West Elm creating the ultimate showrooming experience

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Really try it before you buy it.

Like many of my fellow road warriors, we have become keenly aware when we get to stay in a hotel room that offers a superior experience. A clean room is the basic expectations; a comfortable room is what we expect but a stylish room on top…that is the ultimate customer experience. That is why it caught my attention this week when I saw a piece on West Elm, which is a brand under the Williams-Sonoma family, opening up hotels. A furniture store getting into hospitality? You must be crazy…next thing you will tell me is that Apple is looking to get into the luxury car business…oh wait, never mind.

So why is West Elm’s play in hospitality an example of how retail is being transformed right before our very eyes? It all comes down to the customer experience. Retail is truly transforming into a constant dance and balance between service, assortment and availability. We the consumer seek better experiences, enhanced services and unlimited access to a variety of inventory choices. That is why we see brands such as Urban Outfitters purchasing a pizza chain, click here for story. Or why giant book retailer Barnes and Nobles has so many Starbucks in their stores. Retailers are striving to find other ways to make their brick and mortar assets more attractive, to create an experience and services above and beyond their core product. When it comes to the furniture business, their stores are truly show rooms. It is a challenge for brands such as Restoration Hardware, Pottery Barn, West Elm or Crate & Barrel to carry massive amounts of inventory within their stores. Rather they want to use their real estate to allow customers to sit or lie on their products. The challenge is to ensure their network can fulfill any sale quickly and efficiently. While it is nice to walk into a West Elm to sit on a Hamilton sofa or lie on their Nash series beds, what if you could truly experience these pieces. In their true elements?

Enter the hotel idea. Think of this as taking the show room concept into the world of the car sales and allowing for a true test drive of the product. Yes, you can see how the furniture looks like in the West Elm store, but how much better to spend a few nights sleeping on that bed? We have already seen other hotel brands such as Marriott making their beddings and other products available to purchase. I have spent plenty of time in hotels where the high end soaps and lotions in the bathrooms can also be purchased in the store or online. But this is a new play, for a retailer to get into the hospitality space. To explore a new way of providing the customer with an experience built around their product.

The underlying challenge for West Elm will be integrating the demand signals that this new channel will produce. And ensuring that they have the systems in place and flexibility in place to manage their inventories to meet the new demands from this channel. There will not be the direct contact with in store sales associates, nor the ability to guide one through the online assets. Rather, the whims of the consumer will be taking place in the privacy of their hotel rooms. As each hotel manager creates their specific experience in their location, West Elm will need to be ready for sudden jumps in demand that come out of the blue.

A great example of a retailer finding new channels to create customer experience…that will also drive more sales. I wonder what kind of rewards program the West Elm hotel will have.

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Back to School: the second happiest time of the year for retailers…but not necessarily for kids!

As the last days of summer come to lazy close—sigh—retailers and parents of school children should all be squealing with glee.  Okay maybe that’s an exaggeration, but the end of summer does mark the beginning of the retail race to the black. They are looking to beginning to build up their holiday season inventories while ensuring they capture as much back to school revenue as possible. However the back to school season is a microcosm of the shifting sands in the retail world.

Back to school is the second largest sales driver, right behind the end of year holidays – accounting for over $27b worth of sales.[1] But while this time of the year is a boon for retail, there are signs this rosy picture is cracking because of the usual disruptors.  Their disruptions come primarily in the form of growth in consumerization,[2] and the pressures from ecommerce giants such as Amazon.

Let’s dig into some NRF numbers:

  • 97% of online sites visited are either super centers or office supply sites.
  • 84% of parents will only purchase online if free shipping is offered.
  • Over a third of parents will make purchases online.

Retailers that are in this space are probably selling commodity items – a heavy percentage of office supplies. (Click here for an example list.)

These items are difficult to differentiate through value-added services, customization, or contextual experiences. They are often based on convenience and price, and are usually not overly bulky but can be heavy. Why is this important?

