I recently had the opportunity and privilege to attend NRFtech 2019 in San Francisco. It's an annual event comprised of primarily retail technology leaders who convene to network, learn, and be inspired. I've been part of this community for more than 15 years — going back to my days at AMR Research where I collaborated with the NRF CIO Council to develop the annual Retail IT Budget Study — and this year's gathering did not disappoint.
While the number one business and technology initiative is digital transformation, the following key takeaways will help ensure technology leaders take a driver's seat in effectively moving their organizations from strategy to execution.
An omni-tude is required for omni-channel
The concept of omni-channel has been dominating the industry since the term was coined by Leslie Hand from IDC more than a decade ago. One of the biggest barriers to success, however, has been the significant organizational change required. Omni-channel must be in the cultural DNA. Mary Beth Laughton, EVP of Omni Retail at Sephora, shared how the health and beauty brand is breaking down the historical silos to fulfill its omni mission: “(We) put our client at the center and enable her to shop and engage whenever, wherever, and however she wants with Sephora.” Why is this critical? Well, omni-channel shoppers at Sephora are 3.4x more invested than a single channel shopper. This is made possible in large part due to the acknowledgment of interdependencies the exists across functions, and instilling an “omni-tude” that is pervasive throughout the culture.
Check-in is the new check-out
There was overwhelming agreement that the physical store is amidst a massive transformation. What brought this to life for me was when I asked a panel comprised of CIOs from REI, Gap, and Circle K what technology investment will have the most meaningful impact within the four walls of the store. The passionate consensus among the panelists was that mobile, in the context of empowering store associates, will change the brick-and-mortar paradigm. Un-tethering store associates from the cash wrap shifts the focus from check-out, which is about speed and efficiency, to check-in, which is about engagement and service. This arms store associates with the tools needed to approach shoppers early in the process and create a personalized experience. But keep in mind that this is as much of a change in operating philosophy as it is a change in technology.
Strategy is a team sport
We all know that the role of the retail CIO has evolved over the last 20 years. Particularly with digital transformation currently sweeping the industry, the charter has moved from keeping the lights on to business partner and change agent. Chris Putur, CIO of REI, declared that strategy today is a team sport that requires her to:
Be a storyteller and educator: Partner with the business to envision the art of possible while grounding the organization in reality
Speak the language of the business: The technology leader now has a seat at the table, so it's imperative to speak in terms of business outcomes and solving customer problems
Drive agility: Incremental capabilities — delivered quickly — are critical to show value
Shopping in the future will feel like stealing
I first heard this phrase from Nathalie Belanger — former VP of Ecommerce at Reitmans — about 10 years ago. While I loved the notion, it always felt so far away. After the panel on autonomous check-out it became apparent that we are on the cusp of wider-spread adoption. Daniel Eckert, SVP of Walmart Services and Digital Acceleration, spoke about the need to breakdown friction in the shopping process. For Walmart, the two biggest friction points between browsing and buying in the physical store have been 1) difficulty finding the product, and 2) waiting in the check-out line. The Walmart app, with Walmart Pay digital wallet nested within, was designed to solve these problems and streamline the shopping experience. With increasingly rising consumer expectations, tech companies like Zippin and Grabango are offering autonomous check-out solutions for retailers that likely don't have the same resources as Walmart.
Equality should layer on top of existing motion
Salesforce's Molly Ford, Senior Director of Equality, delivered an inspiring keynote focused on how a culture of inclusion and workplace diversity positively impacts retail technology teams. She shared how Salesforce, one of the world's leading companies in workforce equality, develops and grows diverse and productive technology workforces. What struck me as someone who joined the company three years ago via acquisition is how we foster an inclusive and collaborative environment that feels both genuine and natural. It makes sense now. As Molly puts it, our culture encourages different voices to be heard by looking at ALL decisions through the lens of equal opportunity and inclusion.
As the buzz of NRFtech continues to permeate, I am reminded of this retail renaissance and how we can all play a role in transformation, innovation, agility, and equality.
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