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EPISODE 060 : 05/05/2022

Liza Amlani

Liza Amlani is a go-to expert in retail merchandising, product creation and accelerating speed to market. She is a RETHINK Retail Top Influencer and a regular contributor to RetailWire, Bloomberg, and Forbes. Liza has more than 20 years of experience at luxury and mass merchant retailers in both regional and global markets.

Host: Ned Hayes and Ashley Coates
Guest: Liza Amlani

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Topics discussed in this episode

  • Similarities and differences in retail shopping behavior across the globe
  • The trials and opportunities of starting a retail consulting business during a pandemic
  • The biggest and most exciting advancements in retail technology since 2020
  • The role of value-driven customer loyalty in today’s retail market
  • What retailers have to do NOW to truly stand out and engage with their customers

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Audio Transcript

Ned Hayes [00:00:01] Welcome to Spark Plug, where we talk to smart people working at the intersection of business and technology. Brought to you by SnowShoe, your smarter loyalty leader.

Ashley Coates [00:00:14] Today Spark Plug is happy to welcome Liza Almani to the podcast. Liza is a go to expert in retail merchandizing, product creation and accelerating speed to market. She is a Rethink Retail top influencer with over ten years of experience with luxury and mass merchant retailers in both regional and global markets. A contributor to Retail Wire, Bloomberg and Forbes, among other publications, Liza says “Retailers must shatter traditional business methods to survive in today’s marketplace.” We can’t wait to hear her expand on this. So welcome, Liza. 

Liza Almani [00:00:50] Thanks, Ashley. Thanks, Ned. I’m very excited to be here. I love to talk shop, so hit me with your best questions. 

Ashley Coates [00:00:57] All right, we’re ready. Well, let’s actually start up with the fact that you have more than 20 years of experience and industry knowledge in merchandizing, buying, product development and other areas as well. How did you first get started in the world of retail? 

Liza Almani [00:01:12] Well, I started quite young, probably designing clothes in my early teens. I had a sewing machine. I was like, fashion was life. So I was obsessed with fashion, television and anything and everything to do with fashion. I was all about it. So I’m sure it was illegal at the time, but I definitely worked at a store in the mall when I was 15 because I’m like, This is where I need to be. And that’s really where it all started. I loved the world of retail. I started my degree in Fashion at Ryerson in Toronto, and I started in design and then actually shifted into fashion, business and marketing because I just loved the idea of strategy and thinking about the customer and then putting assortments together. The art meets science. I think that started for me a while back. 

Ashley Coates [00:02:02] Very cool. And are there a couple of experiences in your 20 year history that you think have had the most impact on the career today? 

Liza Almani [00:02:11] That’s a great question because I’ve worked with so many great brands and retailers. There’s definitely some department stores that I wish I did not work for, but I will not name names. I think the film The Devil Wears Prada, that’s absolutely true in the fashion world. So that’s something that definitely shaped me in terms of what type of leader I wanted to be. Empathy was very important to me. I wanted to be part of a team that was inclusive, that appreciated diversity, and I think that really took me throughout my career and the roles that I enjoyed the most. I loved working for Ralph Lauren. I loved working for Club Monaco. These are brands that we had great teams in place, just incredible ways of working and thinking because we were a diverse team. So that’s something that became really important to me and I was able to articulate it probably the last few years, wasn’t quite sure what was it about all those great places that I worked, something that I would see the most impact on my career that I go to a lot is my experience with Accenture. Actually, that really pushed me into that world of consulting that I had no idea about when I first joined. But Accenture was a great place to be because they brought me on as their soft lines merchandizing expert and as you’re a buyer, a merchant, a planner, a designer, when you’re immersed in that retail world, you don’t think about forward thinking strategies because you’re still buried in Excel and thinking about, okay, when do I have to go to this store and do a store visit and see if the assortments working? So on the strategy side, I was really able to take a step back and see what was the art of the possible, and that was really the most exciting thing in terms of my career. 

