Up Close is Sourcing Journal’s regular check-in with industry executives to get their take on topics ranging from personal style to their company’s latest moves. In this Q&A, Joel Rampoldt, managing director in the retail practice at AlixPartners, discusses retail’s Covid-era digital advances and why fashion needs to prepare for post-pandemic dressing up.
Name: Joel Rampoldt
Title: managing director in the retail practice
Which other industry has the best handle on the supply chain? What can apparel learn?
The automotive industry has a very sophisticated relationship with its supply chain. It’s an industry that requires thousands of suppliers to supply each single end product and an industry that over time has consolidated from hundreds of big players to just dozens. It’s also an industry that embraced process control and cost control early on. And, of course, it’s an industry that sells fashion—”rolling fashion.”
I think the apparel industry, and the retail industry in general, could learn lots of things not just from the auto industry but also from other industries—from the consumer products industry to the tech industry to the financial services industry and beyond. And I think those lessons include things like a relentless focus on operations, a big focus on cash, an ability to truly integrate digital tools into your operations, and an ability to react quickly to fast changing consumer priorities.
How would you describe yourself as a consumer?
I would describe myself as a more and more “self-curated” consumer. For some categories of goods, for example fashion, I’m willing to search for exactly what I want, and I like to do business with businesses that bring me something new. For many other categories, I’m a hard-core convenience shopper, almost an “auto-replenishment” customer. The pandemic has accelerated the already well along digital transformation of consumers by years, allowing and even forcing more consumers than ever to shop online, which, in turn, has also allowed them to curate for themselves their own shopping environments. For retailers, this presents tremendous challenges, especially: How do you replicate the incredibly strong “basket-building” potential of stores—with visual merchandising, physical displays and helpful sales associates—on phone screens?
As a consumer, what does it take to win your loyalty?
Again, I’m probably like most other consumers today: I’m loyal to banners and brands that provide me with what I view as true value for the money, that provide me with a seamless omnichannel experience—which today more and more includes reengineering your retail stores to double as distribution centers and providing things like curbside pickup—and that, of course, provide me with products that at least occasionally “surprise and delight” me. The retail industry has always had a high bar to reach, and that bar is ever higher now because of the pandemic and attendant economic issues. However, I think the industry is very much up to the task!
What’s your typical work uniform?
In a short time, my work uniform has gone from suit and tie, to suit and no tie, to flannels or chinos plus a sport coat. Frankly, I’m looking forward to having a reason to put on a tie again—once we’re on the other side of the pandemic.
Which fashion era is your favorite?
While fashion changes constantly, style is permanent. I’m a big believer that if you know what looks good on you, and stick with that, you don’t have to be blown by the winds of fads.
Who’s your style icon?
I like to think I’m my own man, style wise, but I will admit to having a picture of Gary Cooper from “The Fountainhead” hanging in my closet.
What’s the best decision your company has made in the last year?
Speaking strictly for myself, I’d say our best decision at AlixPartners was to act very fast and then double down on coming up with ways to help our clients, including many at all levels of the retail and supply chain industries, weather the pandemic—both from a financial point of view and a health and safety point of view. We proactively brought forth programs and protocols that helped companies survive—and, in some cases, thrive, and we continue to do that. I think all of us at AlixPartners are rightfully proud of our efforts.
How would you describe your corporate culture?
Our tagline at AlixPartners is “When It Really Matters,” which I think is a good indicator of at least part of our corporate culture. We are very results-oriented. Clients hire us when they truly want to get things done, not just when they want a report, which then gets put on a shelf to collect dust. At the same time, though, we’re a firm that for 40 years now has built a culture that values things like collaboration and integrity at very, very high levels. It’s a unique culture, and we even test new hires to make sure they’ll be a fit to it.
What can companies learn from Covid-19?
Probably the most important thing is the importance of having agility—true agility. That starts with breaking down functional silos and it continues on to things like truly harnessing data to come up with insights into what customers will want tomorrow, not just what they wanted yesterday. And those steps can even lead to all new ways of doing business—not just small, incremental improvements. As an example, toward the end of last year, we polled our retail clients, and 77 percent said they’d deployed digital tools that they’d never used before, and 30 percent said they are currently developing three-quarters of their sales lines using digital tools. That was up from 10 percent using digital tools to develop just 5 percent of their lines eight months earlier. The question is, can companies keep up that kind of progress throughout 2021, and after the pandemic is fully behind us? I think the smart companies will.
What should be the apparel industry’s top priority now?
As the pandemic eases, be ready to capitalize on consumers’ pent-up desire to get dressed and look good again. I think it’ll be time for us to put the sweatpants away for a while and look sharp.
What keeps you up at night?
There are so many challenges—comps, cash flow, employee safety—and in the type of work we do at AlixPartners, we feel our clients’ challenges viscerally.
What makes you most optimistic?
The retail industry has always been an industry populated by optimists, and I’m certainly one of them. I think we’re going to see a new dynamism unleashed in our economy in ways we can’t even conceive of today. It’s going to be fun to watch. In five years, I think we’ll be looking at new businesses and concepts and saying, “They thought that up while they were in quarantine. Remember that year?”
Tell us about your company’s latest product introduction:
We have developed an index, called Agility EQ, that provides a methodology to define, measure and improve clients’ ability to react to consumers’ changing needs, nimbly and with speed. Everybody talks about agility, but we are working with clients to put a lot more rigor around what they need to do, or stop doing, to become more nimble. For example, a typical first step toward achieving agility is to obliterate needless silos. There are silos everywhere—functional, channel, geographic. Breaking them down lets you create aligned incentives, an integrated team, harmonized plans and accelerated decisions.