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EPISODE 045 : 01/20/2022

Anne Mezzenga, Omnitalk

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Anne Mezzenga is an entrepreneurial Retail Executive with over 15 years in the retail, marketing, experience design, and technology industries. She is one of the founders of UrbanRoosterShop.com and Third Haus, the lab joint venture with Xenia Retail built to develop next-generation retail and mall experiences. She is also Co-CEO of Omni Talk, one of the fastest-growing content platforms in retail.

Host: Ned Hayes and Ashley Coates
Guest: Anne Mezzenga

Topics discussed in this episode

  • Sales trends – black Friday & Cyber Monday
  • Layouts of stores shifting to having all stock in stores in the back to help with theft issues
  • Discussing the growth of the retail industry – curbside pick up and contactless payments
  • The market of loyalty and the future of loyalty

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Audio Transcript

Ned Hayes [00:00:01] Welcome to SparkPlug, where we talk to smart people working at the intersection of business and technology. Brought to you by SnowShoe your smarter loyalty leader. SparkPlug is happy to welcome Anne Mezzenga to the podcast and is an entrepreneurial retail executive who has worked in retail marketing, experience, design and tech. She is the co-CEO, Omni Talk, one of the fastest growing content platforms in retail. She’s also founder of Urban Rooster Shop.com and Third Haus, which is a joint venture with Xenia Retail to build next generation retail experiences. So prior to that, Anne was head of marketing and partnerships for Target’s Store of the Future. So a long and storied history in retail, and we’re happy to hear more about it today. Welcome Anne.

Anne Mezzenga [00:00:56] Thanks, it’s really great to be here Ned. That makes me sound very old, like I’ve been doing this for a long time, which some days it definitely feels like I have, but it’s great to be here with you and Ashley.

Ashley Coates [00:01:07] Well, we are so happy to have your experience on the podcast and have you as a guest, so thank you for being here. Can you start off by giving our listeners a little bit more background information on you and your professional history? 

Anne Mezzenga [00:01:19] Yeah. So I actually started my career in broadcast journalism as a reporter. That was kind of where where I thought I would be is, you know, doing investigative reports and solving the big mysteries of of the United States. Turns out that wasn’t the gig for me. I ended up working in TV, but in advertising at NBC New York and then at various agencies back in my hometown of Minneapolis before starting at Target. And that was really my first experience in retail. And while I was at Target, I ran a lot of kind of black box projects, a lot of problem solving with tech, different, you know, trying to figure out different solutions to things like the old format circular that would go out in the newspaper, like how were we going to reimagine that for the digital age until my last job, which was heading up with my now business partner Chris Walton, the Target Store of the Future team, which for us was really, you know, Target coming to Chris and I asking, like, How do you conceive of what a store, why somebody is going to come to a store in three to five years? And what kind of Target’s expression of that store? So we spent a couple of years building that project and in 2017 went off on our own to start Omni Talk to really focus on, I think, what we saw was missing in the industry. This this perspective on technology, retail technology and retail experiences from somebody who who’s actually worked in a retail store. Both Chris and I have had a history of boots on the ground, working Black Friday, and there’s a lot of people talking and commenting about how the retail industry was evolving, who never had stepped foot in a store. So that was kind of what we set out to do with Omni Talk. 

Ashley Coates [00:03:05] That’s great. And I know you mentioned that you started off your career as a broadcast journalist. What do you think is kind of innate in you that really speaks to your interest in retail? What do you think led to this career now in retail? 

Anne Mezzenga [00:03:21] I don’t honestly know Ashley. I mean, I’ve always enjoyed storytelling and I think that the retail industry just excites me. There’s so much going on. I think prior to working at Target, I just I thought it was, you know, I didn’t even understand how vast the industry was, and especially as we kind of push into the years to come, like there is so much opportunity, especially as you start to talk about technology and it touches everybody’s lives. I think that’s probably what it really is. The awareness of the retail industry that I’ve had over the last several years is that, you know, it employs over half of Americans work in the retail industry like there’s so much that that surrounds this, this whole industry and it employs people. It affects people. Things like grocery shopping, like how that’s going to change impacts the lives of so many people. And so for me, it’s something that it’s easy to get really passionate about and get behind. 

