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Peter Crosby (00:00):
Welcome to unpacking the digital shelf where we explore brand manufacturing in the digital age.
Hey everyone. Peter Crosby here from the Digital Shelf Institute, from his time aboard submarines in the US Navy to decades of work in retail at Sam's Club Albertsons, and now Rite Aid. Kenji Jovi has spent a lot of time leading in highly pressurized circumstances. It is clear that for brands and retailers to achieve top line and bottom line growth in this uncertain economic era, the ability to collaborate at scale is an indispensable skill. Kenji joined Lauren Levi Gilbert and me to share decades of experience driving collaborative transformation in resource constrained times. Welcome to the podcast, Kenji. Thank you so much for joining us. We're really grateful.
Kenji Gjovig (00:58):
Hey, thanks for having me. I really appreciate it. It's good to talk to you both.
Peter Crosby (01:01):
As I said in the intro, you have spent most of your career in highly pressurized circumstances from a US Navy submarine to US retail in both cases. Thank you for your service.
Kenji Gjovig (01:13):
No, thanks for mentioning that. And it's funny you mentioned highly pressurized because being on a submarine is in fact literally a pressurized steel tube. So I've been actually in that environment.
Peter Crosby (01:23):
I have to say, I realized that and that was my pump
Kenji Gjovig (01:26):
That was well played
Peter Crosby (01:27):
All on my own. We talk a lot at the DSI about the complicated and this better than anybody ever changing state of brand and retailer collaboration, and at least it feels to us, and Lauren, you can correct me if I'm wrong, but some things are starting to shift there in terms of realizing each other's fates are even more tightly intertwined than maybe ever before. And what are your thoughts on that collaboration and how important it is to retail success and especially in the current economic environment that everyone's finding themselves in?
Kenji Gjovig (02:02):
Yeah, that's a great question. I think of collaboration, that's kind of like the first thing. So it's a little bit less of what to do, and I think about it more as how to do it. It's a bit of a framework for an operating model. It's really focusing on cross-functional collaboration, optimizing the relationship, building trust, making sure everyone is operating efficiently. It's really about how to approach the work. That's really why I put collaboration to the forefront of everything I do in my career.
Peter Crosby (02:31):
And so it really isn't so much that brands and retailers have resisted collaboration. It's often sort of as always the people process tech to make that collaboration able to be done efficiently and effectively. And maybe that's a lot of what's been sort of hampering it to now and that might be getting better.
Kenji Gjovig (02:50):
Yeah, I've never felt that people were unwilling to collaborate. I felt that it was more about collaboration wasn't always the focus, and so people just jumped into the details and there were inefficiencies and silos that just developed. And so taking a step back to really implement some principles of collaboration or even a process of collaboration, I think really helps clarify things and people just run with it. So I kind of try to begin with the assumption that people are well-intentioned, and as long as we have a framework for people to operate, then it really optimizes things.
Lauren Livak Gilbert (03:25):
And I feel like the environment we're in has forced a bit some more of the collaboration, which hopefully will just become a standard moving forward because both sides realize that it's needed and it's necessary, and then hopefully we can put the processes in place to be able to make that more sustainable moving forward. So the pressure was a good thing and now it'll hopefully help us
Kenji Gjovig (03:47):
Continue. That's absolutely true. I mean, things are changing super fast and collaboration I think is becoming more and more important. So I've been doing collaboration for a long time and I feel like that's been a good tool to have in the toolbox for a long time.
Lauren Livak Gilbert (04:01):
If we think about brands and the brand perspective, what do you think that they can do better on their side to foster more collaboration just based on your experiences?
Kenji Gjovig (04:12):
Yeah, I think primarily brands should approach partnership with retailers from a thought leadership perspective. So the way I think about it's retailers are kind of the hub of the wheel. Lots of people want to talk to the retailer. When I was at Sam's Club, I got a lot of phone calls or emails. People wanted to talk to me and it was in part because I was the decision maker on the category. And so they wanted to influence my decision making. But the other reason is because they just wanted information. Because if you're a supplier on the outside, you don't necessarily know when the modular is being said or what the process is or who to talk to about this other function or whatever it is. So there's just a lot of people that want to talk to the retailers. So it just becomes very chaotic because there's not always a clear playbook.