Consumers are going to shop for these products and look for value and cost to be the biggest drivers. This is in the sweet spot for the likes of Amazon and Jet.com. But could some of the items – like paper and books – place an additional strain on fulfillment for retailers? Possibly. What is the opportunity for retailers to thwart being overwhelmed by Amazon’s ecommerce prowess?

Here are some strategies:

  • Focus on an in-depth understanding of your network. Where can you hold back inventory? Can you fulfill from different nodes, and are there parts of your network that can push inventory out earlier in the process? Bring more flexibility to your distribution and fulfillment capacities to control your costs, but most importantly, retain customers through profitable fulfillment. As the data from NRF reminds retailers, consumers want and expect free shipping, how can retailers better leverage a network view of their inventory to address this trend.
  • Leverage the digital supply chain to focus on creating a user profile. Can retailers follow their customers as they progress from pre-K to college and beyond? This insight may open up opportunities to provide location-based value-added services. If a child is about to be a junior in high school, inform them of a local college prep program. Create some contextual wrappers around your inventory. Leverage the digital mirror to your supply chain to create stickiness to your brand. Hopefully this not allows for a degree of brand loyalty, but allows the retailer to do a better job with demand sensing and shaping.

Back to school can be stressful enough – as retailers let’s not have the added stress of how to continue to drive and capture revenue in a world of omnichannel and consumer-driven supply chains. There are opportunities to protect revenue but also uncover new opportunities; the retailers that start to think network and digital are pointed in the right direction.

[1] Data from NRF – https://nrf.com/news/infographic-look-back-school-supplies-lists-and-online-shopping

[2] Consumerization of the retail supply chain is the shift in dynamic towards the consumer. The consumer has become the focal point in the retail supply chain.

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Pokemon GO…can retailers learn anything from this latest fad?

Unless you have been living like Brian Cranston’s character at the end of Breaking Bad, in complete isolation in the back woods of New England, you have read about, hear about or even are playing Pokemon Go. A game that builds on the Pokemon franchise, leverages users mobile phones and gives them the opportunity to hunt around the real world looking for Pokemon characters. There have been stories of people literally running into each other while staring at their phone screens as they indexsearch for these characters, robbers setting up people searching for prizes and instead falling into traps. Gamers have even, allegedly, caused accidents as they try to capture rare characters…ugh. But aside from these stories, are there lessons we can take from this latest cult phenomena?  Yes, there are some lessons we can take from this latest fad:

  • Geolocation applications connect the physical to the digital. Foursquare and Gowalla came out a decade ago and motived users to “check” in at locations and earn prizes such as stickers, trophies and mayorships. I wrote about the opportunity back then to use this new scavenger hunting type application to drive your brand and value, click here. These tools have gone through a roller coaster when it comes to “success.” Gowalla went out of business, Foursquare tried to rebrand themselves under Swarm but social media giant Facebook came out with their own check in options – somewhat validating the space. Retailers have dabbled with using these tools to drive traffic, trying to tie promotions to check ins and extract data from user generated data. This did not live up to the hype. But other applications such as Yelp have added check in functionality themselves. Even couponing sites such as Groupon are leveraging geolocation to provide relevant coupons. So what does this mean? Retailers and brands should not look at these recent situations as an indication that geolocation applications do not have a place in driving foot traffic. The impact of mobile on the retail supply chain has been well documented, but being able to influence physical behavior via our mobile devices still holds out potential.
  • Gamification can allow you to engage with your customer. The notion of gamification has been a topic of great excitement recently as more companies are looking to gamify such functions as HR, look at how HCM systems offer point systems that reward employees for working out, eating fruit over Cheetos or taking a yoga class. Event applications such as Doubledutch allow for firms to drive behavior at events where users are rewarded for checking in to sessions, participating in scavenger hunts, posting pictures or using an events hashtag. Firms are scrambling to figure out how to infuse gamification into their service offerings, can we make stale activities more fun? Can we drive consumers to seek rewards like points or stickers to shift behavior? Clearly there are some use cases that are gaining traction. Retailers and brands need to consider how can they use these tools to influence their customers’ behaviors? Companies can look to gamification to integrate themselves into what most of us carry on a daily basis – our mobile phones.

