websights Skip to main content
Industry Insights

The Innovation Table | Scott McNeely, MBA on The Sociology of Competitive Intelligence and Navigating the Pricing Landscape

By November 16, 2023December 19th, 2023No Comments
Innovation Table
The Innovation Table

Scott boasts 20+ years of experience working with large retailers across a number of well-known retailers in the US. He’s led pricing, merchandising, analytics, and operations for PetSmart, The Children’s Place, Whole Foods Market, Walgreens, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Giant Eagle (where he currently serves as the Vice President of Merchandising Planning, Analytics, and Operations).

Scott received his MBA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and his BA in Global Business from Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business. Scott also received his Foundational Leadership Program Certification from the Stagen Leadership Academy.

Edris Bemanian: Scott, always great to talk to you. You’ve led merchandising operations, analytics, and pricing across many different retailers. What drew you to Giant Eagle specifically?

Scott McNeely: Thanks, Edris. A combination of things brought me to Giant Eagle. You and I have known each other for a long time, so you know that generally, I find the grocery space very interesting as a starting point. Regarding Giant Eagle, I was introduced to the company by someone who I had previously worked with. I had really enjoyed working with them.

Then, as I got to know the business after a little bit of work, I also realized this role was very exciting from an analytics perspective. We have a depth of data that doesn’t exist in specialty retail due to our loyalty platform. In addition, Giant Eagle has such a great legacy and a great team and lots of opportunity in front of it.

EB: And wouldn’t you say that Giant Eagle has tremendous brand loyalty within its communities? 

SM: It has an incredible amount of loyalty. When I was considering joining Giant Eagle, the loyalty, the shopper, and the frequency of purchase amongst our top-tier of customers stood out. It’s an incredible amount of loyalty and you know with that there’s stability in the brand and the company. There’s a wealth of information that you can learn from to help improve the experience of customers in the future.

EB: One thing that also really intrigued me from one of our other conversations was your commentary about how knowledgeable different folks in your organization are about the customer demographics and preferences at a hyper-granular level.

SM: Absolutely.

EB: And how localized their insights are. I assume that’s unique to Giant Eagle, right?

SM: You know, it’s an interesting kind of nuance. This is my first time working for an organization that would be classified as a regional company. And when it was introduced to me it was really an interesting angle where a lot of national and international companies understand their customers analytically, but not contextually. Giant Eagle has a deep understanding of each of the markets that we serve. When we talk about being connected to the community, it’s genuine. And so, there’s a depth to the conversation that has been unlike any other experience so far in my career.

EB: That’s awesome. And how do you describe the culture that the leadership team is building at Giant Eagle?

SM: It’s this expectation, like a high degree of accountability and competency, but with a willingness to partner to solve problems with the expectation of agility. And as you know, it’s highly collaborative. There’s actually a great reputation of collaboration because people are expected to treat each other well and to work together to solve problems. And so, when you put that together with a high degree of accountability and competency in the work that we all need to accomplish, that’s how I would describe the culture at Giant Eagle.

EB: And is there an emphasis on family as well at Giant Eagle, given the long family history?

SM: For sure. Yeah, and they mean it. It’s a family-built organization. And while our current CEO is not a member of our founding families, he still refers to the team as his family and it’s not just marketing or corporate communication talking points. It’s as if he knows everyone. He knows their families. He knows their experiences. And there’s genuine interest in pulling people into that family, you know? So yeah, I think it’s a reflection of the way that the company started and despite it becoming bigger, like significantly bigger even over the last decade or so, the family part has been held on to. And there are many members of the family that are active in the business today, too. And I think that helps reinforce that culture.

EB: Giant Eagle was the 36 largest Food Retailer in North America according to “The PG 100”. The fact that the company is as large as it is and yet has the family culture and values is really unique, I think.

SM: Yeah, completely. Completely right. You would expect that that becomes harder to balance because the company becomes larger, you know, but it’s very much a part of how the team behaves and has become the expectation. It makes it possible for people to fit the other expectations of the culture, like working well together, treating each other with respect, collaborating and solving problems of every kind.

