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Chris Butler of Advantage Solutions: “Listen, learn, and seek input from those around you”

I would say the main thing that successful retail outlets have been enhancing during the pandemic to benefit the in-person shopping experience is in-store safety. Retailers are focused on showing that their brick-and-mortar locations are just as safe as their online options. We are at a time where people will not leave their homes for […]

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I would say the main thing that successful retail outlets have been enhancing during the pandemic to benefit the in-person shopping experience is in-store safety. Retailers are focused on showing that their brick-and-mortar locations are just as safe as their online options. We are at a time where people will not leave their homes for many things, and if they are leaving, upkeeping cleanliness and social distancing at physical retail locations is a major selling point. Prior to the pandemic, consumers were less concerned with the overall safety and design of stores, but now this is likely going to remain a concern for the near future. In tandem, retailers must also ensure that any new e-commerce pathways they forge for consumers are safe, timely, and well organized for customer loyalty to uphold in the pandemic.


As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Butler, President of Digital Commerce at Advantage Solutions, a provider of outsourced sales and marketing services to consumer goods manufacturers and retailers.

The Digital Commerce group is the provider of end to end digital commerce solutions, ranging from operational optimization, data and analytics, business advisory, media, digital shelf and online retail execution. Butler oversees Advantage Solutions’ e-commerce agencies Sage Tree, Beekeeper Marketing, Quantum Networks and Quiverr and the e-commerce content and analytics technology platforms The Data Council, Atlas and Canopy. He previously led all aspects of e-commerce at Mondelēz North America, including sales, marketing, supply chain, digital activation, performance management and growth channels. Earlier in his career he held senior leadership roles in sales and marketing at Nestlé.


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?

I like to take risks in my career, whether that means taking on a new sales job or moving across the country. I look for opportunities that will challenge me. Around 5 years ago, I was drawn to e-commerce because I knew it would be exciting to build something from scratch and to innovate in new ways. I also knew that it would give me the ability to define my own future and build my path from the ground up.

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

The most interesting thing that’s happened to me since starting my career was being approached by Advantage Solutions while I was head of e-commerce at Mondelez. I loved my job there, however when Advantage reached out and presented me with the offer to be their President of Digital Commerce, I took the risk. I took a leap of faith that ended up being one of the greatest decisions I have ever made. Despite having been in this industry for many years, at Advantage, I am consistently learning and developing solutions to complex problems in the e-commerce industry. I hope this can help inspire anyone considering taking “the big risk” to make the leap.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting?

When I was first starting out my biggest mistake was thinking that I knew it all and had all the answers. We leave college and are emboldened that our four years of education supersede the years of experience that our new colleagues have. While working in France, I created and approved a new internal communication campaign for the company I was working for. Of course, wanting to rush the posters through to show my bosses how engaged and timely I was, I didn’t get the necessary approvals before the printer made hundreds of copies. The campaign itself was based around our quality the grammatical mistake I had made on the log represented the opposite!

Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

Listen, learn, and seek input from those around you. Everyone wants to show their expertise and initiative, especially early in their careers, but having an open mind to the experience of colleagues around you can be invaluable, especially if you’re like me and start out operating in a different country!

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

Recently, we have been looking at what major changes are happening due to the acceleration of e-commerce adoption. There is a great opportunity for both manufacturers and retailers to expand their capabilities and team education. We are experts in this team and are always pushing ourselves to stay ahead of the trends to ensure we bring the best solutions to our clients, that’s why we are building out new offers and services that will help them grow their businesses at above market pace.

The e-commerce space is always looking ahead for the next big trend. In turn, by getting ahead of these trends, we are able to help our clients. I am part of an industry that brings together a company’s products and services in a way that meets consumer needs more efficiently and effectively. Considering the lens of the pandemic, e-commerce has the potential to not only help businesses expand their offerings, but to also to be the gateway that provides essential items to every person.

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

The e-commerce industry presents new and innovative opportunities to capitalize on creative ideas. The industry is constantly changing, and there is a lot of noise that makes it difficult to discern the “winning” ideas. At the end of the day, digital commerce is about connections — the seamless connection between consumers, manufacturers and retailers.

Continue to focus on this core tenant and it will make it easier to stay focused and avoid burnout. Personal health and wellbeing are also extremely important. During the pandemic, it is easy to get overwhelmed. You have to set boundaries for yourself. Go outside. Close your laptop at the end of the day. Work out. Do something that takes your mind away from your job.

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 am incredibly grateful for one of my previous bosses who was one of the toughest superiors I have ever had. He was my harshest critic, but he was also my biggest advocate and teacher along the way. I will never forget how he continued to educate me every day. Even when I thought I was the hardest worker, he pushed me to exceed my expectations of my own capabilities. He instilled the philosophy in me that all people should have the opportunity to reach their full potential. Whether I’m thinking about my co-workers or my children, I have carried the lessons he taught me throughout my entire career.

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

I’ve been very lucky in life with my career and I am a huge believer in paying that forward. I always make time to help someone in their career, because, the most valuable thing you can give people is time. Whether it is making time for advice or helping people interview, I want to be able to open the same doors that were opened for me in my career.

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?

