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Up Close: In Conversation with SAP’s Robin Barrett Wilson

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, Robin Barrett Wilson, industry executive advisor—fashion at software firm SAP, discusses what food can teach fashion about forecasting and how her company is helping retailers manage returns.

Robin Barrett Wilson SAPName: Robin Barrett Wilson

Title: Industry executive advisor – fashion

Company: SAP

Which other industry has the best handle on the supply chain?

The two industries that come to mind are the food industry and life sciences, specifically pharmaceuticals. Due to government requirements, both industries have embraced technology and innovation to improve tracking and transparency in the supply chain. They are using advanced technologies like blockchain and AI to better track and forecast supply chain needs. These technologies also assist with agility by giving companies the ability to identify disruptions in the supply chain and then pivot, adjusting where they source raw goods and switching production as needed.

What can apparel learn?

Since Covid-19, customers have been demanding more transparency from the brands they support. Understanding where raw materials come from, who is making the designs, whether those individuals are treated fairly—including fair wages and safe working environments—are all topics customers are increasingly interested in. Sustainable practices are also top of mind for today’s consumer.

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Although the apparel industry doesn’t require a standard product label, like the food industry does, establishing a standard would serve apparel brands well in today’s market. Adopting technologies such as blockchain and artificial intelligence can greatly assist the apparel industry in tracking the entire supply chain process and provide companies with the reports needed to better inform their customers in all these areas.

How would you describe yourself as a consumer?

Because I come from the industry, I am an informed consumer. If I am presented with a new brand, I research the company, the founders, how the product is produced, the type of fabrics used, etc. I prefer to invest in products that will stand the test of time as that is kinder to the environment. If possible, I choose products that are sustainable.

As a consumer, what does it take to win your loyalty?

Great customer service is at the top of the list for inspiring my loyalty to a brand. For example, does the brand know me and understand my preferences? Can I talk to a brand representative if I have a question or an issue? My favorite brands are those that I hear from regularly and include a personal touch.

What’s your typical work (or weekend) uniform?

When I am not traveling, I work from my home office in Florida. My typical work attire includes a top or blouse that presents well on Zoom, since I have lots of video calls during the day. When I am with a client, it really depends on the brand and how formal they are. For example, if I am visiting Levi’s, I will wear the brand’s clothing.

Which fashion era is your favorite?

The Roaring Twenties. From the less formal, looser fitting clothing to the two-toned shoes, the era embraced a new sense of freedom and independence that was reflected in both women’s and men’s clothing.

Who’s your style icon?

There are so many, and for many different reasons, I couldn’t just name one.

What’s the best decision your company has made in the last year?

In October 2020, our CEO Christian Klein made a bold move to help customers move to the cloud. In January, we redoubled that effort by offering a new subscription service, Rise with SAP, which as the Wall Street Journal stated is “aimed at helping companies get more value out of making the switch.”

“The key issue is making sustainability profitable, and profitability sustainable.”

How would you describe your corporate culture?

Positive and supportive. I’ve been with the company for a little over two years and find the environment to be very motivating. There is lots of support from across the entire organization in helping employees meet their goals as well as support a work-life balance.

What can companies learn from Covid-19?

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, companies quickly ramped up online services to meet consumer demand and enable remote work. As our CEO told WSJ, “Customers now acknowledge that they cannot manage their companies within four walls. What we have seen in the pandemic is that our customers want to transform—they need to transform.”

What should be the apparel industry’s top priority now?

According to a recent Oxford Economics study, sustainability is top of mind in most companies’ mission or purpose statement, but few have the visibility and processes in place across the supply chain to achieve these goals today.

The key issue is making sustainability profitable, and profitability sustainable. Starting in 2009, SAP focused on integrating sustainability as a business process into the company’s lines of business and is now number one in the software sector across global rankings such as the Dow Jones Sustainability Index and more. Companies such as Allbirds, Adidas and H&M, to name just a few, are using our software to move to circular consumer products in footwear and clothing.

Tell us about your company’s latest product introduction.

This month, SAP introduced Intelligent Returns Management, a tool designed to help companies address the challenges around product returns, which grew significantly amidst the pandemic. Retailers must oversee the management of returned stock and processes for issuing refunds, all while ensuring minimal environmental and monetary impact.

SAP’s solution tracks and manages the movement of the return from a customer’s hands to warehouse processing using AI-driven routing and dispositioning. Intelligent Returns Management improves the return process across the supply chain by offering optimal return options for customers and providing increased visibility into the end-to-end process for companies.