Respond quickly to changes in demand. The Holy Grail of retail is achieving a near-perfect alignment of supply and demand. This has become especially important during the pandemic. Retailers must quickly analyze sales data and other key trends and causal factors in order to accurately predict customer demand, then align supply to meet that demand.
As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Burstein, president and chief strategy officer for NGC, where he leads all the company’s sales, marketing, R&D, and strategic initiatives. His vision for the future of retail and fashion guided the direction and development of NGC’s Andromeda Cloud Platform for digital supply chains. Mark’s strategic insight and industry experience have helped global brands and retailers transform their supply chain operations and become more customer-focused.
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?
After earning my MBA, my first job was technology consulting with Accenture. After a few years of 80+ hour workweeks, I joined my family’s apparel manufacturing business. We expanded our production facilities in Mexico to take advantage of the NAFTA free trade agreement. In early 2002, I lost a large order solely due to price competition from China. The quoted LDP price was well below my direct cost. With the Chinese quota elimination looming, I decided to close that business and join NGC Software in 2002 so I could use my knowledge in apparel manufacturing and technology to develop leading supply chain solutions for the fashion industry. I’ve been at NGC ever since.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I had been working on a PLM (product lifecycle management) deal with a global fashion brand for 18 months. We had been selected, the contracts were negotiated, and the implementation team was in place. However, the CEO had not signed the contract and was getting cold feet. When the executive sponsor relayed that message, I told him, “Mike, if the contract is not signed in 24 hours, I’m walking away. My time and effort are sunk costs and in the past. You, however, will need to start the entire evaluation process over again and proceed with the runner up.” The contract was signed that day.
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?
When I first started working in the family apparel business, I was handling our largest customer, Victoria’s Secret. One day, the buyer called and told me that our product was selling faster than expected and she needed more product immediately. I told her that I would check with my father. Her response was, “If you need to check with your father, why don’t I just speak to him myself?” I learned a valuable lesson that day: Take ownership of your responsibility and find a way to serve your customer, no matter how much effort is required. By the way, her expedited order shipped that week.
Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?
My latest project is a Traceability blockchain to track chain-of-custody from material/component origin to the final consumer. The first rollout of this platform will help importers focus on tracing component origin related to the Xinjiang region in China. There is confirmation that many components, ingredients and assembly are using forced Uyghur labor. Many countries, including the U.S., have active legislation that would require retailers to confirm that no inputs have a nexus to Xinjiang. In effect, the traceability solution will create a unique digital thread for every item. Once the digital thread is identified, the next phase of the blockchain is to add environmental impact of every facility including transportation between facilities. Using these metrics, companies will have the ability to measure the overall environmental impact of their entire supply chain.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
When asked how to “avoid burn out,” my consistent answer is to “love what you do.” When you love your job, it is never considered “work.” Curiosity and the thirst for knowledge constantly provide me energy. Personally, I am always seeking more information about topics relative to my industry and my business. I enjoy being an authority on many industry topics and appreciate the respect and executive engagement of being known as a thought leader and evangelist.
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?
I have had great mentors at each stage of my career, but in my current position, the person who had the most influence was Alan Brooks, the founder of NGC. He taught me the software business, provided a lot of latitude to experiment with different ideas, and showed me how to become a visionary who solves industry problems. Alan was a great role model as he also introduced new software solutions that revolutionized the way companies develop, source and distribute their products. When Alan retired in 2010, I stepped into his role. I hope he feels that the company he founded never missed a beat.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am in a very fortunate position to help and influence my company’s actions. I have promoted our Diversity and Inclusion direction and helped coordinate extracurricular activities for our team during this pandemic. I also sit on the Board of Directors at Goodwill South Florida, creating hope, opportunities and a place to belong for people with disabilities and other barriers to employment. Goodwill South Florida is the most influential organization in South Florida focused on helping people with disabilities and other barriers. It is a very rewarding position. From a business perspective, I am totally engaged in CSR and Environmental Responsibility. Our solutions are helping companies save the planet.
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?
Here are five keys trends that have gained a lot of momentum since the pandemic began:
- Improve supply chain visibility. Supply chain transparency is essential for an agile, resilient supply chain. If you can’t instantly visualize the supply chain status and activity in real-time, it’s impossible to identify risk and adjust quickly enough to avoid negative outcomes. The converse is also true. Lack of supply chain visibility also constrains the rewards presented by positive opportunities.