Ned Hayes [00:04:21] Right. So going from journalism to podcasting, I’m really curious about kind of the future of the journalistic endeavor. Do you think that the future is online for explaining things to people? 

Anne Mezzenga [00:04:36] I think that what we’re seeing is, like any industry, you have to evolve with your consumer. And right now, you know, as consumers, our lives, you know, lend themselves to formats like podcasting, formats like, you know, video content, short form content. And I think what Chris and I have been most surprised by is and what we’ve really been part of defining as we built Omni Talk over the last five years is, you know, that doesn’t have to be a reporter or an industry analyst who’s doing that. I think we’re starting to see this happen within organizations themselves, like using these platforms as a way to market themselves in a B2B environment, market themselves in a B2C environment like content is is really about telling a story and figuring out, you know, answering a question, listening to interesting people discuss a topic like, that’s what is engaging people right now. And so I think that, you know, broadcasting whatever format that takes news, reporting, whatever format that takes, you know, just has to continuously evolve to what the the viewer or listener is looking for. And so that’s, you know, Chris and I have tried to do with Omni Talk too. 

Ashley Coates [00:05:50] And can you tell us more about your audience? Who’s listening and where are they finding your podcasts? 

Anne Mezzenga [00:05:55] Well, aside from our mothers who are our first fans, now we have an international audience, so we have the top 100 retailers in the US, online and offline retailers. We have the top thousand e-commerce retailers listening to our podcast, so we have a pretty, pretty vast audience all the way from people working at technology companies who are coming on the show and telling us about the new technology and new retail problems that they’re trying to solve, all the way through to legacy retail executives who are coming on my women’s retail podcast, talking about their career the last 25-30 years and how the retail industry is changing, especially how being a woman in the retail industry has changed. So we’ve really got a wide variety of audience. And we also format our show to be digestible like we’re human beings, we don’t want it to be just like hard hitting analysts talking about the retail industry and stock prices and everything like Chris and I as human beings, we like to have a lot of fun. And so I think that that’s another part of what makes our podcast stand out in the other retail industry podcast and content world because we just want to have fun with it. So that too. So sometimes people listen, even though they don’t care about the retail industry too, right? 

Ned Hayes [00:07:19] Right, well do you have personally any favorite episodes or topics that you’ve covered that you’ve really, really enjoyed. 

Anne Mezzenga [00:07:26] Well, we always do an end of the year award show. Chris and I take a lot of our inspiration from what we see in pop culture, like the retail or sorry, the the like Emmy Awards, the Academy Awards, like, we like doing that sort of thing. The Espys, like we take a lot of inspiration from the sports world and how that information is passed along. And so we do an end of the year show. We’re going to be shooting it next week on December 16th, on Thursday. And that’s always a lot of fun because it’s kind of a recap, if you, if you didn’t listen to a single podcast all year, we’re going to break down. You know who who won best retailer of the year, who’s got the coolest technology that they deployed in store, who needs to start over again in 2022? Like all these fun topics that that I think give people a real sense of what happened in the year past. I would say, as far as topics are concerned, you know, one thing that we’ve been following really closely for the last three years is checkout free technology. So this year has been really exciting to see how that’s evolved, to see what’s changed, to see Amazon opening full scale grocery stores, you know, 35,000 square foot grocery stores that deploy there, just walk out technology to see competitors in the space. You know, start ups, who we were meeting with in their offices in Tel Aviv, Trigo, we met with them when it was just a small office. Now seeing them launch a checkout free concept in at Tesco in London. Like seeing that come to life over the last three years is probably one of the coolest things that we’ve always been big believers in but then to see it come to fruition and that along with, you know, a lot of the other technology that we’ve talked about for the last five years over the course of the pandemic, just get accelerated is really fun for us because we have what we’ve been preaching about that but now there’s some validation to be like, Oh yeah, OK, we were onto something there like, This is right, this is great. Let’s keep going. So. 

