Kristen Gall: “Virtual customer experiences”

Virtual customer experiences — The pandemic has changed how we interact with stores and consumers will prefer a physical-digital hybrid model once the world is back to normal. This could take the form of virtual appointments with sales associates, meeting stylists over Zoom, and goods shipped to your home for virtual try-ons. We’re also seeing shoppable YouTube […]

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Virtual customer experiences — The pandemic has changed how we interact with stores and consumers will prefer a physical-digital hybrid model once the world is back to normal. This could take the form of virtual appointments with sales associates, meeting stylists over Zoom, and goods shipped to your home for virtual try-ons. We’re also seeing shoppable YouTube videos where your sales associate walks through a store and points out products you can purchase with a single click.

As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kristen Gall. She brings more than 20 years of experience in ecommerce and retail to her role as President of Rakuten Rewards (formerly Ebates). She served as the company’s general manager since 2018, where she grew the company 20 percent year-over-year in revenue and significantly expanded its membership base. Prior to Rakuten Rewards, Gall held executive leadership roles at Old Navy, Leapfrog Enterprises, and Z Gallerie. She started her career at Gap Inc. in an executive training program and progressed through roles in business management and merchandising with Gap and Levi Strauss.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve been obsessed with shopping since I was a little girl. When all of my friends played with Barbies, I built malls out of construction paper for the Barbies to shop in.

It was no surprise when I started working that I gravitated to retail. I got my first job working in the stockroom at Nordstrom when I was 15 and never looked back. After college, I went straight into the world of corporate retail and merchandising and developed and managed product lines for Gap and Levi’s. It was the perfect career path for me — a convergence of trends, data and pop culture that I found endlessly fascinating.

Over time, my focus broadened to eCommerce and technology. It was a natural transition to move from physical products to building digital products because they both involve making decisions that will positively impact a customer’s shopping journey.

I’m grateful to still be in this industry many years later, and I love that I’m now immersed in something that is on the cutting edge of an economy that is reinventing itself before our eyes. How people shop and buy and how the industry constantly evolves will never get boring.

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

During my third week at Rakuten, I found myself waving from a sparkly float in the 2018 Golden State Warriors championship victory parade (Rakuten is a proud partner and sponsor of the team). I’ve had many interesting professional opportunities but riding through the streets of Oakland in the middle of millions of screaming fans is something I will never forget. That was definitely one of my most interesting work experiences and not something you anticipate when you start a new job!

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 was working for Gap early in my career, we started testing new denim fits on real customers at stores around the country. I had the bright idea to drum up more participants by posting an opportunity on Craigslist and offering a gift card as compensation for their time. The following day, hundreds of women showed up to try on Gap jeans. We had lines around the block and were there until after midnight!

The most important takeaway: The best way to know how to build a better product is to spend hours upon hours with your customers. Nothing beats hearing direct feedback, even if there is a lot more of it than you anticipated. Also, never underestimate the power of viral marketing.

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

I’m currently focused on harnessing the power of Rakuten’s incredible wealth of shopping data to more effectively personalize the shopping experience for the members. Our customers are on the hunt for the best shopping deals in the industry, and if we can serve up more relevant content and allow them to discover brands, deals and products they never knew existed, that’s a true win-win for our members and partners. Our members win because they feel rewarded when then get cash back for shopping through us and our retail partners win because they acquire profitable new customers with whom they can build relationships.

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

A few years ago, I started to prioritize three things: sleep, quiet time and exercise. I get up early in the morning every day to have quiet time before my family wakes up. It’s the only time when I’m truly alone and it starts my day in a calm place. I go on long walks as often as I can and am a huge believer in the power of exercise to boost mental health.

I’m also maniacal about my bedtime. Because I wake up early, keeping a really regular and relatively early bedtime prevents me from burning out.

Consistency in these three things is without a doubt one of the most important ways I can juggle the demands on my time. I definitely notice the impact on my attitude and energy when I haven’t been doing these things.

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

My dad was my biggest cheerleader growing up. He always told me that I was destined for great things and was so proud of my accomplishments. When I started my first job, he talked to me about work as if I were a really smart co-worker and not just his kid. His encouragement and advice were invaluable as I grew in my career. To this day, he keeps a business card from every single one of my jobs in his wallet. From time to time, he’ll pull them out to remind me of how far I’ve come.

