Mike McKean of Retailsphere: “Retailers need to differentiate”

While some retailers have concentrated on ideas like rewards/loyalty programs (that can be utilized and redeemed online), others have tried to implement curbside shopping and pickup programs that allow for both online and in-person experiences that attempt to engage all customers and keep them happy. Some of the shopping center owners we surveyed earlier in the […]

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While some retailers have concentrated on ideas like rewards/loyalty programs (that can be utilized and redeemed online), others have tried to implement curbside shopping and pickup programs that allow for both online and in-person experiences that attempt to engage all customers and keep them happy.

Some of the shopping center owners we surveyed earlier in the summer also were also exploring ideas that allowed for “preferred member” shopping in-person, but with far fewer people to alleviate fears and specific hours for a “safer experience.” But really the buzz phrase is “touch-free shopping” and almost all retail outlets are instituting some version of this.


As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike McKean, founder and CEO of Retailsphere. With over two decades of experience in the e-commerce and marketing spaces, Mike has established himself as a trusted partner in an intensely competitive marketplace teeming with interesting technological challenges. His unprecedented experience in e-commerce and digital marketing have also helped Mike establish himself as an innovative thinker with a strong background in data-driven decision making and cutting-edge technology. Firms large and small lean heavily on Mike’s ability to quickly develop key insights and then map out a roadmap towards a shared objective.


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?

It’s a bit of a long story…LOL. After stepping down as CEO of my last business, I went back to school as a Sloan Fellow at MIT. There, I started focusing on franchising and the retail apocalypse and realized how antiquated the market options were. Retailsphere, formerly Main St Data, began as my graduation thesis and then officially launched in 2016.

It was the structural change occurring in the retail landscape that fascinated me. Shopping centers and malls are not dying. They are evolving. Everyone knows that hundreds of large, national brands are failing, declaring bankruptcies, and closing locations. In fact, at Retailsphere, we have methodically been tracking these closures and closure announcements: https://retailsphere.com/stores-closing-in-2020.

Fascinatingly though, as these huge players go dark, there has been an amazing groundswell of innovation by local/regional retailers. From food and fitness concepts to medical, tech, and professional companies, the retail landscape is evolving. As a business, we track ALL of this. Not just the closures, but the expansions, the trendsetters.

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

Wow! So many… so many… My wife and I own a number of frozen yogurt businesses. One evening a few years ago, unfortunately, one of our locations was robbed. A masked individual held up a terrified employee. He said that he had a gun in his pocket. When he took his hand out to get the little amount of cash in the drawer, it became readily apparent that he didn’t have a gun. He did have a watch on though that could be seen by our security cameras. She also recognized his voice. He was an ex-employee and the police greeted him at his home later in the afternoon.

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?

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

At Retailsphere we’re constantly working on new products and features. Right now, our data scientists are uncovering some very interesting insights on closure predictions. In a nutshell, retail closures are not random. They are predictable. Not just closure announcements and bankruptcies, but we believe even timings on when specific units will go dark. Stay tuned as we launch functionality around this!

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Take time out. Have hobbies and prioritize family.

None of us is 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 know it’s a bit cliché but that would most definitely be my father. He was one of my best friends — truly great conversationalist and an entrepreneur.

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

As a family, we donate to a number of charitable organizations anonymously. They are primarily focused on education and the environment. As Retailsphere expands and grows, the team will make decisions on philanthropies to support. Ideally, these will be related to helping America reimagine and reinvigorate its social gathering spaces.

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?

Absolutely. Retailers have had to toe the line, post pandemic, and moving forward in the changing retail landscape.

While some retailers have concentrated on ideas like rewards/loyalty programs (that can be utilized and redeemed online), others have tried to implement curbside shopping and pickup programs that allow for both online and in-person experiences that attempt to engage all customers and keep them happy.

Some of the shopping center owners we surveyed earlier in the summer also were also exploring ideas that allowed for “preferred member” shopping in-person, but with far fewer people to alleviate fears and specific hours for a “safer experience.”

But really the buzz phrase is “touch-free shopping” and almost all retail outlets are instituting some version of this.

And the final idea is the “everything store” which really is geared towards the Walmarts, Targets, etc. These big retailers that have offered the “one-stop shop” are expanding those ideas but also incorporating the thought that they still have big spenders and also customers who are watching every penny. And to allow for both, these stores have become “mini warehouses” so that they can easily pivot (and have re-trained their employees) to the changing needs of when each different customer walks in the door.

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?

They most certainly will. In fact, a large part of the reason I founded Retailsphere was because it became apparent to me that shopping centers weren’t going away. The industry is going through a significant structural change. To use some technical jargon, retail commercial real estate is searching to find new highest and best uses for the built environments of shopping centers. Shopping centers, much like central business districts, are not going away. They are transforming. We see new and exciting emerging brands and concepts. We call these trendsetters at Retailsphere and they drive a huge amount of traffic to certain centers. We see re-purposing toward technology and co-working locations and medical services. And, of course, we see an explosion in food, bar, restaurant, and nightclub concepts. Regardless, America needs its retail landscape, if, for no other reason, that Americans crave/need human contact.

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?

We think you hit the nail on the head. There are winners in the modern retail ecosystem. Some are successful via mashups. Some are internet-proof. Some nail the experience. Some nail the brands. Some are neighborhood and community centric. Some were favored by the powers that be during COVID-19 as “essential businesses.”

We believe that the right approach for commercial real estate professionals and shopping center companies is to identify winners as early as possible. As a business, this is our specialty. We have a database of EVERY retailer and shopping center in the United States. We further have a database of announced closures and bankruptcies. And we have tools to help CRE professionals identify the best tenants for their spaces. We are working on AI tools to space match, predict closures, timings on closures, and assist folks with lease negotiations.

Furthermore, we are working on tools that will help ensure tenant health. These features are scheduled for a phase product launch but we’re very excited about them.

We believe landlords and CRE can assist retailers with tenant health reporting/benchmarking, vendor relations, employee shift covering, and a number of other pieces of high value offerings.

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?

Retailers need to differentiate. Physical retailing has fundamentally changed forever. At a high level, T2C will change the economics of retail. Brick and mortar locations will serve secondary purposes (such as returns, branding, customer service, platforms for high-touch sales) rather than driving sales. At its core, this is the fundamental change that physical retail is confronting.

To be successful, retailers will need to operate successfully in both realms — online and in person. Although somewhat unclear, the economics on what that looks like is starting to come into focus. In fact, our AI work is starting to prove this out within physical retailers. It’s one of the main drivers contributing to the downfall of the large, national brands.

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. 🙂

The movement we are trying to start at Retailsphere is to help reinvigorate America’s retail landscapes. We believe Americans want and need human interaction. The world is a poorer, more unhappy place the more time we spend on our phones and screens. Human conversation. Human transactions. Human touch. These are what we need to bring us together and improve our lives.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Our content team is constantly releasing new and intriguing pieces on the Retail ecosystem. Check out our website at Retailsphere.com.

https://www.instagram.com/retailsphere/
https://www.facebook.com/getretailsphere

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


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