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Dr. Valeriana Colon: “Retail locations are not going to suddenly disappear”

Retailers with bigger budgets are investing in newer technologies like augmented reality. AR supports social distant browsing by widening aisle through moving style options to the virtual space. For those who prefer to shop from home, AR brings the showroom experience to their living room. I recently product tested an AR scavenger hunt app designed […]

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Retailers with bigger budgets are investing in newer technologies like augmented reality. AR supports social distant browsing by widening aisle through moving style options to the virtual space. For those who prefer to shop from home, AR brings the showroom experience to their living room. I recently product tested an AR scavenger hunt app designed to keep students socially distant when browsing museums. For a cost-effective option, savvy shops are using older technologies in different ways. I am currently working on a project with two independently owned coffee shops in very distant parts of the world that we are connecting with old-school chat rooms, LCD projectors, and a blank wall. We have virtually increased both shops square footage and dreamed up an experience while keeping seating socially distant. With precise placement you can peer across the ocean and real-time chat with anyone online while drinking coffee. We have even swapped recipes to give customers an authentic treat. Now is the time to get creative and experiment to explore possibilities.


As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Valeriana Colón.

Passionate about growing global economic communities to elevate humanity, Dr. Colón helps entrepreneurs see their vision come to life and organizations discover the solutions they need to thrive by leveraging human capital and diversity in international business development to inspire innovation. She is an author, researcher, international speaker, the President of BONUM Business Solutions and host of MetaTalk — a mental health social media platform dedicated to forging a better workplace from within.


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?

Growing up, I seemed too Puerto Rican to be considered American and too American to be Puerto Rican. Not an uncommon phenomenon, but one that inspired a career in language and cultural services. As an adolescent, I viewed being different, a third-culture kid, to be a deficient and wanted to acculturate to find acceptance. What I did not know was that my difference could be a source of great strength. Being from two worlds and moving around the world as a military dependent made me incredibly adaptable and empathetic to others. In time, I learned that acceptance starts from within. We all have inherent worth from our mere existence. As social beings, external validation matters too, but should be selective and requires a filter. I aspire to create action-spaces where people view their diversity (race, sexual orientation, gender, economic background, disability, age, religion, familial status, etc.) as an asset. After earning a Master’s in linguistics, I taught refugee students from war town nations and started consulting for limited-English speaking business owners, providing them access to the U.S. marketplace. As my career progressed, my services grew aboard finding foreign markets for U.S. companies. I use a communicative and inquiry-based method to nurture transformation and increase access. In 2020, I came back to Washington, DC from working in Uruguay on a project with the U.S. Department of State and Uruguay’s National Administration of Education. My company, like many others, was negatively impacted by the global pandemic. In discussing how and sharing our creative solutions we can generate a wave of global economic recovery.

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

My career has had many memorable moments, but the one which lingers in my mind was transformative. By the time I was twenty-one I become an injured veteran from Iraqi Readiness Training. Before joining the military, if you asked me to imagine a disabled veteran, I would picture of an older gentleman from the WWII or Vietnam era. I would have never imagined someone that looked like me. For a time, I could not move my arm, but I still had an arm when many of my counterparts did not. Again, I was a third-culture kid. The internal nature of my injury made me appear not injured enough to be considered disabled, but I was not able enough to be ‘normal’. I was in constant physical pain for eight years with permanent nerve damage, general weakness, arthritis and bursitis before having an inch of calcified bone removed to improve movement. I tell this story because from one of the most traumatic moments of my life came the drive to reimagine my identity, my priorities, and my path forward- that is what we are all doing right now amid the pandemic. I not only survived, but I thrived. Stronger, I am committed to breaking barriers and connecting people- forming empathetic communities, receptive to exchanging life experiences, and creating mutually beneficial relationships. In international business that also involves the exchange of products or services for monetary compensation.

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?

