Authority Magazine
Published in

Authority Magazine

Jerry Stephens On The Future Of Retail

An Interview With David Liu

As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jerry Stephens.

Jerry is a leader who has excelled in global organizations, as well as startups. He has consistently delivered business results through creativity, positive engagement, and passionate ownership. He is experienced developing product roadmaps, defining strategic imperatives, and creating enablement to deliver revenue and profit results across multiple verticals as well as functional areas including supply chain, planning, marketing, merchandising, operations and technology. Jerry brings a proven track record of building and managing all levels of customer relationships and creating and cultivating results-driven multifunctional teams.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

You could categorize my career under two headlines. The first, working in the consumer products vertical creating strategies and plans developed by integrating insights from data, people, and experience. The second, this crazy world of software and analytics. The bridge from one headline to the other was created by relationships and my desire to continue to learn new things, test myself in new environments, and to diversify my skill set. My passion in business has always focused on creating solutions to deliver value for my company and our clients.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

When I started my career at Procter and Gamble, my role was a technology manager with a focus on shelf and database management. Those who have been in the CPG and retail industry for a while may recall late night store resets, a battle with competition within individual stores selling assortment and space to department heads to increase the share for the brands they represented. My job function was to work with IT, typically at wholesalers, to extract data, yes on ‘disks’, clean the data, import into access, write queries, create reports, and then translate into shelving recommendations.

One late night, in a store in Kentucky, I found myself pitted against an experienced representative from my primary competitor in the paper towel category. He was taking the initiative and adding SKUs and space for his brands. I recall asking to speak to the department manager and I presented a single chart and picture titled ‘Fair share of Shelf.’ Immediately, the department manager called all representatives to a meeting, taped the chart to the shelf, and announced that the shelf will look like the picture. That single moment sparked my belief and excitement that the future of partnerships and retail were going to focus on data-based decision making.

Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

There are two that come to mind.

The first project that I would like to share is a very common opportunity to create business value. Many organizations have invested in dashboards that are not linked or integrated. Typical dashboarding structure can make it difficult to analyze and find insights beyond the high-level metrics. Insights already exist in the data throughout organizations and dashboards do not provide the capability to unearth quickly, look across for relationships or correlations and not to mention understand critical drivers. So, organizations are creating ‘control towers’ which are a way to consolidate the dashboards to create consistency across the functional areas. Still, organizations are finding it difficult to extract actionable insights. So, they have approached our team at Outlier to enable their teams through automated business analysis, at scale and across all dashboards, detailing what they actually ‘need to know’ not just what they ‘want to know’. This is a new way of thinking which changes the game for faster and more informed decision making and the opportunity to create competitive advantage.

The second is a project that focuses on creating the ability within organizations to monitor, identify and report events that are impacting organizational profitability through critical areas of the supply chain. The potential impact of the project is significant because the use cases are scalable and applicable for retailers and consumer companies around the world. As the consumer demands change and the retailers work to deliver a seamless customer experience, creating supply chain agility to meet demand comes at a cost. Whether the cost is investing in different delivery methods, the timing of delivery to meet customer demands, the expanding area of returns, or the multiple operational variations that can take place, decisions impact margin. Automated business analysis and our team at Outlier are enabling teams to understand where and when margin is impacted, at all levels, and understand the drivers of the change so they can take immediate action and deliver value to the business.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I appreciate the question and it is so true.

There are two individuals who were early mentors in my career, both named Jeff, and their influence touches me to this day.

The first Jeff brought a very high level of intensity and competitive spirit every day. He was fearless, confident, smart, and creative. He taught me how to transform data into storytelling in such a way that seemed objective and believably unbiased. I found myself, early in my career, creating and confidently presenting strategies to large audiences. I came to the realization that in analytics, in this case category management, confidence is driven by deep knowledge of the data, related insights, and the connection to decisions.

The second Jeff I met as I transitioned from category management and planning to a sales role. Immediately I noticed a selling style that was relational, fluid, authentic, and effective. He brought energy and optimism but understood how to balance with competitiveness and barriers. Below is a short story that I shared with one of my teams a few years ago which captures his spirit.

“During Holiday break, one of my boys (8th grade) and I were in a Dicks Sporting Goods store. We ran into a former manager of mine at Procter and Gamble who I had not seen in 15 years, one of my favorite managers of all time. After some solid catchup discussion, he looked at my son and told him ‘One piece of advice young man, find the kid in the lunchroom who is sitting and eating alone and ask that kid to join you for lunch’.”

