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Op-Ed: New-Skills to Skirt the Old Ways of Retail

One of the systemic challenges for our industry today is that we have a surplus of similar companies, employing similar people, with similar educational backgrounds, coming up with similar ideas, producing similar things, with similar prices and similar quality.

Consumers have evolved and are fully empowered by digital technologies to take control of the retail experience, while behind the scenes most of our industry has been woefully slow to react. We take too long to develop product, too long to make decisions, too long to source the product and too long to get it from factory to distribution center or store.

The retailers that are taking all that time are losing—or have already lost—their customer’s attention.

Most of our businesses are still structured for a pre-2007, pre-iPhone world with hugely siloed structures working in a highly linear and lengthy product creation process. We’re stuck there, in many cases, because we lack the skills to do anything different.

Most retailers are run predominantly by merchants (merchant princes!) or financial folks, many of whom lack the capability or will to react or change direction quickly, or to proactively disrupt their own landscape to better engage customers because they are shackled by the old metrics of monthly comps and quarterly results.

The exceptions to this, those retailers who are investing heavily in omnichannel engagement, digital strategies, creative logistics and data driven decision making, may also be struggling financially, but their investments and sense of urgency give them much better odds for survival, perhaps even success.

Today, more than ever, we need entrepreneurial thinking throughout our retail organizations from management to product development, from sourcing to the retail floor, from finance to IT. We need decisiveness, a bias toward action. We need to nurture ideas throughout our organizations, discuss them, test them, and not be upset or worried when some do not work. They won’t all work, but that actually increases the need to keep the pipeline of new ideas full, to keep testing them, tweaking them and fully developing the best ones.

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From the top down, we need to foster a culture of smart risk-taking where we are not afraid of failure. Entrepreneurs learn a lot more quickly from failing than they ever do from succeeding.

Just as the consumer has mastered new technologies to take the control of their retail experience away from the retailer, there are a host of new technologies available that can put retailers back in the game of controlling their own destiny. But, they require some very different skills than we have in most of today’s organizations.

Retail analytics tools and the sheer amount of data being collected today are staggering, but do companies have the data scientists necessary to make sense of what that mass of data means? How will your company turn that data into actionable information that captures and retains customers’ attention and drives business objectives?

RFID technologies can enable true omnichannel experiences for customers, optimize inventory management, even contribute to loss-prevention, but does your company have the logistics expertise to deliver on those promises?

A number of major retailers have started recruiting logistics executives and senior data executives from Amazon, which is poised to become the largest seller of clothing in the U.S. by June 2017.

Today, 3-D virtual product development technologies hold the potential to radically reduce time from design to customer, to enable greater levels of personalization—even to test styles with consumers before producing them—but our current product development teams may not have the skills to use them.

While this isn’t a major problem, it is an untapped opportunity.

Our current cross-functional teams have a clear stake in the success of the business, and with proper training and process alignment, they may be better skilled to use these new technologies in making decisive business moves than someone from outside the business with ‘newer’ technical skills. The key is training; too few companies today are investing in the ongoing professional development of their teams, and this needs to change.

Customer engagement is the key to growth in any business but engagement requires speed, flexibility and decisiveness. Technologies are great, but they are merely the tools. The artisans who will use those tools—your people—are the true key to success. Whether they are data scientists, sourcing execs, designers, buyers or even suppliers, they need to be coached, trained, encouraged and aligned to meet the challenges ahead.

We need to free ourselves from the past, we should focus on the future and then make it happen quickly.

It’s not that we need to get rid of old skills and import new ones if we want to survive; rather, we need to create a culture of entrepreneurial inclusiveness that encourages new ideas, risk and failure, and a bias toward action, all while delighting the customer as the single point of focus.


Ed_Portrait2_2016 (1)Ed Gribbin is president of Alvanon Inc., a consulting and technology firm serving the global apparel industry. Since 2001, Alvanon has leveraged data-driven knowledge to equip leading fashion retailers, brands, designers and manufacturers with world-class growth, customer satisfaction, product development and supply chain strategies. Gribbin can be reached at 212-868-4318 or