I have been lucky enough to have made my living for the past 25 years in retail technology, and until Thursday, I thought I had never forgotten my retail roots. My retail roots run deep, because I literally grew up in retail: my grandfather used to look after me in his furniture store in Poughkeepsie, New York when I was just three years old. I began helping him with customers by the time I was six years old. He never paid me, but I loved being there with him, and I am sure I was always willing to provide a smiling face and a “helping hand” as he assisted customers (in hindsight, I think he owed may have owed me some commission, as I can’t help but think a smiling young boy helping his grandfather sell furniture was probably good for business!).
I landed my first paying retail job stacking apples and slinging watermelons off the back of a delivery truck for a local produce market in Columbia, South Carolina, at the age of 14. I continued to work in the industry for most of the next 15 years, culminating with a long stint in operations management at Marshall’s. In June of 1992, I made the leap to the retail technology industry and went to work for GERS Retail Systems as a software designer.
While the intervening 25 years in technology have been incredible, I still remember the vow I made the day I walked out of that Marshall’s store in Solana Beach, California, for the last time. I swore to myself that no matter where my career took me, I would never forget what it was like to work the register, or receive a shipment, or execute a floor reset, or take a markdown, or to perform any of the thousands of other tasks and projects that store personnel do on a daily basis.
A Disappointing Revelation
But Thursday, I realized, in a rather public setting, that I had in fact done what I swore I wouldn’t: I had lost touch with my retail roots. The incident that sparked this revelation was innocent enough: I was simply co-hosting a webinar on digital transformation of the store with Joe Skorupa, Editor in Chief of RIS News. Joe and I have hosted dozens of webinars together over the years, and by now we have become quite comfortable working together in what can often be a challenging format.
Yesterday’s webinar, like many we have done before, began very well. We both presented the findings from new studies we have conducted, and we had just transitioned to the analysis portion of the agenda. I innocently (or so I thought) asked Joe if he had an opinion as to why so many retailers he surveyed indicated that digital store transformation would have only a “small impact” on their performance. I told him I felt like they were underestimating the impact of this transformation, and I even went so far as to suggest that perhaps they weren’t taking the process seriously.
And that’s when it happened: I realized I had indeed lost touch with my roots. Joe’s reply, albeit completely without intent or malice, delivered in front of dozens of retailers, was like a slap in the face. He reminded me, quite correctly, that stores do things like this every. damn. day.
Just Another Day…
Joe reminded me that stores juggle dozens, if not hundreds, of projects a day, and that these digital transformation projects, while meaningful, still represent just another day in the amazing life of a store team. And he suggested that “we” needed to get out of our bubble. Joe is nothing if not an extremely nice guy, so I am pretty sure he was just being polite when he said “we” needed to get out of our bubble. Because I was clearly the one who needed to reconnect with the daily reality of life inside a retail store.
I won’t lie. That was a sobering moment. I felt like I let myself down, and worse still, I let down the people who turned to us for information and insight. I had carried that vow to remember life in the stores for almost 25 years. But somehow in recent months I guess I lost touch. Somehow I had forgotten the ferocity with which store teams attack every day. And I was stunned. I stumbled through the next couple of minutes until eventually I recovered well enough to complete the webinar with some semblance of poise.
The lesson Joe taught me that day was hard learned: if I expect to be able to effectively communicate to retailers and to help them thrive in these turbulent times of constant evolution, I need to stay connected to my roots. I need to maintain empathy and constantly seek to update my understanding of the challenges they face. I need to get out of my bubble.
So, thank you, Joe, for the much-needed wake-up call. It was long overdue.
Retail Ride-Alongs: Getting Back to My Roots
Here then, as my ruthless but always-on-the-money editor would say, is my personal call to action: I am going to get back to my roots. I am going to call my clients and friends throughout the industry, and I am going to ask them if I can experience a day in the life of one of their stores.
Much like I did when I was a young boy all those years ago at Wayside Furniture in Poughkeepsie, I will offer to pitch in and help where I can, even if that means doing nothing more than dusting shelves and smiling at customers while sales associates work their magic. Who knows? Maybe there will be policy restrictions or legal issues that prevent me from executing these “retail ride-alongs.” I don’t yet know what obstacles await, but I definitely aim to find out.
So stay tuned. If I am able to make it work, and secure a retail ride-along or two, I’ll let you know here how it goes. And then you can decide if I get out of that damn bubble, or not.