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I really don’t have a world changing example to provide nor do I have a notion of a global definition of success. However, throughout my career, I evolved in the understanding of the value of basing relationships on kindness delivered through two important traits, optimism, and humility.

I have been afforded the ability to positively influence others as a coach and a leader through these traits. The first, optimism. Delivered through a smile, an idea, support, and gratitude. Everyone in business will experience highs and lows, sometimes the full range within a day. Optimism spurs hope, hope spurs belief, and belief spurs action. The second trait, humility. Represented with listening, a focus on being present, being accessible, and open minded. When a leader is humble, they are approachable and typically represent the characteristics of a servant leader. So, through optimism and humility, I hope that I have brought some goodness to individuals, clients, and teams.

Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share a few examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?

It’s a good question. I think it’s important to remember the changes as a setup to where we are today through the lens of the ecosystem balance of power. In the 90s and prior, the consumer products companies had the relational power as they brought the insights, the data, the innovation. In the 00s, this changed. Retailers began to unveil the potential value of their data, the POS information, the supply chain data, and loyalty information to inform better decisions. This data and related insights were also leveraged by consumer product companies to create channel strategies. In the ’10s, the consumer became more powerful given the expansion of online and fast access to promotions, reviews, pricing, and increased options for buying. In the ’20s, the Pandemic has accelerated and solidified the consumer power and we continue to see the dilution of brand and retail loyalty. To be competitive and maintain or grow market share, retailers have implemented new capabilities around buying online with multiple options for merchandising receipt such as pickup in store, curbside, same day delivery, and more. Also, retailers have increased the focus on supporting personalization. This includes private, virtual shopping experiences and curated item selection based on historical shopping or proactive personal selections. Virtual or endless aisles are now enabling retailers to provide expanded assortment options without the limitations of the building. Ultimately, the pandemic has benefited larger retailers to accelerate projects that will eventually create a seamless experience both physically and digitally.

The supply chain crisis is another outgrowth of the pandemic. Can you share a few examples of what retailers are doing to pivot because of the bottlenecks caused by the supply chain crisis?

Certainly, the last few years have been difficult for retailers as many have been caught with the decision to balance the needs of present and the development and investment for the future. With limited resources, it’s a balance most find impossible. Retailers actually have quite a few levers to pull in response to supply chain difficulties and I want to highlight just a few:

  • Creating a curated and core assortment by focusing on specific segments of SKUs to ensure critical inventory is available through consolidation.
  • Controlling merchandising and pricing levels to not only control overall demand for goods but also enable the organization to maintain margin and profitability levels.
  • Increase production capabilities in house or additional options which is applicable to organizations where this makes sense for the long term.
  • Depending on the business, consolidating, or diversifying sourcing and transportation.
  • Empowering the front line to have visibility to make decisions to foster a strong customer experience Closer collaboration through data with their vendors, supplies, distributors and producers.

To ensure these levers, retailers must have the access to the enabling analytics to support the decisions at the right level of the organization.

How do you think we should reimagine our supply chain to prevent this from happening again in the future?

The good news, retailers now have a robust use case to understand where their supply chain vulnerabilities exist. Teams need to review, assess, and document the critical areas impacted and risk factors experienced throughout the pandemic. Certainly, companies should not stop with a singular assessment, it needs to be ongoing. When selling security software, our team would engage clients to create an environment to stress test their processes, approach, decision matrix, and systems. Retailers need to implement approaches to do the same in the supply chain, simulations that test the viability and resiliency.

As we meet with retailers across the world, several common themes surface with the primary being how to manage risk throughout the supply chain. Considering risk, my first reaction is akin to the financial methodology of diversification. For supply chain, this would be creating a smarter planning environment, a diverse sourcing strategy, options for production capabilities, multiple lanes for transportation and logistics, and expanded storage capacity and locations. However, this strategy needs to be dynamic and adjust based on category, consumer, market, and macro trends.

In order to create this dynamic environment, retailers are looking toward data and analytics. Many have focused on data consolidation to create end to end visibility. However, an integrated data set with dashboarding is not the future of supply chain decision making. The next generation of analytics will enable teams to know what they need to know when they need to know it through automated business analysis. The future is a fully integrated personalized experience leveraging automated business analysis to enable better decision making at all levels of the organization.

