Retail talk with Vicki Cantrell

Vicki Cantrell

With her rich experience with NRF, high-end fashion retailers and retail technology solution providers, Vicki brings to bear a unique uber-view of the retail industry. Her thoughts on the changes that the retail industry is facing, and on the future of the retail industry, are very practical and action-focused.

“… In this seamless culture, where we’re shopping specifically isn’t always a separate entity, it’s less about merchant-buyer but more relationship-based.”

BIO: Vicki Cantrell is a retail strategist, community builder, former COO and CIO in the retail industry, and is recognized for relationship building and accelerated growth. She is the co-founder of the Vendors in Partnership (VIP) Awards, and most recently served as Retail Transformation Officer for Aptos, Inc., developing customer experience and relationship based go-to-market strategies. Before Aptos, Cantrell was NRF’s SVP, Communities and Executive Director,, providing strategic direction and management of, CIO Council, Digital Council, CMO Council, ARTS and Loss Prevention Council. Prior to NRF, Cantrell served as the Chief Operating Officer of Tory Burch and has also worked as CIO of Giorgio Armani Corporation and held senior-level positions with Gucci Group, Party City and JCPenney. Cantrell is an active member of the Retail Orphan Initiative (RetailROI), is on the Advisory Board of sparks & honey, and a board member of Tandy Leather Company. She lives with her husband in Atlanta, GA. 


Mani: Hello everyone. Welcome to the series of podcasts that Retail Singularity, an offshoot of Litmus7 Systems Consulting is hosting on the future of the retail industry.

Mani: We see retail changing very rapidly before our eyes, and we want to be a part of the forces that are driving these changes. I am Mani Subramaniam, President, Retail Singularity.

Mani: In this series of podcasts addressing the future of retail, I’ll be talking to leading retail influencers who understand the direction retail is taking, and to try and evaluate the impact of these changes.

Mani: Hello all. Welcome to another edition of the podcast that Retail Singularity, an offshoot of Litmus7 Systems Consulting is hosting on the future of the retail industry. Today it’s my privilege to welcome Vicki Cantrell.

Mani: Vicki Cantrell is a retail strategist, community builder, former COO and CIO in the retail industry, and is recognized for relationship building and accelerated growth. She is the co-founder of the Vendors In Partnership, also known as VIP Awards, and most recently served as Retail Transformation Officer for Aptos Inc. developing customer experience and relationship-based go-to market strategies. Before Aptos, Vicki Cantrell was the SVP, Communities for NRF, The National Retail Federation, and the Executive Director at the, providing strategic direction and management of CIO Council, Digital Council, CMO Council, Arts and the Loss Prevention Council.

Mani: Prior to NRF, Vicki Cantrell served as the Chief Operating Officer of Tory Burch, and has also worked as CIO of Giorgio Armani Corporation, and held senior level positions with the Gucci Group, Party City, and JC Penney. Vicki Cantrell is an active member of the Retail Orphan Initiative – Retail ROI, and is on the advisory board of sparks & honey, and a board member of Tandy Leather Company. Welcome to the podcast Vicki, and thank you for agreeing to share your perspectives on the fast changing world of retail.

Vicki Cantrell: Happy to do it, Mani. Thanks for having me.

Mani: Vicki, you and I have been in retail for a long time. But am I right in sensing that the rate of change in retail in the last, let’s say, 10 years, has been much more than in the past 20, 50, or even hundred years?

Vicki Cantrell: I definitely agree.

Mani: And where do you think these changes are happening, and what do they impact?

Vicki Cantrell: Well, you know, I think that the last decade has been so significant for a lot of reasons. The significant changes need to be viewed, kind of in a broad lens, to fully realize the impact to retail. In 2009, we had a very tough economy, and a fairly serious constriction in retail. And then the ensuing years were forecasted by customer sentiment and reaction in a very large scale, and some examples of that is, you had a steep rise of discount and economic retail, whatever that looked like, whether it was a dollar store, or what you would consider economic retail. And then over the decade, the cycles of the rise and fall of different segments, as the job market continued to evolve and change, but also as the consumer feeling changed. So, it predicted the patterns in a new way. For instance, when they were having a tough time with the economy, we had this rise of the nesting, and wanting to be at home, and the rise of home products, and do-it-yourself retail.

Vicki Cantrell: Then we had, the experiences over products, that has become a pretty significant trend over the last 10 years. And that has really had retailers, in some ways, scrambling. OK, they were beginning to see what it means to their business when the customer calls the shots, because of how they were reacting to the economy in a broader way. Now inside retail, I think the two most significant changes were mobile and e-commerce, but you know, that sounds trite, but it’s mostly because of the disruption that this caused inside the organization. So in the grand scheme of things, e-comm was still young, okay? And the retail organization structures were not purposeful in how to deal with the rise of online shopping. E-comm was either separate or not. The channels were really calcified, and sometimes still remain that way. And the talent was very different, in online and in store, and the talent that was necessary in each discipline didn’t really respect the value of the other.

