The Future of Retail Over The Next Five Years, with Aaron Reich Director of Emerging Technology, at Avanade

I had the pleasure of interviewing Aaron Reich. As the senior director of Emerging Technology, at Avanade, his focus is on setting and enabling Avanade’s technology vision and driving innovation with clients. He leads Avanade’s emerging technology group that researches and accelerates the adoption of technologies that are 3–5 years out for Avanade’s Fortune 1000 clients. He previously configured and ran Avanade’s innovation lab, including a mini-lab that we took on the road for the last four years at the National Retail Federation’s big show in New York. The majority of Aaron’s 17-year career has been spent in retail, banking and high-tech companies.

What brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve always been tinkering with technology. My first computer was an Apple IIc, and I fell in love with it and spent way more time on it than my parents probably wanted me to. At the time, it took me to fantasy worlds like King’s Quest and Myst. When I turned 13, I was fortunate enough to get a x386 PC, and my uncle let us use his Prodigy account (right before AOL went big). I jumped online early and never looked back. I have a knack for being able to understand technology and explain it in terms for non-techies to get it. Since then, given the variety of my work across companies and industries, I can see the intersection of technology, business and creativity and we get to build some pretty amazing things.

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

There isn’t one specific story, but more of a theme. About every four years in my career, I have gotten the itch to do something new or different. I get bored easily and am always looking for new challenges. I have only been employed by two companies in my career, but I’ve had about 5–6 totally different jobs in new areas. Each time I hit these inflection points, I did searches, talked with mentors and interviewed for other jobs. But before I made a final decision to leave, I had some very difficult conversations with my bosses. With each of those bosses, I came out of the discussions with more clarity and alignment toward the new thing I was seeking. And these leaders cleared the way to make that happen, sometimes not immediately, but eventually. Everyone faces a bit of stagnation at times, and our personal priorities of what’s important at work changes. I’ve been fortunate to work for some great people who saw potential in me. And while honest and transparent dialogue is hard, it always led to my next adventure.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I don’t know if it’s the funniest, but I was about one year out of undergrad managing this closet in the corner of the office where we had our servers as the system administrator. We were testing a new application update, and I was deploying that application to our servers. It took about 3 minutes to reboot them and get the application live again. Fifteen minutes after I rebooted the servers, I get a call on our helpline asking if our application is down. I look and realize I rebooted the production servers, not our test environment. Whoops! It wasn’t the end of the world, and our customer understood, but our procedures were a little sloppy. Lesson learned: have a meticulous checklist and clearly communicate.

Can you share 5 examples of how retail companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers like to shop?

My team at Avanade looks into the future and predicts what major trends and technologies will allow for innovation or disruption. We do this by focusing on some of the changes we see today and map those over a period of time — and retail is always the first industry where we see the changes start to take effect first. These are the major areas we are watching for our retail customers:

1. Experience experts: Physical stores are not going away, and we’re seeing the evolution of experience showrooms — Casper and Bonobos are great examples. To continue to differentiate, stores are going to need to employ a new type of employee who are the “experience experts.” They exude the brand and can tell the story, the history, and are deeply familiar with how the products are made, where they are sourced and helping the shopper find exactly what he or she wants.

2. Workplace experience: Many retail companies have been spending investments on elevating their customer experience. We are reaching the point where focusing on customer experience isn’t enough. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Center for Information Systems Research (CISR) shows that large companies in the top quartile of employee experience are twice as innovative and 25% more profitable than those in the bottom quartile. We see a significant shift that ramped quickly last year but will take a few years to complete with a reimaging and refocus on the workplace experience. This is beyond the tablet craze we saw with retailers giving their employees mobile devices and thinking that is a better experience. This workplace experience extends to how you begin to augment retail workers with the tools, data and AI technologies to empower them to serve the customer in a better and more efficient way.

3. Leverage the second screen: We are just at the beginning of the proliferation of second screens. As voice technology matures, we will start to see second screens popping up on lots of other devices including your home appliances. This is new real estate that a retailer can capture. They need to think beyond advertising and treating it like the web and work to discover and design new engagement models and interactions that combine voice and screen-based actions.

