Chris Hardisty is Vice President of Retail and Digital at leading fashion brand Lacoste. His past positions include Director of Global E-commerce at Timberland and VP Ecommerce at PUMA. He’s also Vice Chair Executive Committee of the National Retail Federation.
Biggest Changes in Retail Over the Last Decade
“Today, it’s unimaginable to envision a successful retailer who doesn’t offer a fast, intuitive mobile shopping experience.”
Alexa Ross: As someone who’s been in the retail sector for some time, you’ve obviously seen some pretty big changes such as with technology and digital marketing. How are customer expectations different today than, say, 10 years ago when it comes to the retail experience and how do you see this changing in the next few years?
Chris Hardisty: Pretty big changes is correct. Ten years ago, we were still assessing if a customer would actually shop for clothing on a mobile phone. The primary phone was a BlackBerry, with a roller ball and a pretty miserable browsing experience. Today, it’s unimaginable to envision a successful retailer who doesn’t offer a fast, intuitive mobile shopping experience.
Another massive change is access. Customers now have incredible access and availability to anything and everything 24 hours a day in the palm of their hands. Mobile has been the biggest transformative technology in the past 10 years in my opinion. In minutes, you can grab your phone, place an order, and pick it up in your car without interacting with, or even making eye contact with, a single human being. You can then share your latest fashion treasure with friends and family halfway around the globe in seconds and receive instant feedback.
On that same note, let’s talk about what has not changed. Customers care about great product above all. No matter how much flashy technology on your website or cool new creative on your social-media platform, if your product isn’t inspiring and highly desirable, you won’t go anywhere.
How Can Leading Brands Hold Onto Their Market Share?
“It sounds simple, but the clearest way brands today can hold onto and build market share comes from creating cool, new, limited-availability product.”
AR: You have a strong background in marketing leading fashion brands such as Timberland and Lacoste. What are some of the biggest challenges for such companies to hold onto or build their market share in the face of so much competition (such as from lower priced products from China)?
CH: It sounds simple, but the clearest way brands today can hold onto and build market share comes from creating cool, new, limited-availability product. Hitting the mark here can be absolutely transformational for a brand. When I was at PUMA, the brand signed Rihanna as a creative director, and within a couple of hours of her first product launch, it was crystal clear nothing was ever going to be the same. Suddenly, the brand was generating buzz with a new generation organically. That buzz and excitement carried over into other product categories, as hitting the mark on something new, unique, and exclusive caught the customer’s attention and suddenly you had a business boom on your hands
AR: You describe your approach as omnichannel. This is becoming a popular idea, that you need to market on many platforms at once. How can marketers decide where to focus their resources with so many devices and social media platforms out there?
CH: Tough question. The easiest thing to do is focus your investments solely on e-commerce because it’s the most easily trackable. With very little effort, the analytical tools today can tell you what keywords, social ads, and email subject lines are resonating best with the online customer
More difficult is assessing the impact of in-store purchases, though the gap is closing every day. From data management platforms to GPS tracking, everyone is trying to unlock this key. It’s always a discussion point around investing in store-driven marketing campaigns because it’s still not a perfect science. But the reality is, the store experience is a better customer experience than an online one, all things being equal. That may seem controversial to say, but the truth is within a store, there is a way for a brand to create one-to-one human connections that is just not replicated by any technologies available today.
Alexa is great, she tells some nice jokes, and can reorder my favorite Kind Bars, but she can’t replace a warm, genuine smile from another human being in who is attentively catering to your needs by listening attentively, offering helpful advice, and delivering personalized service.
The Problem of Counterfeiters
“Battling counterfeiting is an endless fight because every time you knock one down, two more pop up.”
AR: Iconic brands such as Lacoste and Timberland have the constant challenge of dealing with counterfeiters who place fake labels on knockoffs. There are some technologies designed to prevent this, such as watermarking and even some apps. How do you see companies fighting this problem in the future?
CH: Being a part of these brands has exposed me seeing the amount of time, energy, and passion expounded into bringing new products to market each season. People far more creative and visionary than I am develop inspirational product offerings that stretch the imagination as far as style, colors, and fabrics are concerned. Much like an author of a great novel or a composer of beautiful music, a lot of human capital and financial resources go into making these creations.
Battling counterfeiting is an endless fight because every time you knock one down, two more pop up. A lot of times people think this is a problem that happens in China, but the reality is this is a big problem in the US. There are far too many counterfeiters who steal ideas and rapidly replicate almost to a tee these styles. I still remember sitting in our office in Boston looking at a counterfeit Rihanna shoe that someone brought back from New York, where they bought it on the street. We were all pretty amazed at how quickly they could produce and sell something that to the untrained eye, appeared to be almost identical.
