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EPISODE 053 : 03/17/2022

Shelley E. Kohan


Shelley E. Kohan is a senior retail executive and consultant with more than 25 years of success in the industry. She is an Associate Professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology and CEO & Founder of Shelmark Consulting. Shelley has been recognized as a Top 100 Global Retail Influencer by RETHINK Retail four years in a row.

Host: Ned Hayes and Ashley Coates
Guest: Shelley E. Kohan

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Topics discussed in this episode

  • A review of the supply network and supply ecosystem 
  • Working with other influencers
  • A new technology that supports a hybrid buying experience and shopper’s journey with artificial intelligence and the metaverse
  • Loyalty is becoming more of a community

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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. Spark Plug is happy to welcome Shelley E. Kohan to the podcast. Shelley is a senior retail executive and she’s a consultant with more than 25 years of success in this industry. She’s now an associate professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and she’s the CEO and founder of Shelmark Consulting. She’s been recognized as a top 100 global retail influencer for years in a row, and she’s been a featured spokesperson across many publications and appeared on media including NBC Nightly News, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and now Spark Plug. So welcome Shelley!

Shelley Kohan [00:00:46]  Thank you so much. It’s such a pleasure being here today.

Ashley Coates [00:00:50] So wonderful to have you, Shelley. Let’s start off by having you tell us how you first became interested in the retail industry. 

Shelley Kohan [00:00:58] Yeah, when I was in high school, I actually took a class intro to the fashion business and we took a field trip down in Washington, D.C., to a store called Garfinkel. And I remember clearly thinking as we toured the store, Wow, this is really something. And then my mom and I moved to New York City after I graduated high school. I was 17 years old. I walked into Bloomingdales and I applied for a seasonal job and I was addicted to retail ever since then. 

Ashley Coates [00:01:29] Wonderful. And now you are an associate professor at the National Institute of Technology. What do you love about teaching and what courses do you teach today? 

Shelley Kohan [00:01:39] Well, it’s interesting. While I was working at Bloomingdales, a coworker was taking classes at FIT and I thought I would do the same. So I enrolled at the college and I felt immediately connected to the college. I was able to use my creative skills while focusing on the business side. And the best part about going to FIP was the professors. They just brought the real world into the classroom, so I knew that I wanted to give back to the industry and give back to the community and really teach. So I really feel like it’s a contribution back to the industry, and I just really love teaching. So most of my classes that I teach revolve around no big shocker here retail, retail management, retail strategy, leadership. It’s really focused on the business side of the fashion industry. 

Ned Hayes [00:02:30] Well, I know during your tenure there at the Fashion Institute, the retail industry has seen rapid evolution. So how do you keep up with all of this accelerated change? 

Shelley Kohan [00:02:40] Well, one thing I do is I recently wrote a new course that’s one way to keep up with accelerated changes, write new courses with fresh material. But what I really do is I’m very active in the industry, so I keep up with contacts in the industry. I still write a lot about the industry. I speak about the industry, so I’m very well connected in the industry. For example, I just had to redo my entire lecture on supply chain strategy for obvious reasons. Because of everything that just happened in the last year and a half. So I think what I really typically do is I really understand what’s happening in the industry and then I apply that into the classroom. So I keep up with the changing industry by continuing to work in the industry, be continually active in the industry. And it’s really the only way that one can truly adapt these fast changes, and the courses to be reflective of what’s actually happening in the industry.

Ned Hayes [00:03:38] Right. So one thing that I found interesting about your career, too, is that you currently consult with a lot of smaller and mid-sized companies. So what attracts you to this size of business as opposed to a huge enterprise companies like Wal-Mart or Amazon? 

