Canadian Tire’s Eugene Roman on positive design, retail innovation and why ‘IT’ is obsolete

This might seem a bit awkward at first: Eugene Roman has won a CanadianCIO of the Year Award, even though he has gone on record as seeing the concept of CIOs as an outdated concept.

Even after occupying IT leadership positions at organizations as varied as Bell Canada and OpenText, Roman made it clear from the start of his tenure at Canadian Tire a few years ago that he would be the firm’s CTO, and that what he and his staff would be working on is interactive technology, not “IT.”

“We’ve declared IT obsolete. It’s old thinking,” said Roman, who was the co-winner of the CanadianCIO of the Year Award (along with University Health Network’s Lydia Lee, which was presented at ITAC’s Ingenious Awards Tuesday night). “The traditionalist IT guys are useful but the hot future is on interactivity.”

Roman has approached interactivity at Canadian Tire in many different ways. His award is based in part on the work he and his team did in launching the firm’s Cloud Nine Innovation Centre in Winnipeg. The 28,000-foot facility consolidated eight data centres into two, forms the basis of an “app factory” with a gamification space and an area called NEWcleus where many of its online and in-store technologies are born.

While Canada has seen several merchants pull out or shut down over the past year, Roman said it is by no means symptomatic of a sector-wide downturn.

“Most retailers, the big boxers, have done well, except for Target. If you look at Walmart, Home Depot . . . Hudson’s Bay has been revived by an American retail chain,” he said.

“The retail sector in Canada is healthy and competitive. Canadian Tire, to remain a part of that, needs to figure out how do we become a ‘phygital’ retailer, or physical-digital retailer?”

Figuring that out is obviously a long-term initiative. In fact, Roman’s first three years with Canadian Tire were organized under a project dubbed LeapFrog, hinting at the firm’s quest to stay ahead of its competitors. The next three years are being referred to as Operation PEAK, which stands for Powerful, Agile, Exciting and Kapamatic (changing when change is necessary).

While many of the details behind Canadian Tire’s technology strategy will remain under wraps, Roman said he’s spending a lot of time thinking about and pushing forward “positive design,” a way of reducing the friction in retail experiences and adapting behavioural science. Another way he describes it is neuroshopping, or what causes people to buy something. It’s a challenge that has to be met at a velocity that’s somewhat unique to retail.

“You have to sell every hour of every day. There’s really no recurring revenue, other than your brand,” he said. “I come from the phone business where they talked about revenue growth, but it was a small percentage of your base. You got your monthly phone bill paid every month. The money rolled in. Here, it’s 15 times a second.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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