EPISODE 025 : 08/27/2021

Christine Russo, Retail Consultant

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Christine Russo has a storied history in retail leadership, from her early positions at Deloitte, J.Crew, and Kenneth Cole to her leadership of brick and mortar expansion for Alice & Olivia. She’s also taught classes in global retail at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and served as a consultant in retail strategies for many companies. Today, Christine helps retailers solve major pain points, understand and use new technical solutions and digitize their brick and mortar locations.

Host: Ashley Coates
Guest: Christine Russo

Topics Discussed in this Episode

  • Detailed small business insights from Olympia, Washington
  • Small business resiliency and adaptation during COVID
  • Doubling community outreach during the pandemic
  • Opportunities for small business loyalty programs

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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 making mobile location smarter.

Ashley Coates [00:00:16] Today, on SparkPlug, we have Christine Russo. Christine has a storied history in retail leadership from her early positions at Deloitte, J.Crew and Kenneth Cole to her leadership of brick and mortar expansion for Alice and Olivia. She’s also taught classes and global retail at the Fashion Institute of Technology and served as a consultant in retail strategies for many companies. Welcome, Christine. 

Christine Russo [00:00:40] Hi, how are you? It’s so great to be here. 

Ashley Coates [00:00:43] I’m doing well. It’s so great to have you. So, Christine, we’ll start by asking you to give a thumbnail sketch of your work in retail and what matters to you. 

Christine Russo [00:00:53] Thanks again. Thanks so much for having me here, Ashley. As someone who spent most of their corporate career in the growth and development of brick and mortar stores at the time that I was doing that, many of the brands were also looking to incorporate technology, and the corporate structure was such that there was real, there wasn’t a place holder for ownership and accountability, for technology, for brick and mortar and certainly digital didn’t even exist at the time. So during the course of building the stores, the job also was to look to bring in different forms of technology into the stores. So we were very experiential when we look to create the store environment, but we also look to bring in forms of technology. And back in the day, it might have been a kiosk, but it eventually evolved into mobile payments, for example. 

Ashley Coates [00:01:53] Mm-Hmm. Absolutely. And so can you tell us more about your consulting work and what led you to consulting work in retail? 

Christine Russo [00:02:03] So I specialized in making sense of so much noise that’s out in the retail technology landscape, and there are people who do what I do, like what I do. But what I like to be able to say is I’ll give you a perspective of where these different technologies fit in the customer journey. So I like to take both the retailer and the technology out of the dialog and put the customer into the dialog. So with the customer at the center of the dialog, then I refocus everyone back, which is OK. Let’s talk about the customer’s journey from pre-purchase to purchasing part of the transaction and post purchase. And so once you establish those benchmarks, then when you’re dealing with so many different solutions, you at least know where to bucket them and start to say, OK, where should we focus? What’s a priority? And then of course, there’s much more layering going on in each of those areas, but it really helps contextualize the myriad of solutions that are out there. 

Ashley Coates [00:03:19] Yeah, looking at that entire customer journey. Yeah, and so can you tell me, is this part of what you do at your current agency? Is the retail, creative and consulting agency? 

Christine Russo [00:03:32] Yes, it is. Well, what I do is is twofold. First, the information side. So what I do is, as I said, I’ll contextualize information that’s out there by sector or by a solution. I will, I will do a very quick explanation of it in a in a 15 or 30 second video because people like to consume information very quickly. And I know that sounds ridiculously short, but I’ve managed to be able to nail that technique. And then if people want to learn more, there’s an article that follows. And then if they want to learn even more, I will feature a company that works in this area, the solution area, and they’re a solution provider. And I’ll let them do a deep dive. So there are companies, many, many companies out there that are doing endless demos. I do demo. But what I do is I’ll I’ll reduce the information for someone who’s looking for very top line and with everyone having very little time. I really stand behind the fact that I’m giving out this information and I’m doing that work to really jumpstart their research. 

Ashley Coates [00:04:50] Absolutely. I think those short term videos are so, so valuable and useful for so many people. And so when you talk a little bit more about what’s the most gratifying part of your work and what makes you feel really successful when you’re producing this content for retailers? 

