Salesforce's Head of Retail: 'The big guys are scared of Amazon and need help'

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez October 6, 2015
Shelley Bransten has 20 years experience in the retail industry, working for some of the world's biggest brands. Now she's at Salesforce, firming up its industry offering for cloud and retail.

Digital retail

We have written pretty extensively about Salesforce's quickly developing industries strategy, where the cloud giant is looking to go to market with a number of vertical offerings. At present the Financial Services cloud is the primary focus, which my colleague Phil Wainewright weighs up extensively here, but there are a number of others in the company's pipeline.

Salesforce has had a strong presence in the retail market for a number of years now, with big name customers often rolled out to speak on the main stage at the company's annual Dreamforce event in San Francisco. CRM is obviously also a key focus for retailers in the digital age. And so, it wouldn't be particularly surprising if a 'Retail Cloud' were soon to emerge.

Which is why when I sat down with Shelley Bransten, Salesforce's head of retail and consumer, the first question I had for her was: Are you you planning to release an Retail cloud soon? You can read into her response what you like. She said:

I don't know what we are officially saying. I think we are going to do what our customers are asking us to do and we are going to go where the market is. There's no lack of momentum in retail in Salesforce, which I guess is the most ginger way I can answer that question.

Hmm. Well, moving on.

In line with Salesforce's approach to creating industry specific clouds, Bransten has been hired directly from the retail industry. In fact, she has been working in retail for about 20 years according to her LinkedIn profile, including high profile places such as Gap, Banana Republic and Williams-Sonoma. Bransten said:

I really saw first hand the level of transformation that's going on within retail, which has gone from the idea of the four Ps – product, price, place and promotion – to changing focus on to the customer. For me it was a huge victory moment because internally within a retailer, though you think they would be incredibly customer focused, but merchandising was really top of the food chain.

When I came over to Salesforce, we already had a really good sized retail business. But the strategy around the industry strategy is really around bringing in people who can speak in the language of our customers, be translators, advocates. Then also just go deeper and understand the specific data models, workflows that are unique to these industries.

Running scared

It's always interesting to hear from somebody that has jumped over the fence from being on the front line in industry to then working on the software side of things. They've got a perspective on things that someone that has only ever worked in the software industry could never have.

We have also written a lot about the digital challenges facing retailers, where some have invested in recent years and are reaping the rewards, whilst others took a back seat and are now panicking and are having to quickly invest millions in an attempt to get their systems in order.

So I was keen to find out what insights Bransten has gleaned from making the switch and after almost two years in the job what her thoughts are on where Salesforce is headed. She said:

It's a challenge of choice. Truthfully we have a tonne of momentum, so which bets do we pick? That's probably the priority. Are we really going to go after speciality, luxury and department stores and nail the in-store experience? Or are we going for the big box, en-masse guys, even though they're a lower margin business - there are many more dollars there.

It's about picking our plays, picking our partners. But the momentum is there. The market is there. That's very different than five years ago.

I think Amazon has scared a lot of people. It's the first time the big guys have come in and said we need a lot of help.

Bransten also said that if she had her time again back in retail, she would push her technology suppliers more than she did in the past. She said:

There is a mentality in retail that you have to do it all yourself. What's surprised me is sort of how much availability and access to talent and innovation and speed there is, by just opening up a little bit. And you can really push. That has surprised me, I had no idea what went on behind the scenes before.”

I think the biggest failure is being afraid of failure. I think the old world retail, which I grew up in, it's about lights on, it's a broadway show. Everything has to be perfect. The ones that are making the most traction are actually the ones that are innovating with their customers. I had Macy's and Bloomingdales on stage with me and the customers are actually quite forgiving – not about getting ripped off on price – but if you say we are trying a gifting app, test it out, let us know what you think, people love to give you their feedback. You put it out there, you don't know if it's a great idea or a total flop, but it could be a great idea.

Hire for change

Bransten said that walking into a lot of retail environments can be like “going back to the 1950s”. She said it's

shelley bransten
Shelley Bransten

all “clipboards, sticky notes and things taped to the point-of-sale systems”. However, Bransten added that technology is not the limitation when it comes to change – which we hear time and time again.

So how do you deliver the required change? From our conversation it seems that a lot of it is likely to come from getting the right people in place and driving the agenda from the CEO throughout the organisation. Bransten said:

The retailers that have a top-down mandate, you certainly see more velocity. I also talk to employees of retailers where it is sort of the old world CEO and I can see them pushing boulders up the hill. But I think it's interesting that it's not just about investing in digital, ultimately you have got to have your inventory and supply chain organised in a way that is seamless, so that if someone wants to place an order online and pick up in store, it actually goes deep into some of the systems of record.

And so the more progressive retailers are not only investing in digital, but they are starting to put systems of engagement on top of those systems of record silos.

I think we have seen a whole new crop of chief omni-channel and chief customer experience officers emerge. All of those are signals for organisations trying to solve the old organisational model and pivot to the new one. So when I go into a retailer and they've got a chief omni-channel officer it says to me that the retailer is serious about this. Versus sitting there with your e-commerce people, your store people, your CMO.

Disclosure - At time of writing Salesforce is a diginomica premier partner.