Vicki Cantrell: And so customer centricity honestly did not exist. So, I really think that this rise of online, what it caused inside the organization, and what it continues to cause today about, “How do I find the right talent? Who makes decisions?” Suddenly people in the e-commerce world, we’re being tasked with some pretty heady retail-related managerial aspects that they may or may not have had to deal with in their kind of test-and-learn environment that they grew up in. So, until the silos … You know, and then mobile puts the customer more in control, okay? That was the beginning of them being in control. And how they interact with the brand is no longer determined and controlled by the retailer. So, until the silos are rectified, and the data is being looked at through one lens, retailers really won’t be in control of their relationship with the consumer.

Mani: Really interesting. Earlier in the response, you mentioned “experience over product.” Very interesting phrase. Can you amplify that a little bit, and help, for people like us, understand that better?

Vicki Cantrell: Certainly. Retail has always been, the retailer saying, “Please buy my product, and here’s why.” Or, “You should buy my product.” Not even a ‘please’. But the rise of experiences over product comes from two ways. One is, “I would rather go to a restaurant and have a wonderful meal with my friends, than go spend $300 on a handbag.” “I would rather go on vacation with my family and be connected to them, and travel, rather than purchase such-and-such.” So, that’s what I mean by experience over retail. And we’ve been talking about it for a long time. But when you look in the decade, if you look across the decade as a thing, all of these things rose in this last decade. And then that comes along with the rental culture, and this aspect of not owning things is another offshoot of this same mindset. I can … Something I’m going to use once or twice a year, I can rent it, or not have to own, I guess is the point. Because then you can talk about Uber and everything else. I don’t have to own. So, that’s what I mean by experiences over products.

Mani: Oh, okay. Thank you. We at Litmus7 and Retail Singularity work with a large number of retailers, but when they ask us how they should … what changes they make inside them to meet these challenges and the changing times, how did we explain it to them? How can they they thrive?

Vicki Cantrell: Mm. I would say two things, and sometimes it’s going to sound like I’m a broken record, but you can’t understand … First of all, everything is about the consumer. Its again sounds obvious. But it’s amazing that organizations are not structured to really believe that and to really demonstrate what that means to the entire organization. So, if you want to thrive, there’s two things that I think are important. One is to continue to strive to change the organization, to understand the customer’s journey, and how they are living their life outside, that has nothing to do with your brand. If you understand how a consumer’s life is impacted, you can then understand the broader culture, and figure out how your brand may or may not interact in that, and what types of experiences that consumer would appreciate from who you are. There is no one answer. It really depends on who you are.

Vicki Cantrell: The other thing that I think is really important, it’s kind of shocking to me how much people that work in retail, who are in fact consumers themselves, don’t bring their consumer lens to the table when they’re making business decisions. So something that you as a consumer would not tolerate, or would wish to be a different way, is something that you may be, in fact, imposing on your consumer. And I often think that people don’t bring their own consumer lens to the table. And I think it’s a really important aspect of how to think about that customer.

Mani: Right. Would an example of that be, let’s say, the payment option software. Would that be an example?

Vicki Cantrell: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. That’s an example. It’s … Anything that has to do with, again, frictionless and blending into a consumer’s life, and the consumer cares about what you stand for, and they care about blending into their life and this experience, all their experiences being frictionless. Yes. So payment would be absolutely one of those things.

Mani: Great, thank you. Vicki, do you see a world where customers are more empowered than the retailers, and more empowered than before? And how is this impacting retail?

Vicki Cantrell: So I think today, they are obviously much more empowered than they have ever been in the past. And I think that the way that they’re showing that is very different. So, it used to be as the consumer was empowered, or becoming empowered, everything was based on them voicing their opinion with their wallet. They would either not shop with you, or shop with you, depending upon what was important to them. But now they’re much more empowered, because they can additionally speak with their voice. And they can impact the performance of a brand in relation to the brand’s overall segment. Customers want a different relationship with the retailer. They think of them more, not as a discrete entity, but more, “We all provide what we each need. Sometimes I get it from you, sometimes you get it from me.” So in this seamless culture, where we’re shopping specifically isn’t always a separate entity, it’s less about merchant-buyer, but but more relationship-based. They can now speak with their social media voice. They can control what they want to say. Not only by not shopping, but they can be an active voice for, or against, a retailer.

Mani: Oh, right. Okay. Okay. I get that. There’s an interesting phenomena happening right now. On the one hand, you see reports of large numbers of stores that are closing. On the other hand, statistics show that retail itself is steadily increasing, year upon year, around three and a half to 4%. How do you reconcile the two? Lesser number of stores, but retail volume increasing.

