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Drew Ehlers of Zebra Technologies: “Meeting the needs of the modern-day shopper is no easy task”

…The use of convenience stores as pick up locations for click and collect orders, as well as contactless shopping and self-checkout. Many of these changes are being largely driven by the need to improve safety for not only customers, but retail associates as well. New realities created by the pandemic, and one that is sure to […]

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…The use of convenience stores as pick up locations for click and collect orders, as well as contactless shopping and self-checkout. Many of these changes are being largely driven by the need to improve safety for not only customers, but retail associates as well.

New realities created by the pandemic, and one that is sure to last even after the pandemic is over, is the new safety measures being implemented in retail locations everywhere. These measures have included new sanitization procedures, such as wiping down fitting rooms and countertops, and other safety protocols such as installing plexiglass barriers and arrows in walkways to guide traffic to encourage social distancing.


As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Drew Ehlers. He currently serves as a Zebra Global Futurist and the Global General Manager of SmartPack™, Office of the CTO at Zebra Technologies where he is responsible for overseeing the integrated global SmartPack™ team. Drew is also responsible for producing advanced machine-learning models and algorithms for predictive analytics to solve critical business problems for Zebra and its partners and customers. This includes emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, computer vision and blockchain. Drew currently holds contributing board positions on the Global AIM Blockchain Council and the Retail Advisory Council for Data Analytics and Artificial Intelligence at Northwestern University. Drew has more than 19 years of experience within the B2B technology industry and has held numerous leadership roles. Previously, he served as Senior Vice President at Gallagher Bassett and Vice President of North American Channels at Zebra. Drew holds a Master of Business Administration from the University of Maryland and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.


Q. Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Sure thing! I currently work at Zebra Technologies as a Global Futurist and General Manager of SmartPack™, which is a dynamic load planning solution for transportation and logistics companies. I’ve actually been in the internet of things (IoT) space for a little over two decades now, ever since Kevin Ashton coined the term in 1999. Back then I was waiting for RFID to take off, like many others, and waiting to build out the next layer of instrumentation (IoT). I spent the bulk of my early career helping build this layer and the next layer, which was focused on analytics and interoperability. Leveraging this IoT enablement layer to build out solutions has really been my focus in all of the roles that I’ve held at various companies throughout my career. A large portion of my current job is helping companies solve critical business problems by leveraging the IoT enablement layer, data analytics and advanced technologies such as machine vision, computer vision, machine learning and general artificial intelligence to build out the next layer, the Internet of Intelligence, to drive intelligent automation (IA). Simply put, I love solving problems and creating value for the end user, whether that’s a customer, human worker, co-bot or patient.

Q. Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

A. In December 2015, I was attending the IoT World Forum in Dubai and it was the final day of the three-day event. I had just finished presenting and was in the last main session surrounded by some of the best and brightest in the tech space (2,295 people to be exact and by invitation only). Knowing the caliber of folks in attendance, it dawned on me that I should order my Uber ahead of time since most of my fellow techies would be leveraging the same platform for transportation. Given the venue was within walking distance of my hotel, I hadn’t used Uber during the duration of my stay. To my surprise when I opened the app, there were offerings on the bottom that I hadn’t seen before such as limousine, Christmas tree delivery — and as I continued to scroll — Uber Chopper! I looked up, then back down, as my curiosity was running wild on this choice for Uber Chopper. I looked at it and the cost equated to 390USD. At first, this option seemed out of the question. But, as I started to think about it, I realized that a taxi alone would be around 140 USD. If I could get three people to join the Uber Chopper with me, I would actually be saving money and get to experience riding in a chopper to the airport. So, what did I do? I immediately went to Twitter and send out the following tweet: “I need three people to share an Uber Chopper to the airport, first three to respond are in. #IoTWF!” Within minutes I had well over 50 replies! I messaged the first three back and set up a location to meet. Once we arrived at the chopper hanger just past the strip where I was staying, we loaded our bags and the pilot asked me if we were OK flying over the city and the Burj Khalifa on the way out. The look on my face was the answer he needed as the excitement I had when asked left me speechless. Keep in mind most international flights go out after 1am so it was nighttime, and the city was even more beautiful all lit up and from the view of the helicopter. The memories of flying above the tallest building in the world would certainly mark this as the best Uber trip I ever took!

