Tuesday, March 17, 2009

In the trenches

Bill writes: Best Buy’s incoming CEO Brian Dunn started with the company 24 years ago as a salesman, and in some ways never left his roots. He still spends a great deal of his time on the sales floor, “where the rubber meets the road,” he says (see Wall Street Journal article “Best Buy Confronts Newer Nemesis,” March 16). In his quest to now differentiate Best Buy from competitors Wal-Mart and Amazon.com (now that Circuit City is history), Dunn has used a series of store visits to provide inspiration.

In the olden days of shopkeeping, owners minded their stores at all hours and lived upstairs when the lights were out. Nothing got past them since they were always there. In a world of multi-unit retailing, bosses are far removed from the action of the floor, often held hostage in meetings to consider new companywide dental plans and how to defer equity awards. Still, they take it as an article of faith there’s no substitute for being in the trenches, and “make time” to do store visits as often as they can.

While Brian Dunn’s efforts should be applauded, there may well be a limit to how much inspiration can occur when a CEO makes a guest appearance. Certainly there is value in talking with the troops, where good ideas might arise and unaddressed problems can surface. At the same time, these are all too often staged as goodwill/PR events to rally the troops, and the real value back to the CEO is diminished. One legitimate substitute for management’s inability to be in stores all the time is the use of video-enabled behavioral analytics, which provides a volumetric assessment of how shoppers use the stores and what are the effects of the experience the employees provide. It’s an interesting way to fuel inspiration and find out what’s really happening with thousands of customer actions, interactions, and transactions, when you can’t be everywhere—or anywhere—at once.
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