Driving Retail Innovation, with Sterling Hawkins


Exclusive Interview with: Sterling Hawkins

Entrepreneur and 5th generation retailer, retail keynote speaker Sterling Hawkins works with start-ups, legacy retailers, and Fortune 500 companies to close the innovation gap in retail. Hawkins heads operations and venture relations for CART (Center for Advancing Retail & Technology), a leading edge platform and consultancy that allows brands and wholesalers to research and connect with their target customers and find the best solutions to business problems.

You don’t need technology for technology’s sake. Done right, technology works for people. Right now there’s an incredible opportunity to use all these emerging technologies to further real customer relationships at scale.

SPEAKING.COM: You come from a family with 5 generations of retail experience. What are some lessons about retail that you’ve learned from your family business that are still important for today?

HAWKINS: It has always been and always will be about the customer and their experience. It was true back when my great-great grandmother started the store as a roadside produce stand, and it’s just as true today.

Many businesses get caught up in innovation — the latest in AI, the newest mobile technology, what’s happening with crypto currency — especially with the increasing pace of innovation and new technology constantly in the news. You don’t need technology for technology’s sake. Done right, technology works for people. Right now there’s an incredible opportunity to use all these emerging technologies to further real customer relationships at scale.

SPEAKING.COM: Most people think the Internet has dramatically changed retail, but you say that fundamentally, retailers are doing the same thing they’ve been doing since the mid-1900s. Could you elaborate on that?

HAWKINS: The fundamentals of retail are exactly the same for the vast majority of businesses in the space. Basically, products are manufactured, shipped to a regional depot, shipped to another warehouse, sent to the store where customers pick the items up off the shelf and checkout (~95%), or they’re shipped directly to the customer after checking out online (~5%).

A lot of the technology you see in market today is either in addition to everything the business is already doing or it’s making something the business is already doing more efficient. Overall, we’ve just ended up with a more efficient version of the same thing that was happening during the advent of modern retailing.

There are now technologies that enable retailers (or any businesses) to go to market in entirely new ways with entirely new business models. Computer vision, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, and connected products are changing the game; redefining what retail has traditionally looked like.

The future of commerce is actually a return to a customer experience much closer to how it used to be, but having it happen at scale with the use of technology.

SPEAKING.COM: You believe we’re on the brink of a commerce revolution. How do you re-imagine the way we do retail and who would benefit from the changes you envision?

HAWKINS: It’s the consumer who’s ultimately going to benefit here. I grew up in my family’s supermarket and I remember knowing our customers’ names, likes, and dislikes. I even remember dropping off groceries on our way home from the store to customers who couldn’t make it in that day — and that was before delivery was a “thing”.

However, retail scaled, and many businesses lost sight of the customer as the business became more product-driven and more focused on volume.

The future of commerce is actually a return to a customer experience much closer to how it used to be, but having it happen at scale with the use of technology. It’s AI alerting store personnel to customers’ names. It’s big data helping the retailer understand what customers like and forecasting what they might like based on their purchases or what they’re searching for online. It’s autonomous vehicles delivering products to our homes. It’s interesting, responsive, creative brick and mortar environments with interactive screens and community spaces because even with all the technology available, people are gregarious creatures craving human interaction. It’s a seamless, hassle-free, visual and voice based customer-centric model ahead; a silo-less, universally shoppable world that’s filled with lifestyle-branded pictures and personalized products tailored specifically to a customer’s desire. It’s products and experiences that are created specifically relevant to the customer’s needs and lifestyle, where anything you want is virtually available or easily accessible with the touch of a finger or (literally) the blink of an eye.

As the shift takes place, as customers start to expect more and more of these services, there are just incredible opportunities for retailers, brands, investors and tech companies alike.

Retail doesn’t have to look like a slightly better version of what we already have — technology is opening up the door to new ways to go to market that the world has never seen before.

SPEAKING.COM: What are some examples of the untapped potential you see in regard to retail and technology?

HAWKINS: I think the major opportunity here is using technology to create new experiences and refined business models. Amazon Go (their computer vision checkout system in a new convenience store format) is a great example of that — shoppers no longer need to deal with the headache of checking out. Autonomous vehicles with a shopping selection onboard is another example of using technology to meet the customer where they are or wherever they want to be.

