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The Innovation Table | Kiran Kumar: The Power of the Customer POV

By May 25, 2023February 8th, 2024No Comments
The Innovation Table | Kiran Kumar: The Power of the Customer POV
The Innovation Table | Kiran Kumar: The Power of the Customer POV

Kiran Kumar has held senior leadership roles in retail and technology over the past 15+ years.  He currently leads customer-facing functions at World Market as the VP of Loyalty, Analytics, Insights, and Customer Experience. In past leadership roles at Albertsons Companies and Petco, Kiran developed deep expertise in Loyalty Programs, Ecommerce, 1-1 Personalization, and the Digital User Experience. He also spent several years at Safeway Inc. as a Director of Finance and Analytics, supporting multi-billion $ P&Ls for complex retail businesses. Prior to retail, he held Engineering and Program Management roles supporting large enterprise clients like Sony Corp. and Cisco Systems. Kiran holds an MBA from the Haas School of Business at Berkeley, an MSEE from the University of Texas at Austin, and a B.Tech from the Indian Institute of Technology at Chennai.

Edris Bemanian: You’ve led marketing and product teams across many different retailers. What drew you to World Market?

Kiran Kumar: World Market has passionate customers that truly love our products and the experience they get in our stores. We’ve been nationally recognized for our customer experience. Customers say that we deliver a unique shopping experience of joyful exploration with many moments of personal connection. This resonance with our customer base is the reason I joined World Market and it’s something I get to experience constantly.

EB: What’s your favorite World Market product?

KK: I love our specialty food selection. In particular, we have bronze-cut pasta from original Italian brands that you don’t see at other grocery stores.

EB: You’ve also led innovation teams across Grocery, Pet, and Specialty/Import categories. What are the biggest differences between each of these formats from a pricing or merchandising perspective?

KK: Comparing different retail verticals is a difficult proposition. All the sub-categories within a given vertical have their own pricing dynamics, assortment attributes, promo strategy, operations, and vendor dynamics to think about.

Grocery and pet have similar ecosystems but they’re both very different from a pure-play specialty player like World Market; we don’t have nearly as many direct mainstream comparables for prices and product SKUs, and we don’t have the same kind of “services” components that you have in grocery and pet.

EB: So less complex to manage, but then puts more emphasis on creating a positive customer. Thanks for sharing. Switching gears, you’ve put together a really impressive career and reputation in the industry. What has kept you in the retail space for so long?

KK: Retail has been a very mentally engaging and multi-dimensional experience for me. Retail businesses are low-margin by design and cannot afford to overinvest in R&D, technology, and labor to solve problems, so the industry is remarkably decision-intensive.

It’s not uncommon for retail leaders to have hundreds of millions of revenue oversight with the need to solve pricing, product selection, store and online execution, marketing, and technology challenges across hundreds of SKUs and thousands of stores – all on a daily basis. I love an environment where no two days are alike, where I have to contend with unknowns and solve problems on the fly.

EB: How have you seen retail loyalty programs evolve over the years?

KK: Retail loyalty used to mean simple membership IDs. There was very little value returned to the customer. In recent years, that’s changed quite dramatically. Programs are now personalizing pricing, offers, and experiences, and good programs feature things like 3rd party partnerships, strong omnichannel and digital elements, benefit tiers, and subscription programs.

Customers are also much savvier in how they evaluate programs across the landscape, so programs that don’t meaningfully differentiate or are built on top of a poor product assortment or pricing strategy inevitably fail or hit a plateau in performance.

EB: What are the must-haves for a strong loyalty program?

 KK: Before you invest in building out a great loyalty program, you need to make sure the foundational retail strategy is working. Loyalty programs cannot salvage poor product-market fit.

After that, I think a loyalty program should focus on the thoughtful use of customer data in a privacy-compliant way. User experience is critical to ensure ‘earn’ and ‘burn’ components are frictionless. In a world where everything seems transactional, it is critical for loyalty programs to elevate emotion and experience in the customer journey. Moments of joy and connection matter and make the customer feel valued in ways that a discount does not.

EB: How have retailers’ personalization capabilities evolved over the last 10 years?

KK: This is a bit of a mixed bag. Retailer personalization, on the whole, is more advanced than where it was 10 years ago. But now we have the challenge of cookie-cutter personalization on websites/apps and email. The online shopping experience does recognize customer transaction history and brings in signals from similar shoppers but personalization capability is a commodity that every retailer now replicates with little variation. Store experiences continue to be mostly impersonal & non-personalized.

EB: What are some of your proudest accomplishments in terms of innovation across your different roles?

KK: My team launched one of the very first omnichannel personalized pricing and promotion programs at scale in retail in the US. This program continues to thrive at Albertsons companies banners and has been emulated across the grocery landscape.

I’ve also launched store clustering and customer segmentation efforts across various roles that have made a multi-billion dollar impact and have been foundational to every aspect of retail operations (pricing, assortment, store operations).

My teams have also re-designed and launched mobile apps at 10-plus retail banners and improved the legacy app store ratings from 2 stars to 4.7 stars.

EB: What is the secret to driving successful change management?