Q. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

A. In the early part of my career, my team and I had a strategic engagement with an airline provider, who was exploring how to reduce their cost for baggage tags for their commercial passenger business. They communicated that they wanted to look at a lower expense material for the label make-up of the baggage tags to cut out 2 million dollars in cost of the incumbent’s current design. Due to the fact that we were not the incumbent and had newer relationships with the stakeholders, we were not allowed to ask questions. After several working sessions, our team aligned on the requirements and scope of the project and more importantly concluded that the problem they were trying to solve was not the cost of the luggage, rather, the number of lost and misplaced luggage.

At the time, this was a billion-dollar-plus expense annually to this airline, so I was ecstatic that we had developed an RFID inlay baggage tag solution that would eliminate 99% of the lost luggage they were experiencing. I had a pseudo Time Magazine cover with the CEO’s picture on it with the caption, “I saved this airline by focusing on customer experience to be the first airline who doesn’t lose your luggage.” In addition, I used the angle that by charging 1 dollar per bag to cover the increased cost of deploying the RFID solution the company could also make a 15-20 million-dollar profit. Needless to say, I went into the meeting with the CEO and other stakeholders and pitched the solution, all the while thinking this was a “no brainer” for them. Let’s just say that the feedback coming next was not what I had expected as the CEO said, “Very creative and appreciate that you viewed the problem differently, however during my lifetime or yours, passengers are never going to pay for baggage, even if it is 1 dollar. So, if you don’t have a lower cost option than what we currently have then I would suggest that this discussion is over and thank you for your time.” I learned quite a few lifelong lessons from this experience:

  • Listen.
  • Resign to the fact that you don’t know everything, keep working on your emotional intelligence (EQ).
  • Always give a customer what they ask for then offer alternative solutions as a choice to show innovation and thought.
  • You have to develop strong relationships to earn trusted advisor status.
  • Sometimes even when think you are right; you may be wrong as it may not be something the customer wants at that point in time.
  • Always consider a win or loss a moment to reflect in order to garner lessons learned. This helps develop a mindset to being a life-long learner.

Ultimately, that airline started testing an RFID baggage tag solution a decade after we met and ultimately deployed for some use cases and in airports roughly 16 years later. Lastly, in 2008 the first major US domestic airline started charging 15 dollars for the first checked bag; and global revenue for baggage fees reached 28.1 billion dollars in 2018.

Q. Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

A. Absolutely! One of my more recent projects will help address some of the impacts of COVID-19. Since the start of the pandemic, companies have experienced execution and fulfillment challenges throughout their supply chains. They’re trying to keep up with increasing demands from their customers, such as alternative delivery options and faster shipping. As a result, companies need to optimize their supply chains to transform them into fulfillment networks. The project I’m working on helps provide the insights these companies need to drive efficiencies around the fullness of trailers and unit load devices (ULDs) for air cargo. What I really enjoy about the project is the positive environmental impact it will have in helping companies reduce their carbon footprints by using less trailers and planes within a period of time and simply load more freight into the same space.

Another exciting project I’ve really been focused on is designed to help augment human workers in real time to drive labor productivity and accelerate training needs depending on their skillsets. The solution leverages IoT and AI to drive real-time action and better outcomes for the business, while also accelerating the individual’s skillset development. The other portion of this initiative has been driving safer work environments through the use of proximity events and contact tracing. This project has been crucial in the current climate to ensure facilities stay open, while maintaining employee health and safety.