Ned Hayes [00:03:46] I’d love to circle back to something you just said, which is speaking about diversity and diverse teams being successful and getting things done. I was curious if you could speak to how retail and the retail sector has diversified over the last 20 or 30 years. Have we seen changes that have been positive? 

Liza Almani [00:04:03] Yeah, absolutely. The incidents of the beginning of the pandemic, I think that that really shook a lot of people. I was at Accenture when when George Floyd was killed. And I think that really struck a chord, not only with me, but of course, the teams that I worked with, the Black community that I was a part of with my friends and even some of my family. And actually I’m from East Africa, so I have a real deep relationship with the Black community because I grew up in it. And I would say from that moment people started talking about it more. We talked about, okay, how do we become allies? How do we educate friends and family about what’s going on in the world, and what is that impact in the world of retail around representation of assortments and product mix and who is actually shopping the shop floor? And that just triggered a whole other conversation around sizing, inclusivity and then of course, around sourcing and product development and creation. What was happening in China with the. That prompted another discussion around ethical ways of treatment of employees. And then, of course, I’m sure you’ve read a lot of my stuff and I talked about BooHoo a lot and what happened in our own backyard because I was living in the U.K. at the time. What was happening just a couple of hours away from me and how factory workers were being treated. So I think it really opened up the whole conversation. And what that did was it started to hold retailers accountable for what they were doing. And that also gave people a voice maybe that they didn’t have before, which I think is a beautiful thing. I think we have a voice. We should use it. 

Ned Hayes [00:05:36] It’s so inspirational to hear you speak about your business work in retail, having moral implications and really inspiring people. It’s powerful to hear voices that maybe we haven’t heard in the past really come to the forefront. 

Liza Almani [00:05:48] Yeah, and I will say that even from a merchant perspective, being a former merchant, as somebody that has worked on the shop floor design product, creative productm, I don’t see a lot of experts in this space that have that actual retail experience, and that’s my competitive edge. And I celebrate that to anybody that’s going to listen because I understand what those retailers have been through and what my clients are going through. So when I think of my 20 plus years in merchandise planning and product creation, I know that that line plan hasn’t changed since the start of retail time. And I know that we’re developing samples, physical samples, the same way for so many years. And we’re going to unless we transform, which is what the pandemic really gave us. Right outside of, of course, everything horrible that happened. I never discount any of that. But what it did do was it put planners in the spotlight, it put merchants in the spotlight. It put sourcing and product development in the spotlight. How much waste is being created when we’re developing one SKU to get on that shelf floor? And that is what I am determined to change in this world, is how we go to market and how we create product and how do we be more responsible. 

Ashley Coates [00:07:00] That’s fantastic. Well, we’re so excited to hear more about how you do that with all of your clients. I do want to ask you about one thing, Liza, which is the fact that you’re currently a Retail Wire Brain Trust Member. 

Liza Almani [00:07:10] I am. 

Ashley Coates [00:07:11] Can you tell us what that is and how you became involved? 

Liza Almani [00:07:14] Yeah, absolutely. I have been reading Retail Wire for years and years as retailers. We read certain publications, business of fashion, women’s wear daily and then of course, all of the great research and analysis that’s out there and Retail Wire was something that I had been reading for years. So when I moved back to Canada from London in 2018, I started with Accenture and I was still reading these retail publications when I started my own gig in 2020. As you do, you start your own business. So I took the plunge and I did that and I was reading more and more about what is happening in the retail landscape and who’s talking about change. And I found Retail Wire was a great outlet for many of these experts that I see on LinkedIn and on Twitter, giving their opinion on how things could actually change for retailers and brands. And that’s when I got super excited. I’m like, I need you to be on this because number one, I didn’t see a whole lot of representation from the merchant community. There’s a few, absolutely. And I love them. But there’s also a lot of folks that have been there for so long. And I was hoping to bring in that merchant perspective. And so I lobbied a little bit and it’s been awesome. They’re so supportive and I love that we can actually push our opinions out there and give some insight into people on how they can transform. 

Ned Hayes [00:08:35] Well it sounds like you bring so much learning and depth of experience to this. One of the experiences you had was that you were with Ralph Lauren for nine years, I think it was. So can you tell us about what you learned there working with one of the biggest. 