Christine Russo [00:05:07] I don’t know if you’ve seen my videos, but they’re hilarious and I get a lot of positive feedback on you. So the good news is I love doing them, so I really, really challenge myself to take it, to synthesize a lot of information into as short as possible to my own little game I play with myself. That’s very satisfying. What else is satisfying for me? So when I love the second thing that I do, I didn’t get to mention it is I will work with a technology solution provider founders and teams to help them better understand the retail decision making process for retailers. And it’s not just about solving a pain point, it’s very complicated and rooted in in actually human behavior. And to really understand what the motivations are of the people in the room that you’re presenting to, I work with a lot of global companies. So to help them understand the U.S. management style. So, for example, many, many and especially in retail, many, many businesses are the decision tree is is turned upside down. It’s actually run bottom up. So the manager, there are many managers and senior people that say, OK, present to my people. If they like it, I’ll like it versus many outsiders looking to come in and say, I want to present to the CFO, and he’ll dictate to the whole team that they have to do this. That is a mistake. And what I care about, most most importantly, is that retailers are able to solve their problems. So the disconnect is is keeping stagnation in in solving certain certain types of adoption to certain types of technology. 

Ashley Coates [00:07:08] So I was actually going to ask you about one of the common and typical pain points that you hear when clients come to you. Is that something that you hear a lot? It’s really about pain points within technology? 

Christine Russo [00:07:18] Technology and retail is still relatively new, with different divisions of it at different maturity levels. And then you have other aspects of retail technology that are much more niche, and you’ll have smaller technology companies really drilling down and and and carving out their own solution. The headwinds for those types of companies are retailers bandwidth, can they have that many vendors? One. Two is the burden of education on on the on the side of the technology solution, which is you don’t know you have this problem, but we solve the problem that you don’t know you have. So you have to have buy-in way before the problem exists. Way before you can even start talking about yourself, you have to know where you stand in their landscape. 

Ashley Coates [00:08:14] Absolutely. So Christine, turning back to the pandemic of last year, a lot of brick and mortar businesses needed to adapt. And use new technologies, and you really help businesses to modernize, and we’ve seen that you said and you believe it’s digital or die. Can you explain what that meant for businesses as they were trying to survive lockdowns? 

Christine Russo [00:08:40] So we’re moving on from these morbid phrases to something a little more positive, and it’s called the circle of service, trying to sort of help people visualize that the threshold no longer exists just in a doorway. Someone can enter your store, which is the same thing as crossing a threshold in so many different ways. So let’s talk about the circle of service, basically, it’s the old go to where your customer is, right? So when I say circle, it’s like, OK, you’re in the store now, you’re out of the store, but where are you out of the store? You might be on the website, you might be in Google, you might be reachable by text. 

Ashley Coates [00:09:22] And so you mentioned selling on Google, Facebook shops. Are there any other technologies that you and your clients really relied on over the past year and a half? 

Christine Russo [00:09:32] Most, most of the smaller retailers jumped on Instagram. And I think the pandemic really cemented Instagram as the new glossy magazine. It really has become a place for advertorial. So whereas Instagram was kind of like creator and commerce, once the creators migrated to Tik Tok, primarily Instagram became this commerce place. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But anyway, those stories of that size ended up jumping on their media. 

Ashley Coates [00:10:09] And so do you see Instagram, TikTok and more advertorial video sticking around and other any other trends that you see sticking around in retail? 

Christine Russo [00:10:19] We’re really at the beginning of creator ecommerce creators, and the impacts of creators on retail are kind of what’s the what’s the next wave? Not so much the platform itself, because that’s transforming so rapidly. 

Ashley Coates [00:10:32] So Christine, you’ve been in retail now for a couple of decades. I’m curious what you have seen has changed the most over the last 20 years? And what about even in the last five or 10 years, what has been the biggest changes that you’ve seen? 

