Technology-Key Partner in the Retail Journey

Rob Schmults SVP, e-commerce and CRM, Talbots
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Rob Schmults SVP, e-commerce and CRM, Talbots

Retailers have to integrate data across the retail enterprise to have a 360-degree view of the customer, but it’s not an easy thing to do. What are your thoughts on getting this act right?

You need to deconstruct what might look like a single giant problem or project into smaller, more readily consumable parts. That’s generally a good idea with any large initiative but it is especially useful in this area. Among other benefits it allows you to start to unlock partial value earlier vs. waiting for the whole. And it’s a way to be able to start to harvest learnings more quickly and feed them back into the overall effort. Not simply talking systems or technology learnings, but learnings around what data is most valuable in reality vs. in theory, how your associates are actually using the data, etc. So you get a lot smarter on the end use before you have completely locked into the approach.That’s just not possible if you try to do everything in one big bang roll-out.

Changing consumer expectations are intersecting with a confluence of cloud computing, analytics, social, business and mobile to fundamentally reshape commerce, with huge implications for retailers. What have you done to successfully run a business in the midst of rising tech expectations?

It may sound trite or even old fashioned, but it is still all about people. The way you get those intersections right, the way you learn and evolve, is by having the right people surrounded by the right culture and structures. And I am not talking just a select group of people in some centralized “omnichannel” or analytics group. For example, are your store associates set up for success? Are you supporting them with the data and tools they need to be successful? Are their incentive structures aligned to succeed in the face of the forces you mentioned? On that last point, better organizational structure, incentives, and culture is much more important than systems and tools. And for many retailers it is probably a much harder task. Even rudimentary tools and imperfect data can unlock some impressive results if the incentives, culture, and organization are lined up correctly. But the inverse is not true. The best systems and tools will fail in the face of misaligned incentives and culture.

  Even the best systems and tools will fail in the face of misaligned incentives and culture 

Your thoughts on how technology is revolutionizing some of the following segments essential for a retailers' success:

a) Reporting and Analytics

One big unlock around reporting and analytics is accessibility. This comes in multiple forms. For example, it is getting easier to pull data from disparate sources and merge them into a common repository. I said “easier” rather than “easy”—so it’s a journey in the right direction. And data merging is a big deal if you hope to get better visibility into what’s happening to your business across the enterprise. Data is also getting more consumable by business resources. The front-end of most data platforms and solutions have become far more user-friendly and allow business user to abstract away unnecessary complexity. This is greatly expanding breadth of who can work in these tools as well as what they are able to perform. And it helps in the move from data to actionable insights. A third example is speed. You can crunch through data so much more quickly. That’s essential as retailer’s internal appetite for insights and learnings keeps growing at an accelerated rate.

b) E-commerce (B2C, B2B, Mobile Commerce)

There is course a lot going on around e-commerce in the form of digital in store, payments, loyalty. One area of sea change I’m particularly interested in is the move of personalization beyond the website. To be able to go out and not just find the right customers and prospects, but to also be able to show them increasingly tailored messages and offerings is pretty powerful. And it’s not limited to online marketing. Traditional forms of marketing like direct mail are more and more responsive and flexible. This ability to create relevance in marketing is a logical extension of what retail has always been about: matching the right product at the right price with the right customer. Good for the retailer and good for the customer. But it also means retailers are going to spend more time getting not just messaging, but merchandising right in places they traditionally haven’t. They are going to need to look more and more beyond the confines of their store and web site.

c) Core Operations (Store operations, merchandising, Infrastructure)

For core operations, omnichannel has had a cascading impact. At first retailers saw it as a way to get better efficiencies from their inventory. Free it from the constraints of geography and its velocity goes up. But it also set off a domino effect that’s still playing out. So org structures had to follow. So did channel-centric thinking around customers and customer data. Policies: from returns to who can access what data.

Managing Operations

Product insights, testing, and planning. There’s a whole rethinking of how we do things going on. It needed to happen either way, but omnichannel shone a light on it in a way that’s making it incredibly obvious to most retailers. By providing the impetus for all these changes, omnichannel is proving much more far reaching and impactful than e-commerce on its own ever was.

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