Liza Almani [00:08:48] My gosh, so much. Ralph Lauren is one of my favorite places I’ve ever worked. Fine. Fact is, when I actually moved to the UK for the second or third time, I’m British, I keep going back there and I was determined after school to go live in Paris and work for Condé Nast. That did not happen. I actually worked at Harrods and I worked with Ralph Lauren on the shop floor. I was part of the Harrods program to move into the buying office, so I just loved working for the brand and basically I just kept coming back to Ralph Lauren. So as part of the Purple Label at Harrods, I was on the shop floor there. And then I was one of the three people that started the Canada office. I had moved back to Canada at that point and that was an awesome experience because I got to work with supply chain and learn about different types of DC’s and 3PLs that I had never had any experience with before. And then full circle, I go back to England and I am part of the leadership team for Head of Buying basically for the Lauren brand for Northern Europe. So UK, Ireland, Scandinavia, the Baltics, sometimes France depending on the mood of Galeria Lafayette and the Parisians. But it was an amazing experience because what I learned was how different across regions, how a brand is embraced, determined, how the product mix is so different. Scandinavia is very similar to the UK they didn’t like sleeveless, just some examples of the things I was learning was fascinating, but I also really, truly learned about omni channel when I was at Ralph Lauren because I bought for over 120 stores. Some were just online, some were online and offline. So introducing that term omni channel, I think that’s when I first started to hear it. It was awesome because I was right in it and learning and making decisions about Omni before I even really knew what Omni was. Very interesting experience. 

Ashley Coates [00:10:41] Did you notice a difference in how you approached Omni channel, given the various regions that you were working in? 

Liza Almani [00:10:49] Yes, definitely. The demographic may be the same across, let’s say, the Lauren brand, but the actual shoppers are different from store to store, region to region. And that was super fascinating to me. I was a buyer that spent a lot of time on the shop floor learning from the customer because I didn’t have insights. Data driven decision making was purely historical sales data or what I was seeing in the market or what other brands were doing and learning about trends. But that’s where I got my insights from talking to the customer and hanging out on the shop floor. So I did that in every single country that I was buying, and then I would go back to market, then I’d do it again and then I went to work. But the importance of physical stores and seeing the customers and talking to them and spending time with them and styling with them was an incredible learning experience. 

Ned Hayes [00:11:37] Well, and then you founded Retail Strategy Group. Can you tell us what led you to founding your group? 

Liza Almani [00:11:42] Yes. What I found working at Accenture and talking to other big firms was that there weren’t a lot of consultants within those big firms that had actually worked for a retailer, had actually worked on the shop floor, had seen a factory, had created product who really understood what a tech pack was, who really understood merchandizing from a decentralized model to a centralized model. And that, I truly believe, was my competitive edge, because I was able to relate to the customer like no other consultant could that had worked in industry. And I decided in deep into the pandemic to be like, okay, let’s start my own business. So that’s what I did. And I did that because I was getting asked a lot by a lot of friends in my network who were retailers that said Liza We need help. What do we do? We can’t hire a big firm. We don’t even want a big firm because we don’t want to go through mountains of PowerPoint decks. We just want, you understand what we’re going through. So what do we do? So that’s what really led me to move into my own practice. 

Ashley Coates [00:12:48] And what are the primary services that you offer at Retail Strategy Group and who is your client base as well? 

Liza Almani [00:12:54] Yeah, I kind of put it into three buckets. I work with retailers and brands, of course, on things like responsible retailing and how to reduce your time to market. So speed to market, but in a responsible way, how to enable digital tools in your line plan, things like that, and then strategy, of course. And then I also work with retail tech companies, retail service providers, trade shows on advisory, mostly from a merchant lens or a retailer lens. What I found in my journey was that a lot of tech providers or solutions were created without the input of retailers. And I’m sure a lot of folks in your audience may say the same thing is that, Oh, well, we implemented this tech solution, but they never asked us what our pain point is or why are we looking at a database that looks exactly like Excel? I don’t need this. I have Excel. I get that a lot. So I found that there was a lot of need for advisory and strategy in that service area. And then I do some education and speaking events and things like that, but predominantly I work with brands and retailers on being more responsible in how they go to market. 