EB: It’s interesting because from a tech company perspective, you begin when you’re a small start-up talking about the team as a family. Then you hit a certain point where you have to evolve to talking about yourselves as a competitive sports team instead. And since we’re talking about tech companies, you typically see that jump happen very quickly. So, again, looking back at Giant Eagle’s scale and trajectory, it’s very impressive to hear everything you just shared.

SM: Agreed. It’s something that makes me enjoy my work here, even more than I would have even expected.

EB: You’ve led pricing and merchandising across a number of different formats. It’s actually really cool when you look back on your history to see all the different retailers you’ve held leadership roles with. What are the biggest differences between the formats from a pricing and merchandising perspective?

SM: You know, in some of these other formats, you don’t get the same sort of loyalty as we do. That data provides a lot of depth in context. The occasions might be less consistent in other formats and so you just understand your customers less and it’s more of a challenge to meet them where they want to be met. Especially at a company like Bed Bath & Beyond, where you might have the purchase frequency be once or twice a year. You just don’t understand the shopper’s interests as well as we do in grocery. I think that’s one of the biggest differences to me.

Otherwise, the competition is the next biggest thing, which is obviously where your company, Engage3, comes in. Grocery is such a hyper-competitive space, but it doesn’t have the same constraints that home and pet do. As you know better than most, the home and pet spaces have shifted dramatically online and that’s not necessarily the story of grocery. There are lots of new channels and new opportunities to engage with grocery through other companies, but grocery still has a heavy brick and mortar store experiential tilt towards it that isn’t as common now in some other spaces.

EB: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.I think the purchase frequency and how that unlocks more granularity and predictability is a great call-out. A lot of people who go into drug stores as a format, typically stay in drug. Those who go in grocery, typically stay in grocery. So, you’ve actually been able to be involved in both those verticals. What are the biggest differences between those two?

SM: You know, I think the primary driver is the difference. It’s interesting on the retail side of a drug company, like Walgreens, where a lot of times the driver for the shopper is either a prescription or a pharmacy visit or an illness-driven occasion. And in some cases, it’s convenience. In grocery—and this is the part that I genuinely enjoy—it’s the passion for food and solving daily needs. It’s a different set of considerations for consumers. They’re looking for a good experience but they’re also looking for strong value. It’s a more intentional purchase and less of a convenience or occasion-driven purchase.

So, I think that those things lead to differences in how you want to serve your customer. We have a convenience part of our business and it’s a quick, narrow assortment. You know, promotionally relevant. It’s just quick, quick decision making. Whereas in grocery, it’s loaded with strategic opportunities to put the right solution in front of the customer. To introduce them to new products, to focus on innovation, to help solve new problems. The depth of engagement is just different.

EB: You’ve also got like the CVS Health Initiatives that go to try to take advantage of the fact that you show up there for the prescriptions too. Do you see health becoming an increasingly big driver in a grocery context?

SM: Yeah, you know it’s interesting that you say that. Our new supermarket President is also the head of our health and pharmacy business. And if you ask him—and he says this publicly—he talks about how food is a primary input into your health. The choices that we make with what we eat are just as important as the medicines that we take and sometimes can prevent the need for those medicines.

The connection between how customers are looking to solve health-related needs, whether it’s dietary restrictions and just becoming more aware of the attributes of the products that they’re eating or helping aid the choices of what’s healthy, or what’s fresh, or what’s local. I think people see all of those things as considerations as to how to take the best care of their health and their family’s health.

EB: I love that.On that note, we’ll be presenting at the “Food is Health” conference hosted at the University of California at Davis by the Innovation Institute for Food and Health. I look forward to telling you more about what we learn at the event.

SM: That sounds great, I look forward to hearing about it!This is a big focus area for us. We are committed to understanding how we better connect health solutions for our customers.

EB: I’ve spoken with so many different people that have worked with and for you and have only ever had positive things to say about your leadership, so you have a fantastic reputation in the industry. But what has kept your focus on merchandising?