One example of a creative strategy amid the pandemic has been the enhancement of curbside pickup from large retail outlets like Walmart and Target. The seamless curbside pickup gives even quicker gratification to consumers than ordering something online and waiting for it to arrive. You can now select “in store pickup” and pick up your order after 5–10 minutes. This has been a key trend you can spot if you look at which retailers are having the most success amid the pandemic. Even Amazon is now moving into physical retail locations because of the shift to consumers wanting things even quicker than the next day amid the pandemic.

Another example is Warby Parker, a direct-to-consumer provider of prescription eyeglasses. The company had rapid success, then opened storefronts to complement its brand’s offering and image. Now, Warby Parker’s app allows customers to try on glasses from home via AR, making the shopping experience easier. This capability is particularly relevant now, as people in many locations are required to wear masks in store. With a mask on, it’s even harder to select a flattering pair of glasses. The enhanced technology is a lifesaver for both the store and the customer.

A lot of the creative ideas we have seen large retail outlets implementing revolve around omnichannel offerings and creating a seamlessly blended customer experience. For example, Kohl’s recent partnership with Amazon. where in this partnership, customers are able to return goods ordered on Amazon Prime in-store at Kohl’s. By blending online and offline shopping, retailers widen their breadth of consumer visibility. If someone is returning an item at a Kohl’s physical location, they become more likely to pick up something else while they are in the store, which is essential during the pandemic when people are making fewer in-person shopping runs.

We’re seeing more and more of this type of strategy arise as a result of the pandemic, with Walmart+ being another great example. If you live near a Walmart, their new online service is a fantastic way for consumers to adapt to this year’s holiday shopping realities.

I would say the main thing that successful retail outlets have been enhancing during the pandemic to benefit the in-person shopping experience is in-store safety. Retailers are focused on showing that their brick-and-mortar locations are just as safe as their online options. We are at a time where people will not leave their homes for many things, and if they are leaving, upkeeping cleanliness and social distancing at physical retail locations is a major selling point. Prior to the pandemic, consumers were less concerned with the overall safety and design of stores, but now this is likely going to remain a concern for the near future. In tandem, retailers must also ensure that any new e-commerce pathways they forge for consumers are safe, timely, and well organized for customer loyalty to uphold in the pandemic.

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?

Online orders in every category surged at the beginning of the pandemic because everyone was terrified. Then stores closed their doors and shopping online became an action of necessity. In my opinion, this surge will not change the fact that retail stores and malls will continue to exist. Going to a physical space is an experience that consumers crave, and in general, and experience that they will not give up.

Think about how people wait in lines outside of major retailers at crazy hours waiting for Black Friday deals. Why do they do this? They do this because shopping in person is a staple of togetherness. While many of these deals are available online, shoppers wait outside for the experience. The experience of being a part of something is why people shop in stores and that won’t change. Not even the pandemic has stopped shoppers from returning to stores — brick and mortar will continue to exist and even grow in some cases. But it will look different, and shoppers will come with new and more imaginative expectations and nontraditional shopping lists.

In the future physical retail is likely to become more of an omnichannel experience, but by no means will brick and mortar vanish entirely.

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?

I happened to work with Costco for a few years and can confidently say that the organization is successful because it manufactures and sells high-quality goods and the organization values its employees and customers. The merchants who work on the Costco business are extremely knowledgeable and their mantra is to prioritize making products better instead of making products cheaper. As Costco develops their own products like Kirkland Signature, they find ways to cut costs along the way. However, ensuring their customers are always receiving the best possible product is its top priority. Whether it be a suitcase or a pair of socks, the goal is having a top-quality products to put the customer first.

Retailers should always be looking at creative ways to ensure their customers have an experience that is the best it can be from start to finish. Whether the experience is online or offline, the process should be seamless and make the customer want to come back again.

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?

To stay competitive, a company must understand its consumer. If retailers understand their products, their target consumer and the preferred method of distribution, they should not have a problem finding success.

No matter who the competition is, you must always strive to be better. How do I create a longer lasting relationship with my customers? How do I serve them in more meaningful ways? How do I continually increase the quality of my products and services and ultimately the value I offer? These are questions that retailers must ask themselves each and every day to ensure that they stay ahead of every competitive threat, no matter where it comes from.

In order to succeed, retailers should use the platforms that are available to them and suit their brand identity best. While to some Amazon is a competitor, it can also be a major asset. Retailers and brands can sell products through the Amazon platform and have the potential to create a quality brand and consumer experience beyond their physical location and website. If retailers leverage the platform correctly and upkeep their unique brand identity, Amazon can help further carve out the omnichannel success of a company.

It is also essential that retailers and e-commerce companies continue to increase their reliance on captured data to understand the demographic of their consumer. They have an opportunity to own and cater their customer journey and leverage all the channels available to them. Determining how to most effectively come out on top of competition relies on the core principle that every company should be customer-centric.

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 would want to start a movement where everyone truly values each other. We are all simultaneously teachers and students every day, and if we take the time to both listen and teach, the world could be a better place. A lot of my ideas from work come from listening to the ideas of those around me and listening to different voices around the world. The more discourse we create not only in our work lives, but in our personal lives as well, the more creative people can become.

I would not be where I am today if people hadn’t taken chances on me, took the time to teach me, and opened the forum to so many of my ideas (even the bad ones). I hope every person takes the time to be a mentor in order to foster a future generation of mentors.

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


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