Tech can’t solve all problems, but it can certainly power the gateway to progress. For Elliott Rodgers, Ulta Beauty chief information officer and an RIS News CIO of the Year, technology has indeed been enabler for everything he’s accomplished during his career.
A CIO of the Year Award, bestowed upon the industry’s most influential and inventive retail technologists, is being given to Rodgers for his work in deploying an enterprise-wide, integrated operations planning platform. With the beauty retailer since 2013, he transitioned to the role of CIO last year after previously serving as its chief supply chain officer.
A West Point graduate who spent several years in the U.S. Army, Rodgers held roles at Citi, Caesars Entertainment Corporation and Target before joining Ulta Beauty as VP of supply chain strategy. Technology and operations have been core to all of his work experiences, he tells RIS.
And while many retailers have historically operated under the misconception that business and technology sit separately within an organization — often bringing technology into the conversation after the business strategy has been determined — Rodgers operates with the mindset that true success is found when they’re treated with equal weight.
Retailers that can merge business and technology meaningfully create value for both associates and customers. This positions retailers for future success — and when done seamlessly, it serves as a key differentiator, he says.
Seamless Management During Difficult Times
Seeking greater harmony between business and tech led Ulta Beauty to partner with WorkJam in 2019 to modernize its workforce management capabilities while aligning with its operational, financial and executional goals.
In addition to enhancing productivity and employee engagement, the initiative boosted compliance and bidirectional communication to Ulta Beauty’s front-line associates. A Digital Workplace was established to provide front-line workers with such resources as mobile scheduling, shift management, communication, training and other collaboration tools to complete their jobs more efficiently and effectively.
By consolidating key functionality into the WorkJam Digital Workplace platform, Ulta Beauty also streamlined its technology footprint, completing both task and workforce management in a single interface. This in turn has removed friction on the associate level to unlock greater visibility into operations and increase collaboration.
“Task management is a very critical function for our large, in-store and distribution center associate base in terms of workforce scheduling, communication and training. Tools and resources are such an integral part of having an engaged, productive workforce; arming them with these helps them to really perform effectively within the organization,” notes Rodgers.
Doing this efficiently and effectively across a large organization has been a challenge in the past, but the new capabilities were implemented in a natural, ubiquitous manner, seamlessly aligning with how most associates engage with technology. Ulta Beauty can now complete mobile scheduling, including shift management, communication and even video training via the integrated operations platform.
“Being able to connect the critical functionality of task management to ways associates use technology in their daily lives was a really big unlock for us,” he says.
Rodgers notes Ulta Beauty’s technology adoption curve with pride. The need for top-notch workforce management was already a key concern for the retailer prior to the onset of COVID-19 which only further strengthened its value. When stores closed in March 2020, having the tech in place enabled the retailer to engage and communicate with its workforce during a time of disruption and uncertainty.
The fluidity of associate availability and scheduling became particularly acute during the pandemic given the myriad of considerations. Integrating the platform proved to be invaluable, especially given the advantages it provided for company leadership to directly communicate through video with associates.
Ulta's Improvements With the Implementation
Via digital task assignment and individual associate logins: Managers previously assigned tasks by printing them 63% of the time; this dropped to 21%. Resulted in estimated annual net savings of $104,000 from reduced printing.
Via priority indicators and sorting: 69% of stores said they have a “clear priority of all tasks” vs. 56% in the legacy platform; 75% of stores feel it “meets their needs for managing workload” vs. 52% previously.
Via mobile access and user interface: When surveyed if their current tool “met their needs for assigning workload,” favorable responses from associates and managers improved by 6% overall vs. legacy system.
As such, the existing foundation proved to be extremely valuable for the Ulta Beauty associates who shifted to working from home. “In many ways, we were operating with technology as the backbone for connectivity so the change curve, relatively speaking, was pretty quick because we had tools in place,” he notes. “I think that worked to our advantage in transitioning to the remote environment.”
Ulta Beauty prides itself on its values-based culture including such things as Give Wow Experiences, Win Together, Do What’s Right and Champion Diversity — and works hard to ensure these values are well known and understood across the enterprise.
“Part of what makes our business so successful is that everybody's connected by a common set of values,” Rodgers says. “They’re very well-known and well-understood across the organization. It starts there.”
Collaboration is a core component of the company’s operational excellence, and it’s powered by all, from leadership to entry-level associates. There is a balance of bringing one’s functional expertise to bear through an enterprise lens, Rodgers says, in order to remain cognizant of how decisions can impact other parts of the organization.
Continuous improvement is also a core value — titled Improve Always — and the company strives to foster an environment where all associates feel empowered to be able to drive Ulta Beauty’s progress.
“That's something that's served us well. We aren’t complacent as an organization — and that shows in our track record of success,” he notes. “What I love about our culture is that we strive for continuous improvement, and we empower our associates to know can contribute to make us all better.”
It is this culture that consistently provides the CIO with optimism for the future. Time and again, Ulta Beauty associates have proven their ability to adapt to rapidly changing environments while delivering experiences reflective of the company’s overall commitment to both employees and customers.
“We have amazing associates who are really passionate about what they do, and who have been incredibly resilient throughout a very unprecedented year,” he says. “These are the people who continue to successfully differentiate Ulta Beauty — and their passion plus technology make me excited about the future.”