Ned Hayes [00:14:07] Well, it must have been pretty challenging to found a retail consulting group during the pandemic. So how were you able to help your clients navigate through that difficult time over the last few years? 

Liza Almani [00:14:18] Well, I’d say that one thing about the pandemic, everybody was working from home, so everybody was going through the same thing. We had common ground. So everybody was online, everybody was on their phones or on LinkedIn. So I was able to get in front of a lot of people then of course I’ve been in the industry for so long. So I have a pretty vast network and I’m pretty vocal about the things that I believe in, aligning with my own values around sustainability and diversity and just around responsible retailing. And I was talking to someone earlier today and they were like, We haven’t changed the way we’ve been working in the last 30 years and imagine being stuck. That is really what drove me. Is that, okay, how do I get people unstuck, move the needle for them and help them understand what could be and what the art of the possible is? 

Ned Hayes [00:15:06] Well, the art of the possible really strikes me. What do you think is possible now? That wasn’t possible in the past?

Liza Almani [00:15:13] Oh, so much. I think it depends what lens we’re talking about, because if we’re talking about getting faster to market because consumers are shifting their shopping behavior as much as they change their stocks these days. So I think that getting faster to market, getting closer to the customer, we have a lot more tools to help us get us there. We had the great retail tech acceleration the last two years, so we have a lot more tools that we can work with and so many more options than we’ve ever had before. We also have a lot more accountability to our customer with what’s happening from a representation standpoint. We also need to align with our customer values around sustainability because we have so much more access to information than we’ve ever done before. So we’re able to see the product journey. And in most cases there’s a lot more transparency because we have the media pulling out all stops telling us what’s going on, for example, with the Uighurs in China or what’s happening with ethical ways people are being treated in factories, etc.. So I do think because retailers and brands have a lot more options now is only because customers can hold them accountable, because they can see what’s happening around them. But we also have the tools to move us forward. 

Ashley Coates [00:16:30] Well, you mentioned the great retail acceleration, and we very much wanted to ask about your perspectives on how the pandemic affected technology in retail. We really saw the adoption in retail really speed up. And I’m curious to hear what some of the more exciting technological advances in retail were from your perspective? 

Liza Almani [00:16:51] Well, the most exciting thing for me as a former merchant is that there’s so many more merchant tools out there and planning tools to help us buy better product, smarter with AI and machine learning, helping us to better predict what the customer is looking for. From a merchandizing standpoint, of course, we couldn’t travel as merchants anymore. Trade shows were closed, markets are closed. So what that did help, but from a technology standpoint, B2B solutions like Jaur, for example, I actually spoke to her today and I was drooling over this amazing solution that I wish I had an industry. The other thing that I love is that there’s so many more tools to connect us to the customer, whether it’s guided selling tools on the shop floor online, or the ability to close the feedback loop so that design, product development, merchandizing and planning can actually in real time see if product is a win or a total miss. And talking to the customers, which if stores are closed, how do we do that? So I think that acceleration of technology has moved the needle for retail leaps and bounds. And that is what excites me. Even from a sustainability lens, we’re able to actually see who is making our product, how it’s being made, and all the touch points that are impacting our own carbon footprint, but also our customers carbon footprint, which is very important to them right now. I had a stat earlier and of course it’s escaping me about how many apps there are that a customer can use to actually track their own carbon footprint. And I think that is powerful. 

Ned Hayes [00:18:27] So there are all of these apps to track information and to understand people better. How about things like livestream shopping? Any perspective on how the world of being in person and yet not being physically there will change in the future? 