Another is the potential of further developing IoT-enabled appliances that reorder and replenish themselves via automated delivery based on usage patterns. Retail doesn’t have to look like a slightly better version of what we already have — technology is opening up the door to new ways to go to market that the world has never seen before.

SPEAKING.COM: Are we moving toward the end of brick and mortar stores or could they make a comeback?

HAWKINS: There are some interesting facts here. In the last few years we’ve seen more stores close than ever before in history. In the last few years we’ve seen more stores open than ever before in history. I actually believe brick and mortar has more opportunity than ever. The right environment attracts people and there’s huge potential to be developed here.

There’s something going on here that has nothing to do with stores. A lot of people get down on stores — and it’s easy to do when looking at pure-play eCommerce. The simple fact is this: for more than 100 years we’ve specifically put stores around people that buy stuff. It’s not the stores that are a problem – it’s how they’re coming together with technology to service the customer. When that is done well – online, in-store, or via any channel – that is where it makes a difference.

Before anything, businesses must build a culture that not only embraces change and innovation, but creates it. Having an organization that is hungry for innovation and constantly seeking new and different ways to service the customer will continually be in the right place at the right time for new opportunities.

SPEAKING.COM: What can retailers do to compete with Amazon?

HAWKINS: I don’t think I’d opt to compete with Amazon unless I was a clear top-tier player in my market, and even then I’d think twice about it. Differentiation is key. That said, there are a couple of things to do.

Before anything, businesses must build a culture that not only embraces change and innovation, but creates it. Having an organization that is hungry for innovation and constantly seeking new and different ways to service the customer will continually be in the right place at the right time for new opportunities. This is so critical, not just to compete with Amazon, but in general, so we’ve developed an entire workshop to ignite innovation thinking inside businesses.

With a culture that’s geared for innovation, there are 3 main things to do:
• Be in the innovation conversation. Connect with venture groups, accelerators, incubators and others that have a pulse on what’s coming.
• Bring in outside voices. Bring in experts from parallel fields, customers that either love or hate you, entrepreneurs in other industries — people that can stimulate thinking and connect dots between previously unconnected ideas.
• Take action and share the results. Pilot as much as is feasible and be transparent with your clients, partners and even customers.

SPEAKING.COM: How can businesses overcome resistance to change within their company?

HAWKINS: It’s a great question and something we spend a lot of time on. The key is to start to shift how the world occurs — there isn’t a resistance to change itself — there’s a resistance to stepping into the unknown and a resistance to potential failure. As the business culture can both support or even reward taking risks and develop toolsets for team members to embrace the unknown, an eagerness for change starts to emerge.

The opportunity here is that I’m seeing record amounts of investment dollars and tech startups creating new commerce technologies. I’m looking at over 1,000 companies a year at this point and it’s a fraction of what’s out there.

SPEAKING.COM: What does Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods mean for the grocery industry?

HAWKINS: There are obviously implications to grocery here as well as the retail industry as a whole. It means that the business is changing and technology is going to be at the heart of that change.

The opportunity here is that I’m seeing record amounts of investment dollars and tech startups creating new commerce technologies. I’m looking at over 1,000 companies a year at this point and it’s a fraction of what’s out there. Retailers and brands have a chance to harness a lot of these tools economically with cloud and processing being more accessible than ever.

SPEAKING.COM: What is your advice for people who are thinking about starting a small retail business?

HAWKINS: Start with your customer. Understand who they are and what need you’re fulfilling for them better than anyone else. Understand the experience that the customer wants and how you can create that for them. And understand the tech, operations and necessary financing to do so. There’s always opportunity — in fact more opportunity now than literally ever before in human history. Just make sure you’re improving the customer experience rather than simply adding something else.

SPEAKING.COM: What does CART do and who is it for?

HAWKINS: CART is a platform that connects emerging technology solution providers with retailers and brands. We look at hundreds of tech companies from all over the world and bring them into appropriate programs, events, and campaigns for the retailers and brands looking to try something new.

We’ve also developed an Innovation MasterClass that gives businesses and their team members access to creating innovation thinking and a hunger for change inside their organization to embrace all the new tech that’s available out there. It’s a great add-on to certain keynotes and works really well for businesses of all sizes.

To bring retail sales keynote speaker Sterling Hawkins to your organization, please contact Michael Frick at: Mike@Speaking.com

© SPEAKING.com, published on July 30, 2018

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