D!gitalist / Retailers: Is your board digitally savvy?

Digital technology can offer rich rewards for your board. Artificial intelligence, Big Data, virtual reality, cybersecurity, drone delivery, marketing automation, the Internet of Things… all of these are shifting, intersecting, and liberating retail in unforeseen ways, and directors with vitae in these fields can spark your board.

The traditional board role (and talent lineup) focused on a forensic, backward-looking approach, reviewing the past quarter’s financials, sales per square foot, and so on. Directors today need to be forward-looking – where is our market headed, what new metrics predict future success, what do we need to demolish and rebuild before a competitor does? As an added benefit, recruiting such board talents will shake up board age and diversity concerns.

Such fresh eyes in the boardroom will introduce new languages and concepts of success that retail today must add to its vocabulary. What is your brand’s Klout influencer score? Its social sentiment score? How do you measure your stores’ engagement with your highest-value customers (20% of these deliver 80% of revenues)? How do you rank under various search engines and retail review sites, and how effectively do you measure online placements and SEO results? It takes boardroom digital IQ just to know which questions to ask.

Next, get your board members (and top managers) out of the office as secret shoppers. Any retailer that doesn’t expect its leadership team to regularly “eat its own dog food” is aiming toward failure. It amazes me how many CEOs never call their own company’s call center or try to use their own online ordering system. Assurances that your customers can move seamlessly between PC, tablet, and mobile platforms mean nothing unless you personally try it. If the shopping and order function is clumsy, demands too much time and effort, asks too many questions… and then kicks you off at the checkout stage, most top execs and boards will never know.

This is another area where adding board talent with omnichannel retailing skill is so valuable. Your marketing people had better not tell the board how terrific your online presence is if there is a seasoned tech person in the boardroom who’s tried it and knows it’s kludgy. Engaged board members should be supportive of the leadership team in making this new reality happen. They bring an unconflicted “inside/outside” perspective that’s worth its weight in objective gold – and when the board speaks, everyone has to listen.

Bringing board talent to your retail evolution is vital today given the stakes involved. Retail bankruptcies are surging, with 20 major chains (including The Limited and Toys R Us) on the rocks this year alone. In the early 1990’s, business guru Jim Collins wrote that approximately 40% of the top companies would be gone in 20 years. Now, I’d say at least half will be gone in 10 years or less.

Your retail company can make the cut – but you may have to completely rethink its locations, brand, market segments, price points, product lines, even its very physical presence. But that’s just the sort of top-level, scary strategic discussion a good board of directors should deliver.

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