In your opinion, will retail stores or malls continue to exist? How would you articulate the role of physical retail spaces at a time when online commerce platforms like Amazon Prime or Instacart can deliver the same day or the next day?

I do believe that retail stores and malls will continue to exist although their role will continue to evolve. Most projections for ecommerce dollar share are at 20–25% by 2025. However, retailers must now integrate the physical and digital into a consolidated roadmap and customer experience. The physical will continue to build out the experiential components, leverage technology to integrate their digital assets, and retailers are looking to create personalized experiences in store, not just via the digital engagement. The physical will also evolve in space utilization in very creative and value driven ways. For example, I believe we will continue to see ‘brands in store.’ As an example, cloud native brands looking to create a retail experience through partnership for scale and speed. Also, from a supply chain perspective, stores will continue to be leveraged as nodes to support BOPIS or ship from store capabilities. The future is full of exciting opportunities, but I do believe that humans will continue to want a live in person experience, a place to seek engagement and tap the senses as well as fulfill their specific shopping needs.

The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?

Even though these retailers are quite different there are common elements to their success.

First, they are customer centric. Lululemon started with Yoga but quickly identified an opportunity to deliver premium exercise clothing not only for women but have grown considerably by penetrating the men’s market. Kroger was able to leverage insights from transactional level data to create a loyalty program and deliver an ongoing program of personalized engagement with its customers. Costco has long been the standard for loyalty through the Costco Membership program and has continued to create a unique and evolving shopping experience. All three have continued to expand their footprint, Costco and Lululemon internationally and Kroger throughout the United States.

Second, they understand and create value for their customers. Costco has developed and cultivated one of the best private label brands for perceived quality and value in the world. Kroger has generated personalized and meaningful coupons based on what you typically buy, which generates a significantly high level of redemption. Lululemon succeeded in pushing the pricing equation in athletic and leisure clothing but delivering a level of quality and service which resonates with their customer as a value.

Finally, they have created shopping experiences which are meaningful for their customers. Lululemon has created more than just a shopping experience with excellent service and, in some instances, engagement through exercise classes and in-home exercise equipment. Kroger has expanded the natural and organic focus throughout the store as well as increasing meaningful options in fresh, wine, and cheese. Kroger has also increased its array of delivery options to continue to meet the needs and demands of today’s consumers. Although Costco has not been as invested in ecommerce as most, it has been successful partly given its diverse offerings, its continued focus on the treasure hunt, and the growing value of its membership program

Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise to retail companies and e-commerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

The first idea which comes to mind is a relentless focus on the customer experience. To do so, organizations must think through and map the experience from end to end, across multiple customer segments representing multiple engagement patterns. Retailers also need to consider how to efficiently and effectively leverage current assets, brick and mortar as an example, but seamlessly integrated the digital experience as well. The second, focus on building stronger brand equity. In part, this could include an investment in customer experience. In addition, retailers are building partnerships with other brands to create store in store experiences, some offer educational and immersion opportunities to increase engagement and a sense of community. Also, plan to deliver meaningful innovation to create news and interest. Finally, understand the finances. In today’s environment, the complexity of the supply chain, which begins at planning all the way through to the hands of the consumers, has grown exponentially. At every stage, decisions are made by individuals who may not have the data or insight to understand the financial impact.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a fantastic retail experience that keeps bringing customers back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.

The question highlights the core goals of any retailers. The first, how can the organization increase overall visits to the assets. The second, once the consumer is engaging whether physically or digitally, what can the organization do to increase how much the consumer is buying. Finally, what can the organization do to influence the customer to not only return but return as frequently as possible.

In order to make this happen, you should understand:

  • Why customers are or are not shopping with you today?
  • I worked with a large retailer in the late 1990s early 2000s writing strategic plans across their departments. The company issued primary research to provide data to help answer the question of ‘why’. The good news, it provided quite a bit of information to support company strategies that would eventually cascade to departmental planning. The bad news, one of the top 3 reasons was the ease to find a parking spot close to the door. Sometimes getting to the ‘why’ can be difficult but the answers can help seed successful strategies for the organization.
  • How can the changing digital landscape add value to your retail experience?
  • Traditional brick and mortar retailers have learned quite a bit from digitally native brands over the years. As consumers have transitioned their shopping patterns which now include digital engagement, sometimes as the first step, retailers also need to transition and meet the consumers where they are, where they engage. Many retailers are structuring their go-to-market plans with a digital-first mentality with the goal of delivering transparency, news, ease, and speed to an integrated shopping experience for pricing, promotions, cross-channel engagement, and more.
  • How the shift in demographic trends may impact your shopper hierarchy?
  • Throughout time, understanding the potential impact of changing demographic trends has been important to acknowledge to understand how a retailer shopper hierarchy compares. Probably no surprise that women have long held a significant share of purchasing power, but it is important for retailers to further break down demographics for their shoppers, for example gender and age. Then, retailers are more informed to meet their shoppers where they are whether engaging on the primary social platforms within that group or creating a focus on causal platforms that are meaningful. For example, the rising purchasing power of women in their 20s and 30s in China is significant now and will continue to be in the future. So, understanding where they engage, how they engage, and what influences their decision-making process will enable the retailer to speak to the customer base directly and intelligently.
  • What is your perceived value and the key elements of your brand equity?
  • I began my career with one of the most influential brand companies in the world, Procter and Gamble, and I was quickly oriented to the importance of brand equity. In many cases, obtaining relative benchmarking for brand equity is straightforward whether tracked within the organization or through a partner. What has been difficult historically has been understanding the key drivers of growth or decline. This is an area where analytics can help the organization’s key drivers of change even when there are so many potential inputs.
  • What are the key drivers for conversion with your most loyal customers?
  • When developing Category Management strategies, it was typically to frame the value proposition within three areas. First, getting more people to shop. Second, getting people to spend more. Third, getting people to return more frequently. A simple yet appropriate structure when thinking about how to define the conversion of your loyal customers. We work with organizations every day, which are capturing their loyalty information and can track these three areas within dashboards through various levels of segmentation. The difficulty comes in understanding the key drivers to the changes as well as integrating the macro environment, the market activity, and the levers pulled within the retailer itself.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

STAND for inclusion. A personal story.

Standing at a spot on a gray, rainy, chilly morning, I experienced perhaps the best example of inclusion that I have ever seen, during a 4th grade girls recreational soccer game.

Kate, our 9-year-old daughter, has Down Syndrome. She has been brought up in a world of sports activities, traveling from game to game to support her four older brothers. She loves sports and she is a very talented athlete, speaking as a proud father. Today was tournament time, it was her day, the moment was her moment.

We were down 1–0 early. As the ball rolled out, the referee signaled for a corner kick. Kate is generally eager for a throw in or to take a kick, we call her our set piece specialist. However, in this case, one of the better players was also close to the ball when Kate grabbed it and set it down on this spot.

Any girl could have requested to take the kick, Kate would have let them. The coaches could have selected any other girl to take the kick, Kate would have let them. We, mom and dad, who were positioned within ten feet of this corner, could have told Kate what to do, she would have done it. After all, this was tournament time, lose and out, down 1–0.

Kate didn’t hesitate. She placed the ball on the corner, backed up, and kicked the ball toward the goal. The trajectory of the kick was perfect, the spin on the ball was perfect, and the result was perfect, into the net. Kate scored the tying goal off a corner kick.

Not until later did I realize what this moment really symbolized. It wasn’t about the moment or the result, the goal or even the 3–1 loss. The true lesson was nestled within how the moment came to be.

Only hours after she was born, a geneticist gave his perspective, ‘you will come to know her simply as Kate’. I believe this simple phrase has framed our family’s way of thinking and acting. Our family culture is mirrored by the coaches who treat her as a player named Kate, she’s number 6. I believe this idea has also cascaded into the minds of the girls, who see her as a teammate and friend named Kate.

This moment was inclusion in action, perhaps the best example that I have ever seen. It was the result of one sentence spoken by one person that has impacted the behaviors and actions of many and ultimately came to life within this single moment. In the organization called team, Kate is treated as a player. Nothing more, nothing less, a teammate.

A truly inclusive culture can only be validated when tested, when the situation is meaningful when results hang in the balance. The decisions and actions of the organization are framed by the beliefs and intentional behaviors of its people. Kate felt empowered and worthy to pick up the ball, place it on the spot, and take the kick.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Please connect with on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/jerrylstephens/.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

--

--

In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
David Liu

David is the founder and CEO of Deltapath, a unified communications company that liberates organizations from the barriers of effective communication