Vicki Cantrell: Yes. You know, when you say retail stores are shrinking, they’re actually not shrinking. It’s hard to cut through the noise, when you hear entire brands with significant number of stores going out, and/or Chapter 11, and/or closing stores. So there is certainly a lot of that. What it is, is it necessarily shrinking, but it’s absolutely changing. So the model that exists today, where we’re over-stored, over-malled, etc. It’s a different way to do retail. There’s … different. There’s more growth than constriction. But it’s not the same version of retail. So, experiences melded with an overall need for products and services.

Vicki Cantrell: As the consumer has become much more service-oriented, and services oriented, then they think of their purchases … They don’t think of their purchases necessarily differently for whether they’re buying a product, or a service. And so they want the same experience. So the more that you can put that together, it’s just a different version. But you know, it’s funny to see all of these online retailers opening stores. People understand the value of that relationship, the connection. It’s still about people. It’s always going to be about people. It’s just that shopping is not a separate and discreet activity, the way it used to be. But it doesn’t mean that they don’t want a strong relationship with you. They want to interact with you, and they’re certainly thrilled when they have a great experience.

Mani: Okay. Now, one of the ways in which retail was measured was an archive measure called ‘comp stores’ , ‘comp sales’. Looks like those traditional measures are falling by the wayside. What is replacing them, and how will we measure how well a retailer is doing, going forward?

Vicki Cantrell: Well, when you say falling by the wayside … Slowly but surely, they should be falling by the wayside. Because what’s actually … We’re very behind in how the metrics are dealt with in the business, because today it is not just about what happens inside the four walls, but sometimes you have bonus targets, and commission structures, and sales dollars, comp stores, etc. You have all of those metrics in place where the consumer has kind of already changed. So it’s a tough … These are not easy challenges for retailers. This isn’t like, “I’m going to change my financial reporting tomorrow.” It’s a very difficult thing. I would say that, we’re behind in what the consumer thinks of. And so is Wall Street, by the way. You know, how you report your sales, same store, and what that means, is really tough.

Vicki Cantrell: So that said though, we still have to look to the future. We still have to be intentional about what we should be measuring. And there’s some things … And again, I’m going to take it back to where I always take it, and it’s to the customer, okay? Conversion is still important. Transaction value is critical, because that has nothing to do with channels. Their value to you is … those things are growing, and important. The problem is, anytime you’re still thinking in a channel or a silo of any type, is where it has to change. So I think that the relevant metrics for the future absolutely have to do with the customer. So what could those be?

Vicki Cantrell: Some exist today, if the data is combined across the methods of engagement. So the first thing is so simple, you have to have your data in the right place, under the right circumstances. And then I would say you’re defining metrics around their journey. So you’re defining metrics around awareness, consideration, purchasing, retention, and loyalty. But in order to define those metric, you have to understand what that customer, you have to know your business and know your customer. You have to know what are they thinking, doing, experiencing, and feeling during those segments. And then marry those opportunities that you’ve uncovered with your strategy, and with your metrics, and with your financials. Because that’s where you’re going to see an increase in their relationship with you.

Mani: Interesting. It’s a lot to learn for those who have been in retail for a long time now. Yeah. I always thought of retail as a world where [inaudible 00:18:54] is pushed by merchants. I’ve worked with merchants before, and I knew how powerful they were in the center of retailing. It seems to me that that world is now changing to a ‘pull retail’, where consumers demand what they want, and not necessarily lap up what’s offered to them. Is that valid a understanding of the changes that are happening?

Vicki Cantrell: It’s a valid observation, but it does not mean we throw the baby out with the bath water. Retailers are expert merchants. They are expert marketers. Merchants will always be a critical role. What you need to avoid is having a separate merchant for somebody merchandising in the store with an in store mindset, and somebody separate merchandising for the web. You know, so I’m not … We wouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Merchandising is key, and critical. Those people really understand how to get what product to who, okay? It’s being able to give them the tools, both in marketing, merchandising, planning, to give them the tools of what the customer’s doing. Which means you have to measure differently, and give them the tools. It doesn’t mean that you throw away the need for those critical retail functions.

Mani: Oh, okay. Interesting. Not all formats of retail are embracing online retail at the same pace. An example is, grocery retailing. It’s picking up slowly, but many reports are just that grocery retailing has the highest potential to grow. What are your observations around these formats and their growth in the online industry?

