Pacesetters 2020: Fast Rising Retail Executives
The pace of change has never been faster for the retail industry. Retailers in 2020 are innovating new solutions and making technology moves quicker than they ever thought possible.
In that vein, this year’s Pacesetters are carving a new path for executives in the retail industry to follow. From data and analytics to communications, artificial intelligence, automation, pricing and more, our 2020 honorees comprise a group of fast-rising retail executives leading their fields today.
RIS’ annual Pacesetters honors retail executives pioneering ground-breaking solutions across retail verticals. While their skills may vary, every member of the list is boldly setting the pace for success in an industry where technology is evolving by the day.
Congratulations to the retailers named below; they are true industry leaders who are sparking innovation.
Michael Caldwell, Loyalty Manager, Yesway
While loyalty technology may sometimes be overlooked, now more than ever retailers need powerful programs in place. Enter Michael Caldwell, loyalty manager for Yesway, who has been setting the triumphant pace for the convenience retailer’s loyalty build since 2017. The growth and success of Yesway Rewards is completely driven by data insights, says Caldwell.
“The nature of the program is basic — customers swipe their card or scan their app when purchasing merchandise or gas at any of our stores and earn points that can be redeemed for free items. The ‘guts’ of the program, however, are quite complex.”
Caldwell works with loyalty program vendor Paytronix’s data insights department almost daily to learn about Yesway members and implement AI-driven, one-to-one campaigns targeting segments of its member base specifically. One continuous “one-to-one” campaign produced an increase in spend of around 9% when compared to a control group. When a secondary level of AI was implemented to the campaign, which made the reward more relevant to each customer, the spend lift was boosted to over 28%. Using data to develop highly targeted offers has resulted in measurable increases in customer visits and sales.
“This engagement has helped us create and refine a loyalty program that is simple to use, highly engaging, and provides a tremendous amount of value to our customers, which, in turn, increases their loyalty to Yesway and keeps them coming back to our stores,” he says.
Looking ahead, Caldwell is as busy as ever. The launch of Yespay, a mobile wallet accessed through the Yesway Rewards app, is scheduled for later this year. An online ordering and curbside pickup app and website is expected to be piloted this fall with a full rollout to more locations at the start of 2021, and Allsup’s, which the retailer acquired last November, will have its first loyalty program unveiled later this fall. Caldwell and his team are in the process of upgrading all 304 Allsup’s stores with PDI, which will serve as the technological backbone for the newly created loyalty program.
“The best advice I can give,” this Pacesetter says, “is to become an Excel nerd and learn to embrace, love and use data.”
Jennifer Kastner Colato, Director, Store Operations Communications Systems, Lowe’s
To say it’s an exciting time to work at Lowe’s would be an understatement. As director of store operations communications systems, Jennifer Kastner Colato spends her days navigating new software requirements and developing ways to improve the experience for store associates. Both of these things are, of course, motivated by a commitment to delivering great customer experiences.
Her work in deploying an enterprise tasking system built on the Reflexis platform continually explores how to leverage APIs for dynamic task building to streamline the process for the users and support teams at Lowe’s. She’s also currently taking a closer look at the company’s communication tools to reimagine a personalized and prioritized view for its associates.
“It truly is an exciting time to be at Lowe’s. We are evolving at such a rapid pace to ensure we are supporting our customers’ needs for an omnichannel shopping experience,” Colato says.
One of the new technologies her team is developing is a curated, personalized and prioritized view of tasking and communication for Lowe’s associates. “Data is king for us! We are passionate about making data-driven decisions, and when you consider 300,000 users, we are able to impact soft savings substantially if we provide a frictionless resource site for the team,” she notes.
Looking ahead, Colato and team are leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning to ID and realize data trends to task and train associates to meet both sales and personal goals. This tech is expected to be deployed in the second half of the year.
Staying on the cutting-edge is a priority for both sides of the register at Lowe’s. “Customers and associates are looking for robust technology solutions allowing them to shop seamlessly from their home, and the store, and with the increasingly popular curbside pickup service,” she notes. For example, while Lowe’s curbside pickup service had been evolving, the service needed to be delivered in a scalable solution in the last six months in order to meet today’s consumer behavior.