Ashley Coates [00:09:27] That was actually going to be my next question. I’m just talking about the conversations that have evolved over the last three years, so yeah, Ned do you want to go into the next one? 

Ned Hayes [00:09:38] It sounds like you’ve been at the table when some early ideas have been birth and you’ve been able to see them grow. So right now, Cyber Week 2021 just took place. This is the Monday after Thanksgiving. It started the Monday after Thanksgiving, and we’ve seen reports that that sales were down a little bit like 1.4% during this year’s Cyber Week. So what do you think contributed to these lower sales records? 

Anne Mezzenga [00:10:05] I have to say one word is probably Amazon. Amazon kicked off Prime Day in October, and Chris Walton, my business partner. He wrote an article about this several years ago about how Amazon really could choose when Black Friday is they, they are the ones that are driving what day these major made up retail holidays should take place on. And when we started hearing about supply chain, we started hearing about Amazon saying, Nope, October is going to be Prime Day this year. Everybody accelerated plans. People started shopping earlier. And again, you see the shift in behavior from a whole consumer segment on top of other things like we still had stimulus money in our pockets like things were, you know, you still had some some kind of cushion to begin that process earlier. You had guarantees from retailers saying If you shop now and if you see a price lower between now and the end of the year we’ll match it. You know, like all of these things, giving consumers confidence to not have to wait until Thanksgiving night, to not have to get up Thanksgiving night to like go and try to get those deals. That’s that’s not happening anymore. And it certainly didn’t happen this year. And I think that’s the thing that we’re seeing that really is causing this, this decrease in spend. Now what we’ll be watching is what happens I think once we hit the shipping, you know, limits in the next couple of weeks, what happens in store once there’s no more guarantee that it’s going to arrive in time for Christmas, do we start to see that push into stores? Or does it just fall flat? Do people have everything they need and they’re good to go. So that’s, I think, one of the biggest impacts that we that we saw on the Cyber Monday results. 

Ashley Coates [00:11:52] Well, so what about all of the brick and mortar stores that closed this year on Thanksgiving that have been open the last several years? Walmart, J.C. Penney, Target, Macy’s? Do you have any takeaways from all of these big stores that chose to stay closed? 

Anne Mezzenga [00:12:09] One. I think it’s great. I mean, you have one of the busiest, most stressed, burnt out team of workers that you’ve ever had going into this holiday. And so it was it was just kind of a no brainer, I think for the retailers that decided, OK, we’re going to be closed on Thanksgiving this year, it makes sense. Now, as much as I’d like to think that all these retailers have hearts of gold and are really doing this for all the right reasons, I think that, you know, Chris and I talked to on a podcast last week, like they also don’t they weren’t open last year. So the comps for this year, when they are looking at sales in store in 2021, on Thanksgiving Day. And you know, the last thing that they’re comping it to his last year, when nothing was open on Thanksgiving because of the pandemic, you know, that’s this seems like a very opportune time to do it. I also am a little disappointed in some of the retailers who are saying, Oh no, we are going to be closed forever on Thanksgiving forever. This is never happening again. It’s like, can you really say that? Like, how can you how can you predict what’s going to happen, what your business in store is going to be driving versus your business online? You might not have a choice. If you’re going to stay competitive, you might have to open next year on Thanksgiving. So I was a little disheartened to see that message of forever. But I think that it makes sense. And again, just to reiterate with the rise in e-commerce, which with how simple the shopping has become when it’s starting online and the other things like curbside pick up and buy online pickup in store that have been deployed among so many retailers because of the pandemic. I don’t think that we need, you know, lines out the door on Black Friday. 

Ned Hayes [00:13:51] Right. So speaking of lines out the door, you’ve probably seen those articles in the New York Times, Washington Post about brick and mortar theft and organized gangs ripping things off. What do you think retailers should do about this? What what’s at risk here with these kind of alarming trends? 

