Digital Retail & Technology | Marketing & Merchandising | Store Operations

Joe Jackman speaks candidly about retail brand transformation

How retailers can transform their brands for greater success and growth

By Sean C. Tarry

The world around us is changing, constantly evolving, with nary a thought or consideration for the things that have come before. It’s what brings us into the future, collectively – this unrelenting march toward the unknown – forcing us to adapt the way we live and do things as a result. The change we experience every day is brought on, or influenced, by a plethora of factors and variables, including the proliferation of technology, innovation in all its forms, and human behaviour, among many other things. This change pulls us out of comfort zones. It shakes up the status quo. It compels us to learn, to understand what we don’t know and to push our limits of creativity and enterprise. In short, change challenges us to reimagine, rethink and reinvent ourselves.

Photo of Joe Jackman
Joe Jackman, CEO of Jackman Reinvents

And this, according to Joe Jackman, Founder and CEO of Jackman Reinvents Inc., is the real test of our character. It’s not the change happening around us that defines us, he explains, but how we respond to that change and grow from it. This way of thinking applies to everyone in just about every walk of life in every corner of the world. However, as Jackman suggests, it’s perhaps most relevant to the retail sector when it comes to growing and moving forward with the times. In fact, in his estimation, those within the industry who are not aware of the change happening around them and who aren’t trying fervently to figure out the future will be left in the past.

Q: You’ve worked with many top North American companies to help them reinvigorate their businesses and brands and to reconnect them to the customers they serve. Considering the task and monumental change that’s occurring all around us, what do retailers need to consider when undertaking a brand revitalization project?

Joe Jackman: How you start the project will in large part determine the outcome and results. Traditionally, retailers begin this kind of project by looking at their current business and the ways they can improve or optimize it. However, this is completely the wrong approach. The wiser approach, considering the rapid change that’s happening today, is to develop really strong human insights, understand what people care deeply about rather than only their shopping behaviours, in addition, of course, to strong market and competitive insights. The reason it’s so crucial to look at things in this way is because by simply evolving the business based on its current iteration and model, businesses will only yield incremental improvements. But, by starting the process with insights, the likelihood that you will uncover game-changing opportunities is so much greater.

Q: The work that Jackman Reinvents recently did for Staples Canada is impressive. Can you explain at least in part what made that project so successful?

JJ: Staples Canada is a prefect illustration of the success that can be realized by using an insights-first approach. When we started to work with them it would have been easier and more straightforward to simply undergo a creative or design refresh of the business. Instead, we went digging for insights that could give us a view as to where the business could naturally play the most valuable role in the community and succeed in a more profound way. The insights we uncovered were themselves profound: the world of work is changing, with mobility, side hustles and entrepreneurship becoming the norm. Beyond simply selling them products and services, people are seeking a partner to help them to work differently, learn from those around them, and grow. They see value in being part of a community of people on a similar work/life journey, in pursuit of solutions for today’s challenges. We saw a clear opportunity in data for the business to be more, mean more and add more value to customers, and that drove our strategy. People today can access products and services anywhere. And, in many cases, purchasing those products and services may be as convenient and competitively priced as they are at conventional retailers. So what is the tie breaker? The question retailers must ask themselves today is, if all things are equal, what is it that will truly and sustainably set you apart from your rivals? What is it that will give you a position to compete that isn’t only about price and convenience? In the case of Staples Canada, the tiebreaker and gamechanger was the simple fact that there is no other true ally to those in pursuit of lifelong achievement. Staples helps what we ended up calling the Curious Achievers to connect with their community and discover solutions. So much so that we made the decision to transform the business from an office supplies superstore to The Working and Learning Company, to become a true ‘category of one’ company. Fundamentally that’s a more advantageous and exciting place to play, as it moves past what is transactional to a much deeper emotional connection. The insights we uncovered unlocked enormous value, for customers and the business.

Q: For retailers, particularly of the conventional type, is there a need for them to shift their mindsets of thinking to arrive at those most meaningful insights that can then drive their business and strategy?

JJ: Retailers want to get to what I call an unassailable position in the market, and that means being bold. John Lederer, the former President of Loblaw Companies, and now the Executive Chairman of Staples, used to say “real strategy is doing things your competitors are either unable or unwilling to do.” I buy that completely. Retailers today need to embrace real change, and be willing to re-examine their role and business models based on what customers really need. In a world where technology has made everything available everywhere, the competitive rules have changed. To win today your value proposition must go beyond functional and be deeply meaningful to customers, otherwise you are tradeable. The hard commercial truth today is that loyalty is the absence of a better option, and interchangeability is not a successful strategy. The whole paradigm of what retail is has completely changed. Retailers today need to start to examine who they are and what it is that they can do that no one else can do, even if that means moving past the conventional definition of what it means to be a retailer, as Staples Canada has done. We call it Category of One Strategy – Category of One thinking. That’s how retailers will win and grow today.

