E-Commerce Platform FiftyOne: A Bridge Between Payment Services And Merchants

Michael DeSimone, FiftyOneJust before holiday season kickoff last month, MasterCard tapped FiftyOne Global Ecommerce to provide exclusive online shopping offers from major U.S. retailers to the credit card company’s international users. These non-U.S. MasterCard cardholders have been able to find and redeem discounts of up to 30% off on merchandise and complete orders using local currency – without having to figure out currency conversions or face import levies.

FiftyOne has retail affiliations with Aéropostale, Barneys New York, Bloomingdale’s, Gilt Groupe, J.Crew, Macy’s and others. “Fueled by growing emerging economies, broadband penetration and access to information, consumers all over the world have developed a ‘global mindset’ with vast brand recognition and a desire to buy these brands, whenever and wherever,” said Geoff Iddison, Group Executive, Global E-commerce at MasterCard, in a statement.

We spoke with FiftyOne CEO Michael DeSimone about the company’s position in between payment providers and retailers and how data informs those relationships.

AdExchanger: FiftyOne is not a typical e-commerce company. How do you describe it and what’s the business model?

MICHAEL DESIMONE: FiftyOne is a technology platform that connects to retailers’ websites and opens up markets outside their home area. We work with major U.S. retailers like Macy’s, Williams Sonoma, J. Crew, The Gap. We are paid to plug in to their e-commerce platforms and then enable sales through a variety of services that are delivered by technology to about 103 different countries currently.

Are the companies you work with collaborators or are they customers?

Let’s be clear about the difference between a FiftyOne partner and a FiftyOne customer. One of the big customers we just launched with is Neiman Marcus. That retailer and others like them are connected to our platform. We provide the system that enables them to reach about two billion qualified consumers in the countries that we’re servicing.

A partner helps us either enhance or improve our technology or help our merchants sell more. From that standpoint, MasterCard and PayPal are partners. We’ve done some work with American Express. While we get paid for the services we do for customers, our partners constitute mutually beneficial marketing programs. The payment partnership in particular is fantastic for us. Because it’s a big part of what we’re doing, we’re doing payments in different currencies and in different payment types than most U.S. retailers accept.  Obviously, the payment service operators like MasterCard, PayPal and Amex are all very interested in this because anything that drives payment volumes is obviously good for them. And for us, of course.

Why does a Neiman Marcus or a Macy’s – or a MasterCard or a PayPal, for that matter – need a FiftyOne? Don’t they have their own payment systems?

Before us, Macy’s was only selling in the U.S. I don’t want to discount their ability to do so, but they chose to use us. Nieman’s chose to use us; Nordstrom’s chose to use us. On the transaction, we are the merchant of record. What MasterCard and PayPal are doing and what they like about us is we have access to all of these 150 brands that we work with that we are concentrating on a single point, which the bulk of their international transactions are flowing through one merchant account. By working with us, companies can bring their cardholders special promotions.

But in essence, through a single partnership with us, payment services companies can have access to the international sales capabilities through out network of merchants. That’s more than simply having a capability to switch on a set of pipes.

Facebook Gifts was rolled out recently. Do you provide any special social media integrations?

Our customers come to us for help in navigating international markets. Things like mobile and social are increasingly part of driving traffic from everywhere. But when people say “social,” they still often mean “Facebook.” However, the reality is that in many markets, Facebook does not dominate the social scene. It’s catching up on a lot, but some markets are very specific and very different, particularly in Asia. We’ve actually put together a whole team of international marketing experts that put together marketing plans for our retailers including social. Primarily, most of our clients use social media to announce an expansion in a new country or to communicate with people in an area they’re becoming immersed in.

Our ability to directly drive sales by social for our retailers single-handedly wouldn’t be that great. By joining forces with a range of marketers and payment providers, and leveraging their presence and their brand, a lot of our guys have very well-developed social marketing models that they are following on different social media networks. The goal really is to be able to help them optimize that for international and in helping them to understand when is it different and how do I have to approach things differently when it’s not the same way I might approach Facebook in the U.S.

How do you approach the use of data? Are you able to compile actionable information for clients as to consumers’ shopping habits?

We’re extremely careful as you can imagine with complying with privacy. Any of the marketing that we’re doing, either directly or on behalf of our retailers where we’re reaching out to consumers, follows all of the different regulations within different countries. We’re Safe Harbor Compliant with the E.U., which is a great model for companies looking at managing privacy across multiple borders. Beyond that, we actually have a pretty good success rate with people actually expressly giving us permission to market either directly and also giving our retailers permission to market as well.

The ability to leverage our data to be able to identify where the pockets of opportunity are, is important to us. We can tell what someone is selling, to whom, from where, when, and how can they can optimize the sales data, the conversion, lifetime value, all of those things. That’s all data that sits inside those uploads that we have and we’re analyzing and crunching and then going back to our retailers with a great deal of intelligence.

One of our big pushes going in to 2013 involves developing deeper client marketing strategy offerings. The question we’re attempting to understand is how does a retailer market, not just how do they advertise? In other words, how does a retailer select affiliates that are appropriate for the type of merchandise that they sell? What brands should they feature when they’re doing those types of things? That is something that we’re investing heavily in on the technology side. Because of where we sit in the transaction, we do have a view of the consumer across tons of transactions that might be from different retailers and makes us able to draw instances from that.

The holiday shopping season has begun strongly, particularly in terms of e-commerce and Cyber Monday. What have you seen so far and what are the expectations?

This holiday season is off to a screaming start or at least a screaming middle I guess we’re kind of in. We just hit peak. Our peak for incoming orders is very much like what you see in U.S. retailers. Black Friday was our biggest day of the year. It was what we expected. We have one more peak around the 10th of December, which is when delivery in time for Christmas cut-offs. Canada is our latest shipping deadline obviously because we can truck that stuff in to Canada and get there fairly quickly. Like a lot of U.S. retailers, we tend to see another big spike again in January, with people spending gift card money and then it really quiets down in February.

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