Anne Mezzenga [00:14:11] You know, I think I feel for retailers, this is the worst time of the year for these things to be happening and then to try to have an answer to a question like that where it’s like we’re just trying to get people to staff and work the store, let alone, you know, have them be prepared for a giant crime ring to come in and wipe all the tables clean like it’s there’s not I don’t think the solution is going to be adding more security guards, locking up merchandise like that’s a terrible customer experience. You also have to build this experience for the customers that are good customers that are coming in your store. And if I now have to wait while you’re understaffed, you know, 20 minutes to have somebody open the cabinet so that I can get a phone charger. No way. Like, that’s just not the way to continue it. So I’m looking to people like Best Buy, I think is a great example. They are deploying 24-7 locker pickup in their stores, so the lockers are actually on the built on the outside of the store. The backs of the lockers are filled from the inside of the store and the front. You can come in any time of day, so you just decide, you know, I’m I’m on my way home from working the night shift. I can pick up my phone charger in that locker that Best Buy doesn’t even have to be open. I think using things like that or deploying technology and store moving to a showroom model. Apple’s been doing it for years. They don’t have every single iPhone sitting on the floor. You know, you go in, you have an interaction with an associate, you learned about the products or get confidence in your purchase from one of the experts there. And then they go in the back and get it like we don’t need to have shelves and shelves of product on the on the floor anymore. And I think that’s how we’re going to start to combat some of these retail theft rings because they’re not going away. 

Ashley Coates [00:15:56] So coming up, I think it’s next week, you have an exciting episode of your podcast with Christian from Scandit that’s barcode scanning from any smart device. Can you give us any insight into what you’ll be covering on that episode and how does this company help combat theft? 

Anne Mezzenga [00:16:16] Well, what we’re going to be talking about with Scandit is really how to improve operations in the store, how to make the tedious, online and mundane tasks that your supply, that your staff who you’re in short supply of right now, how you can make those things simpler and easier for them. And that’s things like, you know, doing inventory scanning, using mobile devices instead of these ancient scanning guns, you know where they have to, somebody is a new employee, they not only have to learn how to use a brand new piece of technology that they’ve never seen that’s 20 years old versus, you know, now with Scandit they can use their own iPhones, download an app to their iPhone and start scanning to see a whole shelf. What’s prices need to be updated? What inventory is out of stock or, you know, picking and packing orders to facilitate faster curbside or shipped orders from the store? All of those things are able to be done now in the in the employees or the store provided smartphones. So we’re going to be talking about a lot of things like that to just make life lives easier for people who are working in the stores, make onboarding the people working for the work, people working in those stores so much simpler. And I think when we’re we’re talking about theft, that allows people to be able to spend more time client facing, customer facing where they’re able to leverage their time to help engage people to keep an eye on what’s happening in the stores and to hopefully minimize the feeling of of vulnerability for the retail stores. 

Ned Hayes [00:18:00] Right? Well, speaking of hope, I was surprised to see Toys R US coming back. I mean, they’re opening a store in New Jersey Dream Mall. They have shopping shops at four hundred Macy’s locations. So what the heck never expected? Toys R US to rise again. What’s your reaction to this? 

Anne Mezzenga [00:18:19] Yeah, I I don’t know what to think about this, especially. I mean, I don’t know if you guys saw, but I think they’re opening it in like less than a week. I mean, they’re going to try to capture the last two weeks of the holiday season. So man, I feel for those people that would not be my I would not be signing up to work the last two weeks of Christmas in a brand new store format. But I think the important thing is, you know, American dream, they’ve always gone after an experience first, a mall second. I mean, ideally 70% of their tenants were going to be experience based, versus 30% of them being retail based. So it was really going to be about using every square foot in that mall to have an experience that you’re going to go, that’s going to create a memory that’s going to get you to come back to the store. So I think that putting a Toys R US on there seems like a reasonable fit. If it’s going to go in anywhere, that seems like it makes the most sense. The only thing that I’m worried about is. I don’t know that kids know what Toys R US is right now. And if you

Ned Hayes [00:19:22] A brand that survived you think?