Chadwick Hamby, Senior Director of Global E-Commerce Operations, GNC
Chadwick Hamby has been busy in his three years at GNC. In addition to working on the retailer’s expansion into Canada, the senior director of global e-commerce operations has been navigating the highs and lows of the COVID-19 pandemic, chief of which has included deploying ship-from-store in a matter of just 10 days.
Both of these priorities were aided and abetted by GNC’s implementation of a new EnVista order management system (OMS). The system’s integration with Proship has enabled GNC to receive real-time updates on transportation, and it’s also helped the retailer elevate its customer experience level from transactional to exceptional, Hamby says.
As any tech pro who’s been part of a relationship transition knows well, the risk of things — orders, customer relationships, future sales — falling through the cracks during a changeover is great. Not only were Hamby and team focused on reaping the benefits of their new technology, exiting their previous 15-year vendor relationship on amicable terms was also of great import.
“Strategic objectives include our first rule: Do no harm,” Hamby says. “We needed to make the new technology transition seamless for our customers who have been with us for many years, and inject them into a 21st century model without them knowing.”
Impressively, GNC never missed an order during the OMS deployment. Even after getting slammed by the pandemic, systems continue flowing, and the company even tripled in e-commerce volume orders at times.
Looked ahead, Hamby is working with his team to develop a baseline of what it’s accomplished thus far as it expands on the creative fulfillment options now required by consumers: BOPIS, ship-to-store, enhanced curbside pick-up, same-day delivery and in-store order generation.
For those who are intent on rising quickly through the retail IT ranks, Hamby advises that they do their homework and know their market. “Anybody can sell you a dream. Deal with vendors who have proven track records.”
Phani Korasala, Director, Product Management, Worldwide Merchandising and Operations, Walmart International
Phani Korasala has been leading Walmart's digital transformation across 26 countries since 2018 as the director of product management for Walmart International. However, he’s been setting the pace of change within Walmart since he started at Walmart Canada in 2015, where he helped build a new, dynamic pricing strategy, and led the development of a new solution powered by analytics and robotic automation to drive transparency, efficiency and proactive pricing tactics.
Korasala moved to Walmart International as one of the first leaders to help drive the digital transformation for merchandising. The first step was to solve for the complexity and yet address differences in operations across the globe. Korasala led the transformation from legacy, disparate systems to a more nimble, modular architecture that can realize the value of building global solutions configured to local needs.
Realizing the need for automation and deeper analytics, he steered the team to leapfrog from many the rules-based engines that warranted user inputs to more AI-driven enterprise products based on neural networks, machine learning and natural language processing algorithms. This allowed merchants to manage exceptions, reducing their transactional time from multiple days to just a few hours a week. Today, 60% of merchant operations run at 95% automation.
Since COVID-19 struck, Korasala has been leading the acceleration efforts on connecting the various functions of merchandising to provide a bird’s-eye “Flight Deck” view that enables merchants to have real-time visibility to financial, operational and productivity metrics. The domain integration will transform the way merchants run their categories by bringing the customer and product lifecycle together, while merchants continue to work remotely and yet be closer than ever to how their categories are performing. The foundation that was laid in 2019 is allowing Walmart to deploy features five times faster and accelerate their digital transformation by handling the needs of multiple geographies at the same time.
Korasala advises others that it is okay to be the unpopular person in the room.
“Change is hard and not easy to be agreed upon,” he says. “Have conviction and persevere with your ideas. Challenging status-quo more often than not unlocks value.”
Amii Lang, Director, e-Commerce and Loyalty, Heinen’s Grocery Store
It has been said of Amii Lang that she leads her team with an infectious attitude of enthusiasm that both inspires and challenges at the same time. Over the past few years, Lang’s team has worked extensively on improving Heinen’s pricing and promotion initiatives across the company, from the implementation of pricing optimization and promotion assessment software to developing a new strategic approach.
Working with executive leadership, and in partnership with data science company dunnhumby, Lang and her team have redesigned the guidelines Heinen’s uses to approach pricing decisions — basing them on both customer and product behavior. Instead of forcing more cost-variable departments like produce into a model that doesn’t work for them, they were able to build a strategy that was flexible enough to account for the real-time changes departments experience.
Over the past year, pricing analysts have reviewed nearly 100 categories across all pricing zones through a deep-dive assessment, and the retailer’s category managers used the assessment tools to eliminate up to 20% of ineffective promotions in some categories.
“We continue to develop efficiencies through creation of feeds to solve issues that were previously manual, and are seeing margins continue to improve as our promotions become more effective,” explains Lang.