While supporting the international presence of a large integrated media and entertainment company known for professional wrestling, I quickly responded to a message from an on-air talent whose name is Amal. Thanks to auto-correct, however, her name was changed to an adjective relating to a bottom body part. The perfectionist in me was mortified. The professional in me wonders if this is an appropriate story to tell. Yet she was gracious. The lesson learned is to slow-down, take time to pay attention to detail, and laugh/ learn from mistakes. Perfectionism is an impossible standard that keeps many from taking action and others harshly shaming themselves for errors. Mistakes are an integral aspect of the human condition. Error is how we advance our knowledge and grow. 21% of new businesses fail within the first year and the number increases exponentially year over year (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016). As entrepreneurs we must plan for failure as a part of the process and build resilience.

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

In September 2020, I created MetaTalk- a mental health social media platform dedicated to forging a better workplace from within. Since 2011, our solutions approach at BONUM has included addressing the professional mindset while building business acumen. In 2020, I felt compelled to amplify the message, share free resource, and form a supportive community as I witnessed a multitude of organizations across industries paralyzed in action due to a psychological reaction from the pandemic.

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

Begin by creating a self-care routine that includes exercise, a balanced diet, sleep, and social connection while remembering to ask for help. With more people working from home, balancing and separating work and home is essential. End disorganization by keeping a consolidated calendar, planning for the future, and schedule-blocking time to unplug. Delegate and automate where you can and prioritize and let go where cannot. Set goals and celebrate incremental successes to stay motivated. Say, no. Do not feel like you need to take every opportunity offered, especially when things do not align with your priorities or goals. Ditch the scarcity mindset. Constantly thinking about things we do not have is depleting. Instead focus on creatively employing what you do have. Find a mentor or a supportive community to encourage one another, exchange knowledge, and share resources.

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 eternally grateful to the many people who have contributed to my journey. Early in my career I came across a beautiful mind that made me into a tree. I had just received the most heart-breaking news about one of my refugee students and had to report the information to their guidance counselor. Seeing that I was visibly upset and knowing I had to return to a room full of impressionable minds, Mary Worhatch had me close my eyes and imagine I was a tree- with strong roots that cling deep into the earth and thick branches that reach up into the sky. On sunny days the trunk expands soaking in the warmth and on stormy days — no matter how turbulent — the tree sways in the wind, letting the rain pass through the leaves to nurture the roots. “Sway with me”, she said and we swayed. When I opened my eyes, she declared, “one day you’ll realize the power you have a strong Latin woman”. Her conviction gave me chills. To Mary, I am certain that was one of many pieces of advice she gave that day. To me, the advice became a mantra and till this day I make trees of people and we sway. If you are reading this, take a moment to thank a teacher or school administrator. They need some love, especially in today’s context.

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

In a social ecosystem our existence interacts with the existence of others in a delicate balance and we need that interaction to live, so I have imbued my company with social responsibility. As a conscious company elevating humanity through business is at the heart of what we do at BONUM. We endeavor to engage and contribute to the well-being of our clients, staff, ownership, community, and the environment to make a positive impact on the world while making a profit. I use my success and platform to draw attention to key issues, provide solutions, and be an agent of change.

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?

While many of us almost exclusively shop online, we also miss the sensory experience of browsing in the physical space. The reality is that we are still in the middle of a pandemic with new procedures and precautions that make shopping in real life unappealing. Offering in-store discounts is not enough to get people out of the house and in stores.

Nimble retailers are responding creatively. When weather cooperates, they have constructed indoor — outdoor shopping experiences with a swanky outdoor market vibe, complete with carpets and lighting. Other masters of opportunity have gone hybrid, beefing up their ecommerce and home delivery while providing exclusive offers in each. My local bookstore began delivering custom mystery boxes that were all a buzz on twitter from people bragging about the contents of their box. Retailers have maximized space and made rent by creating multi-use environments. I have supported the day to night transformations of winery <> classroom / meeting space, souvenir shop <> paint studio, movie theatre <> ballet studio, bookstore <> meditation space. The key is zoning, safety, and compatibility, for example a barber shop <> restaurant combo could be disastrous. Retailers with bigger budgets are investing in newer technologies like augmented reality. AR supports social distant browsing by widening aisle through moving style options to the virtual space. For those who prefer to shop from home, AR brings the showroom experience to their living room. I recently product tested an AR scavenger hunt app designed to keep students socially distant when browsing museums. For a cost-effective option, savvy shops are using older technologies in different ways. I am currently working on a project with two independently owned coffee shops in very distant parts of the world that we are connecting with old-school chat rooms, LCD projectors, and a blank wall. We have virtually increased both shops square footage and dreamed up an experience while keeping seating socially distant. With precise placement you can peer across the ocean and real-time chat with anyone online while drinking coffee. We have even swapped recipes to give customers an authentic treat. Now is the time to get creative and experiment to explore possibilities.

