Raj B Shroff of PINE Strategy & Design: “Have the guts to say no”

Friendly associates (we are human, even if you are shopping online, you might need an associate’s help) — Think of the Starbucks example. I get a Starbucks everywhere I go in the world (except Bhutan) and the associates are all friendly and act like we are long lost friends, it is amazing to have that type of […]

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Friendly associates (we are human, even if you are shopping online, you might need an associate’s help) — Think of the Starbucks example. I get a Starbucks everywhere I go in the world (except Bhutan) and the associates are all friendly and act like we are long lost friends, it is amazing to have that type of scale and the brand is alive with each associate.

As part of my series about the “How To Create A Fantastic Retail Experience That Keeps Bringing Customers Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Raj B. Shroff. He is the Principal and Founder of PINE Strategy & Design, a business-driven creative consultancy focused on consumer experience. Prior to founding his company, Raj was VP of Brand, Strategy & Design at a global experience design firm. During his tenure there he led many turnkey research, strategy and retail design engagements and was an SME on digital; advising teams on omni-retail, mobile, VR, AR and the application of technology in experience. He has run many large-scale initiatives, having served in account leadership roles at Fitch (WPP), in the areas of Research, Retail, Brand and Product design and at Resource (now IBM iX), in Digital Experience & Marketing.

Clients he has served include Intel, P&G, Mars Wrigley, Unilever, Target, Walmart, Dollar General, LG (South Korea), Pernod Ricard (Mexico), Reliance Retail (India), Aditya Birla (India), Mahindra (India), Nestle, Tyson Foods, The North Face, SC Johnson, Gatorade, Carhartt, NFL and others. Raj is an industry speaker on topics such as the future of retail, branding, digital engagement and consumer behavior.

He is Adjunct Faculty at CCAD (Columbus College of Art and Design) in the Masters and Undergraduate Design Programs. He enjoys spending his free time with his wife and two sons. He is an avid runner, reader, mentor, compulsive traveler and an aspiring guitarist.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I had no vision for my life after college other than becoming an entrepreneur and traveling. I did a short stint writing for a PR firm, left to start a business with some friends and spent my 20s doing a few starts-ups, never making enough money, often being really frustrated but also having many great times. Freaked out a bit at 30 and decided to pursue an MBA. My dad has one and I figured it couldn’t hurt. Stumbled into a job half way through my MBA at Fitch and learned research, retail design and strengthened my skills in brand and strategy. I’ve really never looked back.

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

I’ve never made any funny mistakes, just not-so-funny ones. At 23 I had to sue a guy who stiffed me on a ton of money, I won but he had nothing for me to collect so that burned pretty bad and basically crushed one of my companies.

Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

We now work with established companies, although their payment terms can be tough, at least they pay.

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?

No doubt my parents. They supported any early endeavor, never cared (or told me they minded) when I pursued unconventional paths. And now my wife, she didn’t miss a beat when I said I was jumping out to start PINE. My buddy John who joined PINE about 8 months in is another person. He and I work really well together. We often disagree but come to a better place after beating ideas up. It’s an exciting part of my day-to-day.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

No particular podcasts. I love to read and off the top of my head say Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom and the film, Gandhi, are ones that I’ve been impacted by. The messages I see in them are higher purpose, right vs. wrong, fighting for what you believe in, never giving up your vision, being able to compromise to achieve more.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I don’t believe anyone can dissect an issue, see all the pieces scattered around us and put them back together to carve a path forward better than we can. And the diversity of experience we have is likely second to few. We’ve done work and interacted with people all around the world. In 2018 we spent money that others might have used to go to conferences with and instead did a 3-week stint in China. We didn’t get into the outskirts as much as I would have liked but we were able to explore Shanghai, Guangzhou and the surrounding areas to gain new perspectives for our work. To me, you want people with tons and tons of inputs, they have a bigger repository to pull from when trying to problem solve or create outputs.

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

Have the guts to say no.

Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. The Pandemic only made things much worse for retailers in general. 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 retailers thriving generally have strong value propositions and purpose clarity and stay true to them. They aren’t static though and manifest those value props in ways that are relevant. And that value prop and the purpose clarity drive location strategy, assortment, experience and the many other small decisions that, when aggregated, lead to success.

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 retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

Go back to figuring out your core purpose. Does anyone know it? How is it relevant today and what actions can you take to put that forward? Ask how you are different. And ask if you closed up shop, would anyone know or care. That last question forces you to take away the bs and face reality.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a retail business?

I think you have to understand someone’s goals before you can judge what they do a mistake.If I want freedom in my life and can open a food truck, make a living and get by, you might call it a mistake but it’s not. Having written that, common mistakes include opening a business that is me too, not managing cash effectively, spending money on things that customers don’t value, probably over spending in general. When I listened to the Samuel Adams story on how I built this, what I remember so vividly is Jim Koch used a pay phone and didn’t spend money on non-essential things. I think many aspiring entrepreneurs like the idea of entrepreneurship, they go out and get a building, spend a ton of money and have all the “right stuff” but then it flops. Other things like poor location, poor assortment, not getting customer feedback, those are other ones I’ve seen.