Lang, who was the director of agency operations at Rosetta prior to coming to Heinen’s, advises others to stay open to opportunities on strategic projects and initiatives that may not be in your current wheelhouse.
“Agility will allow you to learn more than expected, meet more people across your organization and industry, and stay challenged over the course of your career,” she says.
These days Lang is working on a major project to overhaul Heinen’s customer-facing website, integrating three disparate sites into a single integrated solution. In partnership with marketing, IT and executive leadership, her team has worked through all internal planning and testing phases for a launch later this summer. The new website will boast local store pages, an updated loyalty experience, an improved interactive recipe experience and an integrated e-commerce experience.
Kimberly Mack, Brand Manager, Digital Strategy & Media, The GIANT Company
As brand manager, Kimberly Mack is responsible for The GIANT Company’s digital strategy and media, ensuring the grocer is reaching customers in the right channels at the right time — with the right message across every touchpoint in their digital journey.
“As a digital team, we are constantly looking in to new ways that we can make our customers shopping experience better — making it even more simple, bringing them value and convenience, and inspiring them no matter where or how they shop,” Mack says. “Whether with new enhancements to our current digital experience or new experiences altogether, our focus is putting the customer and their needs first.”
As such, it’s no surprise that technology and innovation are top priorities for company growth, especially during this critical period. Just before COVID-19 took hold, GIANT launched e-commerce brands GIANT Direct and MARTIN’S Direct, which Mack describes as critical to their customers, and it has seen exponential growth in both its pickup and delivery businesses.
Mack and team have also helped launch various contactless and other must-have tech options for customers during the pandemic, including Deli Order Ahead functionality available on its mobile app, and a ScanIt mobile app that lets consumers scan items as they shop for faster checkout.
“Any technology that helps reduce the spread of COVID-19 and makes customers and employees feel safe has had the biggest influence on the retail industry and has helped keep businesses afloat,” she notes.
Also crucial: the cybersecurity technologies that allow corporate grocery retail workers like Mack to work remotely to keep the businesses up and running and support its tens of thousands of in-store team members.
During less chaotic times, Mack has also worked on such fun and emerging technology as the grocer’s first augmented reality experience, the GIANT Snowflake Search. This interactive experience, tested in 15 stores last winter, leveraged gamification to drive loyalty program awareness and engagement, exceeding business goals for customer adoption, penetration and engagement.”
“This experience provided learnings around the AR technology that we look forward to building into our strategy and concepts in the future,” Mack says.
Anna Periklos, Manager, Customer Experience, Store Strategy and Operations, Gap Inc.
Much of Anna Periklos’s career has involved improving the store experience for both employees and customers, and she notes a holistic view of the business has helped her career substantially. This fast-rising retail exec is now transitioning to senior change manager, product management, within Gap Inc. from her current position as manager, customer experience, store strategy and operations.
“I held my first roles in the field (both in apparel and technology retail) and understand the end user, which is incredibly important from a relatability and change management perspective,” she says. “I built my relationships through collaboration, influence and a good dose of curiosity to get involved in technology initiatives running parallel to my work with people and engagement to drive strategy and adoption.”
During her time at Gap Inc. she has helped define evolving service strategies and operational processes behind many engagement and technology initiatives found in North America Banana Republic stores today. Whether it’s testing a service model using mobile-point-of-sale or piloting a new product education app, Periklos’s passion has always been to provide retail teams with the best training and technology that help create meaningful customer experiences.
For example, Periklos and a dedicated team launched a new communications solution in 2019, Retail Zipline Associate Experience, to drive engagement and create new connection points with Banana Republic's retail associates.
“It was a big step in how we communicated with this population and allowed us to explore new ways to empower, educate, onboard, drive accountability, story-tell, recognize and gather critical information,” says Periklos.
The implementation of this piece of the platform allows the apparel retailer to continue to innovate and expand on ways to drive deeper two-way engagement between the field and headquarters, and within the field organization.
“During this unprecedented time,” she notes, “the platform enables us to deliver critical health and safety resources and expand on diversity, inclusion, equality and belonging conversations. Not to mention that continuing to move to a digitized platform for all engagement supports our long-term sustainability efforts. We’ve seen more meaningful conversations between store leaders and associates, and time savings since leaders are not solely responsibility for disseminating all critical information that must go to associates.”