Liza Almani [00:18:42] Yeah, it’s going to be hybrid. I think livestreaming is very important. Meta is important, very much so right now, even though some of us don’t understand it, sometimes me included. But it is important. It’s important because that is where our customers are hanging out and we need to meet our customers where they are. So if they’re engaging in Meta, we need to be in Meta. If they’re engaging on their mobile constantly, then we need to engage in live shopping or livestreaming. And if they’re in the physical store, we need to meet them there. So I think it’s all about meeting the customer where they are across channels and platforms in a seamless way because as far as the customer is concerned, they just see brands. They’re not concerned how we’re going to meet them there. We just know that we need to meet them. 

Ned Hayes [00:19:27] Right. It reminds me of a classic Steve Jobs quote, “That it’s not about the technology or the speeds and feeds. It’s about the value. It’s about the customer experience.”

Liza Almani [00:19:36] It is. 

Ned Hayes [00:19:37] Yeah. So any brands who you think are really using tech or the future of tech effectively to improve that customer experience? 

Liza Almani [00:19:45] Yeah, I usually do bring up Nike because I think that they are one of the best brands in the world. The fact that they are continuously innovating from a materials perspective all the way to how do we collaborate with the customer to the actual customer experience across channel? I think they’re doing a beautiful job. I think that they are leader of the pack. I do think that Lululemon also does a great job and as far as outdoor performance brands go, I’d say they’re the leaders. I think Adidas is absolutely following and so is Under Armor. Under armor does a great job from an inclusivity perspective. Even if you walk their shop floors, their mannequins are inclusive, their sales staff is inclusive. And I love the fact that a lot of these brands are getting into genderless and adaptable clothing. And that’s also so important to talk about, because it’s not just about, okay, where are we getting the most profits from to size eight? It’s a size ten. And that’s it. No, we’re actually we want to be more inclusive. So I love to hear that about brands in terms of this seamless journey. I’d say Levi’s did a good job for sure, especially during the pandemic, because they kept iterating and they put out an MVP. They’re like, We need to get closer to our customer. This is what we’re going to do, and we’re going to keep iterating until we get the best thing out there. So I do think Levi’s did a fantastic job. Digitally native brands, that’s a great topic to talk about, too, because at the start of the pandemic, of course, they did a great job. The challenge was with scaling, but I do think they are also leading the way because they’re showing us what we can do with data and how we can use data to drive decisions from marketing and promotion all the way to product and esthetic and assortment planning. And then of course, I do think that Ralph Lauren actually does a great job because they have a great, loyal fan base, but also they’re meeting the customer where they want to be met and they’re meeting them online, they’re meeting them virtually. And they’re also focused on personalization, which I think is super important. 

Ned Hayes [00:21:42] So one further question here. If you were able to advise somebody who is just starting out in retail and wants to be a leader in retail, who would you tell them to go work for or what kind of technology basis do you think they would have to have to succeed? 

Liza Almani [00:21:57] Well, it would really depend on what type of brand they’re looking to be a part of. A department store, like a Nordstrom, I think is awesome because they have invested a lot in innovation and around data analytics. They have data scientists, so they do understand the importance of marrying art and science. That’s where I would tell someone to go. I think the younger brands, even the DTC brands, the digitally native brands, I think they take a lot more risks, which to me is very exciting. When you think about legacy retailers, they’re very slow. I can name quite a few but I will not, because we know who they are. And it takes them three years to implement a digital transformation, which should never be the case. Because what we need to do is think about how do we connect to our customer and that should really drive all our decisions. 

Ashley Coates [00:22:45] Absolutely. Well, switching to another subject, but you actually touched on customer loyalty in retail today. You mentioned that Ralph Lauren has a very loyal customer base. Is customer loyalty something that you work on with your clients? And if so, how do you help them design customer loyalty programs or implement initiatives that really engage their customers? 

Liza Almani [00:23:08] Yeah, I think what we start with is the strategy. So what are we looking to achieve? What outcomes are we looking to achieve? Are we looking to connect with our current customers? Are we looking to show them we’re innovative and we’re going to meet them where they want to be and where they’re hanging out? And that’s what I always start with. There are some brands that I’m working with today where we’re looking to meet our customers, where their values are important around sustainability. So for example, working with materials and material innovation, if we give designers and developers time back, put some barriers around designers around how much they want to develop each season, then we’re going to spend a lot more time innovating and creating textiles that are more sustainable, that have longevity. They’re not going to end up in the landfill, for example, and they’re biodegradable. So giving time back to retailers to spend time on innovation around sustainability. If sustainability is important to their customer, that will drive brand loyalty, right? I think we have to think above and beyond the CRM and marketing. We have to think about what is important to our customer and how do we meet them there. And that is what drives brand loyalty. 

