Re-tales is an interview series featuring experts in retail, commerce, and technology. In this post, we speak with Cathy McCabe, CEO of Proximity Insight. Cathy has spent her entire career in global retail and IT, with previous positions including CIO at Jaeger and VP at Burberry. She talks about being a self-coined “retail aficionado,” her biggest lessons learned as a tech leader, and why there is no such thing as a wrong decision.
Can you share how you got your start in retail? What has your career path looked like?
I started my career on the store floor, then I fell into operations. I spent a lot of time in ops at Arcadia Group, which includes high street brands like Topshop, Topman and Dorothy Perkins. My grounding was retail but halfway through my career I was lucky enough to fall into a tech project. I stayed in tech after this, specializing in international systems that touched the customer: CRM, point of sale, payments…anything digital.
After about ten years at Arcadia, I was given an opportunity to work freelance – luckily right around the time I became a mother. I worked with brands like Burberry, Virgin Media and Harvey Nichols. In 2010, John Douglas – Burberry CTO at the time – asked me to join the company permanently. IT was being catapulted to the front of the bus by CEO Angela Ahrendts, and Chief Creative Director Christopher Bailey believed tech was the enabler for a seamless customer experience. It was amazing to have an executive team with not only great retail acumen but also a vision for tech. As early as 2010 Angela wanted the store teams to have product and customer information at their fingertips. It was a great time to be in tech! Online was growing, and there were various technologies emerging that were completely changing the customer experience.
I learned so much at Burberry, but eventually took my first CIO role at Jaeger in 2014. My task was to replace all of the brand’s legacy technology. It was creaking at the knees and needed a complete transformation. I came across Proximity Insight when looking at tech investments. They were a startup, showcasing a clienteling app and looking for MVP brands. We ended up partnering with them and three years later I joined the company as CEO.
You’ve referred to yourself as a “retail aficionado” as opposed to a woman in retail or a woman in tech. What does retail aficionado mean to you?
I have a huge passion for retail, and really believe it is a truly undervalued career. There is so much opportunity to diversify your career – you can start in one role and move into an entirely different function. For me, at the end of the day what I love most is being able to surprise and delight the customer. What can you do that makes the customer say wow? This is why I’ve always been interested in different technologies and ways of working. I constantly embarrass my children when I look at what POS systems or payment systems brands use, or when I try out different solutions in-store.
I will always have a strong affinity with the retail industry, so for me, it’s not about being a woman in retail or a woman in tech. It’s about being someone who loves what they do that just happens to be tech-focused. The key is to find something you enjoy doing that provides constant learning and growth opportunities.
What were your biggest lessons learned when you led tech at Burberry and Jaeger? What is most important for today’s retail IT leaders to know?
I think there are two important things I’ve come to know; the power of partnerships and the ability to understand how to leverage emerging technologies.
When you have a really good partnership with your tech vendors, you can take a collaborative approach to business rather than a transactional approach. That was one of the things I learned from John, my boss at Burberry. It is really critical to build empathy and trust with your partners, so you can both grow and benefit from the relationship.
Secondly, from the emerging tech perspective, it’s important to not be afraid of experimenting at the edge. Find a good balance between big, ongoing projects, and experimentation. Push your teams to embrace technology, from both the business and tech perspective. Recognise that your teams will often be challenged by adopting new ways of working, not by technology. An organization’s ability to embrace change and new ways of working is so often underestimated when it comes to introducing new tech – the capability to manage change successfully sets brands apart and is one of the most valuable lessons I have learned.
“Data is the lifeblood of an organization. Being able to drive action from data plus having that human element – and being able to do this at scale – is massively important and hugely powerful.”
In your opinion, what is the recipe for a great customer experience? How much of it is human and how much of it is tech?