And, counterfeiting is not just frustrating for brands, it’s equally frustrating for customers. Some know they are buying counterfeit, but most don’t. And when there is a problem, such as product defects or comfort issues, they come to the brand for assistance only to learn the items they bought aren’t authentic products at all.
Is Self-Checkout the Future of Retail?
“Self-checkout, if done correctly, has so many wonderful applications that it’s easy to see why so many technology companies are trying to solve for it.”
AR: You’ll be presenting at NRF 2019 on the Innovation Stage. Your topic is “From checkout-free to self-checkout – What you need to know about the latest convenience-based payment technologies.” Can you say a few words now about how technologies such as self-checkout are transforming retail?
CH: I can. Self-checkout, if done correctly, has so many applications it’s easy to see why so many technology companies are trying to solve for it. That said, I must admit self-checkout is not something I foresee being as relevant to clothing brands as other forms of retail, though time could prove me wrong.
As a frequent-flyer, there’s nothing I hate more than being at the airport and having to wait in line at the Hudson News to check out. I think Amazon’s strategic announcement to make airports a focus of their Amazon Go experience is spot on, the absolute perfect pairing for this.
As far as the NRF presentations go, five different companies presented their solutions to self-checkout, and it was fascinating to see each company’s unique approach to seeking to solve the problem. While one company’s solution was at the shopping cart level, a far less resource intensive option, others were offering highly sophisticated sensors and cameras to deliver the experience. Which option will eventually win is the big question. Tie simple answer is the provider who can enable the most cost-effective solution without sacrificing a seamless experience will win. It all comes down to who generates the best ROI. Seems basic, but at the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to.
Personalization and Segmentation
“True personalization, where you are speaking to me and me only is still something the industry is still working to achieve.”
AR: What are some of your ideas about how brands can take advantage of personalization and segmentation? Is this more of a challenge for larger brands?
CH: From my general industry observation, it’s a challenge for everyone, brands large and small. I have the privilege of being a part of the NRF’s Digital Council, a group of around 60 industry leaders, 59 of which are some of the brightest minds in digital retail. I’m still trying to understand who helped them lower their standards to allow me to come along for the ride.
During the 2-3 meetings a year, we discuss a multitude of topics and challenges retailers are facing in their digital-transformation journey. During those conversations, we often return to what really is personalization and who is truly executing personalization well. Is having a customer’s first name in an email personalization? Is showing cold weather products in the northeast and Bermuda shorts in southern Florida personalization? Some would say yes; I would say no – those are more messaging optimization. True personalization, where you are speaking to me and me only is still something the industry is still working to achieve.
Chris Discusses His Mentors
My amazing mother, who had endless patience and a never-wavering positive attitude, taught me
the power positive thinking can have on your life and career.
AR: Can you name someone, or a few people, who were your mentors or who had a profound influence on your thinking about business? These could be people in your personal life or someone you’ve read or heard speak.
CH: Wow, this is an easy and tough one for me all at the same time. On a personal level, my family has been the most influential piece of my life. My amazing mother, who had endless patience and a never-wavering positive attitude, taught me the power positive thinking can have on your life and career. And my incredible wife Alison, who has been the leader of our family in raising four of the most wonderful kids in the world.
From a career perspective, I’ve had the privilege of working with some extraordinary people in my career, including my current CEO. As far as influence, however, the greatest level came from those whom I worked with at the beginning of my career, because I feel we are the most malleable earlier in our careers.
If I had to give only one answer, the simple answer for me , without hesitation, is the first VP of Direct-to-Consumer I worked for, John Pazzani. John will, always and forever, be the single most influential person I ever worked for. John was my mentor, my champion, and someone I’m proud to say is still a friend today. John was an analytical, financially-minded leader who understood the need to be decisive and take risks. In retail, things happen fast, with lots of numbers, challenges, and variables coming at you all at once. John taught me sometimes you have to take some leaps of faith and follow your convictions; no one did that better than John. And with all that, John inspired me to work hard while never losing sight of the importance of family. I could go on and on, but needless to say, I am forever indebted and grateful for the opportunities he gave me.
There were also others who were amazing influencers on my journey. To name a few, Ken Fraser, who led the field organization, showed me how retail is fun, exciting, and inspiring. Ken was a people guy, loved by the field teams, and still the person in my mind I try to mirror when thinking about field leadership. Scott Thresher, Timberland’s VP of finance and e-commerce at the time, was and is still one of the brightest business minds I’ve ever met, so I just tried to soak up as much knowledge from him as I could. And my first boss, Rolf Schultz, who spent a lot of time teaching me the basics of retail. At the time, Rolf was a store guy through and through, who I respected for his strong knowledge of inventory management, store operations, real estate, and finance. And while I say Rolf was a store guy, it’s funny how careers evolve, as Rolf is today a highly respected digital and omnichannel retail executive.