The last project I’ll share with you is one I’ve been working on for food and drug safety. I’m evaluating ways we can help secure the food and drug supply chain throughout the lifecycle by leveraging collected data. This project could help food and pharmaceutical companies reduce recall events and ensure they’re in compliance with FDA regulations.

Q. Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burnout”?

A. It can definitely be easy to overdo it, especially in today’s environment with so many companies encouraging their employees to work from home. People are logging on earlier, because they don’t have to do the morning commute, and clocking out later than ever. This always-on mentality can be difficult to avoid, but setting clear boundaries for your work and personal life is important to avoid burnout. For myself personally, I like to put specific blocks of time into my calendar and organize my days by mental phases. First, when possible I always schedule in my most cerebral meetings or tasks in the morning as studies have shown it’s when you have your highest mental awareness and energy. As the day goes on, I try to phase into more tactical work and then wrap up with a 30-minute block for reflection, followed by a 15-minute block for prepping my plan of attack for the next day. Throughout the week, I layer in white space for mental and physical refresh and put in 15-minute blocks to either stretch, walk or grab a quick meditation from my Peloton app. I also proactively put in 30-minute anti-disruptor blocks that I can either use for the dreaded drop-in fire drills or use to catch up on returning calls or emails. This proactive approach helps me prevent mental fatigue and also helps me stay fairly even-keeled emotionally as it diffuses most of the possible mood disruptors before they even happen. The last thing I always do is get some form of exercise in before I even start my workday. I have been doing this at 5 am since 7th grade as my dad was a high school principal and if I wanted a ride to school that was the go time and he would give us access to the gym/weight room/pool so we could work out. I love getting this in before my day as it helps me focus better after a good sweat and reduces the chance of being pushed out by work, friends, kids, family and of course happy hour!

Q. None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

A. I would attribute my success to many people who influenced me throughout my life, however the individuals who have had the greatest influence on the person I am today are my mom and my dad. Both were educators, who earned the highest level of distinction in earning their PhD. From an early age, they instilled in me to always be listening, thinking and learning and helped build my mindset to be a lifelong learner. I have always been a curious person especially around cultures, languages, and customs which give me a consistent lens of always wanting to learn more. This was always reinforced by them and even when I speak with them via FaceTime today, they will ask me about my day, and I will recap, and they will always ask “Well did you learn anything?” They were always shaping my mind to be reflective in life and to focus on each social, athletic or professional experience as an opportunity to learn. These learnings were making me think about changes I can make and really helped me develop emotional intelligence (EQ) at a young age. Learning about EQ at such a young age was a blessing as I reflect back; however, at the time, I may have responded to them differently as most kids would! Without each of their influences over the past 45 years and guidance they have given me in all facets of life, I would not be the person I am proud to be today. In my life, they have been the north star that I have used to navigate this crazy thing we call life.

Q. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

A. In 2018, my colleagues and I developed a blockchain-centric solution for solving problems associated with food safety, pharmaceuticals (drug and biopharma), recalls and counterfeit goods. Essentially, the solution allowed companies to issue an alert for the recall of goods at any point in the transit of biopharmaceuticals in the supply chain, even right before the good was used or the drug administered to a patient. Achieving this ability was a huge feat because at any point in transit there was always the chance a drug could go bad or need to be recalled for any number of issues. Making sure that all parties were notified right away and at any point after the drug was sent out for delivery was important. At the end of the day, this solution could really save patients’ lives. This solution would also eventually carry over into food safety and the ability to recall product out of the supply chain at any time, allowing companies to know within minutes where recalled products came from. Foodborne illness is a prominent issue in the United States and having this solution will help reduce the percentage of consumers that get sick each year.

Q. Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share five examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?

A. One of the most prominent examples of this would be the new types of fulfillment options retailers have begun implementing, if they hadn’t already, including buy online pick up in store (BOPIS), curbside delivery, and home delivery. These new fulfillment options are still driving the need for brick and mortars but allows them to adjust to the new environment created by the pandemic.