Shelley Kohan [00:03:54] It’s so funny that you asked me this question because originally when I opened my consulting business, I thought, I’m going to be working for the big companies and helping with all my experience and merchandizing and buying and operation. But actually, what ended up happening is it’s the small and midsize companies that I ended up doing more work for. And I think it’s great because what ends up happening is I really enjoy working with small and mid-sized companies because I can really see the impact of the work that I’m doing. Unlike being in a big company where you’re a VP of many, in a small mid-sized company, your impact can really make a change. And I’ll tell you a quick story. One of my first consulting projects was I had a client who fresh out of college, her first job was owning her own business. That’s job one that she’s ever had in her life. So she had reached out to me and I did some work with her. And so as she went on running her business, she asked me for help because she had an inventory liquidation issue. So I provided her some solutions and I gave her some tips based on my background and experience. And then I didn’t hear from her for a while and I’m thinking, Oh my gosh, what happened to her business? A lot of small businesses unfortunately fail, so I was really worried about her. But then she reached out and she actually told me that she implemented some of my solutions that I worked with her on and I actually saved her business. And now she’s a thriving business and she’s still in business today. So you really feel like you make that big impact. 

Ashley Coates [00:05:26] Thank you for sharing that story, Shelley. That’s so incredible. And we work with a lot of independent retailers as well, so we agree it’s a great place to be. Well, with all of your clients, you work with them on how to increase sales, how to reduce costs and better align their resources to achieve their goals. So can you talk us through some of the key factors that you look at when you’re working with clients? 

Shelley Kohan [00:05:50] Sure. I mean, honestly, it really depends on the client and depends on their objectives. The first thing I try to understand is their customer base, their target market, who their customer is. And then I try to understand the overriding strategy of the company, like what are their goals, what are their objectives? And then I also have to understand what resources the company has. But most importantly, one really significant factor is culture. Culture is a huge consideration. Some companies have appetites for high risk. Some companies don’t have that appetite for high risk. So I think culture is a really big key factor that has to be considered before you do any type of consulting work. 

Ned Hayes [00:06:30] Right? Well, your kind of thoughtful, considerate approach has reaped a lot of benefits, including being recognized for four years in a row by Rethink Retail as a top 100 global influencer. So how does it feel to be recognized that way? 

Shelley Kohan [00:06:46] Well, it’s an extreme honor to be recognized again as a Rethink Retail influencer, especially when you look at all the people in the category. So it’s a very esteemed group, and I know many of the influencers on the list and I continue to reach out and network with them, even ones that I don’t know. So it’s actually a real honor, and I also feel very fortunate to have the connections I have and I have built over the years in my career. 

Ned Hayes [00:07:15] Well, I know part of the reason we do this podcast is I love learning from all the smart people who we talk to. So can you tell us anything that you’ve learned from other influencers over your time being an influencer yourself? 

Shelley Kohan [00:07:28] Yeah. So one of the things that’s really interesting is my whole world is retail, so oftentimes I will meet with influencers who might specialize, for example, in future technologies or artificial intelligence. I don’t spend a huge amount of time doing tons of research on artificial intelligence, so I learn a lot about some of that really far out technologies, for example, from my other fellow influencers or other influencers that are on the list that have different skill sets that are completely focused on CRM or customer service. So I actually learn a lot about the business from all the influencers on the list bring something different to the table. 

Ned Hayes [00:08:07] Mm hmm. 

Ashley Coates [00:08:08] I’m curious, Shelley, you’ve held many different roles in retail in general management, marketing, operations, buying. Do you have a favorite area among these? 

Shelley Kohan [00:08:19] Well, I’ll be honest with you, I’ve been very fortunate the industry. I really have loved all my roles. But if I had to say what role I was really a rock star at, I’d have to say store operations. I just have this innate ability to really excel in the area of store operations. My personality lends itself to being successful there analytical, organized, stategic, highly efficient. So I have to say store operations is probably a role that suited me really well in the industry. 

Ned Hayes [00:08:49] Right? So store operations have really changed, especially over the last three years during the pandemic. So I’m curious if you could share with us any changes that you’ve seen during the pandemic that surprised you. What did you not expect? 