Pokemon Go has demonstrated that the confluence of disruptors such as cloud based applications such as Google Maps, tied into a mobile device which leverages the GPS system and camera, have opened up a new world. A true mash up of the digital world and the physical world. Retailers, who have brick and mortar, need to watch this closely. Can they figure out a way to drive foot traffic to their stores? Can they use the challenge of a scavenger hunt to motivate customers to come to their stores to “find” items whether real or virtual? While there are mixed reactions to the Pokeman Go, retailers should see this as a reminder of what is possible when they tie in the digital and physical worlds.

I will be excited to see a retailer that taps into our phones to allow us to have a scavenger hunt for what shirt goes with a suit, where to find the right cuff links and pocket square and whether monk strap shoes or wing tips are the best. Hmmm maybe someone should develop such an app! Until then, go find a Pickachu!

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Brexit – the unthinkable is now reality.

Late last night, in the UK, the news came out that the English populous had voted to leave the European Union. The finally tally was 48.1% to remain and 51.9% to leave – the impacts on the financial markets were immediate and as expected quite negative as the Pound Sterling dropped to its lowest levels versus the US Dollar since 1985, the stock markets across the global rapidly shed value and the impacts on British companies also suffered drastic losses on the market. Bell weather British retailers such as Marks & Spencer, Sports Direct and Tesco have suffered double digit percentage losses on the open markets. The repercussions are only beginning to be felt throughout the global economy. Let’s take a quick look at some areas that will feel the impact.

  • Disruptions to our supply chains come in many forms: One common thread with supply chains, is the fear and dislike of disruptions and unknowns. Often times we focus on such disruptions such as raw material cost fluctuating, demand being fickle or transportation costs to name a few, but Brexit reminds us that one large disrupting force are geo-politically driven. The severing of ties to the open market will impact supply chains when it comes to tariffs, trade agreements, freedom of labor movements, access to capital to name a few. How supply chains react to such disruptors comes down to how nimble and how flexible the supply chain network has been built. No supply chain can prepare for every possible disruptor, but how quickly the supply chain can lean on its digital mirror to react faster will separate which supply chains that simply survive and which thrive in moments of chaos. Supply chains must be nimble enough to be able to react to such changes – which markets will become more profitable, where may new costs impact profits, what about labor costs – these are but a few questions that supply chains must be able to address in order to survive and thrive in this environment.
  •  Impacts on the United Kingdom: As mentioned above, UK based firms as well as the currency is already feeling the impact. And this is simply the beginning of these changes. When it comes to such supply chains as retail, there will be issues around access to labor as well as the open markets. According to The Wall Street Journal, retail, which is Britain’s largest private sector, has leaned on labor coming from the European Union to bolster their needs. The labor tends to be more economically than locally hired assets. One of those countries, Poland, has by some reports close to 1m workers in England. Many of whom are in the retail sector. What will happen now with this labor pool? In addition, this labor pool sends back close to 1b pounds home annually, helping that local economy with discretionary spending. Retail will be impacted both in the UK and Poland in this example. The leave vote has also stoked some fires for North Ireland and Scotland to reconsider their stance within the United Kingdom, as both voted heavily to remain in the EU. If these nations break off what does that do for UK based nations and their supply chains? Will there be a move of services, financial and even manufacturing to these geographically close markets?
  • Wake up call for the EU: The European Union has just seen the second largest economy and one of the major players of its Union turn their back on the club. The statement coming from across the English Channel was, we are better off not being part of the one of the largest global markets and rather go it alone. The shift within the EU will tilt even more towards Germany. As the lean manufacturing powerhouse of the EU, it will continue to see its influence and power growing now that the UK can no longer wield the influence it had when it was part of the EU. What remains to be seen is which EU nations step up to try and counter balance Germany? France? Italy? None of the above? The silver lining in this vote is the possible kick in the pants this gives the EU to address issues from debt to immigration to trade. There are two clear paths the EU can follow – a slow and painful break down or a reawakening and resurgence as a stronger entity.