Q: For many retailers out there, despite their size and success, this journey of self-realization and value creation must be an intimidating one. What’s your advice to any business showing signs of trepidation about starting on the journey?

JJ: Every transformational journey requires you to look at yourself and the way you do things, to undergo a self-assessment and self-examination, and that can be intimidating. It’s intimidating because we humans value reliability and predictability, and we don’t care much for change. However, our pursuit of certainty and comfort is what preserves the status quo, and that is is the last place we wish to stay as the world changes rapidly around us. I think of it this way: who better to become the most powerful and relevant version of you than you? Why let someone else take your place when you can do it. In retail, we need to be careful that our past does not define our future, and we need to understand that any risk associated with change is much less than the risk of standing still. We cannot be afraid to lead, and we must get moving at a faster pace. While this might sound intimidating it is also extremely exciting. I can’t tell you how much fun we have had reinventing Staples on both sides of the border. And there are ways to approach the work that will take the fear factor out of it. It’s not a matter of betting the entire farm on a completely different approach. It’s first about meaningful insights that you can build a sound strategy and clear outcome upon. You then start to move, step by step yet at a pace, toward the outcome, learning and refining as you go. It’s not a moonshot. You can be off by a degree or two and adjust course as you go. As the business starts to become more confident around the strategy and begins to build evidence that it’s taking them to a better place and stronger position, then you can start to full-on run with it. In this way, a very prudent approach, you can be as bold and daring with your decisions as you wish. Reinvention shouldn’t be equated with risk. The oppositve is true – reinvention is the surest way to mitigate it. Retailers are in the position, holding the responsibility, to be among those at the forefront of our world, figuring out the future and what it means. If we’re just protecting the status quo, it will inevitably come to an end at some point. Others will take the field, as we have seen happening. There’s a reason disruptors have been entering the market. It’s because those who refuse to create their own future are left, like sitting ducks, simply waiting for others to come and take their share.

Q: Considering the digital age and everything that comes with it, is there a need for retailers to view the in-store experience through a different lens?

JJ: The store, by definition, was created to hold inventory. And that notion is an antiquated one. The whole construct of a building that houses goods that are sitting there waiting for people to buy is pretty much history. But what happens then to the role of the store? It’s an exciting prospect. Let’s presume there will always be a need to have at least some inventory on hand, but that space is freed up for other purposes. More broadly defined, the greater role of stores is to satisfy customer needs. We humans like to learn, to connect with one another, to be inspired, and to spend time in spaces that stimulate us. If you create stores that meet at least some of these needs, you start to offer a whole manner of reasons for people to visit, and every one of them presents retailers with a different opportunity to engage with customers and ultimately provide them with tailored product and service solutions. At the Staples University Avenue location in Toronto, we helped them do something quite bold: we took 30 per cent of the sellable square footage of that store – an entire third – and we gave it over to a community strategy, giving it back to shoppers to do more of what they are interested in – learning, connecting and becoming inspired. The result – sales went up and not down. Sales went up because people visited more frequently for a number of different reasons, they engaged more deeply, and they began to see how products and services are part of something bigger. And that something bigger is far more important to them than just finding a stapler. If you can start to engage with the customer differently, you’ll have the opportunity to drive more trips, different trips for different occasions. And in those different trips, you’ll find the opportunity to engage with them differently. In doing this, a beautiful flywheel is created, and this flywheel begins and ends with digital experience. You cannot sell anything to a customer that does not visit you. We’re in a moment in time in retail where we just must stop thinking the same, stop trying to grow incrementally from what we’ve built, and stop thinking of the business as separate channels. There is one channel – the customer channel with all its touch points. The key to optimizing and differentiating it is to uncover real insights and let them guide you to a better and more cohesive model.

Q: Once insights have been uncovered and a strategy developed, how important is the role of the store associate and others within the company in achieving the desired objective?

JJ: Strategy by definition is high-level decisions that will guide toward an outcome. In many cases within retail organizations, those high-level decisions are often made in isolation. And the mistake that some retailers can easily make is to not bring their employees along with them. The people who will ultimately make the strategy work, executing on a daily basis, must understand the strategy and how it will materialize. As a leader, you’ve got to make it tangible for them and get them on board with your vision and ideas so they can relate. And, most importantly, the strategy must not only be understood by your people, it must be felt. People win battles, strategies don’t. This is where culture plays a big part. A business’s culture and its values enable successful transformation, or they can stop it. When businesses – when people – do things collectively and collaboratively, as a community of believers, focused on the same things, heading in the same direction with the same goal in mind, that’s when strategy becomes unstoppable.

Joe Jackman participated on a panel at Retail Council of Canada’s two-day STORE 2019 Conference on Tuesday, May 28, 2019, joined by Joe Mimran, David Boone and Tony Chapman to discuss how Staples Canada reinvented itself and how other brands can learn from the company’s achievement and move boldly into the future of retail.Store Conference 2019 logo

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