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Silvia Thom on how the pandemic is changing Zalora: Profiles in Tech

Written by Alice Chia Published on 

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For Zalora’s CTO, AR and VR are reaching a level where they will eventually become a great help to customers in making better decisions regarding sizing and styles.

Silvia Thom never thought she would be chief technology officer one day, and when the opportunity came along in 2019, it felt like a very natural step for her. The year that followed, however, has been anything but normal. COVID-19 transformed customers, the company, and the way it is managed.

Everything started for her in 2013, when she joined Zalora as a senior product manager. Since then, Thom has been building out all the parts of the tech stack together with the team she is currently running. The advantage of knowing the products inside-out, as well as the familiarity with the business processes and stakeholders across the region have helped her grow with the firm.

Thom describes her rise at Zalora as very gradual and organic. “Our business and what we do is so new that a lot of things need to be figured out first-hand, which provides young professionals with a great opportunity to step into big roles at a faster pace as compared to other organizations,” Thom told KrASIA in a recent interview.

Her career began in the music business, as an intern for the record labels Sony Entertainment and JVC Victor Entertainment. After stints in product management and talent scouting, it fascinated her how these companies were crafting superstars. Growing up in the 1990s in Germany, Thom was already heavily into pop music, in particular artists like Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, as well as big female voices such as Mariah Carey or Christina Aguilera. “I think that after the heavy crash of the industry in the early 2000s, it is much harder for them to produce mega stars of this magnitude,” she said.

In 2010, she took on the role as Tokyo-based country manager of SellABand, a crowd-funding platform for music projects. It was there when she realized that the golden age of this industry was over and decided to change gears to do something different. “That was when I switched to product management for software consumer products,” Thom said. She joined Glossybox, a beauty subscription service, as head of product overseeing the tech portfolio across more than 20 markets. “It was essentially my introduction to hyper-growth companies.”

Leader with a vision

Today, Thom is responsible for leading Zalora’s product vision, strategy, and execution across the region. “Our tech strategy is guided by the principle of providing the best experience for our customers and brand partners,” she said. “This is at the core of everything that we develop in-house.”

She stresses that customer focus and empathy are key. “Understanding what people in each of our customer locations are going through during these challenging times is vitally important,” Thom said. Less than a week after the lockdowns were announced, the company launched the Essentials category, providing customers much needed supplies such as hand sanitizers, face masks, and other wellness products.

Thom explains that the launch, which was done in just 72 hours, was a big team effort where the whole company pulled together. “Our commercial teams activated their brand partners and got them on board. My tech team did changes to our onsite experience overnight to cater for these new products and categories and our operations and customer service teams made sure everything went smoothly as soon as orders started to flow in.”

Screenshot of Zalora Essentials.

The essential items were growing in popularity. “Of course, at one point, people start searching more fashionable options for masks and this is where we tapped our network and partners to provide the most wanted assortment, collaborating with local designers to produce visually appealing masks that express individuality or simply match their clothes,” Thom said. Malaysian designer Tom Abang Saufi, for example, created a collection of reusable face masks for Zalora.

The company is maintaining open communication channels with its customers and brand partners equally. It is validating its assumptions and assessing new shifts in consumer needs and demands by using its data. In April, it introduced the analytics tool Trender, as an instrument for brands to capitalize on Zalora’s trade data such as consumer insights, geo segmentation, buying behavior, design intelligence, assortment, and pricing insights.

Consumers are shifting

As people were adhering to safety measures implemented by local governments across the region, they embraced online shopping. Consumers were experimenting and became more comfortable with it. Thom says that demand for fashion has shifted from popular categories like dresses or occasion wear to comfort wear and athleisure, signaling a change in consumption patterns but not in demand. Zalora also saw a rise in demand for home décor and fitness accessories such as yoga mats.

The retailer is working to ensure that it maintains a consistent level of response and support with customers. It is offering extended chats for its customer service, so that they can get in touch with the team at Zalora about anything related to orders, product stocks, or deliveries. “While we are building our chatbot capabilities, which we expect to go live in October, we have a team of full-time employees to manage customer contact via chat, email, voice, and social media channels,” Thom said.

Virtual realities

Any technology that enables a fast and convenient buying experience will for her soon become the norm. This can range from multiple digital payment methods to providing a wider offering of shipping options right to the door steps. She also believes that that AR and VR will reach a level where they will eventually become a great help to customers in making better decisions regarding sizing and styles. “So far, they have mainly been used in a social media environment, but I think very soon, they will become more deeply embedded into the shopping experience of every retailer.”

Thom said that Zalora will be testing AR and VR in all markets it is operating in, but might restrict it to a collaboration with a fashion brand partner of its choice. “We are definitely crafting some plans to do test runs soon. Whether we will launch it on our platform or whether we will do a one-off at an event to test the waters is still to be decided.”

Leading remotely

Thom’s team is spread across several markets in the region, with the majority being based in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Ho Chi Minh. Even before COVID-19, they were already using digital collaborative tools and communication software, such as video calls, digital whiteboards, and chat groups in their day-to-day work. “As such, it was fairly easy for my team to transition to remote working even amidst the pandemic,” she added.

However, Thom said that everyone in her team is missing the in-person socializing and team bonding activities. The long-term impact of the pandemic still remains to be seen, but it has pushed her team to experiment more with other formats of engagement. “For example, a few weeks back, my colleagues and I celebrated our 1-year anniversary. We had a Zoom party and put together a video to showcase our successes and achievements over this past year. It was a wonderful way to reflect and celebrate together, and it definitely brought out a new wave of creativity in some of my team members.”

This article is part of “Profiles in Tech,” a series by KrASIA that highlights the achievements of people who are the driving force behind South and Southeast Asia’s tech startups.

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