Ned Hayes [00:24:23] So it’s really about value alignment rather than just buying more things. 

Liza Almani [00:24:28] 100%. Because what we don’t want, we don’t want them to buy more things. We want them to buy just from us, right? So even if you think about an apparel brand, we want the customers to buy the top and the bottom and the accessories and maybe the footwear from us. And if you think about a Lululemon or a Nike or even a Ralph Lauren or Michael, we want to be head to toe in that brand because we are loyal to that brand. So if we flip it and we think about it from a customer point of view, even if I said we have taken up rock climbing, which will never happen, I’m just putting it out there, I want to go to a mound equipment company and I want to buy everything from them and they have a loyalty program. It’s free and they’re going to keep my receipt on hand so that I don’t have to print it out because I want to reduce my paper, etc., and be more sustainable. So that comes full circle and suddenly I’m a loyal customer and I didn’t even know it, which I totally am, because I did buy hiking stuff from there because we had nothing else to do during the pandemic. But it does come full circle and I think it is all about the customer, it’s all about product and how long it lasts as well. I think that’s also part of it, which is another sustainability metric. 

Ashley Coates [00:25:43] So Liza we have many retailers who listen to Spark Plug. What do retailers have to do now post-pandemic to truly stand out and truly engage their customers? 

Liza Almani [00:25:54] I think they need to talk to them. That would be a great start. I find a lot of retailers because we were working from home, we’re not out on the shop floor as much as we used to be or we’re not engaging online through a chat, which in fact a lot of retailers did. They put their merchants in the chat to give styling advice, etc. So I think we need to connect with our customers. That is truly critical no matter how we do it offline, online, and that is going to get us way ahead of the game because if we think of our customer aligning with their values, what’s important to them and giving them the tools to understand and be part of product creation or merchandise planning and collaborate with them. That is what is going to set retailers apart. The technology will enable all that. The right talent will enable all that. But that is truly what is needed to shift retailers into new ways of working and new ways of thinking, is connecting with the customer on a deeper level. 

Ned Hayes [00:26:53] Well, I found our conversation today really inspirational, and at this point I often ask people, what do you see for the future of retail? But instead, I’m going to change that question for you into what do you hope for the future of retail in 5 to 10 years? Where do you hope the world goes? 

Liza Almani [00:27:08] Honestly, I always will boil it down to sustainability. What I would love to see is that we stop overproducing, we stop over buying, and we reduce or maybe even remove physical sampling, especially of core product. We don’t need to sample that. And that’s what I would love to see. I would like to see that sustainability metric actually pushed forward and saving our planet to be top of mind for fashion. 

Ashley Coates [00:27:37] Thank you. Well, so we have one last question for you, Liza, which is what do you want your legacy to be? What would you like to be remembered for? 

Liza Almani [00:27:45] Wow. I love this question. I’ve been asked this before. I want my legacy to be truly around giving people a voice because I feel that is where we can actually make change if we speak up and talk about it, whether it is from a diversity perspective or if it is from a sustainability perspective. Being a woman of color, I’m super short, so I always feel like I have to speak up and be seen. I think having a voice in paving the way for other merchants, other female retailers, women of color, people of color. I want to see more of us in retail and leadership roles. That’s what I want to see. 

Ned Hayes [00:28:26] Fantastic. Well, thank you for chatting with us today. And I hope the world that you’re envisioning comes to pass.

Liza Almani [00:28:34] It will, it has to. Thanks for having me on the show. 

Ashley Coates [00:28:36] Thanks so much for being here. 

Ned Hayes [00:28:40] Spark Plug is a wholly owned property of SnowShoe. All content and copyright 2021 Spark Plug Media.