So if the retailer doesn't show up with here is how to work with us, then I think it's important for the suppliers to present an option for that. Or at least to say, Hey, Mr. And Mrs. Retailer, here is how we typically go to market. Here's how we plan to do that. So for example, one way is introducing the team. It's like here is your account executive to be really clear. So anything from a sales merchandising perspective, this is your person, here's your shopper marketer, and that person is going to take care of all the needs from a in-store shopper marketing as well as retail media. And they're going to be talking to your retail media team. Here's your replenishment person who's going to do those things. Here's the innovation person who's going to help us with new products, and here's your planning person to make sure that our forecasting is good. Here's how we're approaching the budget and funding, and here's how our team is structured from a cross-functional perspective. So at least providing some clarity to the retailer about who's who and providing kind of a go-to-market I think can be really helpful.
Peter Crosby (05:49):
So you stating that to me, Kenji says you've had a lot of experience where that was not clear to you as a retail, which to me from the outside seems kind of shocking. It would seem like that sort of table stakes, but it sounds like that doesn't always happen.
Kenji Gjovig (06:04):
I think it doesn't always happen, but part of the thing is that retailers, again have so many people that want to talk to them and it's just hard to keep up with people. And so if I have a folder for a supplier, I don't necessarily always know, wait, remind me again, who is the salesperson or the marketing person? Who am I supposed to talk to for here? So sometimes if they just say, just lay it out for you, it's not that they're trying to hide it, it's just that sometimes the volume of information coming at you is just overwhelming a process. And so just having super, super clear, here's an org chart, here's a list, here's one email that's your reference guide for everything you need to know about us.
Lauren Livak Gilbert (06:38):
And I absolutely love that because any retailer I've ever talked to, their biggest pain point is we have no idea how to work inside the brand team. We don't know who to talk to, we don't know where to go. So I think that's such an excellent idea. And I feel like, and let me know if you agree, Kenji, that's something that you could hopefully every joint business plan just be like, Hey, this is a team shift. Or every time someone changes, just kind of update them and have that at the forefront because I think that's a huge barrier to collaboration. It's just like, who do I talk to? What's your structure? How do you work? And so I absolutely love that advice for brands. It just demystifies it so much.
Kenji Gjovig (07:15):
Who's who in the zoo is really one of the biggest starting points. You got to know who you're talking to. One of the Hallmark activities that we did at Sam's Club from a supplier collaboration joint business planning perspective was we would do this, our introductions would take sometimes 30 minutes because in addition, we would pair two people up and they would meet somebody new and they would introduce the other person to the group. And one of the things they would share in addition to name, rank, serial number, all those sort of details was a fun fact about them. And these are things that people are like, oh, I don't have any fun facts about me. Everyone has something fun they can say. I still remember 15 years later, one person I met, her husband was a route driver for Pepsi, and another guy told a story about how he was a high school baseball player and he struck out a guy who was in the major leagues at the time, a really great hitter. And so you remember these things later on years later. So just getting clarity about who's who and understanding what people do is a really important place to start.
Peter Crosby (08:18):
You mean approaching people as human beings? Is that what you're saying?
Kenji Gjovig (08:22):
It's as basic as that. Exactly.
Peter Crosby (08:24):
Wow. So beyond that sort of increase in humanity that you might be seeing, what else do you think is causing the shifts in interest in figuring out those collaborative processes between brands and retailers? What's happening at retail that's kind of putting this on the front burner?
Kenji Gjovig (08:43):
We're at a really interesting time in business, in life, and in retail. Retail is ever changing. I mean, just for example, 15 years ago it was the growth of e-commerce fulfilled from kind of the Amazon model. And then maybe four years ago is when groceries started to take charge and it was omnichannel fulfillment from stores. Customers buy online and they pick it up from stores or deliver it from stores, and all of a sudden, instantaneously, overnight categories in grocery that never care about e-commerce, all of a sudden we're at the forefront. And then maybe over the last year or two, retail media was the biggest thing, which frankly is one of the top three disruptions in the history of marketing, creating incredible complexity from a go-to-market and budgeting perspective and collaboration and such. And even today, the newest thing is of course generative ai, which is one of the most significant disruptions, not just in marketing, but across all of business. So things are changing so rapidly and the scale and the pace of change is just unprecedented in our generations.
Lauren Livak Gilbert (09:46):
So Kenji, what are some ways that you've used collaboration in retail to improve partnership with suppliers and retailers?
