Brittany Bullard is a Solutions & Analytical Consultant in the Retail and Consumer Packaged Goods Practice at SAS Institute. Bullard focuses on retailers’ strategic problems and identifies the challenges they face in an evolving industry. Her role allows her to apply her knowledge of advanced analytics to solve the most pressing issues and position SAS’s customers for success.
Bullard brings to her team a decade of experience in the retail industry, and a fresh millennial perspective on the customer and user experience. Versed in retail forecasting and omnichannel analytics, she serves as a member of the Strategic Retail Analytics team at SAS and on the Global Retail Community of Industry Leaders as the representative for the United States.
StyleSage: It’s rare to meet someone who has such a breadth of exposure to all these different retail business functions - so tell us a little bit more about your background in retail. What is it about the industry that keeps you most excited and engaged?
Brittany: Yes, I have worked in a lot of different retail roles - starting at the store level - so there’s this level of understanding you get when you get to see the customer-retailer interaction firsthand. As I moved into planning roles - I brought that experience with me. One of the things I find most fascinating is that retail is constantly changing, and there’s this constant influx of new technology, brands, websites, and data elements, so it’s exciting to understand how fast retail changes and how analytics can help with that. A lot of brands and retailers are moving towards this change - in no small part because of their competition - and they are realizing that they aren’t going to last if they don’t change.
StyleSage: What have been some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry? Looking back, how do you think retail’s attitude towards analytics has changed?
Brittany: First, it does certainly depend on the type of retailer we’re talking about. There’s a lot of retailers who have historically had a way of doing business that was based on “stack em high and watch ‘em fly.” These guys were established when the economy was good, and frankly, things have changed, their competition is greater than it ever was before.
Thinking about things differently, when you consider company culture and how that relates to why things do or don’t change, some people are just comfortable, and they are scared of taking that risk. From a technology perspective, the investment can be large and requires a strong business case. Typically, with any type of analytic investment, the ROI pays for itself.
So at SAS, as we’ve thought about these challenges, and we created an offering called Results as a Service, which started about a year ago - not just in retail. What we saw was that these organizations didn’t have the analytical talent nor the IT resources to really utilize the technology. So how it works is that they give us the data, and we do the analysis and give them back the results. It’s such a huge value driver. Even starting with one department, we have seen a really great strides forward. And what’s really cool is that this becomes a self-funding project - they reap the benefits of the small pilot. In addition, you can get that internal traction to push the initiative forward.
Other things that are interesting to see changing are the actual job titles and functions - some companies now have Chief Analytics Officers and Chief Omni-Channel Merchandising Officers. You are definitely seeing different job titles that you wouldn’t have - even a few years ago.
StyleSage: I know one of SAS’ key themes is around helping organizations move from thinking to doing - or said differently - from having data to making the most of it. And it’s so true - there’s so much intelligence now inside these organizations. So where do they start? If there’s a need for triage - what should they be focused first?
Brittany: At SAS, we listen to their challenges and pain points - if they’re a mess all over the board - the first focus area in merchandising is typically how to optimize the up-front buy - by size assortment and then allocating that by location. And then second, we look at markdown optimization. While markdowns happen - you’ve got customers who like to shop markdowns - the more you can be strategic on how to localize your markdowns is a huge business driver. If you think about assortment planning that’s a longer time frame - you have to buy it, put it in stores. This versus the size and markdown planning - you can clean up those latter mistakes quickly.
StyleSage: I read one survey recently that said that less than half of retailers have a single view of both the customer and their stock - yet omni-channel investment is one of the single biggest pushes for retailers these days. What needs to happen for them to get to that single view - and a state of true omnichannel?
Brittany: It’s definitely a challenge for a lot of them. One way we think about it from an analytical perspective is bringing together sales by online and brick-and-mortar. If you actually look at a local trade area - if you combine local market’s e-commerce and physical store data, you can start to see how the two complement each other and how they can leverage each other’s data. You can reduce shipping costs and time to the customer, and you can ultimately become that much more competitive. That’s one way retailers should be shifting their mindset.
Then there’s this whole notion of customer and marketing. It’s really about data management. It’s about bringing all these sources together. For example, I shopped with my loyalty card in store, but I’m also buying on your mobile site, and more often than not, these retailers have all this data in different silos. It’s not a small undertaking, of course, but it’s critical.
StyleSage: When you work with teams on implementation - what do you find is the most significant barrier to them maximizing their investment in these technologies? Is there a component to its success or lack thereof, that centers on culture and leadership? How can businesses navigate that?
Brittany: So there are two things that I find to be the biggest challenge. And the first is having strong leadership pushing the initiative. If it is not coming down from the top and you don’t have everyone in the C-Suite engaged, these undertakings often have a lower likelihood of success. Their involvement is extremely important.
The other is trust in change management. On the analytics side, we urge customers before, during, and after implementation, to do scorecarding. Oftentimes if you see the scorecard results, you’re able to clearly illustrate the value to the business.
StyleSage: Customer experience is a huge theme in retail these days - and has been for some time - so which technologies, as you look towards the next few years, excite you most and have the most potential to transform the customer experience? How do you distinguish between what’s noise and what’s truly transformative?
Brittany: So I’ll give you two sides of it. The first part is the computer vision - imagine being able to automate the attribution of merchandise through this kind of artificial intelligence. How it works for me on the flip side as the customer - I have this picture of what I want my dress to look like (I always have this by the way). How great would it be, as a customer - I like this picture, and then you are able to upload this and find that item? You’re able to identify which retailer has this item, search the web, and voila, buy the item.
The other technology I get excited about is bots and using natural language processing. We created a tool at SAS, in our merchandising data solution - where you can talk into it and ask, “What was my top performing department?” Which had the highest sales?” Because the way it’s always worked, you’re in these meetings, you need this insight, but yet you have to search through a million reports to find an answer. This kind of technology has the power to totally transform the retail merchandising process and enable it to be more strategic. For the customer, we all love our Alexa. Being able to have more retailers and ways to shop, anything that makes my life more convenient, is going to bring this kind of technology to the next level.