Playing to Win: An Interview With Play.com’s Francesco de Marchis

“Right now, I’m developing so much stuff in a very short time, and sometimes you have to cut corners. You don’t like it, but sometimes you have to cut corners,” Francesco de Marchis tells ClickZ’s sister publication, Computing.

It’s a surprisingly frank admission by the Play.com CIO. A year on from the British e-retailer’s buyout by Japanese online behemoth Rakuten, de Marchis remains refreshingly candid about the realities of meeting project deadlines during fraught crunch periods. The key, he says, is knowing when coding best practice can be abandoned without causing serious problems down the line.

“At the end of the day, [Rakuten doesn’t] care how I deliver the project, but we know that if we have written ‘spaghetti code,’ it’s going to haunt us later,” says de Marchis.

The project in question is to overhaul Play.com’s website structure in line with Rakuten’s in-house models. The revamp was supposed to go live this summer, but an autumn launch is now looking more likely.

De Marchis says the changes will underline a marketplace philosophy at Play.com that is far superior to that of its closest rival. “Amazon has the tendency to invite you as a seller, and let you build a market,” says de Marchis. “As soon as you find a good market, and start selling a specific product very well, they jump in the market and sell the same product, and start selling it 10-15 percent cheaper. And they usually don’t work to educate the seller at all. They just say, ‘Here’s what you have to do – that’s it.'”

After the revamp, those looking to sell through Play.com will be able to build customized market mini-sites.

“We’ve built a lot of user interface tools, with heavy use of Ajax [Asynchronous JavaScript and XML], because that is going to give [sellers] the flexibility for drag and drop, and moving around components,” says de Marchis.

Web content management solutions from Sitecore are also being used, but “stretched heavily,” says de Marchis, in their capabilities. “We prebuild slots with functionalities, but give them to individual sellers and let them change them if they want to,” he says.

To achieve this, Play.com splits its IT development workforce between four offices. The U.K. offices in Cambridge and Bristol handle a small amount of coding, their main focus being customer service. The main bulk of coding is outsourced to developers in India and Romania. De Marchis is keen to point out that outsourced staff are treated like “normal employees,” saying they work much better because they feel they are part of the Rakuten empire.

Despite its absorption into Rakuten, Play.com is still immensely proud of its Cambridge startup heritage. It’s a “geek company” pedigree it shares with close neighbour Autonomy, which still provides data solutions for search, personalization, and categorization across Play.com’s website.

“We still have a relationship [with Autonomy], and are the guinea pig for their new technology. But that’s a good relationship from our perspective; we know their products work,” he says.

A slightly less amiable relationship, however, has been between Play.com and HM Revenue & Customs. As of April 2012, the low value consignment relief law that covered imports from the Channel Islands has been removed by the Treasury. Already, says de Marchis, Play.com has taken a considerable hit.

“It hurt brutally,” de Marchis admits. “Having Rakuten behind us helped. A lot of other companies would have been forced to move away or shut down the business. We didn’t shut down in Jersey, but we’re considering other options. We didn’t need to increase the price – we didn’t want customers to feel the pain for that, so we took the hit. Sometimes we’re selling at a loss, to be honest.”

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De Marchis says that Play.com is working with the government in Jersey and in the U.K. in order to come to a further arrangement.

“The UK government sees it as closing a loophole, but the Jersey government has to work out if they want to work with us or not on this one, because right now we’re doing 70 percent of the Jersey post business,” he says.

“So if we shut down, the Jersey Post is going to be heavily impacted. So now the question is: are they going to work with us, yes or no?” adds de Marchis, with more than a hint of a threat.

“So one strategy is that we find an agreement and reduce the overall cost for us, or we find a different way of doing the shipping – maybe find a better partner, and leave Jersey. But the last thing we want is to have the customer pay for it – that makes no sense for us.”

There’s a feeling that the success of Play.com’s redesign will be a critical factor in the site’s fortunes moving forward. Aside from the customizable marketplace designs, de Marchis says that Play.com intends to jump on another increasingly popular tech bandwagon: e-wallets.

“Rakuten already has a strong background in e-wallets,” he says. “They were the first in Japan to use mobile phones for paying with a chip, so now they’re implementing their own e-wallet that works with major banks and credit cards.”

As the Japanese e-commerce giant also owns its own bank, the transition should be particularly smooth, he says.

Integrating with other e-wallets, and being designed to work around one unique ID built into the chip, Play.com’s hardware solution will mean customers won’t need to go through awkward sign-in procedures.

“The ID will be in the chip. It will basically make life easier, so you can browse to Play.com and buy instantly from us,” says de Marchis.

The technology is currently being tested by Rakuten in Japan, but de Marchis expects it to migrate to Play.com in the very near future.

“That’ll be a big plus, because right now all the e-wallets are basically self-contained by the likes of PayPal,” says de Marchis. “There is no interoperability. But with this one you’ll be able to say, ‘I don’t care which bank you have, I’m going to accept everything.'”

Rakuten bought the technology from Sony, explains de Marchis. “Sony originally created it by working in partnership with Rakuten, and then they sold to Rakuten. So now Rakuten has an entire company that does this chip on mobile.”

The deal was a savvy move by Rakuten and may turn out to be a hugely important string to the company’s bow as it attempts to emerge from a tough period of transition.

 

This article was originally published on http://www.computing.co.uk/ctg/interview/2201586/playing-to-win-an-interview-with-playcoms-francesco-de-marchis.

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