What can be done to avoid those errors?

I think you have to start many things with an open mind, that you don’t know everything. Read, listen to podcasts, talk to other business owners. People love to help. If you ask enough people and keep hearing the same thing, maybe there’s something to it. Also admit being wrong and admit your idea might suck, be okay walking away or changing your strategy.

This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business in general and for retail in particular?

80% of a human’s decision making is with their heart, not their head. Products across many retailers are the same, what drives preference? It is the associates and the experience that sets one retailer apart from another.

We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?

Companies are run by people and most people think of the world from their own perspective. Only exceptional retailers get close to customers and become customers, you have to step into the shoes of your shopper and experience what they experience, the good and bad. Use your own pick up, work in a store, talk to your frontline associates, they know more about many shopper topics than the MBA at a desk in headquarters.

Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?

During college, I worked at Williams Sonoma over winter breaks. I spent time on the sales floor and in the stock room. One time an older gentleman brought in an expensive Calphalon pan that he had gotten at Williams Sonoma a long, long time ago and wanted to find a replacement. My store manager said to give him the replacement, no charge. During my time there I was wowed by the quality of the merchandise, the quality of the experience and the knowledge and passion of the associates. We ‘wowed’ people on a regular basis whether through knowledge, help or just incredibly common-sense policies that gave autonomy to the floor associates for whatever helped the shopper. Starbucks is another brand that amazes me. No matter where I go in the world, there is a Starbucks (except Bhutan and didn’t see one in Uruguay) but the associates, every single one everywhere, treat me incredibly well, with a smile and with the utmost professionalism. Name another brand at that scale, that sells 2-5 dollars items, that can say that. You can’t.

At PINE we have wowed many clients. The head of Insights of a client said he’d never had this calibre of work in his career. We’ve helped clients get promotions with our work. We’ve helped clients win internal awards. I like to think we wow people everyday in small, subtle but impactful ways.

Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

For Williams Sonoma, my time there made me realize how much store associates know, they are closest to the customer, have the most informal discussions with the customer and yet HQ hires consultants to go find problems and answers. I bet half of consultant dollars are wasted because folks at HQ get too removed from the trenches.

A fantastic retail experience isn’t just one specific thing. It can be a composite of many different subtle elements fused together. Can you help us break down and identify the different ingredients that come together to create a “fantastic retail experience”?

Do what you say you will.Start with the basics: great location, great parking, clean store, great lighting, great returns policy, helpful associates, great assortment, great prices. A compelling journey, storytelling so you are selling a dream or idea, not a commodity. And other elements to store design (physical or online).

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a fantastic retail experience that keeps bringing customers back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.

  • Great assortment (without this, nothing else matters) — Think of a company like Target. Not only do they have the right commodities, they sell independent brands and have a strong private label offer leveraging the equity they’ve built up over time.
  • Intentional store design (doesn’t have to be fancy, just has to be right for your proposition) — I went to store visits in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and one store had incredible merchandise. The store was in an old school and honestly felt like they’d done no design, but it was all very intentional, spot on for the experience they wanted to create.
  • Friendly associates (we are human, even if you are shopping online, you might need an associate’s help) — Think of the Starbucks example. I get a Starbucks everywhere I go in the world (except Bhutan) and the associates are all friendly and act like we are long lost friends, it is amazing to have that type of scale and the brand is alive with each associate.
  • Great location (easy to access, traffic lights, traffic flow, safe, etc) — Rare are there businesses like IKEA where people will drive for hours to shop. The area not only matters from a practical point of view, like no left turns, it matters for your brand, what is the location signaling to shoppers.
  • A compelling online presence (no physical store will hold it all and your audience shouldn’t be limited to your physical location) — Most established retailers have some online presence. However, some sites are better than others. But smaller shops need to figure out whether they’ll do ecommerce on their own, find an aggregator site, or use Amazon. If your web presence is weak today good luck, people will take notice. Poor web presence is like having an ugly front door or store window, you wouldn’t if you ever wanted customers.

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. 🙂

Ironically, my movement would be getting people to stop calculating their worth by the stuff they own, getting people to consume smarter (maybe less or more efficiently). I struggle with this often, we help clients sell more stuff. I live a low-stuff life and it’s very freeing. I value travel and experience over any ‘thing’ I’ve ever owned. I understand there are limits because consumption drives the economy but we are so overstuffed and it doesn’t make us feel any better. It’s as if it helps us avoid the harder thoughts, the questions of life. Anyway, you asked, there’s a meaty answer. I really do struggle with this and often wonder if I should have been a monk or something. Maybe in retirement or in my next life.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Visit our website at pinesd.com or find me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/rajshroff/.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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