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

I choose to work at companies that bring joy to consumers. It’s a really important filter that I use when I’m vetting opportunities. Whether it’s making women feel beautiful with the perfect pair of jeans (Gap and Levi’s), helping a child find the right toy to learn math (Leapfrog), assisting newlyweds in furnishing their first apartment (Z Gallerie), or bringing the joy of cash back on the things you buy (Rakuten), I strive to work for companies that inspire love and loyalty. Commerce shouldn’t just be about the transaction. It’s about the emotion attached to it, and it’s important to me that I help harness that for people.

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?

There are a lot of interesting trends happening right now because of the pandemic:

  • Alternative shopping options — As retailers moved straight to digital, it robbed consumers of the “right now” feeling of shopping in-store and bringing their purchases home that day. This has made services like BOPIS (buy online, pick up in-store) and curbside pick-up very attractive during the pandemic. Pre-COVID, these were just mechanisms for grocery or big-box retailers, but you’re seeing this as a strategy for everyone now, from Target to your local boutique.
  • Digital ease — Brands, retailers and companies that are performing the best right now are focused on easy, seamless customer interactions. An engaging digital experience is critical, as is providing frictionless interaction with consumers. Your conversion rate will suffer no matter how beautiful your site looks if your checkout process isn’t intuitive or doesn’t connect directly to a consumer’s credit card for one-tap payment.
  • Continued growth of smaller-footprint stores — The “guideshop” concept, or “local store” concept will grow in prevalence where retailers build intimate branded experiences where consumers can shop and have items shipped to their homes. Stores will pump more money into digital in-store experiences and reduce their costs on square footage and unproductive inventory. COVID has shown us that consumers are willing to wait for their purchases and we won’t want to be around huge crowds in huge stores for a while.
  • Virtual customer experiences — The pandemic has changed how we interact with stores and consumers will prefer a physical-digital hybrid model once the world is back to normal. This could take the form of virtual appointments with sales associates, meeting stylists over Zoom, and goods shipped to your home for virtual try-ons. We’re also seeing shoppable YouTube videos where your sales associate walks through a store and points out products you can purchase with a single click.
  • Personalization — As the shift to online continues, the importance of a more personalized, conversion-oriented experience has also accelerated. Retailers were already prioritizing this, but the world of AI/ML, algorithmically based content generation, and product merchandising will be the new surprise-and-delight for stores. It’s critical that retailers fine-tune this quickly to create a true “for me” experience for their customers since they no longer have the benefit of human interaction to sell goods.

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 stores and malls will certainly continue to exist. America still craves shopping as entertainment. What is changing, however, is how these retail experiences are rendered. New mall formats that combine high-end shopping, entertainment and dining are winning as they often have smaller stores, fewer anchors and chains, and more differentiated brand offerings. The stores that do well are ones that are offering more than just inventory for sale; they are engaging multimedia spaces where consumers can experience their brand and products in real life. In reality, these stores are more focused on brand-building than productivity.

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?

There are two important factors:

  1. Brand first — Lululemon engages their shoppers through like-minded community-building (e.g., yoga classes, wellness content, etc.). People like to interact with brands that “get” them, and building this brand first, along with accompanying goods for sale that play into a lifestyle, is a winning strategy.
  2. Discovery — Costco is a great example of a retailer with an excellent in-store experience that is all about discovery. Pre-COVID, their samples along with their strategy of introducing and then selling out of limited runs of items, made consumers look forward to going there. It’s a treasure hunt — you never know what you will find, and you know if you don’t get it right then, it will be gone.

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?

What is missing with all of these marketplace companies is authenticity and trust. With Amazon and these DTC marketplaces, it’s really hard to gauge whether or not a product is authentic or fake, and the level of quality you are actually buying. Brands that succeed are the ones that own their customer and products front-to-back, can vouch for their quality and the authenticity of their products, and are an alternative for consumers burned by the “Wild West” nature of unregulated marketplaces.

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 movement for movement! Exercise is the best way I know to improve life. If there was a way to marry exercise and shopping, that would be a dream!

How can our readers further follow your work?

LinkedIn —

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

Thanks so much for having me!

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