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?

Retail locations are not going to suddenly disappear. Even Amazon has bookstores and hubs because they recognize the need for a physical presence. Just because people order food to-go, does not mean they do not also crave the restaurant experience. People want and need places to gather with like-minded individuals around their favorite products and services. Additionally, we tend to forget there are people who do not have access to technology (i.e. internet penetration in the U.S. is 84% and 47% globally) and others who are resist or late adapters. The target market of some of our mainstay retailers are of a less techy more tactile generation. Retail locations will become a beautiful mashup of ecommerce and showrooms that encourage brand engagement and social interaction- like the themed popup bars where you can sit in the Game of Thrones, throne.

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?

First exercise some self-compassion. There is a learning curve to finding your niche. Over the past decade the retail industry has become more sophisticated and methodical. Take Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco as case studies. Examine what makes their brands, business models, and founders unique. These three have almost of a cult-like following of customers due to their commitment to quality which is key, but their business models are what I find interesting. Costco makes most of its money on selling memberships and leverages sourcing and purchasing power to undersell their competition.

Adaptability is the theme of 2020+. Examine what is no longer working in your business and find ways to innovate. If you are at a catastrophic sticking point, conduct a bottom up review. Start with your marketing funnels. To make revenue faster, you need to find more prospects who are ready to buy while you move your other prospects long the purchasing continuum. Diversify your revenue streams and make money in unexpected ways (e.g. Costco selling memberships, gaming platforms selling credits and creating partnerships agreements). Engage customers with a human-centered approach- ensuring they feel heard and aligning your products/ services with their needs. Then focus on quality, the experience, and evolving your brand to remain relevant and retain your customer base.

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?

Amazon and similar companies, who seem to have cornered the marketplace need healthy competition for the sake of the consumer and free market, but U.S. global market share is expected to drop from 22.2% in 2015 to 16.9% in 2020 while sales rapidly increase globally (Statista, 2016). We need more U.S. born competitors. In the context of the pandemic, I foresee resistance to buying from China and renewed enthusiasm for local, American-made goods. Who knows what will result from attempts to impose trade sanctions on China, but as a matter of national security the U.S. government will push to protect supply chains by manufacturing essential goods in the United States. Let us support and innovate in U.S. manufacturing and supply chain management which is at the crux of ecommerce.

Many of the small business owners that I work with have stopped trying to directly compete against ecommerce juggernauts and have partnered with them- using their platforms as another purchasing channel to reach a different audience. To maintain control of our various purchasing channels and discourage unauthorized resellers, we closely monitor our pricing strategy. To encourage direct purchasing, we focus on creating a more personable ecommerce brand and custom shopping experience on our main channels. By creating brand personality customers shop quality from artisans, support social movements, and contribute to concepts that help shape the future they would like to realize.

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. 🙂

Support small businesses and encourage large ones to be more socially conscious. I will avoid getting on my soapbox because we have all seen the news about massive layoffs and the allocations of the Paycheck Protection Program funds. Small businesses generate two-thirds of new jobs, drive innovation and competitiveness, are critical to local economies, and account for 44% of the U.S. economic activity (U.S. Small Business Administration, 2019). If we want economic recovery, we need to support small business.

How can our readers further follow your work?

If you are inspired by one of the ideas in this interview, find me on social media at urbonum.com/findme I would love to know how the execution goes for you.

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


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