Ask yourself how you can enhance the customer experience through automation but place emphasis on what can be done to augment the personal or human touch. The balance has to be right for your brand. When it comes to automation, focus on simplifying operations, improving productivity and taking insights from data whilst allowing the human touch to drive interactions. Take recommendations as an example. With sophisticated technology solutions, you can find lots of digital breadcrumbs to learn more about the customer, but the human touch is the layer we’re missing. Our retail teams know their customers very well and the opportunity to empower them to provide unique, memorable experiences is how you connect the dots between digital and stores and harmonise the retail experience.
Data is the lifeblood of an organization. Being able to drive action from data plus having that human element – and being able to do this at scale – is massively important and hugely powerful.
How do the major retail markets (U.S., EU, APAC, etc.) stack up in terms of omnichannel? As retail becomes more global, will this pose a challenge?
I was in Germany a few weeks ago and we were talking about this topic. I think some U.S. and U.K. retailers take for granted that they’ve solved the omnichannel challenge. They understand the value of services such as order in-store and click-and-collect. Their consumer expects these services – but when you go to other countries, like Spain, Germany and France, these services are not the norm. These countries are definitely behind the curve and their biggest challenge today is evolving customer expectations. This is especially true when it comes to delivery, and expecting goods same-day or next-day. Some countries can do this now, but many can’t. As retailers and vendors, we often forget the differences between the U.S., Europe, and Asia.
My response is to carefully choose what you’re going to do. Define your customer vision and identify what’s right to over-index on for your brand? Most important is harmonising the divide between online and in-store and moving away from store metrics that focus purely on transactions and sales per square foot. What’s going to be your USP to ensure the customer always comes to your brand first?
“The technology you put into your stores, give your associates, and offer to your customers – should always be mobile driven.”
What role does mobile play in retail? Why don’t some brands have a mobile strategy even though there is significant data around its value?
You have to have a mobile-first approach and if you don’t, ask yourself why not? If you’re a pure-play brand going into physical retail, go mobile-first. The technology you put into your stores, give your associates, and offer to your customers – should always be mobile-driven.
Why hasn’t mobile played a role for some? I think it’s because some retailers think it is too hard. It has to be simple and seamless. From the customer perspective, there need to be three key things: it has to be transactional; there has to be inspiring engagement; it has to be relevant. At its core, it has to engender loyalty to the brand that goes way beyond points, rewards and discounts. It needs to be personal.
What is your prediction for retail 3, 5 or even 10 years from now? What trends are you really focused on and what trends do you think will come into fruition in the near future?
The way in which we purchase is changing. Our mobile devices and phones are our wallets and cash is finally going away. You see that in European countries in the Nordics and also in America – I recently spent a week in San Francisco without paying for anything with cash.
Voice commerce will also come into its own. It’s still immature, but we will increasingly use voice to order and purchase commodity items, which will take away the need to go into stores for functional purchases. As a whole, there will be fewer stores but they’ll blend lifestyle, hospitality and entertainment. It’s about having an immersive shopping experience.
What mobile apps can’t you live without?
There are a few. The LuckyTrip vacation app – you put in ideal travel dates and a budget and it suggests places to go. The Bloom & Wild letterbox florist app, which is one of the easiest and best apps to use – it reminds you when it’s someone’s birthday! And the Calm app – it is perfect for meditation and practicing mindfulness, whether you have 10 minutes or half an hour.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
There are two. Firstly, don’t try to be perfect; be the best you can be at the moment. This was a key piece of advice for me when I was young, really ambitious and trying to move up the ladder. Do your best, but don’t strive for 100% perfection because it’s virtually impossible – there is always room for improvement.
Secondly, there is no such thing as a wrong decision. If you have to make a hard decision, go with your gut. But if that doesn’t work out, simply choose a different path and make a different decision.
What does your ideal weekend look like?
That’s really easy – time spent at the beach! It doesn’t matter if it’s windy, rainy, cold or sunny. The air, the sea, the sand, the noises – the beach for me will always be the first place I go.