Christine Russo [00:10:46] Retail was not a place of innovation. It was a place where there were honed systems in siloed departments that cultivated a retail process. So you had the merchant kings who went through training programs, I’ve seen your blank stare. Merchandizing programs of Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s were like the Harvard of retail. From there you had well-trained merchants, and the merchants really drove the growth and trajectory of retail, and it was a combination of understanding retail, retail math and gut instinct and taste. So we’re not there anymore. Now, retail is a very data centric business, and that’s a good thing. Everything is so different now. 

Ashley Coates [00:11:40] That’s really fascinating. So we actually had Steve Dennis, author of Remarkable Retail on our podcast a few weeks ago, and Steve was saying that he sees the key to staying in business, especially for physical retailers. He sees that key as being remarkable. And so meeting and exceeding customer expectations and creating unparalleled experiences, probably similar to what you were saying, retail used to be these people in stores, staff knowing their merchandise, telling stories. I’m curious what ways you are seeing retailers be remarkable today and what what difference does that make for retailers when they’re able to create a remarkable experience? 

Christine Russo [00:12:23] When you have such a strong omnichannel and digital and e-commerce and not in the store amount of transactions, the touchpoints are different. So how it arrives is really important. And so we have micro fulfillment and different forms of delivery. But I’m going to answer your question by saying how you can return something, how you do the post-purchase, how you handle that kind of complicated world of service matters as much as selling a product out. The focus is kind of less on the of course, an in-store experience should be remarkable, but sometimes being remarkable is there are no dust bunnies, right? I mean, we will change our expectations on what to expect in the store. Where it really matters is okay,  well, now I have this and will I go back to the store? How I get treated during this process will, and when I say store, I’m saying will I shop with this retailer again digitally or in person. Well, kind of. It’s much more interconnected based on ongoing treatment. And that’s where I call it flawless. You need flawless service at the end where if there’s a return or et cetera or questions, it really needs to be spectacular. 

Ashley Coates [00:13:45] That’s really interesting. So you’re saying that there’s a lot of opportunity to be remarkable in the post purchase? 

Christine Russo [00:13:51] Yes, because post purchase is so much more important and so much more prevalent than 10 years ago. 

Ashley Coates [00:13:58] And so also talking about curation, this type of thing that we chatted with Steve about when we had him on the podcast in terms of a way to be remarkable. And the idea of curation can seem like kind of an old school skill set, not really digitized or technology driven. And I’d love to hear your thoughts on how curation can come to the digital space. 

Christine Russo [00:14:22] Oh, it’s happening. There are companies that will personalize your own landing page, and as you go through the pages, there are technology founders doing that. I love that every retailer should be doing that. So that’s sort of happening as, you know, AI the more you use it, the more it gets informed. So that’s happening. There’s also other technology providers, personalization and all that we’ve heard about that even before the pandemic is just another word for curation. The beauty of technology is you can really segment and now a person’s interface and interaction what they see really well. So the curation is happening with happening digitally. 

Ashley Coates [00:15:05] Yes. And then I want to circle back to something you said earlier, which is that data is now much more commonly used by retailers. What are your thoughts on how much data matters or should matter to retailers? Do you think that retailers are more conversant with data and better able to use data about their customer in todays world? 

Christine Russo [00:15:26] The use of data is something that’s growing over time. And I think part of it has to do with the use of onboarding technology that serves them, that solves pain points. We now have several large and small technology providers who promise a plethora of data, but the dashboards have been really improved where retailers have access to different forms of data. So let’s just talk for a second about retail and KPIs. Now you have technology adding new KPIs, creating a dialog around what defines success. And yet, at the same time, it’s really just about the last year. So retail is is a is at the crossroads between having to deal with short term challenges and long term innovation. The balance really comes down to management, management, style and the team. 

Ashley Coates [00:16:29] So which solutions do you see being considered as outdated at this point and where do you see retail technology going in next few years? 