Anne Mezzenga [00:19:24] Right. I think that if you look at where kids today are consuming entertainment, consuming experiences, where they’re finding out about new characters or things that they’d want to buy, it’s not in a store, it’s on YouTube. And I think that the development of these, these toy store, the future toy store is really going to be, you know, how are you developing products based off of the most popular Netflix shows, the most popular YouTube shows? And how are you creating experiences around that? Now Stranger Things from Netflix, they just opened a store in L.A. not too long ago. And so I think we’re going to see more of that where it’s like, OK, you have Netflix created an online store where you can buy products from all of their featured shows. Now they’re taking it into the physical where they’re going to have a store experience, where you go in and you can, you know, sit in those on the set of Stranger Things and then buy things in that environment. I think that’s where this is going to go. And I don’t know that Toys R US is going to be able to be that spot with the current model that Toys R US is operating. 

Ned Hayes [00:20:35] So what I just heard is Blockbuster is coming back huh? 

Anne Mezzenga [00:20:38] Hey, you know what? There’s there’s a segment of people, myself included, who might actually be interested in going to like a Blockbuster inspired store, so I wouldn’t count it out. 

Ashley Coates [00:20:51] I must say I miss that experience of going to Blockbuster Friday night and cruising the shelves.  Well, so same with Toys R US and you’re speaking to experiences, especially with the mall that they’re going into. What do you know about Toys R s and what have they said in terms of what will be different this time with this reopening? How will they be creating that experience given this new landscape that they’re opening in and with a whole new generation? 

Anne Mezzenga [00:21:21] Well, they’re banking on, you know, that the fact that toys, you know, people still want to go into a toy store, that they’re going to be able to make this a tourist destination, that this is going to be as big as Nickelodeon universe, that that’s in the center of of American Dream. This will be as much of a draw. They have a cafe and some other things. I’m I’m not long on those, unfortunately, like I just don’t again, I don’t know that the kids right now in in that geography and then the rest of the U.S., I don’t know that that’s going to be like the Disneyland that I think that Toys R US is hoping that it is. But again, that’s just my assumption. I think we’ll see what happens. There are a lot of people that are going back to malls. We saw high traffic numbers throughout the holidays the last few weeks, and I think that, you know, this might be something that people are into. And if it’s done well and it’s it’s an experience that’s going to create a memory that’s going to give parents and kids or grandparents or aunts and uncles and their nieces and nephews and kids to connect like then there’s a possibility that this could happen, and that toy that they buy for 39.99 is forever associated with that memory. So. It could happen, it could happen, I’m just not not going to place my bets there, I don’t think. 

Ned Hayes [00:22:46] All right, well, placing bets. Way early in your career as you discuss you, you the lead Target store of the future project. So back then, what did you see happening that now is a reality? What sorts of things were possible, as you know, Jetsons future that we see over data? 

Anne Mezzenga [00:23:07] Well, I get asked that question a lot, and the first thing that I think comes to mind is curbside pickup. My team on that project, that was really what this whole, the whole center of the idea of the Target store of the future was how you make a better and more convenient experience for your customers or your guests in that case. And one of those things was, you know, I I’m a mom Targets demographic is moms with kids, you know, like, that’s who they’re going after. And to not have to get out of the car with my kids when I just need to pick up some milk, you know, a box of cereal, a T-shirt for the art project tomorrow. Like being able to really have a retailer who I know and trust and have a relationship with be doubling down, changing the infrastructure of their stores to support a more experience or a more convenient experience for me, I think is something that I’m really thrilled to see the progress that Target and Walmart and, you know, every other retailer that was able to deploy curbside pickup throughout the pandemic was able to pull off it. It doesn’t take that much to do. And we saw that in the last couple of years so that I would say that would probably be the number one thing. So I think the second thing that I would bring up would be contactless payments. How? With my own mobile device, I’m able to do everything from find information, scan a barcode on a product to find out what other stores carry my size all the way through to, you know, sometimes scanning something a product in the store, putting it in my cart and then being able to walk out all of the things that have been elevated inside my mobile device. Not having to leverage a kiosk in a retailer or trying to find some other mechanism to interact with. It’s all being done on my schedule, on my mobile device. Again, making that that much more convenient shopping experience for me. 

Ashley Coates [00:25:08] I am also curious about what new innovations haven’t come to pass and why not? What’s preventing those from happening? 