Shelley Kohan [00:09:04] Well, I’ll be honest with you, it is so shocking to me that so many companies are still working with a linear supply chain. After all these years of being in retail, it has been the same. It’s a linear supply chain. So I’ve been writing and speaking a lot about the significance of a supply network or supply ecosystem. So I think it’s pretty shocking that we really haven’t progressed forward in the area of supply chain to the degree that we really need to do both from the industry perspective, but also creating the infrastructure as well. To be able to support this lies in manufacturing, overseas and online commerce and unified commerce. I don’t have to tell you, looking at the ports in L.A., I thought I still wouldn’t be talking about this in 2022, but we are. 

Ned Hayes [00:09:53] You know, well so I know Shelley you mentioned that you’ve spoken with other influencers about technologies including AI, do you have any thoughts on what new technologies are here to stay? 

Shelley Kohan [00:10:04] Yeah, I think new technologies that are here to stay are the ones that really support this unified commerce. So being able to collect and synchronize data across various platforms and then using analytics to make data driven decisions is really the key for future success. So in other words, the technologies that support this hybrid shopping journey. 

Ned Hayes [00:10:26] Got it. So the pandemic changed things. And over the next 10 to 20 years, I’m sure things will change some more. So if I could ask you to look into your crystal ball, what do you think you’d be surprised by 10 years from now in retail? 

Shelley Kohan [00:10:41] Well, I think we’re going to see a continued evolution of the consumer. I think that’s one of the biggest changing factors of our industry, and the industry really revolves around what the consumer wants. So different shopping behaviors. I think we’re going to see the continued growth and sustainability, circular economy, recommerce, all those initiatives, which I think are all very positive. I also think we’re going to see more in terms of actions around diversity, equity and inclusion in our industry. I hope and pray that we see more female and diverse leaders in our industry, BIPOC leaders as well. There seems to be a dearth in the industry of really having a lot of leadership at the top that’s diverse in nature. So hopefully that is going to change and I hope it doesn’t take 15 years to do that. 

Ned Hayes [00:11:31] Right? So how about technology itself, any technology changes that you see coming down the pike? 

Shelley Kohan [00:11:37] I definitely think there’s going to be more use cases in terms of artificial intelligence and computer vision. I think that’s the way we’re headed now. I think as it stands today, there’s not a significant amount of retailers that are using computer vision to help with the various aspects of the retail industry. So I think that will open up. Of course, we’ve heard a lot about the Metaverse and what’s happening there. So I think there’s going to be a lot of changes there. 

Ned Hayes [00:12:02] So are you telling me this Metaverse thing might actually have some foundation? 

Shelley Kohan [00:12:06] I do think it’s going to have some foundation. I know a lot of players, a lot of people in the industry are sitting back to see what happens. But I’m looking at the Gen Z, right the Gen Z and the Alphas coming up. And that’s their world. The Meta universe is their world. That’s what they’re growing up in. I don’t think it’s going to happen overnight may not happen in the next few years in a major way. But it absolutely is in the pipeline for the future. 

Ashley Coates [00:12:28] So technology has had a huge impact on two primary actions when it comes to retail purchasing and then collecting loyalty rewards. Looking at loyalty programs, specifically, how has technology changed, how we create programs and how customers collect rewards? 

Shelley Kohan [00:12:45] Absolutely. When we talk about rewards and loyalty, there has been a significant amount of work done in terms of loyalty programs. We know as a fact because I’ve heard many different CEOs of major companies talk about this, and that is that that loyal customer is going to spend five times more than that average customer. So there’s been a lot of activity and work and initiatives around building that loyalty. And it really goes beyond just trading this dollar for rewards. So you pay a dollar, you get a point that’s like table stakes, right? Now, you can actually join communities. So if you look at, for example, the Nike app and how they’re building loyalty, it goes beyond just buying a shoe and getting points. It’s Oh, I can buy a shoe. I can run with runners all over the world. I can get recipes online about healthy drink. I can track my activity so it becomes this whole community of loyalty. So I think we’re going to continue to see that. And there’s a lot of enabling technologies that allow us to be able to collect data, understand the customer shopping journey, understand the customer activity and really continue this conversation beyond the point of purchase. 