SM: You know, my career didn’t start in the space of merchandising. I started more in the operational side and then real estate and procurement—like indirect spend, those types of things. I actually would say first and foremost that I enjoy working in retail…and I didn’t expect that! That’s not what I went to college for; it’s not what I studied. It wasn’t the career that I intended, but it has such an interesting mix of problems to solve, you know, and it’s a fast-paced environment with lots of change and growth. And those things keep me intellectually curious about how to keep the work moving forward.

Specific to merchandising and analytics and pricing, I feel like it’s the closest that I’ve been to directly helping solve problems that face the customer. How do you optimize the proposition of value to the customer? How do you make sure you’re putting products in each of our stores that they want to buy? The strategies associated with that to me are complicated, they’re analytics-led, but they also translate into real-time feedback. You make changes to a promotional strategy or to a pricing strategy or to an assortment strategy or how you lay out a space or allocate a store. Across all of those things, you immediately learn from the customers if you made the right choices or not. You take that feedback through direct, qualitative feedback or transaction-based feedback and you make adjustments to your models to learn how to do that work better and better over time. And that perpetual solving of those problems, that’s what keeps me interested in this work.

EB: You described psychology, economics, math, and art. It’s such an interesting blend.

SM: It really is. It’s interesting that you said it that way.

EB: Because you studied Sociology!

Competitive intelligence

SM: Yes exactly, but not this in particular. These things I find genuinely intellectually interesting. I like working with intelligent people to solve complex problems.

EB: On that note, if you think back to your sociology studies, do you see overlap between that and what you find yourself doing on any particular given day?

SM: You know, Ed—and I won’t go too far down a tangent—but when people ask me how my education does tie into my work, it’s actually the sociology focus that I reference the most. And that’s because it’s about leading a team of people who do this sort of work and the way they work together to cultivate a culture where they leverage their strengths as part of a community of people who are working towards shared goals. It’s about understanding how to get the most out of a group of people by cultivating a strong culture around them. To me, that’s the part that matters the most since I’m rarely the person solving the problem. Usually, I have well over 100 people on this team and they’re smarter than I am. My job is about helping them understand what we’re trying to accomplish and how to best work together to accomplish it. That’s where the sociology comes in. How do you engage people and get them committed enough to want to solve the problem?

EB: (Laughs) I have a similar story. So, at UC Davis, I studied Economics and Environmental Policy Analysis and Planning as two different degrees. People often just assume that it’s purely the economics degree that’s more relevant to what I do today, but within the environmental policy program, most of the work and focus was around group work and collaboration. I mean, yeah, I did take environmental engineering and I took, you know, physics, calculus, econometrics, and chemistry and all these other classes, but what was most relevant to what I do today—and at the time I did not appreciate it—was how much group work we did. It was all group projects and group collaborations and at the time, I thought ‘What is this, high school?’ But in hindsight, it was the most relevant way of getting the experience of figuring out how to work across all kinds of different stakeholders, pushing through barriers to get hard things done.

SM: That sounds very similar, actually. You know, any success I will have in my career will not be based on my own ability to solve problems. I’m a hard worker and I care a lot about what I do, but I’m not going to be the smartest person in the room. But I do feel proud of the ability to connect people and motivate them to solve problems together. It really is the sociology piece that I reference the most. Economics was super important too, of course, along with general business acumen and how finance and accounting all work together in a place like the retail business. But the sociology piece has been key.

EB: Since we talked about university courses and degrees earlier, what advice do you have for someone interested in exploring pricing as a career?

SM: My advice is that in order to be successful with pricing, it’s not just the analytical models and the technology, it’s a genuine interest in how people react to price and how they think about value and how they’re positioned in the market and your connection to the broader business strategy that allows your pricing work to become meaningful. The thing I find most interesting about pricing – the thing that people I think need to have to be long-term successful in space – is to recognize that pricing fits within a framework of bigger strategic outcomes and bigger strategic purpose. It’s customer facing and having an interest in how that’s perceived. Not just in the financials but in the contexts of your company. You have to have that interest to make that a long-term career.

EB: And how about to those already in the field that want to accelerate their careers?