What all this reminds us, is that our supply chains are under constant pressure from disruptors. They can can come from natural events such as earthquakes in Japan, Tsunamis in the Indian Ocean or volcanic explosions in Iceland. Disruptors can pop up because of misinterpretations of demand signals, poor communications between suppliers, errors in forecasting and the list goes on. Finally we have witnessed, once again, a major supply chain disruptor that comes from geopolitical events. The standard operating procedure should be to expect these to continue to be part of our supply chains.

At a fundamental level, the turmoil that Brexit has unleashed, casts a light on the importance of having a much more robust and clear view of the extend supply chain network. How well does your supply chain have a clear and understanding of the digital mirror of your physical supply chain? The more industrial grade digital supply chain you have to mirror your physical supply chain the greater flexibility your supply chains will have to react to these occurrences. For example, if a UK based grocer depends on supplies from French vineyards for wine, Italian distributors for olives and Spanish farmers for pork, with the new geopolitical shifts how fast can this grocer find new sources of product? How rapidly can they determine the potential cost impacts new tariffs etc may have on their cost to fulfill? Without greater transparency and understanding of the network they might be operating with old data or even no data. A challenge in a market that demands rapid and wise reactions to these disruptions.

End of the day we don’t know what the long term and even short term effects will be. This is unprecedented and will be the first time Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon will be enacted. The reality is that there is no “status quo” we are in a world that is constantly changing and demands that our supply chains do the same. How well prepared is your supply chain to deal with such disruptions?

As the famous English saying goes – Stay Calm and check your supply chain.

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Anaplan – finally spelling the end of Excel?

indexThe whirlwind Spring event season is finally starting to wind down…sort of. Most recently I was in San Francisco attending the Anaplan user conference at the Fairmont. Not a bad location to spend a few days. Although I will say the hallways remind me a bit of the movie The Shining. Over the past year, Anaplan has emerged as one of Silicon Valley’s unicorns. With a valuation over $1billion and a large cash infusion earlier in 2016, the pressure and expectations are mounting. Rightfully so, their ambitions appear to be on par – to become the de facto planning platform. In essence they are looking to replace the old workhorse known as Microsoft Excel. Talk about an ambitious and lofty goal.

Anaplan plays in a host of functional areas, ranging from finance and human resources to sales and supply chain (more on the last later) and in a range of industries from financial services to CPG. Their underlying technology allows these businesses to create the planning models and apps required to manage their operations, in many cases taking Excel spreadsheets head on. As Anaplan’s CMO Grant Halloran stated from main stage – Excel has spread like a virus. I don’t think he meant that in a positive way! But the reality is the tool has been on our desktops for decades, its simplicity and lack of a comparable cross industry platform has made it ubiquitous. Because of this it has spread like a virus. And for all its shortcomings it does work. Is it the most robust planning tool out there? No. But sometimes good enough is better than perfect. So does Anaplan have a chance? Their momentum suggests it does, particular for large use cases where Excel has simply withered under the sheer volume of data, complexity of the process, or both. Let’s focus on one area they have invested heavily in over the past 2 years – supply chain.

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Gunning for an icon.

