ST. PETE BEACH — As president and CEO of the Global Retail Marketing Association, Stephanie Fischer rubs elbows with some of the top minds in retail. Her group's advisory board includes marketing officials from David's Bridal, Dunkin' Brands, Michael's, Havertys, eBay and Payless ShoeSource.
Her 14-year-old association connects retailers to share and develop ways to succeed in the fast-changing world of shopping. Efforts culminate with the annual GRMA Executive Leadership Forum, held in May at the Loews Don CeSar Hotel in St. Pete Beach.
Previously based in Los Angeles, Fischer moved the group to St. Pete Beach a year ago. An avid scuba diver, she liked the area and wanted to be closer to the association's membership base.
In an interview with the Times, Fischer, 42, spoke about how retailers are adapting to changes in technology and using new ways of thinking to drive growth and innovation.
Retail sales rose a mere 0.3 percent in May. What are some of the challenges facing today's retailers?
It's a tough time. Retail is in a constant state of flux. As growth slows because of the transformation from brick and mortar to a digital retail sphere, it's now really competitive and technology driven. From what I am hearing from retailers, the challenge is a combination of developing the right talent and culture, coupled with the ability to understand and utilize the enormous amounts of data that customers are allowing companies to capture.
Big data seems all the retail rage. What is the best use of it right now?
They say it's big data, but it needs to become smart data, and that starts with experimentation. Retailers need to build a culture that supports an infrastructure of experimentation and testing. What's probably the biggest trouble is turning big data into smart data, being able to ask the right questions. On the other hand, it's an exciting time because experimentation is cheaper, faster, and if you are capitalizing on the right kind of data, you can improve your experience with your customers.
When you talk about collecting smart data, are you talking about people's email addresses and purchase history, or are you delving deeper?
I think we want to delve even deeper and capture a 360-degree view of the customer. What is that customer's behavior? Where is that customer shopping? What kind of transactions is that customer making? You hear about technologies coming out that measure what people are doing when they come into a store. Are they purchasing in the store? Are they just looking?
Although mobile reflects a small but growing percentage of retail sales, how are retailers best embracing the technology?
There is a lot of experimentation going on right now, and that's a great thing. Retailers have to have an understanding and ability to be an intersection of both hyper local and hyper real time. That's what embracing mobility is all about. So the successful retailers are structuring their businesses to take advantage of permission-based engagement strategies (based on relevant information supplied by customers), especially when the customer is online and in stores. They are understanding that mobile engagement is not a new vehicle for discounts.
What are retailers doing to unify brick-and-mortar and online stores and break down the silos?
One thing we've been saying for a while is that the chief marketing officer has been and continues to be the voice of the customer. But you also have to get buy-in from other departments, and that begins with aligning your culture and your entire organization. First, it's around your customers and then around your employees so you have a seamless, personalized message across every touch point, whether it's online or offline. You're seeing at companies the new role of chief customer officer and head of omni-channel (who focuses on creating a seamless approach to customer experience through different shopping channels). It's a transformation all retailers are going through.
Chains like Best Buy and RadioShack are shrinking the size of their stores or closing locations. Do you think that's something that will happen even more in the future?
I think you are going to see a lot of experimentation because retailers are going to have to accommodate future customer needs on how, when and where they want to be served, whether it is online or mobile. We'll be seeing some shift. It's not enough in this day and age to optimize what you're already doing or try to do it better. You have to find new value creation and engage effectively with your customers.