Anne Mezzenga [00:25:16] Well, I think the one that we’ve been long on is augmented reality and virtual reality that was so big when we were working on the story of the future. I remember going out to a mall in Santa Monica and Century 21, the retailer. They had a store where they were doing like just had a VR headset, like they had dedicated all this space on their floor pad to this VR experience where they had one headset and one person at a time could put it on. But you couldn’t buy anything. It was just like pure entertainment. And so I think that we’re starting to see developments in the VR space, especially where and in this talk of the metaverse. Like, I think that’s going to be huge. I think retailers really need to start to prioritize some R&D efforts toward what the 3D universe is going to to be like and how their their brand or products will be sold and transacted and worn and experienced in those other worlds. And I think back then, you know, we were like, No way there’s this is not going to happen. It’s so far out, and now we’re starting to talk about it more and more. We’re starting to hear people we really respect in the retail industry who are investing in this. And so I think that’s something that has come quite a long way that we can expect to see more of in the in the coming years. 

Ned Hayes [00:26:43] But one thing I’m curious about is kind of the future of loyalty programs SnowShoe our sponsoring company actually specializes in loyalty programs. So where where is this market going? 

Anne Mezzenga [00:26:55] Loyalty is going to be a significant component of these next experience retail experiences, especially when we start to talk about the metaverse, and it’s going to be different. I mean, it’s not like a Starbucks loyalty program where I, you know, I get a free drink after so many stars. I mean, this is going to turn into gamification. Like, how or how are we what are we doing in the metaverse, where we’re earning loyalty points with a retailer? Is it because we’re wearing like an Adidas sweatshirt in the in our our world? Do we get a point for that because somebody saw, like my virtual Adidas sweatshirt? Is it an NFT that I buy? Do I get that? Is that a loyalty point? Like what? I think that the the benefits of being a loyal brand advocate are just shifting so much they still come down to what value am I getting for engaging with your brand? What conveniences are you offering me? What deals or promotions are you offering me? But it’s ultimately going to just it’s going to move from couponing and having a, you know, a coupon based on what previous purchases to having such a deep personal knowledge of who I am in the real world, in the metaverse and how you can continue to gather that information about your consumers and it continuously evolves like how you’re engaging with with those people and and how you keep them coming back. It’s it’s a big project for loyalty teams, but there’s so much potential. And I think especially when you look at some of the loyalty programs that are out there right now, they have visibility to the customer across multiple retailers like that data that they own the the loyalty programs out there that can see if you shop at 11 different retailers. We know the 11 retailers that you shop at. And then on top of that, we know like maybe you’re an Uber Eats person over a shipped person or whatever like you are the the holder of all of this rich data that so many people will want to get their hands on, that it’s now going to be taking that and figuring out what other business models are going to come out of capturing that data and the loyalty and information that you have about each one of those consumers. So that’s an area that I think is going to change so drastically that I want to be really excited to stay on top of. 

Ashley Coates [00:29:27]  Very interesting. So we have one last question for you and which is what is your legacy? What do you want others following a similar career path to learn from you? 

Anne Mezzenga [00:29:41] I think that it’s important for people to, we have this motto Omni Talk, follow your interests and you’ll always be interested. I couldn’t have told you five years ago that we’d be running a podcast full time. Like, I thought we’d be working for another retailer doing another store of the future concept. But if you just follow your passion, there is so much opportunity out there to pursue it, and it might not be in the format that you think. But if you keep following that and you find something to do that you can derive passion from, you will be successful in your job and you’ll find a way to make a career of it. So I guess that’s something that I’d want people to know. I’m using my journalism degree, never in a way that I thought I would. But but I love I love that I’m able to do it every day. So follow your interests and you’ll always be interested. 

Ned Hayes [00:30:42] That’s a great way to wrap this up. Thank you so much. 

Anne Mezzenga [00:30:46] Yeah, thank you, guys. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you. 

Ned Hayes [00:30:54] SparkPlug is a wholly owned property of SnowShoe, all content and copyright 2021 SparkPlug Media.