Walmart Canada’s CIO offers an alternative to the ROI-only focus in retail IT

With the rise of online shopping, mobile payments, the advent of wearables and the Internet of Things, it must be getting harder for retailers to know what their future is going to look like. For Rick Neuman, the best way to start is by remembering the one thing that’s staying the same.

Rick Neuman, Walmart Canada

“The customer isn’t changing. They’ve always demanded a great experience, and they want the right product at the best price,” the senior vice-president of technology/CIO of Walmart Canada said. “What’s changing is that the option set for them to get those things is growing dramatically faster than it has before. We have to figure out how to work with them wherever they’re going to be.”

That, in essence, was the focus of “The Emerging Consumer,” a breakfast event hosted by NCR Corp. at the MaRS Discovery District that brought together Neuman and a panel of other experts to discuss omni-channel opportunities and the challenges in providing a compelling and consistent experience.

According to Lyle Sandler, vice-president of design and consumer experience at NCR Corp., what further complicates matters is that almost everyone thinks of themselves as a retailer today. Best practices that were once limited to merchants operating a traditional brick and mortar store are now being studied by airlines, hotels and everything in between, he said.

The danger of ‘data-driven’

Customers are also less than one-dimensional numbers in a spreadsheet but individuals with multi-faceted interests that must be taken into account in order to nurture lasting relationships, said Ted Salter, a partner with PwC’s management consulting practice.

“The consumer is a shopper, a sports fan, a patient,” he said. “The onus now is on how can we understand their shopping journey and how can we influence it?”

Rex Lee, Canadian Tire
Rex Lee,
Canadian Tire

Some retailers, such as Canadian Tire, have prided themselves on being customer-centric all along. Rex Lee, Canadian Tire’s vice-president of digital technology, said it’s important that the human element isn’t lost as more sophisticated tools are used to monitor and measure various interactions across a wider variety of touch points.

“There is so much buzz about being data-driven. That scares me, because it suggests everything is automated and you don’t have to think,” he said. “I think there’s an art to retail that has to complement the science and the data and the analytics . . .  You first need to understand the customer — what do I know about them, how do you tailor that interaction? It’s about the individual, bespoke interactions.”

Neuman agreed, noting that being successful in social media, mobile apps and other channels will require a great deal of experimentation. Supporting that may be more challenging than any particular technology project.

“We need to educate and build a culture of failing — the understanding that failure brings you closer and you learn something,” he said.

Third fail’s the charm

In fact, Walmart Canada recently brought in a group of startups to share some of their experiences in the retail space with its executives.

“A lot of what they were talking about is, ‘I didn’t know what I was building until I failed three times,” Neuman said. “We often look at pure ROI, and  there’s a value of knowing what the sales are going to be (when you try something new), but how do you measure and value the learnings? It can’t always be something that can be put in the spreadsheet or the PowerPoint.”

Experimenting as a retailer is also a group effort, Neuman added, which means the decision-making can’t be limited to a few senior people.

“It’s not a CIO to CFO conversation to say ‘Here’s the basic return,’” he said. “It’s operations working with tech, who are working with merchants. If it’s just technology reporting into the CFO, it’s a case that cannot be proven. Form alliances. Multiple alliances.”

Salter noted that while CMOs and marketing teams were seeing increased budget for digital transformation initiatives, more retailers are now trying to make such efforts better integrated across the organization.

“There are a whole lot of ‘science projects’ out there — nothing was really well-connected,” he said. “A lot of those investments are now coming back together and retailers are building more incremental capabilities.”

Whether they work directly with them or not, major retailers may need to learn from the startup ethos, suggested Doug Cooper, managing director at Communitech in Waterloo, Ont.

“The one thing that entrepreneurs are very comfortable with is change, risk,” he said. “They’re focused on figuring out who their customer is — the right market fit, discovery. Every week we sit down with them and challenge assumptions.”

No matter how they pursue the omni-channel, Neuman said retailers will have to challenge some assumptions of their own.

“You have to think about what is the role that the retailer plays and come back to the purpose of your organization,” he said. “We started by taking the role of a store manager and have since expanded that to a market manager, and working with them to bring the Walmart story to life.”

Image courtesy of stockimages at

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