First of all, supply chain means a lot of things to a lot of people. While I believe it goes beyond factories and warehouses, the outer boundaries of what supply chain management is remains a moving target. A clear opportunity for Anaplan – but one that will require both focus and execution, as well as making some hard decisions as to what to ignore. Where does the company continue to invest? Do they want to focus on complex planning around bill of materials and sourcing, does it make more sense to focus on demand planning or do they lean on their work with financial planning and look at the sales & operations planning (S&OP) space? They already have an impressive list of customers in the space headlined by the likes of Diageo and Del Monte. Of course these spaces have some entrenched players that Anaplan has been competing against and scoring some wins. However, to continue to build on these successes they need to continue to bolster their supply chain talent across the board, evolve their strategy, and most importantly, keep building the use case library that demonstrates their ability to address supply chain issues.

The challenge for Anaplan remains that their brand is not fully established within the supply chain space. That can be both an opportunity – being the fresh face in the space – but also a challenge – where is your street cred? Supply chain professionals are fickle, they want to know that you have experience and use cases that are tightly aligned with their needs. But nothing ventured, nothing gained!

There is clearly the desire from the top management at Anaplan. As a unicorn with cash, they should have both the resources and cool factor to continue to attract the appropriate talent to make this vision a reality. But the road is full of grizzled veterans and many have tried to displace Excel. I have joked with colleagues that had Microsoft branded itself as a supply chain vendor they would be the #1 vendor, thanks to Excel. Go bold or go home seems to be the name of the game these days, clearly Anaplan is looking to do so. Maybe the new kid has what the grizzled veterans didn’t – the right technology.

For another view of the event please read my colleague Doug Henschen’s piece – click here.

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Aptos one year in and the future is bright

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Around this time last year Aptos and their leadership team were still under the Epicor banner, after close to a year as an independent firm Aptos hosted their first user conference. Fortunately for me I was able to head back to Las Vegas for the fourth time in 6 weeks – this time I didn’t test my luck at the blackjack tables. Being in Las Vegas seemed to be appropriate as the investment firm Apax Partners is gambling on Aptos and their leadership team to be successful in a very competitive retail landscape. Time will tell if the gamble will pay off…but first some reactions to the conference:

  • It is about the people – at the end of the day, regardless of what business you are in, people buy from people. Maybe one day when bots have taken over they will purchase from each other and we will be left to fend off Skynet. Not only do we buy from other people, but the biggest driver for happy employees are the people we work with and for. Aptos is taking a refreshing take on this, emphasizing the importance of culture and people. The investors in Aptos took to main stage to reinforce this, stating that they were making an investment in the business but also the leaders, from CEO Noel Goggin on down. Noel also emphasized the importance in the team he has built to manage the growth and opportunity for Aptos. This focus on the people is refreshing…and at the end of the day business is about people working with and dealing with other people.
  • Leaning on a legacy of cloud – the cloud is no longer an enigma but is firmly entrenched as the preferred vehicle to deliver software. Not simply because it lowers the total cost of ownership (TCO) but today it is starting to show its true business value. Allowing for retailers and others to quickly scale whether in terms of product growth of geographical expansion. A number of the customers we visited such as Tory Burch, Michael Kors and Nike were looking to Aptos to help empower their global expansions – this was made easier due to the cloud-based solution. Other retailers such as Tumi were looking to lean on the cloud-based solution to have a much more dynamic and flexible inventory system. Truly tying together their inventory whether in the store, storage room or distribution center. The cloud is here, the cloud is the preferred vehicle for product and the cloud allows greater business value.
  • Further up to the customer or further back into supply chain? So where can Aptos go from here? Granted they have plenty of opportunity within their existing client base as well as closing net new opportunities. But is there a play for Aptos to push further back into the stack and provide their customers with greater views in the sourcing and manufacturing portion of their supply chain? Or move even deeper to the omni-channel needs of the consumer, building on their acquisition of ShopVisible, placing a bigger bet on eCommerce world where the likes of Demandware are present? They have shown an ability to build out the necessary assets, for example QuantiSense brining more powerful analytics to their portfolio. This will provide even greater insights into the customer demands. For Aptos to truly reach its potential we feel they will need to think through some of these strategies, whether they partner or develop their own solutions that is up to Noel and his team to figure out.

