Digital disruptions in retail

In this special Transform It Forward mini series, I’m stepping back from the content we’ve produced so far to connect the dots. Over the next few episodes, I’m taking a look back at some key clips from past interviews that share common elements, or discuss similar industries. Today, we’re exploring an industry that’s seen plenty of change over the past few years: the retail industry.

Transform It Forward with Mike Starkey, Robert Gerwig, and Aviva Fink: digital disruptions in retail

So far in the series, we’ve already taken a look at the transportation industry and how it’s evolved in recent years thanks to new and innovative technologies. Next up, I’m reviewing some of the highlights from interviews with Mike Starkey, Chief Information Officer at Christy Sports, Robert Gerwig, Senior Vice President of Distribution at Sweetwater, and Aviva Fink, the Vice President of Growth and Partnerships at Reonomy to take a status check of the retail industry.

Using clips from these interviews as our guide, we’ll be taking a look at the evolution of the retail world over the past few years. Get ready to gain a new perspective on the retail world and where it could be headed in the future.

From in-store to online


Evidently, one of the most obvious changes the retail world saw since the beginning of the pandemic era was a mass exodus from in-person retail shops to exclusively online shopping experiences. 

Of course, online shopping was massive pre-pandemic as well, but in the year 2020, the shift to online shopping as the preferred mode of making purchases was accelerated in a major way.

Mike shared some of the changes and tech upgrades they had to make at Christie Sports to keep up with this revolution. 

“The e-commerce platform was very old, legacy, in-house developed—not a scalable system, not something you could grow e-commerce on. So that was a fairly easy decision to make. Our first 90 days here we were replatforming it, and then on top of that, we were evaluating other systems like our business intelligence tools, our office collaboration tools, the video meetings and so on. These were not hard decisions to make early on, the systems got harder as we moved. But it was pretty easy to identify where the gaps were.”

As Vice President of Growth and Partnerships at Reonomy, a platform that’s looking to revolutionize the commercial real estate industry, Aviva Fink had some fascinating predictions about the future of the retail industry. Despite the major growth of the online shopping world in recent years, Aviva believes there will always be a place for exceptional in-person retail experiences—no matter how advanced our technology becomes.

“I think about the Best Buys and the Apples of the world, and they really have done a great job of building out an experience. When you go into the store, you’re not just going to try on a sweater. You’re going because you want to interact with their product experts. You want to actually touch and feel the technologies. And I think that the retail brands that will retain very strong in-store activities or just see high volumes of visitation will be those that continue to master that and provide that as a differentiator in the experience that they’re offering.”

A great example of the kind of experiential retail Aviva is describing comes from my interview with Robert Gerwig, the Senior Vice President of Distribution at Sweetwater, the largest online retailer of musical instruments and pro audio equipment in the U.S.

“The piece that makes us, I think a little bit unique and it plays into how we ultimately work our supply chain and distribute and ship those products to the customer is that we have a very large percentage of our sales that come through person-to-person interaction. We have sales engineers who are technically trained and really understand music and music instrumentation and the technical components of the music industry. And they spend significant one-on-one time on the phone with customers and coming out of those conversations and, and these customer relationships are often for life.”

Dealing with retail data


A big part of providing this great customer experience Robert mentions is making use of the rich sources of data we have at our fingertips today. As is the case with many other industries today, the retail industry will need to leverage available data in new and creative ways if they hope to stay afloat in this competitive landscape. 

Aviva explained the kind of data that retail players would be wise to leverage as they transform into digital-first organizations.

“I do think it’s becoming kind of table stakes that if you’re trying to be thoughtful and data-driven about your investment decisions, you’re going to be leveraging multiple dimensions of data to understand consumer behaviors, brand performance and site location behaviors. And that includes the mobility data, the transaction data, the demographic data… So I think that those are other data sets that folks are looking at and definitely should be looking at.”

Change management for retail


When it comes to any major industry transformation, change management is one of the most important pieces of the puzzle. After all, to really set a transformation into motion effectively, you need the right people on board the ship to help steer it forward. 

Robert made some great points about change management during our chat, reminding us that at the end of the day, taking care of and appreciating your people will take you far in any business transformation.

“There’s that old saying that the soft things are the hard things… I think in the next 10 years, the world will continue to make advances in artificial intelligence and different modes of transportation and driverless trucks and any number of advances, but I think really the key is that in the middle of all that, people still develop the molecule, people still develop the software, people still write the code. And at some point, if you lose track of the fact that people are behind the technology, people are behind the instruments, people are behind the fulfillment of orders for customers, you will quickly sub-optimize the overall performance and sustainability of that organization… I’ve found that working in multiple industries and with different companies, that a formula that has worked everywhere I’ve been is if there’s a leader in supply chain or leader of a company, if you will commit to taking care of the business and capital and take care of the people, you will be successful.”

I hope you learned something new about the retail industry from this episode and accompanying blog post. I know I felt much more knowledgeable about where the industry could be headed after speaking with Mike, Aviva and Robert.

Key takeaways

  1. The pandemic fundamentally altered the way we interact with brands. Although the online shopping world has seen a massive surge, the experiential element of shopping that can’t be replicated online is still important to consumers. Brands like Apple, Best Buy or Sweetwater which create a personalized, human and sensory experience for customers will succeed. 
  2. Leveraging the right data sets in a post-COVID world is critical. Behaviors have changed, so managing multiple dimensions of data is vital to be thoughtful of your investments. For example, stakeholders in the commercial real estate industry are now leveraging mobility data, demographic data, and transaction data to make more informed investment decisions.
  3. At the end of the day, all transformations come down to change management and relying on people to drive them forward. Companies need to invest in their people and ensure they’re on board with the changes if they hope to see their transformation get off the ground.

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