Kenji Gjovig (09:54):
So I've been working in some form or fashion and collaboration for a really long time, even from back when I was at Sam's Club, I tried to be very collaborative as a buyer at Sam's Club, and then my next role after that was to run the supplier collaboration program, also called Joint business planning at Sam's. And so we really focused that function on optimizing the relationship. A lot of JBP at the time was the financial JBP and let's align on targets and funding and that sort of thing. And at Sam's Club we said, we have sort of a leading indicator of a problem that we want to fix. We really want to work on the relationship, we want to optimize that to improve trust, improve transparency and collaboration, and that will then flow into those downstream things like planning and funding and things of that nature.
And so we really made some fairly game changing innovations in the industry from that perspective. I then took that program to walmart.com and we had the first ever walmart.com supplier summit where we shared Walmart dot com's, Walmart's e-commerce strategy with the supplier community. And I remember a major supplier coming to me after a meeting, not even the summit, and he said, Kenji, that was the best Walmart meeting we've ever had. And he had been the team lead calling on Walmart for a number of years, and he wasn't just saying walmart.com meeting, he was saying that was the best Walmart meeting we've ever had because they got to learn so much about how to partner with Walmart across different functions and different channels including e-commerce. And so it was pretty game changing at the time at content analytics, we had an e-commerce analytics and content management platform to optimize the digital shelf of brands.
This helped brands really engage with retailers in a different way. They improved the customer experience of their digital shelf. It showed the retailers that they were serious about listening to what the retailers wanted in terms of here's how best to meet our customers. At Albertsons, I led the e-commerce business at Albertson's companies and we did omnichannel JVPs, which really helped suppliers understand how to partner across multiple channels. Retail media became a big part of that to drive more traffic, but also then optimizing the digital shelf. If you're going to pay for ads, you need to make sure that the landing location for those ads is optimized as much as possible. And so they're both elements of that. And even now at Rite Aid, I'm working on the enterprise transformation and collaboration is critical. We're in a very resource constrained environment, and so being very super efficient with our resources so we can focus on the key levers of growth, that's really important. So I've done collaboration in whether it's explicit in my job or implicit in just terms of how I went to market with it. I've been doing this for a long time.
Lauren Livak Gilbert (12:31):
When you talk about the Albertsons joint business planning meetings and you talk about Omni-channel JVPs, I'm curious, I've heard some retailers say that they're thinking about doing separate joint business planning for e-commerce versus in-store, which I just think is fundamentally different than where we need to go, where we need to bring everything together. Where have you seen that shift with joint business planning and do you think that more retailers are kind of bringing it together to have just a holistic joint business planning or are they trying to separate it out?
Kenji Gjovig (13:02):
Well, so I see a lot of both actually. And I think it depends on the stage that the retailer and that business is at. So for example, if it's Walmart, it probably needs to be a fairly omnichannel joint business plan because the e-commerce and digital elements of the business are too closely intertwined with the stores. I mean, for example, a lot of the e-commerce fulfillment is done from the stores. So it's sophisticated, it's rigorous and they need to be partnered together. There are other retailers, for example, when I was at Albertsons, e-commerce was still relatively new, or I should say it was relatively small as a percent basis. And so it was okay for us to focus in some cases just on the e-commerce portion because that was the area that was least understood by suppliers. As the sophistication on the supplier side improves and a better understanding of the working model improves, then it can kind of pivot to be a more omni-channel model. So it depends on the nature and state of the business, but you really have to know exactly what problem you're trying to solve. If you're trying to solve an enterprise problem, it needs to be omni-channel. If you're trying to solve a single channel problem because that's where the pain point is and lack of partnership and collaboration and knowledge, then you really have to deep dive there.
Peter Crosby (14:19):
So it really is very particular to the topic that you're talking about and figuring out what is required. You had mentioned your time at content analytics and the shift that we are seeing, and it's relatively recent, again, keep me honest here, Lauren, but I think really over the last 18 months we are starting to see a shift from to retailers really prioritizing brand supplier content as the most accurate, the content they should be prioritizing almost over actually not almost over any other source that there has been a sort of shift in trust that has happened maybe because of the earlier days in content alys where you're all starting to agree on what good and great is. And once you do and those requirements become more clear, then suppliers can be more responsive with the right content. And have you seen that shift happen over your time all the way back to Sam's and Walmart's to today? Is that something you've noticed as well?