Thankfully what happens in Vegas isn’t staying in Vegas for Aptos. They come of out of a successful user event with the wind at their backs. Noel and the team have carved out a nice space to play in. However there are many fierce competitors out there, their honeymoon period is long over. The team is in place and with some strong customer stories it is up to Aptos to step up and really push their story.

If you were to place a bet, Aptos seems to have some favorable odds. But as we all know, nothing in Las Vegas is a sure thing!

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JDA hosts a great event…but what does the future hold?

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I just came back from Nashville, well actually Las Vegas but was in Nashville to start the week. The JDA Focus 2016 event was being held in the Music City. It brought together a large gathering of some of the top supply chain professionals from the around the globe. Per usual, JDA put on a good show, at least the first day since that was what I was able to attend! But even being in Nashville for less than 24 hours, I took away some observations from the event and JDA:

  • Talking a good game – The main stage presentations by CEO Bal Dail and Chief Revenue Office Razat Guarav were in stark contrast to the former administrations. How? Much more focused on the disruptors facing the market and with a keen eye on the future. Bal focused on the company embarking in a “big pivot” focusing on how customers are impacting our businesses. While Razat hit on the major disruptors that face supply chains and our industries. More on both later. What was refreshing was a message from main stage that called out and hit on many of the trends and drivers that we are all facing. Both Bal and Razat also started giving the audience a glimpse into how JDA will address these shifts, whether it is the new retail.me offering, greater emphasis on JDA labs or creating a digital hub, all promising efforts to address their customers’ needs. Coupling their willingness to address new disruptors head on coupled with solutions that are poised to take on these changes was refreshing to hear from this leadership team, not always what would come from main stage.
  • Facing disruptorsand making the pivot – One of the big threads that we at Constellation Research have been working on with our customers were reflected on main stage in Nashville (as much as I would like to take credit for those ideas…alas I cannot). Razat hit on 5 big themes of disruption: mobile, IoT, social, cloud and big data. We speak at length about these disruptors; feel free to read our research, but what is the biggest underlying driver is the rise of the consumer. Many of these disruptors have empowered the consumer, given the consumer a growing voice in the ecosystem. When it comes to the supply chain whether you are B2B or B2C the consumer has become the driver – your business must make this the center of their strategy. The same goes for the technology providers that are servicing these businesses. Bal and his team have a great challenge ahead as they look to pivot themselves to help their customers’ better address the consumers and the disruptors that have made chaos the new norm.
  • So where does JDA go from here? So JDA is painting a picture of awareness and willingness to pivot to meet their customers’ needs. Good. But what does the future hold for JDA? Over the past decade the company has absorbed Manugistics, i2 Technologies and Red Prairie. All were best of breed supply chain solution providers. JDA became, on paper, a supply chain powerhouse being able to address a wide array of industry needs. Ranging from process and discrete manufacturing, retail and logistics. Impressive. But the question remains – what does New Mountain Capital have in mind long term for this asset? While other supply chain players have been focusing their efforts on specific industries – players like Plex focused on manufacturing, Aptos being spun off from Epicor to focus on retail while Epicor can concentrate on ERP. Can JDA continue to find success competing on all fronts? Or do they need to consider following a similar strategy as Epicor and break up the parts? Maybe the pieces competing on their own are more powerful than the whole? I do not believe this is the only direction JDA can take, but at some point New Mountain Capital will want to reap the rewards from their investment. How that happens will be interesting to observe.

JDA remains a major player in the field of supply chain. The leadership and culture have an aggressive level of expectations of themselves and the business – it is now up to the solutions and software to catch up. They are clearly aware and in tune with the disruptors that are impacting all businesses. The next few months will be crucial for the JDA leadership team to implement their pivot strategy and find success.

 

Disclosure – I worked at i2 Technologies from 2004 to 2009, i2 Technologies was acquired by JDA in 2009.

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