SM: Be intellectually curious about the customer, your business, and your competitors.  Focus on building strong partnerships across critical stakeholder groups in merchandising, finance, and data.  Add value contextually, not just analytically when possible.  Pricing analytics and strategy work runs the risk of feeling too analytical and not approachable.  When your stakeholders don’t understand the analysis, they will feel compelled to not use it.  Do a rotation through similar roles to broaden your perspective.

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

SM: My approach to successful change management is rooted in an understanding of the nuances between sharing a vision and enacting meaningful change. I firmly believe that traversing from our current reality to a more aspirational future requires a delicate balance and a clear sense of direction.

While articulating a compelling vision is pivotal, I recognize the importance of translating that vision into actionable steps. This involves identifying what must be changed as a non-negotiable, while also fostering an inclusive atmosphere where consensus guides our collective next steps.

Acknowledging the challenges of the change curve, I embrace it as an inevitable part of the journey. I wholeheartedly accept my role in shepherding our team through its various phases. I take ownership of nurturing an environment that acknowledges the natural human reactions to change, ultimately steering us towards acceptance and growth on the other side.

My secret to driving successful change management isn’t just about sharing a vision; it’s about acknowledging the complexities, fostering collaboration, and taking responsibility for leading our team through the change curve.

EB: Could you tell us about one or two of your most challenging learning experiences, assignments, projects, etc. while working in retail?

SM: I’ve been fortunate enough to work on many challenging projects in my career so far.  The challenges have ranged from deeply intellectual problem solving to learning how to be more resilient as direction changes quickly around an initiative.  One of the examples that stands out is a significant price investment plan at one of the previous companies that I worked for, where we needed to improve our value perception to grow the base of shoppers and to increase the types of missions that customers would consider satisfying within their stores.  It was challenging because it required an incredible amount of collaboration and alignment across functions like marketing, finance, operations, and merchandising in addition to the change management required to create clarity around the expectations of such a large investment on our performance.  It required me to use all parts of my brain and various leadership skills along the way.  There are many other challenging and rewarding projects I’ve worked on over the years like major re-branding and remodeling programs, major acquisitions and store integrations, major reorganizations of teams, and so many other experiences.

EB: What would you do if you were the CEO of a large manufacturer/brand today given everything that’s going on around us? 

SM: I would focus on strengthening the overall value proposition of the products produced.  Shoppers are becoming more and more aware of the attributes of the products they buy and are actively making decisions about balancing quality and value.  The impact of COVID-related economic policies and inflation are amplifying everyone’s focus on getting a good value for each dollar spent.  The continued shift to value oriented retailers and to private label brands are continued signals of the evolution of how consumers think about value.  To win, the balance between quality and price needs to be a primary strategic focus. 

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

SM: There is a lot to be excited about in the retail space where we are seeing meaningful advances in deploying true omni strategies that make it easy to engage and transact.  There is also a lot of evolution around loyalty programs and overall customer to retailer engagement.  I think two of the companies that I’ve previously worked for are great examples, Walgreens has introduced a customer friendly digital order and quick delivery program which is ideal for convenience and health related needs, and PetSmart’s Treats loyalty program is one of the best in the industry from my perspective. 

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

SM: Given my responsibilities, I pay a lot of attention to the various tactics that retailers deploy around pricing, promotion, assortment management, shelf labels, and space allocation.  There are interesting trends emerging across each of these topics.  Omni-channel engagement across all touchpoints is becoming more common by putting more information in shoppers’ hands in a transparent and value-oriented way.  Personalization is becoming a way to drive deeper engagement, loyalty, and value.  Stores continue to contract in size, generally, as transactions are redistributed across channels based on how consumers choose to shop. 

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

SM: Competitive intelligence is a critical part of managing retail.  It is vital to understand how you compare to others in your markets and beyond.  Understanding how your assortment, pricing, promotion, and messaging compare to competitors is critical to understanding how to best retain your customers and to attract new shoppers.  Real time, accurate information is a critical input into making sure that you’re running the right promotions and discounting the right items to meet your customer’s needs.  The evolution in this space has been remarkable over the last twenty years as retailers have moved online, data scraping has become more common, and retailers have become savvier around managing large data sets.  The industry has moved from in-store shoppers only to a much more efficient mix of data collection methods creating more scalability and cost efficiency.