Vicki Cantrell: Well, I’m going to make a distinction here. I’m going to say that when you say “online”, I’m going to make a distinction as to … whereas they may be slower in being able to deliver, at scale, their product. Or having consumers adopt online grocery buying. I would say that grocery, however, is seriously embracing digital, so I don’t think of it as online, I think of it as digital. I think that … I mean, my grocery shopping is extremely digital, today. As far as my grocery in-store experience, it’s very digital. I use location services. I use ‘Scan As You Go’. I use … Obviously, I get all of the notifications for what I always shop for, and when it is available on sale, etc. So I rely very heavily on the digital experience as I’m working in groceries. So digitally, I think they’re really embracing that, and doing some really great things. Yes, as far as online delivery, that is a little slower, but it doesn’t mean they’re behind the game.

Mani: Okay. Vicki, you’ve work with brands as well as retailers. Is direct-to-consumer a threat to current form of retailing, and where do you see it evolving?

Vicki Cantrell: I would ask you a question back for that. When you think about direct-to-consumer, what does that mean to you?

Mani: It means something that a manufacturer, who used to formally sell through retail, let’s say Nike shoes, was exclusively through the retail channels. Now they offer good part of that merchandise directly to consumers. Hanes Brand does it, Procter and Gamble does it, with their … let’s say, their razors, etc. That’s what I mean.

Vicki Cantrell: I wanted to see if that’s how you thought of it, because there’s actually a couple of different versions of that. It’s true. And I think there’s always a great example when you’re thinking about Nike and some of the top sports brands. It is … they have become much more embedded in direct-to-consumer because they have their own stores. Okay. So, they didn’t use to have their own stores. So now they even have their own stores, and certainly they have their own channels, etc. And there are certain manufacturers, when I say, okay, let me go back to Nike … Because it has to do with whether it’s a threat. Okay, yes there is still a pie. And there’s amount of sales that a consumer’s going to spend, and who are they going to spend it with? Are they going to spend it with Nike at Macy’s, or Nike in Nike.

Vicki Cantrell: So, certainly it changes retail. But again, because this consumer industry is still not consumer-centric enough, meaning, let the consumer do whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want. Okay? Then yes, there’s always going to be some tension there. Now, that said, when you think about these big manufacturers that have dipped their toe in direct-to-consumer, like razors, generally they are not structured, at all, for that. And here’s why. I would say that retailers, one of the things that they do very well, we talked about this a little bit; Retailers are master marketers at speaking directly to the end consumer about their product in a way that a manufacturer can’t.

Vicki Cantrell: There’s a lot of data sharing that goes on, so the manufacturer relies on their end channel to talk to them about the consumer. But retailers are really good at, even though they’re don’t get it right 100% of the time, they really understand the end consumer. So for me, it’s changing retail, just like everything is changing retail. Is it a threat? It depends on how you think about whether … I guess how much you accept the fact that the consumer is in control.

Mani: Right. Okay. That leads me to a final question. The conversation is really interesting, and your vast experience is throwing a number of perspectives that I had not thought of, but I’m limited by time. So the last question is, are retailers being seen as current shoppers, as somebody who’s inefficient and just a mere middleman who is there to grab a little bit share of the wallet, and is that a valid observation, and will retailers be doing something to combat that.

Vicki Cantrell: I don’t think it’s a valid observation. I don’t think that they are perceived that way, but if they are not changing, they will be perceived that way. So why does … When you think of retail as a middleman, okay? Then why would I as a consumer want to purchase from this middleman? What would cause me to want to do that? A couple of reasons. I mean, in many ways, Amazon is a middleman, and all of the retailers are middleman, if you think about it that way. And a consumer is not shopping one way. So when we think about how Amazon is, you know, all this fear about the control of Amazon, etc., it doesn’t mean that they don’t have a vast market share, and the reason they have a vast market share is because they are truly, from day one, consumer-centric, in a way that people talk about but don’t do.

Vicki Cantrell: So of course they have a tremendous market share. But my point is, that Amazon does not satisfy all things. Not only for all people, it doesn’t satisfy all things for any consumer. And most consumers, I am sure the number is astronomical, shop very differently all across the day, all across the week, all across the year. There’s some things I wouldn’t consider getting anywhere other than Amazon. There are some things that I will absolutely want to go to the store for. There are some … Today I might need it three days from now, but tomorrow I might need it immediately. People’s lives are so intertwined, and retail has become so much a part of the way you live, and because of retail’s experiential expansion, it’s become so much part of your life, that you … One way doesn’t work for everything, just like none of your days are the same. So, I really believe that it is up to the retailer as to whether they are perceived as just an inefficient middleman, because the minute they are, you’re right, they will not be … that’s not where the consumer’s going to go.

Mani: Great. Okay. Thank you for being so clear, with your observations. Vicki, it’s been great talking to you, and learning from your perspectives and experience. Thank you very much, and I’m looking forward to doing another podcast with you in the future.

Vicki Cantrell: Ah, it was my pleasure, Mani. Thanks very much.

Mani: Okay. Thank you. Bye.

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