Kenji Gjovig (15:27):
Yeah, for sure. I mean, for example, at walmart.com and even some of the work I did at content analytics with Target, we developed supplier scorecards. And so the retailer, Walmart and Target were using the tools to sort of measure the quality of content on their product pages. And so sending that information out to the supplier community so they would be able to see, wow, I had never realized how poor my customer experience was on my product page. No wonder I'm not getting the sales that I want to because if I landed on that page, would I want to buy? Now, that also depends on the retailer. If you're talking about Honey Nut Cheerios, you don't really have to have fantastic product content. You really need to know what the price is, the size of the box and such. But if you're buying a playground on walmart.com, like a playset, you probably need to have lots and lots of different content and ratings and reviews and things of that nature.
So the nature of the content matters significantly based on the product, the category, the retailer, the sophistication of the ecosystem that you're talking about and how you go to market between a brand and a retailer matters a lot because in some cases there's no vehicle to improve the content. At Albertsons, we kind of launched the first ever ability for a brand to optimize their digital shelf, and I say optimize in air quotes because it was basically just adding, changing an image or making small modifications of the copy. This is not 360 degree spins and that sort of thing. So everyone's at a different stage and therefore that is exactly why collaboration is so important because again, the way I approach it anyway is that it's more about how you do something as opposed to what you do. You can take the same collaborative approach of cross-functional breaking down silos and working together. And even if it's a less sophisticated omni-channel environment, and it's really more focusing on the basics of content, assortment reviews and that sort of thing, or if it's a much more sophisticated ecosystem where you're really focusing on how did the ROAS of this particular ad do, is our landing page optimized? What's the traffic and what's the conversion? The same principles of collaboration apply regardless of the level of sophistication of the retailer and the ecosystem.
Lauren Livak Gilbert (17:37):
And Kenji, I want to go back to one thing you said before, which I absolutely loved, is that when you're running a retail media ad, you need to make sure you're driving it to a product detail page that's built out. Are you seeing more of those connected conversations happening between retail media and digital shelf PDPs? I feel like that is a conversation I'm having a lot more of now, and I feel like the retailers are starting to piece that together with the brands. Have you seen that evolution recently been like top of mind because of the importance of it?
Kenji Gjovig (18:08):
Yeah, for sure. It's been funny because the evolution of the digital shelf and the evolution of retail media kind of happened independently, but now as brands are thinking about it more holistically, they're realizing they are kind of interlinked. My heritage has been more on the digital shelf side of things of looking at product content and scorecarding and things of that nature and tools to help suppliers optimize their content. And so I've really spent a lot of my career thinking about that. But as retail media has grown up, this is where the dollars are at and it's the sexy area, and this is media and agencies are involved and such. And so from a retail perspective, I totally understand why it's a priority. This is highly profitable for the retailer. It's driving incremental traffic to the retailer. But if you operate these things independently and one moves faster than the other, then it's super inefficient.
So if you're going to spend money in a retail media environment to drive more traffic to the retailer, then the customer experience of where that traffic goes needs to be optimized. Hence why you have to have digital shelf be very sophisticated. So regardless of what pace those were evolving at in the past, they're really starting to accelerate now because both are really interchangeable. There's money in one area and there's the customer experience in the other. And so now brands and retailers are both getting serious about both the digital shelf and retail media at the same time,
Peter Crosby (19:26):
Kenji to close out. We talk so much and sometimes I worry it's hard to talk about what to do in this time without paying obvious attention to the economy, to the uncertainty in the world. There's so many things going on that can impact how a consumer is feeling about spending and how companies are able to achieve in this environment both top line and bottom line growth at the same time, but in a moment where we have no idea what's going to happen next week, let alone they're hard put to even give forecasts right now. And so just from all of your exposure, and certainly when you think about the issues of enterprise transformation, omnichannel, all of that, what is your advice or touchstones or things that people ought to be thinking about as they try to manage their way through the next couple of years?
Kenji Gjovig (20:28):
Yeah, it's a great question and I want to sort of reflect on your point about how crazy it is out there. I mean, I feel like we've been on the cusp of a recession for 18 months. It's like, yo, there's a recession around the corner and we keep staving it off, but I'm still not sure that it's ever going to disappear. I think there's so many mixed economic signals. I feel like it seems every company, whether you're small venture-backed, high growth startup, or you're a major public company, efficiency is really the key thing that you're focusing on meta's year of efficiency and the push for venture-backed startups to extend their runway out. So there's no more free money to throw at the problem. So you have to be really efficient. So I think in this environment, brands and retailers really need to buckle down and focus on the key value drivers of their business, whatever they are.