EB: What do you see as the trends in competitive pricing data collection?

SM: With the majority of retailers establishing a digital storefront and/or distributing their products through third parties, we will continue to see the volume of data increase.  I believe retailers will continue to evolve the applications of this information to better understand competitive strategies and not just item level price and promotions.  The insights will also help assess the comparative assortment offerings, seasonal strategies, and more.  The trends in competitive price collection will continue to evolve along with these needs.  In-store collection will become less manual and time consuming to more scalable image capture and data recognition reliant.  Webscraping and data harvesting will continue to collect information that illuminate greater strategic choices beyond just item and price.  I believe the industry will continue to evolve from a data collection practice to a real-time insights capability that enables the fundamental requirements around product, price, and promotion but also expand the insights into even more strategically helpful data points as well.

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

SM: Just like any capability, having a strong foundation is the key.  Data quality, access, and management practices are incredibly important starting points for any pricing analytics capability.  Also, you need talented analysts who are highly literate in a variety of competencies including business analysts who can clearly articulate choices and financial implications to key stakeholders, technical analysts who can access the data effectively, statistical analysts who can build credible and understandable models, along with key leaders who can advocate for change, funding, and establish critical relationships with teams like Finance, Merchandising, Marketing, and Technology.  You will also need the right technology that meets your business needs.  While shoring up your foundation, establishing clarity in your pricing strategies and practices will be key to organization alignment and delivering the right business outcomes.  A lot of leaders will believe that the technology itself will be the strategy, but pricing tools are mostly built to deliver your strategic goals effectively, not to tell you what your strategy should be.  Once you have all of these pieces in place, you will need to introduce, test, adjust and deploy your tools and team to create value within your business. 

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

SM: Price perception is a reflection of your actual price position, your business model, and your marketing tactics to your customers.  Price perception is critical to many retailers’ success.  The number one question customers of all demographics think about is, am I getting a good value for my money when I shop at retailer x.  The perception of value can be influenced by many things including, convenience, quality, experience, availability, exclusivity, and price.  Getting the value perception in alignment with your core customers is a fundamental building block of a retailer’s ability to thrive over time.

EB: Have you ever seen price optimization ever benefit any of your organizations that you’ve been a part of?

SM: Yes, I’ve seen price optimization create benefit at many of the organizations I’ve been a part of over the years.  Again, price optimization software doesn’t solve the challenge of a pricing strategy, but it does enable you to deliver it, once defined, to your customers.  It can allow you to pivot quickly when needed when it is built on top of a strong foundation of good practices, strong data, and a highly capable team.  Price Optimization, when considered separately from these other factors, is much less valuable to an organization.

EB: This has been great. Let’s close it out with some rapid fire, fun questions. What TV shows are you watching?

SM: I don’t watch many TV shows, I tend to stick to an occasional sporting event on the weekends.  I have a hard time focuses on the character development on TV series.  If I do watch TV though, I look for something funny or suspenseful. 

EB: What books are you reading?

SM: I read a lot about topics like change management, organizational behavior, and driving results from a business perspective.  In my world today, I spend more time reading HBR or The Economist than books.  I also love to travel and it’s a bit of a ritual for me to read many books about upcoming travel destinations.  Earlier this year, I visited Israel and Jordan and made my way through at least 5 travel books to prepare for my trip.

EB: Favorite life motto or quote?

SM: I don’t have a framed motto or quote hanging up in my office like many people do, which I think is wonderful btw.  I do have a work philosophy that I saw summarized in a long meandering quote…”Let us lead with the humility to listen, the thoughtfulness to understand, the courage to act, and the accountability to inspire. In our pursuit of greatness, let our leadership shine as a beacon of unwaveringintegrity, guiding our teams toward a future of shared success and lasting impact.”

EB: What’s your favorite dish?

SM: I love so many different types of food, especially Thai, Indian, and Mexican.  My favorite dishes include various curry dishes both Thai and Indian, Butter Chicken, and enchiladas Verde.

EB: Scott, always a pleasure to catch up with you. Thank you for being so engaged during this conversation – I know I learned a lot.

SM: Any time, Ed!