Another example we’re seeing is the use of convenience stores as pick up locations for click and collect orders, as well as contactless shopping and self-checkout. Many of these changes are being largely driven by the need to improve safety for not only customers, but retail associates as well.

The fourth example of these new realities created by the pandemic, and one that is sure to last even after the pandemic is over, is the new safety measures being implemented in retail locations everywhere. These measures have included new sanitization procedures, such as wiping down fitting rooms and countertops, and other safety protocols such as installing plexiglass barriers and arrows in walkways to guide traffic to encourage social distancing.

Prescriptive analytics for inventory visibility and shrinkage is one of the last examples I’d like to highlight, as I think it’s another emerging reality that will be exceptionally popular coming out of this pandemic. Prior to this year, retailers were already noticing the value in using prescriptive analytics for managing inventory and reducing shrinkage, but the need for these analytics has skyrocketed during 2020, especially as many retailers grappled with out of stocks.

Q. In your opinion, will retail stores or malls continue to exist? How would you articulate the role of physical retail spaces at a time when online commerce platforms like Amazon Prime or Instacart can deliver the same day or the next day?

A. There’s no doubt that online commerce platforms have increased in popularity this year. More consumers who rarely used e-commerce in the past have now become proficient in order to support their needs during the pandemic. After the pandemic is over, I think we can expect to see more people utilizing e-commerce for the convenience factor alone, even if it means additional costs for the consumer. That being said, physical retail stores aren’t going to just go away, but rather, evolve with shoppers’ needs. Some customers will still opt for traditional in-store shopping to fulfill their experiential desire while making their purchases, as well as return products ordered online. Recent events have only increased the need for e-commerce options, and I think we can expect to see more brick-and-mortars find ways to grow with their customers. As popularity in shopping festivals continue to grow such as Alibaba’s Singles Day and Amazon Prime Day, malls may be able to infuse more experiential influences into their environments such as live music or comedy attractions to draw in consumers and drive mobile ordering all while enjoying the shows. The most recent Amazon Prime Day reached an estimated revenue of over 10 billion dollars and Alibaba’s 2019 Singles Day earned the Company 1 billion dollars in 1 minute, 16.3 billion dollars in 90 minutes and 38.4 billion dollars for the entire 24 hour event.

Q. The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?

A. Meeting the needs of the modern-day shopper is no easy task. Retailers have been pressed to quickly modify store operations in the wake of the pandemic to accommodate the convenience and safety requirements of their customers. Fulfilling customer orders in a variety of ways has been key during this transformational period. Providing customers with multiple fulfillment options such as curbside pickup, in-store pickup and home delivery has been critical to their success. Also having high visibility into their in-store inventory has been a defining factor for ensuring shelves are stocked. Keeping out-of-stocks minimized will only help to maximize the customer experience and build greater customer loyalty.

Q. Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise to retail companies and e-commerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

A. Same day and next day delivery will be essential when competing against new overseas direct-to-consumer companies. Companies may not be able to compete on price, but they can have the upper hand when it comes to delivery. Additionally, there is an evolving landscape around brand loyalty. Consumer consent is no longer just about comparing brand to brand — they are now comparing digital experiences. Consumers today have “liquid expectations” with a mindset of what I want, when I want it, and how I want it delivered. This hasn’t changed — it’s just accelerated over the past six months and heightened the need for companies to deliver a great digital experience.

Q. Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

A. The movement I would like to continue to influence is emotional intelligence (EQ) training and development for people of all ages and inclusive of the work environment. The attributes that people have with higher EQs are able to drive more positive relationships in all facets of life. I feel if we made this investment as a human race, we would be able to solve more problems together, realize stronger relationships and have more acceptance of each other’s differences. It’s aspirational for sure, but not an unreachable goal as it just takes a person’s time and focus to develop.

Q. How can our readers further follow your work?

A. I’m on Twitter at @ehlersandrew and also on LinkedIn here.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!


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