4. Innovative payments: China is a fantastic place to look for very interesting retail trends. While you see mobile shopping as a main driver of their current experiences, the real innovation is happening payments. Being able to pay with your own biometrics, via a quick text message, with cryptocurrency or just by walking in and out is a game changer. Retailers will accelerate how to make the final part of the transaction as seamless as possible.

5. Product transparency: As consumers continue to show concern for the environment, they will vote with their dollars to spend money on products whose ingredients they understand and with those companies that are transparent in their business practices. There is a strong desire for this honesty and transparency and those companies like Unilever, Apple, Patagonia and others are leading the way.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Avanade is fortunate given our global presence to have a view across multiple industries on the changes and challenges fueled by the latest trends. We provide digital and cloud services to our customers where we collaborate with them to design and imagine entirely new experiences. And then we have the expertise and talent to apply modern engineering practices to make those experiences real. There aren’t many companies in the world that do both the envisioning and the engineering.

A great example is that we know buyer behavior is changing, and it’s disrupting the retail side of the automotive industry. Volvo Cars is right in the middle of this digital transformation. They are pushing forward new retail buyer models and digital online experiences that we helped to deliver. In 2017, Volvo’s total web traffic increased by 31% and 48% more consumers used the new car configurator online tool. Their mobile site was named “best-in-class” by the L2 2018 Automotive Digital IQ Index report, and the brand moved from number 22 to number 7.

Everyday there is a new challenge from large and small brands — and with the technologies evolving so quickly, it’s exciting to stay on top of the latest trends to help deliver these new types of experiences for our customers.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Take time off. Don’t think about it, just do it. While not a perk for everyone, if you have the opportunity, explore it. I remember coming right out of school to my first job and I’m 21 years old and the company policy was 25 days off for new hires. I was like, 25 days, can I even make that happen? Ever since then I always make sure that I take time away, using up most of my days, even if it’s just at home. I also turn the email off on my phone.

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

Wow, there are many people, some who have played bigger roles and others that at the time were just small gestures, but propelled new opportunities. The most significant are my parents and my wife who both keep pushing me beyond my comfort zones. On the small gesture front, I spent most of my life in Virginia, and when I met my wife, we were looking for somewhere else to live. I went to my boss (whom I had worked with for two years at the time) and told him that in about a year I’d like to move and explore new opportunities with the company. He was extremely supportive, helped pay for some of the moving costs, and when I didn’t land a role immediately in the new city, he let me work remote for him. The second half of my life has been propelled by this move that he helped make possible. His actions taught me the importance of how to manage people and care for them, which I have practiced with all my teams.

Are you working on any exciting projects now?

Avanade is just starting to explore different opportunities around some emerging technologies with a few different Universities. I can’t say much now as they are still in the works, but we are always looking for different collaborators in our research with innovation labs or universities, so please reach out.

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

A little over five years ago, I lost my mom. She was young, and it was the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with in my life. Working through my grief, I came upon a small non-profit called the Healing Center that provides on-going grief support groups to individuals and families. They had a specific group for young adults, and those groups saved me through sharing and hearing so many similar stories to mine. I’m sitting there on a rainy Monday night, and I’m about a year into my loss and in group there’s a woman who just lost her brother a few weeks ago and her emotions are so raw — and I remember feeling that same way. And then, in the same group, there’s someone whose father had died four years ago, and it was his birthday. She came back needing a little support. Listening to her story and seeing how well she was doing, even though she still suffered, a few years out gave me hope. Two years ago, I joined the Board of Directors and we’re working hard to spread the word on how important it is to deal with grief, especially for children, who grieve in different ways from adults.

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.

While this isn’t very popular subject, the work I’ve done with the Healing Center and the loss of my mom has opened my eyes to just how much we’ve lost touch with cultural traditions and comfort surrounding grief. As the baby boomers age, we will see more people who are 40 and younger having to deal with a significant loss in their life. One in 20 kids in the United States has lost a parent by the age of 18. Studies show, specifically for children, that learning to live with loss and work through their grief, is critical in their development (physically and mentally). I hope that we can become more comfortable in society talking and dealing with grief and that it’s not something where you have three days of bereavement and you’re healed.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

https://www.linkedin.com/in/aaronreich/

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