08/28/why-best-buy-is-relevant-in-the-age-of-amazon/#4bddc2d71462
2Crabb, Joel. 2017. “A Digital eCommerce Transformation – A Multipart Series” http://joelcrabb.com/?p=334