Christine Russo [00:16:37] If we look at Q2 to 2021 funding in retail technology, one of the largest areas of increase of VC money for retail technology is loyalty. Loyalty is where you get the data. Loyalty is where you get the volume. When you hear retailers, publicly traded retailers report one of their KPIs, major KPIs and not just retailers. But if you look at media companies too, is how many subs they have, how many loyalty members they have. One of the big announcements when Ulta and Target decided to do their agreement was how many loyalty members 100 million for Ulta that they were bringing to the table to Target. This is an ongoing or increasing area of retail technology investment. And I think we’re at the beginning of it. An area that has had reduced funding is actually in delivery. We are hearing about a lot of great new technologies how you can get it under ten minutes, you can get it under 15 minutes. There are a lot of players in the field now. So when you start to see VC funding going down, you’re I’m not saying it’s outdated whatsoever. We, as customers haven’t even really experienced the results of the investments in this area. So I think that gives a good landscape for what we’re in for in the retail tech world. 

Ashley Coates [00:18:18] That’s so helpful to hear your perspective on that. It sounds like you believe that loyalty still matters, certainly from the the brand side. How do you think it falls into the decision making process for customers and how much does it matter in that decision making process? 

Christine Russo [00:18:37] It matters a lot. It matters a lot, and I was sort of educated on that by by people in the industry. One fact is that I sort of pooh poohed having an app for every brand. But the fact is, app users are your highest volume customers generally speaking, they love getting something for participating and being a regular customer. They like to be recognized and they like gamification. Loyalty spans all of retail. A great example of that is restoration hardware. This was a major, major pivot point in their business. 

Ashley Coates [00:19:14] And so given what you’ve seen as being successful characteristics of loyalty programs, where do you see loyalty programs going in the future? What will they look like, especially as there becomes more of a hybrid between in-store and online? 

Christine Russo [00:19:30] It’s seamless. It’s a seamless. It’s a seamless situation. No matter where you are, you should be recognized for being a customer. Two of the leaders this quarter in the food category are Chipotle and Domino’s, and the sole reason is the digitization and the loyalty programs. And that should not just be reserved for burritos and pizzas. Because if restoration hardware can do it in the way that suits their brand, everyone in between a burrito and a $30000 sofa should figure out a way to do loyalty. 

Ashley Coates [00:20:13] Would love to, as we come to a close, Christine would love to get your thoughts on what the future of retail looks like, and specifically, once the pandemic is kind of behind us, what does that landscape look like? 

Christine Russo [00:20:27] I think all the walls have come down for the retailer on where business is done. So that’s sort of the brick and mortar narrative. Then if you have just the e-comm narrative, it’s a little bit of me too-itis. So they’re watching the leaders, right? Oh, they can do it in two days. Well, I want wanted for two hours. You can get this product to the customer in two hours. I want to be able to do that, too. And guess what? There are solutions out there for even the smallest retailer and the biggest and everyone in between Amazon to your local store. Everyone in between. There are technology solutions out there that can help you do that. There are a lot of options out there, so you’ve got that kind of me too-itis going on. Also, I am very much watching big movements going on and getting rid of the cardboard consolidation microfulfillment, so much dark stores, use of space urbanism, I mean, it is chock a block full of major trends, major trends. 

Ashley Coates [00:21:41] It’s just incredible how everything keeps changing, getting faster. Well, Christine, thank you so much. You have such a such a broad perspective on so many different industries within retail and all the different solutions there are out there and the different sizes of businesses. So thank you so much, your it’s really wonderful to get your thoughts on all of this. One last question for you. What can future innovators and leaders learn from you and your mission? 

Christine Russo [00:22:11] My mission is information, overcompensation and sharing what you know the rest will follow. 

Ashley Coates [00:22:19] Well, thank you. We’re so glad that you do and in such a creative way. Thank you so much for being on Spark Plug today really enjoyed chatting with you. 

Christine Russo [00:22:28] It’s my pleasure. Thank you so much. 

Ned Hayes [00:22:34] Thanks for listening today to the SparkPlug podcast and brought to you by SnowShoe Snow.sh For smarter mobile location, SparkPlug is a wholly owned property of SnowShoe all content and copyright 2021 SparkPlug Media.