And again, that's why I kind of think about collaboration is more of a framework of how to go to market and it's less about what to do in all the chaos. It's like, oh my gosh, what do we do? It's like, well, let's take a step back. Let's first work together. Let's get in a room and let's brainstorm. Let's whiteboard. Let's figure out what problem are we trying to solve and what are the solutions for that? So I think it's important to operate with a collaborative mindset because it accomplishes a couple things. One is it avoids duplication and inefficiency, and in general it also leads to much better outcomes. It makes companies better. And I think in this market, not just in business and the economy, but in this retail market that we're in with changes in retail media and AI and content on the product page, influencer content, retail media ads, the ever-growing complexity of this industry, collaboration is absolutely key. I really believe that everyone is going to get better because they have to are going to be left behind if they don't. So it is necessity is the mother of invention. I think it's important for brands and retailers to learn partner test, share learnings, collaborate, iterate. That's the only way we're going to figure it out is if we figure it out together.
Peter Crosby (22:31):
I want to put some soundtrack music behind that in your close, inspiring in a moment of what can be very daunting. And it can cause companies, people, it can cause human beings to go into a crouch to just, I'm just going to cover my head for a while and hope that this goes away. But I think what I'm hearing from you, and tell me if this wrong is you have to drive through this and with as much help and as much sharing of knowledge and everything as possible, if we're all going to sort of make it to the other side of this, because I'm knocking wood here, we always do make it to the other side. This is cyclical. You look back and it always feels worse in the moment, but that we know how to get through these things and these things. It's if you can take some of the uncertainty out of it, fascinating opportunities coming from things like AI and others that will be frankly kind of fun to figure out if we can get out of the crouch. I dunno, does that make any sense? What I just
Kenji Gjovig (23:34):
About it totally does. I mean, I think the dirty little secret about Kenji is that in basically every job I've ever had, I had new responsibility. And so day one, it was always a bit daunting of I don't actually know what to do, but I always knew how to do it. Whatever I was going to do, I was going to do it collaboratively. I was going to interview some people, some stakeholders to get to know them and understand what their interests were and their objectives. How can we work together, fish where the fish are, as we used to say at Walmart. So is this a function that's going to help me accomplish my objectives? Can I help them and such? So I think it's in a time of uncertainty and limited resources. The only way to be successful is to really collaborate because that's when you can figure out if we don't know the answer, we don't have an unlimited budget to go and throw money at every single thing. We have to be very choiceful in what we do. The best way to do that is to hunker down together, sort of get in the foxhole and figure it out together and collaborate. So that's definitely what I believe in.
Peter Crosby (24:36):
I love that reminds me, my least favorite day of a semester in college was always the day we got all the syllabi, the sabas that would lay out, holy crap, this is all the stuff I need to read and understand over the next several months and every day in every way
Kenji Gjovig (24:55):
We make progress. Well, I continue, my terrible analogy of everything that I say is about collaboration. What I would do after getting all the syllabi, nice grammar on the plurality of that's great, thank you, is to partner with other people, get in study groups and sort of just take it one bite at a time. So even in study groups, when I was in business school, I was like, I had to rely on other people to help me through some of these things, corporate finance and whatever. So yeah, I think collaboration can be used in any form.
Peter Crosby (25:23):
Well, Kenji, thank you so much for being part of our community, sort of bringing knowledge. We really appreciate you joining us. I know if anyone wants to reach out to Kenji, he's quite active on LinkedIn. His email address is on his LinkedIn profile, so that's probably the best place to go to get some Kenji knowledge.
Kenji Gjovig (25:45):
Yeah, absolutely. No, thanks so much, Peter. I appreciate it. And Lauren, you too. It was great seeing you both. So thank you for your time. Appreciate it.
Lauren Livak Gilbert (25:51):
Thank you, Kenji.
Peter Crosby (25:52):
Thanks again to Kenji for sharing his wisdom and experience. There's more where that came from. At digital shelf institute.org. Swing on over and become a member. Thanks for being part of our community.