KK: The process of change management has been outlined quite well in the literature. There are certain basic steps like preparing the organization, building a plan, etcetera.

I’d say the secret to making it work though is the commitment from leaders. You need leaders who provide sustained financial, logistical, and emotional support through adversity. Many of these efforts are multi-year projects, and you need your organization to stay focused through budgetary issues, staff turnover, shifting priorities, and periodic operational crises.

EB: Could you tell us about one or two of the most challenging learning experiences, assignments, or projects you’ve encountered in your retail career?

KK: In a past role, I spent an extended amount of time developing and sharing pricing and product assortment strategies for hundreds of categories. As it turns out, implementing a strategy with deep category impact requires organizational alignment and adjustment of financial plans at all levels. It wasn’t enough to point out obvious gaps in pricing, product selection, and positioning. The needle only moved in categories where we got organizational alignment. Elsewhere, the implementation was appreciably slower.

EB: If you were the CEO of a large brand or manufacturer in today’s landscape, what would you focus on?

KK: My main priority would be to ensure the leaders around me have the right attitude and qualifications to work as a high-performing team focused on long-term objectives. Strong leadership sets the culture and standards across the organization.

EB: Which companies are you really impressed with and why? Which retailer? Which manufacturers?

KK: On the retail side, H.E.B has grown its market share through its focus on local assortments, competitive pricing, and excellent customer service. Sephora has an industry-leading loyalty program that has created a strong emotional bond with its customers. Petco has taken a principled stand on sustainable products and holistic pet care that is unique in the sector.

EB: What trends are you most focused on in retail, broadly?

KK: Inflation, consumer confidence, and personal savings trends are a concern and mandate that retailers demonstrate the value of their products and services to drive conversion. Customer data privacy and information security considerations are paramount and impact every area of the business.

The growth in eCommerce continues but is tempered by rising costs of customer acquisition and operation. Physical stores are making a comeback for a variety of reasons but the ‘omni’ experience is here to stay.

EB: How important is competitive intelligence and how have you seen it evolve over your career?

KK: Competitive intelligence is one of several inputs into decision-making. Strong leadership teams avoid being swayed by short-term tactical moves at the competition, but there is value in surveying select competitors for opportunities that have been missed internally. Competitive sales trends allow a company to separate macro factors from company-specific execution. Customers shop widely and their standards are often set by best-in-class competitors which makes competitive intelligence a valuable tool.

EB: What are some of the important trends you’re seeing in competitive pricing data collection?

KK: Simple price comparisons aren’t nearly enough. The ability to view prices through the POV of a customer or segment will be valuable i.e. factoring in shopping context, SKU comparables, channel convenience, shipping/service fees, subscriptions, product bundling, and loyalty rewards. Given the complexity and subjectivity of this exercise, this may not be a trend yet, but this is where the data collection needs to go.

EB: What advice do you have for your peers in the industry who are building a pricing analytics capability in their organization?

KK: Develop a holistic understanding of customer decision-making through internal transaction data and quantitative/qualitative research first. This should give the team a view that is not limited to the 4 walls of the retailer. As pricing models are built, there should be a focus on testing and validation tools at a smaller scale before any large-scale rollout.

EB: What role do you see for Price Image or price perception in a retailer’s pricing strategy?

KK: As I’d mentioned earlier, pricing decisions need to account for the POV of the customer to be truly valuable. In the absence of that insight being available, pricing decisions may needlessly sacrifice profitability or long-term customer engagement.

EB: What advice do you have for someone interested in exploring fields in retail innovation as a career?

KK: Retail innovation requires deep data and technology expertise—the ability to process millions of transactions while accounting for the context. It also requires a deep understanding of the ‘art of the possible’—what the organization can realistically do given budgets, other resources, infrastructure, and so on.

The latter skillset is much harder to acquire in many ways since there are no structured resources or tools like we have in the data and technology fields. I’d advise people to have an end-to-end view of their work. If you’re building an ML model, do you know who the customer is and why they want it? Also, how will it be implemented and what is the projected impact and what are the operational challenges in the field?

EB: What do you recommend that people who want to accelerate their careers do?

KK: This depends on what “accelerate” means to a person. Many people are quite content becoming subject matter experts and this requires patience, dedication, and a focus on constant upgrading of skills. Others want roles of increasing scope and responsibility. This requires a solid balance of hard and soft skills and the ability to be a jack of all trades while being able to separate signal from noise.

EB: What books are you reading?

KK: I’m currently catching up on Stoicism as a philosophy for living, reading several books and exploring content online. I also do a lot of general wellness research. I like the Huberman Lab podcast.

EB: Favorite life motto or quote?

KK: “The goal is not to add years to your life but life to your years.”

EB: What’s your favorite dish?

KK: BBQ duck and wonton noodle soup from a  great restaurant in Dublin California that serves Hong Kong cuisine.

EB: What roles are open at World Market?

KK: We’re looking for a lot of people to join our in-store and corporate office teams. Open roles are posted on LinkedIn and other prominent job boards.

EB: Kiran, thanks for your time!

KK: My pleasure.