Ned Hayes [00:13:58] Right. And understanding that customer journey goes to the role of analytics and A.I.. And that’s such a tsunami thats hit the retail industry. So frankly, I’ll ask, do you think analytics and AI make shopping better or not? 

Shelley Kohan [00:14:13] I will say this there is absolutely, unequivocally, no doubt in my mind, 100 percent that analytics and AI absolutely improves the shopper journey. There’s just no question. 

Ashley Coates [00:14:28] You heard it here first. And you also mentioned computer vision Shelley. And so what about computer vision as a purchasing mechanism like we’ve seen with AmazonGo Stores, do you think we’ll see more of this in the future? 

Shelley Kohan [00:14:42] I think we’re going to see more of it in the future. So you have the technology which exists today and it has existed for many years. I think the retailers and the brands have to catch up with the technology. And when you talk about computer vision, what’s the wide scale use case for large mass of retailers that have perhaps? 

Ashley Coates [00:15:00] All right. And in the retail fashion industry, I actually spent a little bit of time on this in my past history at Intel, when Intel was doing responsive fashion that actually physically would react to the environment, whether it would grow wings on your dress or whether it would look like a spider and have pieces moving. So that’s a different way of using A.I., not the analytics. But since you work at the Fashion Institute, I just thought I’d ask you, do you think we’ll have clothes that are morphing with AI in the future? Or do you think that’s a dead end? 

Shelley Kohan [00:15:33] Well, first, let me tell you, I am no designer and I could not design my way out of a paper bag. With that said, I do see in the future more use cases of wearable technology apparel and inducing more A.I. into the fashion industry. So I do think that’s going to show itself reveal itself over the next few years. 

Ashley Coates [00:15:55] Right. So right now, you’re consulting with a number of companies. I’m not asking you to reveal anything confidential, but I’m curious what’s top of mind for your clients beyond recovering from COVID and keeping their customers and their associates safe? What are people asking you about and how are you helping them? 

Shelley Kohan [00:16:13] Yeah, I have to say right now in the industry, being a CEO is certainly a full plate because you have everything that’s going on in the industry resulting from the pandemic, the supply chain, the merchandise, the pricing inflation, the cost of goods. And then you also have all the initiatives on employees, the lack of help in stores and trying to become employer of choice. There’s a lot of activities on diversity, equity, inclusion, not just with employees, but having customers feel included in the shopping journey. So there’s a lot on the plate of CEOs and companies and helping companies to strategize and prioritize based on what their objectives are is how I can add the most value for some of these companies. 

Ashley Coates [00:16:59] Absolutely, thank you so much Shelley for being with us today. This has been a great conversation. We do have one last question for you, which is what do you want your legacy to be? What would you like to be remembered for? 

Shelley Kohan [00:17:09] Well, I guess if I had to say what I would like my legacy to be would have to be around how I help people succeed in the industry, whether it’s students, whether it’s client. My whole mantra, my ethos is all. I really honestly feel like I serve the industry. So my legacy, I hope, would be whether it’s people that were subordinates that worked for me, partners I’ve worked with, whether it’s business, whether it’s mentees, I’d really like to be known for someone that really tried to help people succeed in the industry. 

Ned Hayes [00:17:45] Great to talk with you today. Really appreciate your perspective and hopefully we can talk again. 

Shelley Kohan [00:17:50] It’s such an honor and a pleasure to be included in your interview. So thank you so much. 

Ned Hayes [00:17:56] Spark Plug is a wholly owned property of SnowShoe all content, copyright 2021 Spark Plug Media.