Eye on the prize with a focus on the customer

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Of the 2019 predictions First Insight President and CEO Greg Petro recently laid out in Forbes magazine, one called out for greater exploration in particular: the idea that customer centricity would go mainstream in the coming year.

The Monday afternoon session “Product Paradigm Shift: Customer-centric Merchandising in the Age of Data and Decision Agility,” covered the issue from varied perspectives. The panel included Michael Gilbert, executive vice president of product development at Kohl’s, Ann E. Joyce, chief customer officer and executive vice president of technology, supply chain and field operations with Chico’s FAS Inc. and Rue21 Chief Analytics Officer Mark Chrystal.

Petro opened with a few stats from recent research. Among them, the fact that men are making more purchases than previously — and are now on par with women. Men are now exceeding women in starting their searches on Amazon. And the amount of men who said they would never shop on their mobile devices dropped from 48 percent to 18 percent. In other words, the times indeed are changing.

In terms of customer focus, Gilbert spoke of Kohl’s as a broad-based business — one that serves 60 million consumers. “We serve one in every two families in America,” he said. “You can imagine what a gold mine of data that is. The question becomes, ‘What do you do with it?’” Throughout its 50-year history, he said, Kohl’s has always been about brands, value and convenience. But what that means to customers today, he said, “is much, much different.” More recently, Kohl’s has become much better about using analytics, insight and hindsight in a more immediate way. The company has improved its speed to market by significantly shortening product lead times from concept to delivery.

Joyce spoke briefly about what it means to be a “chief customer officer,” but she also talked about the goal to “modernize, digitize, personalize and extend our product base and our services to all of our customers.“ The urgency for such a role, she said, was born from the customer recognizing she was “channel-less” — culture had to evolve to keep up.

“The more we give our customer what she wants, when she wants it, how she wants it, the more she trusts us,” Joyce said. “When she trusts us, she gives us more information. The more information she gives us, the more we can personalize.”

Petro also asked about analytics on pricing. At Rue21, Chrystal said, “we spend a lot of time with customers who, like clockwork, have $30 to spend when they walk in our stores, and it’s been like that for 10 years.” The company can’t push the customer to spend more; instead, it focuses on providing great value for the disposable income those customers do have — and continuing to explore where it’s getting things right as changes are made.

Toward the session’s end, Petro asked for a nugget of takeaway from each.

Gilbert shared how digital relationships have limits, and that some of the most meaningful learnings about customers had come through focus groups, surveys, conversations and other relationships to understand how those customers think and why they have the purchasing patterns that they do, rather than just what they’ve purchased. “My advice is, make the customer the center of everything, but figure out where they’re going, and not just where they’ve been,” he said.

Joyce, meanwhile, shared that she’d heard a speaker this week encourage others to be “obsessed with the customer in a ‘Fatal Attraction’ way.” “It won’t matter if the culture isn’t such that you can get speed to market in a very authentic and intentional way.”

Chrystal said it’s not enough for a retailer to have robust Voice of Customer tools and data capture. “We’ve got to foster organizations,” he said, “that can take that data and turn it into action.”

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