Nearly two years ago, I resigned from my role as Chief Merchandising Officer at Shinola in order to spend my time “modernizing how brands go to market” through investing and advising. Modernizing was a big term that I threw around, but in hindsight, I’m not sure I could have properly defined it then.   

That didn’t stop me from using the term passionately — it represented my belief that “the way it’s always been done” wasn’t necessarily the right way. I was confident there were new and better ways to create products, de-risk inventory decisions, and turn subjective conversations into objective insights.

How did I know this? Because I had experienced it firsthand.

My lightbulb moment occurred in a design review meeting where we were making final adoption decisions and determining depth of buy. At this point in my career, I’d sat in more than 100 reviews like this — and every single time, decisions were made using hindsight data (“it sold well last year, so let’s add another 10 percent”), gut (“I know it will sell”), and limited consumer data (“a consumer in London told me they like it”). The loudest voice in the room usually had the last word.

But this review was different. We’d recently implemented MakerSights, so we could review specific, SKU-level consumer feedback right in the meeting. The usual battle of the wills turned into a productive discussion based on actionable data from thousands of consumers. Instead of guessing what they might want, we had their actual reactions to the products that lay in front of us at our fingertips.

Was it ironclad? No. Was it revolutionary? Maybe. We all acted differently: no arguing, no posturing, no talking in circles. Instead, we looked at the data and quickly made decisions on what product to adopt, what product to elevate with marketing, and how much of each SKU to buy. The meeting ended early, and we looked around at each other and smiled.

It was a damn good meeting. When was the last time you said that?

I was hooked. With this new technology to enable merchants, what else was out there for product decision makers? While I’d seen the explosion of the marketing and ecommerce tech stack (I haven’t been living under a rock!), these tools all fell short of impacting the upstream go-to-market process. This was a new way of working, and I wanted to discover more.

My journey has introduced me to entrepreneurs trying to solve retail pain points through technology as well as brand leaders thinking about their go-to-market process in entirely new ways. When these two groups connect, the result is a winning collaboration. Brand leaders equip their team with innovative new tools, AI-based retail technology gets smarter through more usage, and most importantly consumers get the products they love on their terms.

While the pandemic shutdown threw a devastating wrench into 2020, it also shined a light on decades-old friction points in the go-to-market process. The silver lining? The need to be nimble and consumer-centric has only intensified, and the movement to modernize that might have taken years could now be a matter of months. Fortunately, there are a myriad of cost-effective solutions like Backbone for collaborative product lifecycle management, MakerSights for consumer insights and go-to-market decision making, Endear for omni-channel clienteling, and 42 Technologies for data visualization that even a designer would understand. Simply put, there has never been a better time for brands and retail leaders to test these new technologies.  

Most leaders I speak with seem to be paralyzed with the daunting task of thinking through the “connected tech stack”. While you do need to think through how each technology partner will integrate into your business, there isn’t one silver bullet operating solution for retail. My recommendation is to look for partners who provide easy-to-implement solutions that connect with other systems your team might be using. Simplicity is key: features and dashboards should be easy-to-use (and not require a Ph.D. to interpret!), so your decision makers can bring products to market faster.

While it can feel overwhelming to look for the “perfect” technology partner — at the end of the day, one step forward is better than none. Your brand, team, and consumers deserve it.

With over 20 years of experience in the retail industry, Chris Hull advises growing brands like Rothy’s, Shinola, Traeger, and Allbirds to modernize their product development and go-to-market process. Previously, he led global merchandising organizations at Nike, Converse, and Shinola. 

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