There’s a sign painted on the wall at Talbots’ corporate office: “We win as a team.” That’s even more true if everyone is invited to play, and the process is infused with a little bit of competition and fun.
Consider Talbots’ recent conversion from a retail method of accounting to the cost method of accounting, part of an overall migration to an omnichannel, strategic planning methodology. Working with Columbus Consulting, the apparel retailer known for exceptional quality and service pulled off a 15-month, eight-pronged project on time and on budget — all the while rewarding employees with “ninja points” for skill and knowledge mastery.
“It was a much larger undertaking than a typical planning implementation,” says Stuart Aldridge, principal at Columbus Consulting and business lead on the project. “We knew the boundaries of it, but once you get into the nuts and bolts, that’s where, if you’re not careful, it can run away. We didn’t allow that to happen.”
Talbots, founded in 1947, has more than 500 bricks-and-mortar locations and a growing ecommerce business. Until recently, it also had outdated planning processes and systems that made it challenging to reconcile inventory and sales. The company wanted to overhaul its product classification hierarchy, transition from floorsets to a process based on fiscal month, unlock planning methodologies that were being under-utilized and more.
By the time Kristin Mercer joined the company in February 2017, Talbots already had been working to secure funding and people for the shift. Within her first couple of weeks, she met Aldridge as well as Drew Wilmot, a partner at Columbus Consulting. Columbus Consulting is a longtime expert in retail business processes and systems, working with clients such as Ann Taylor, Coach, Michael Kors, Canada Goose, Tory Burch and At Home.
“I think what has made it successful … is the fact that we understand we’ve got a lot of growth opportunity, and we want to embrace it and move forward, to really unlock as much margin and sales opportunity as we can,” says Mercer, vice president of business process, strategy and development for the planning, merchandising and allocation teams at Talbots. “We are always thinking about the future.”
From the start, Aldridge says, it wasn’t a normal type of strategic consulting engagement, “where we’re asked to come in and provide a strategy, and we give a fancy presentation and walk away. It’s a partnership,” he says.
“Yes, we help in conversation around where Talbots wants to go overall. But we don’t walk away after that. We’re in for the long haul, so we’re there writing documents and validating test scripts in the detail of actually getting it done. Talbots was really open to that from the get-go. They didn’t just want, ‘Hey, tell us where to go.’ They wanted someone to help them get there. We felt, really strongly, an openness to the partnership from that sense.”
That idea of partnership went well beyond just the two companies working together. In keeping with the team mentality, Talbots recognized that accounting methods impact far more than the planning areas of the company. As a result, Wilmot says, there was an understanding that the changes would be “widespread, across the whole company, and everyone really needs to be on board.”
Not just on board, but educated on the new planning system, as well.
SWEETENING THE DEAL
At first, Mercer was surprised that the company was still working with the retail method of accounting. As the journey continued, however, she became more surprised — and impressed — by how resilient the planning team was amid daily challenges, as well as how excited everyone was about the changes and possibilities.
Aldridge notes that he didn’t see any cultural resistance at all to the new ways of doing things — including from IT — and any slowdowns were just about the mechanics of making it work.
The company did self-tests along the way to ensure employees were understanding the new process and application, with various prizes. “They grabbed onto the fun aspects that we were able to add to this project,” Mercer says.
As the new tool required planners to rethink the way they had performed processes for years, the idea was to create “planning ninjas,” earning points through exams, active participation in sessions and more. There were ninjas of the month, as well as an overall planning ninja champion. Mercer still has one of the ninja prize dolls on her desk.
“It certainly helped capitalize on people’s enthusiasm for the project in the first place,” Aldridge says. “But it also meant there was a really good way for us to test and ensure that we were doing our job properly, that they actually understood and had learned what it was that we were asking them to take on board.”
It’s true that the more people involved, the slower the decision-making process can be. All the same, Mercer says, the input from so many employees in different areas was both “amazing and valuable.”
A planning team of about 40 took the helm, “but we talked to the sourcing department, design department, merchandising, of course, and finance because they had to change the way they closed the books. We had an open house, and I think even the janitor strolled by and asked, ‘What are you guys doing here?’ We touched everybody in this building, well over 300 to 400 people. It was massive.”
Talbots is still in the process of change management, still in the first full year of planning with the new application and process. “But the team is now at a place where, because of a new hierarchy, unlocking class planning, looking at total inventory, they are now bringing to the table a lot more recommendations and strategies to drive the business,” Mercer says.
“I feel like they feel more empowered. They always had a seat at the table with the merchandising team, but now they feel more like a partner because they’re able to influence the direction and go-forward strategies. And they have great data and great analytics and plans to support what they’re recommending.”
Talbots did self-tests along the way to ensure employees were understanding the new process and application, with various prizes.
The team, she says, now uses the system “almost every day,” whereas before, it might have been once every other week. It’s also nimbler and more flexible with less metrics to plan. “They are leveraging it for pre-season planning, in-season planning, getting general data on the business. We created a whole library of reports to go along with the application … so it’s been this journey of unlock after unlock. People are really excited about having more at their fingertips than they did before.”
Working with Talbots reminded Wilmot how keeping everyone “in the know” helped prevent resistance to change.
“To have this bigger audience, and have the information flowing, and have people interacting and engaged, that actually speaks volumes,” Wilmot says. “It’s something definitely great to do moving forward.”
Aldridge, in the meantime, has been reminded to not be afraid of a large scope. Overall, the project involved numerous major changes, and each one could have been a project unto itself.
“There was a lot there, but we did it all,” he says. “Sometimes you just roll up your sleeves and get it done. Sometimes it’s elegant and slick, sometimes ugly and rough. It doesn’t matter. You shouldn’t be afraid of taking on large projects with lots of moving components, because the end result will be so much more thorough, and so much more accepted by the user community because you’ve gone to the extra level to make sure it works for everyone, and not just for the core audience.”
It would be easy to think Talbots and Columbus Consulting could rest on their laurels for a bit, but that’s not happening. Next up is an overhaul of the assortment planning process and applications.
What motivated the planning team, Mercer says, might not be the same as what motivates the merchandising team. In general, the planning team tends to be more numbers-focused, while merchandising can have a more creative bent. The ninjas and competitive games may look different for the next project, which makes sense for a different team.
“We might need to think outside the box,” she says. One thing, however, is certain: Everyone will still have the opportunity to join in.
Fiona Soltes, a freelancer based near Nashville, Tenn., loves a good bargain almost as much as she loves a good story.