Albertsons Companies’ Valerie Wilson talks automation and optimization of store mapping and assortment

New technology makes possible what legacy systems simply cannot.

Interview by Symphony RetailAI’s Paul Hoffman. Valerie Wilson talked about why accurate electronic store maps are the critical basis for macro and micro space optimization at Xcelerate Retail Forum 2019.

What must grocery retailers consider in merchandising today?

There’s no doubt that today’s shoppers’ attention and share of wallet is highly split by different brick and mortar retailers, and all of the eComm opportunities continue to make it even a more complex game. With all of the variety that different online retailers can offer when the shopper gets to the brick and mortar stores, the expectations are different – they simply expect more. Variety has always been important, but more important than ever, our assortment must reflect what local shoppers want and reflect the demographics of all who shop in those stores. Now, we’re never going to be able to have the variety on the shelf that our competitors can offer, but we do have to do a better job with being local or we’ll just basically shove people over to the eComm world, which is even more highly competitive than the brick and mortar world.

This gets into my area, how to systemically select and maintain a locally relevant assortment for our stores to meet the increasing expectations of customers while remaining operationally efficient. So, shopper needs and their fragmentation is a fact. They want what they want and fast. This has most definitely changed how we approach assortment. We need to focus on using data to be smarter about selecting relevant variety for every store location.

How is Albertsons creating experiences for customers?

This is a bit broader than my area of focus, but if you were to walk into two of our new flagship stores in Boise and Meridian, Idaho, two new concept stores, you would see right away that it’s about the experience. First off, they both have bar/restaurants in them, they have meeting rooms for community events. They do floral classes during the day, cooking classes…really focused on serving as a place to bring the community together. Even if you’re just going in to get milk and bread, you still get some of the experience. We bring bands in to create destination events in store, it’s well beyond “groceries,” it crosses over into home fashion and culinary trends and more. You’re getting a full visual, sensory experience, well beyond just picking up a few groceries.

Community space in retail stores makes perfect sense.

Indeed, for example, in the Boise Broadway store recently, I saw a men’s group using the community space. They bought wine and a few appetizers downstairs and brought it upstairs to the community dining space for their meeting. The store is definitely ever evolving and become more integral in the lives of the community.

What technologies are key to meeting your merchandising goals?

Yes, so the intersection is what we do in space planning – and actually the work we’re doing with Symphony RetailAI right now – is that you take your shopper demand of wanting local, and more specifics based on demographics, and then you take a chain like Albertsons companies that has 2300 stores, and you try to accomplish that. The complexities that ensue are mind boggling. Even if you narrow it to being able to keep track of what assortment you have in what store, to be able to communicate what that is to downstream systems, procurement systems, whatever system, and being able to keep up with the schematic generation and demand in order to know what goes where, it’s just mind blowing when you consider legacy approaches. If you had to do one schematic for every version of assortment, for every stocking section in the store, to make it local and relevant for that store, you would go out of business because of resource demands, let alone never have any idea what was where. To make the idea of local assortment, differentiated assortment at the store level a reality that can be managed, you absolutely have to invest in automation.

In order to do that and be economically responsible, optimization is right behind automation. We have had these technologies for a while but we’re looking at doing the next generation of technologies that allows us to quickly pick the right assortment, based on those differences by store, to be able to automate the schematic generation, so that we’re not doing them one by one. And that is not only just one time, but systemically maintained. Everyone likes to talk about the fun assortment optimization pieces, and there’s an immediate ROI. Everyone understands that, and they understand schematics. What they may not understand is that the core to all of that is the store map that holds that schematic, and the automation of being able to apply store specific assortments and schematics to that map at all times, which creates a set of master data that allows all your downstream systems to know the item store relationship at any point in time. This is not simple to build or maintain, but critical today because stores ten miles apart may have ten percent different variety. But in that ten percent, all it takes is one item being different in each schematic to cause a problem.

Please summarize what you presented at Xcelerate 2019 in Dallas.

We’re implementing Symphony RetailAI Store Plan HQ right now. We’ve had store mapping for 15 years or so, we’re just upgrading to the Symphony RetailAI platform. Store mapping is critical, because the data that comes from knowing precisely what item is in what stores from the schematics attached to the map is fed to every system. Many downstream cross functions now use that, everything from eComm for their picking to our loyalty program, so when we put out a loyalty offer, we don’t put out an offer for our new product that isn’t in a specific store or stores.

That data is used all over – procurement, perpetual inventory, the supply chain systems use it, display planning, loyalty programs. Who knew that the basic space schematics and electronic mapping are now the center of supporting and driving localization? We used to have one answer, one planogram for a category by set size at a division level, everybody that wanted barbecue sauce had the same barbecue sauce, it wasn’t so hard to keep track of. That’s not the way it is any more.

What’s something that most people wouldn’t know about you?

I’m huge women’s college basketball fan, specifically the Oregon Ducks! I also played basketball in college. I love sports. My Columbia Women’s Basketball Team was just inducted into the Columbia Athletic Hall of Fame last October. It was phenomenal to reunite with old team members and coaches in New York City.

Learn more about Symphony RetailAI’s Xcelerate Retail Forum.

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