- Respond quickly to changes in demand. The Holy Grail of retail is achieving a near-perfect alignment of supply and demand. This has become especially important during the pandemic. Retailers must quickly analyze sales data and other key trends and causal factors in order to accurately predict customer demand, then align supply to meet that demand.
- Use Just-in-Time (J.I.T.)/Postponement methodologies to make decisions at the last minute. The latest information is normally the best indicator of a particular trend. In the fashion industry, color and size are key attributes of a garment that will determine consumer demand. The most successful retailers are using J.I.T methods to produce colors and sizes that will meet anticipated demand in real-time. The retailers without this mentality consistently get stuck with excess inventory that must be marked down and will miss full price sales due to stockouts.
- Visibility to Omnichannel inventory and efficient fulfillment capability. One of the keys to strong sales is to ensure that product is available in the right quantities in every channel and at every location. Unified visibility to the available inventory allows retailers to quickly deploy their inventory to the channels and stores that have the greatest demand. The use of store-based fulfillment has soared during the pandemic, and it’s a trend that is accelerating. It’s important for retailers to position inventory in the right locations, so they fulfill demand quickly and efficiently, enabling curbside pickup or shipping from a nearby store in order to minimize shipping costs.
- Integrate 3D Design tools with PLM. 3D design tools had been gaining popularity and use prior to the pandemic. The physical sampling process during product development typically adds 4–6 weeks to lead time plus add expenses such as procuring materials, maintaining a fully staffed sample room, transportation costs and evaluation costs (such as live fit models). In efforts to shorten lead time and reduce waste, retailers had started moving to virtual fit sessions using 3D tools. The pandemic accelerated 3D deployment as infection rates have forced fashion teams to work from home plus limited the amount and availability of sampling materials. 3D solution providers were in the right place at the right time to deliver great benefits to the companies using them.
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?
Mall-based retail will continue, but we will see new uses for the available space. The U.S. has been over-stored for decades so we will see more attrition over the next few years in order to attain an equilibrium. Mall-based retail has been decimating “Main Street” since the 1970s. I think malls will become the new “Main Street,” offering all types of products and services. The allure of the mall will go far beyond a “shopping spree.” Having lived in Manhattan for quite a few years, it’s not hard for me to envision a trip to the mall replicating a walk on Broadway in the Upper West Side. However, the store footprint will shrink, and the successful malls will be located in high-density areas within population centers. We are seeing that happen already with the roll out of “Live, Work, Play” multi-use developments.
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?
The most important lesson in retail is “know your customer.” The retailers above certainly do, plus they know how to serve them well. The “Retail Apocalypse” was happening long before the Pandemic and will continue afterward. Lack of customer focus is the reason why retailers such as JC Penney, Sears, J. Crew, and Gap have been downsizing for years. They lost their way. The pandemic just exacerbated their situation.
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?
I am a big fan of Amazon and purchase products from them on a regular basis. However, it’s not about the price. It’s about the selection. I can search for a random product such as a pressure washer. Home Depot offers eight models available in their store. Amazon offers over 400 models, with most of them delivered within two days. I think most consumers understand that “you get way you pay for.” Cheap products will receive poor customer reviews that will deter potential buyers. To me, it’s all about the assortment and knowing what your customer wants to buy. That’s the advice I would give retail and e-commerce companies.
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. 🙂
I believe that we are on the cusp of a global sustainability effort to save our planet. I am so captivated with fashion megabrands such as Patagonia, PVH, Lacoste, Jockey and C&A. A lot of companies are claiming eco-friendly products, but many of them are using “environmental responsibility” as a marketing slogan. The companies I listed are evolving their Sustainability efforts at scale. They will lead the industry in setting new standards. We are developing software platforms to help them implement their vision. One day, I want to look back and feel that I did my part.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Most of the content I share can be found on the NGC website under media coverage www.ngcsoftware.com/news/media-coverage and blog www.ngcsoftware.com/blog. I also post a lot of articles on LinkedIn www.linkedin.com/in/mark-burstein. Plus, I’ve recently become a Forbes Contributor and a member of the Forbes Technology Council. The link to my Forbes page is www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/people/markburstein/.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!