Wayfair Tech Blog

Two Decades of Wayfair Innovation, Part Two

Model couch

In part one of this two blog series, we presented our first group of top innovations from Wayfair's first two decades. Highlights included the introduction of next-gen online and in-store experiences powered by mixed, augmented, and virtual reality, new and innovative online advertising techniques, and one of our latest efforts, the Automatic Image Description Engine (AIDE).

Now, it is time to introduce the second installment of Wayfair's top 20 innovations, which begins in the third dimension.

Taking 3D in New Directions

11. 3D Product Scanner: It's hard to talk about the extraordinary visual experiences included in the previous post without touching on 3D, which was integral to it. To enable the best 3D images, we created a proprietary capture rig, a system made up of a large turntable with an array of cameras configured to automatically capture photos of a product such as a chair to produce a 3D model. At the press of a button, as the turntable rotated, the series of cameras would take photos, from which we produced a 3D image. We even began offering our suppliers an opportunity to use the device for their items.

12. 3D Ads: When search engines and product listing ads began supporting 3D content, Wayfair did what it always does. We dove right in. Wayfair was one of the first to work with Google and Microsoft (Bing) to run 3D ads, and we didn't stop there. When platforms like Facebook also began to support 3D posts in 2018, we quickly brought our 3D-model library of furniture and décor to the social realm, where entirely new audiences had the opportunity to check it out for themselves.

13. 3D Commerce: As 3D content became more widespread, it was inevitable that companies would begin exchanging these files. At the time, there were no 3D standards in the industry, which meant every company was working in its own silos and had its own definition. This led to significant interoperability issues (think about Ad systems supporting 3D content from multiple retailers in the previous example). To deliver consumers a consistent experience using 3D, Wayfair was a driving force in establishing The Khronos 3D Commerce Working Group, which included companies such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Target, Ikea, Amazon, and more. Still active today, the group is committed to removing the barriers to publishing 3D content in e-commerce at scale. 

14. Wayfair's 3D API: The "inner developer" inside all of us wanted to support the 3D developer ecosystem. We wanted to let game and application developers focus on their experiences versus spending time and money to create their content. Using an open-source library approach, we put the word out that any developer needing to include 3D furniture in the experiences they were building could count on Wayfair to provide them with the necessary content - available for free over an API.  

Innovating Web Performance

15. OS Tungsten JS: It's not unusual for online retailers offering massive product catalogs to a growing customer base to experience a decline in website performance, especially during peak shopping seasons. But Wayfair is not like most businesses. At the time (in 2014), when web pages changed state (if a customer scrolled down, changed a search filter, etc.), the HTML had to re-render most of the DOM. Our team created a Javascript framework that would intelligently look at what elements on the page needed to be re-rendered and which did not. By only focusing on the former, the browser could execute page changes faster and more smoothly which increased the site's performance dramatically.

16. Dynamic Edge Caching: In the 2004 to 2006 timeframe, retail sites struggled with edge cache performance due to the constant changes in price and stock availability. We turned to Akamai, a leading content delivery network services provider for media and software delivery, to push out a dynamic caching system, something no one else was doing at the time. The system would let us set a one-week time to live on our pages, but as triggering events occurred (e.g., a price change), we could dynamically purge the old pricing data in the background. As a result, we could keep prices current. At the same time, since data wasn't going back into our system, we were able to simplify our back-end system and eliminate the need for us to add database capacity for a few years.

17. Super Browse: Over a period from 2008 to 2010, we developed a new faceted search system called Super Browse. At a high level, faceted search allows customers to narrow down search results using filters such as color, size, price, etc. This is imperative for customers searching through an extensive catalog of products featuring numerous categories with really rich taxonomies. Wayfair needed to become a pioneer in faceted search to provide customers with different ways to drill down and quickly find what they wanted. The answer was Super Browse. 

18. Feature Knob: There were times when our growing engineering teams would introduce new features. The initial strategy was to roll these and hope for the best, which became more disruptive as we grew. It also inspired the 2010 launch of Feature Knobs. This system gave us a way to soft launch new features and dial them up or down as needed. Essentially, with Feature Knobs, we could assign specific criteria to control who could access a new feature so, for example, only those with an internal IP address could access a specific feature. From there, we could turn up or turn down the percentage of traffic seeing and using the feature. If it performed well, we could expose it to a larger percentage of traffic. This allowed us to maintain our innovative pace while also having a much stronger risk tolerance.

Building a Winning Team

19. Wayfair Labs Program: One way to build the best team is to strive to find the right people and assess the right fit as best as you can. Another way was to invest in developing junior talent - we created Wayfair Labs, a program that all early-stage engineers and campus hires would go through. Over three months, the group would work on challenging mock projects and towards the end, determine what part of the company would be best for each candidate in the program. When people were hired out of Wayfair Labs and into a full-time role, we ensured they were set up for success in their full-time roles. This program also buffered some of the areas where our engineers lacked specific skills early in their careers, and it became a massive success for the company at a time when our growth was skyrocketing.

Next-Generation Warehouse Management Systems

20. Nexus: We end with one of our most recent innovations, Nexus. Nexus is Wayfair's new homegrown warehouse management system (WMS) that runs all of our 18 fulfillment centers (FCs) and features an innovative user experience that empowers teams to work efficiently. Currently, Nexus supports 8,000 unique users, 45 individual workflows, and over the first half of 2022, handled 124 million scans. Just recently, the Wayfair Fulfillment Network team celebrated the final migration to Nexus, culminating a four-year effort where we changed the engines in mid-flight while adding new FCs to our network.

The previous WMS offering paired repetitive and confusing menu navigation with 1980s-era RF devices that lacked touch screens and couldn't provide the connection needed between physical and digital interactions. Now we have Nexus, a mobile Android app, which was the first to implement a mobile device management solution and first Wayfair separately deployable backend application. Nexus offers the flexibility required for delivering new growth-enabling capabilities for suppliers and Wayfair as a whole in an increasingly complex, omnichannel supply chain landscape.

Naturally, it's impossible to include all of the innovative projects that helped Wayfair transform the online retail shopping experience. We’ve had an exciting and innovative first 20 years, and we look forward to developing the technologies that will help define our next 20 years!