Susan Sedberry is the managing director for the retail operations lab at the Center for Retailing Excellence and the Supply Chain Management Research Center in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas.

A former member of the advisory board of the Center for Retailing Excellence, Sue was named a Top Women in Grocery Award winner by Progressive Grocer Magazine in 2013.

She has previously served as a senior director of business insights and held research and analytical positions with the Nielsen Co., Eli Lilly and Co. and Marsh Supermarkets, among others.

We interviewed Sue this week to learn about how her students are leveraging new technologies to be fully equipped to enter the rapidly evolving retail industry.

MANTHAN: Could you tell us a little about your role as Managing Director of the Retail Innovation and Technology Lab?

SUE: The University of Arkansas, Sam M Walton College of Business received a generous donation from the Walton Family Foundation nearly 16 years ago. Part of the request was that the college be named Sam M Walton and that an Outreach Center be created to further student education and faculty research with regards to the retail industry.

After a number of programs developed to assist tomorrow’s retail leaders, one of our industry advisors suggested we needed to create a Retail Lab where students could actually experience and experiment with all of the technology that is rapidly changing how we shop. Whether that be online ordering or magic mirrors or electronic displays within a store aisle. All of these technologies are second nature to our digitally enabled students. So my role is to create an environment where testing and experimentation can occur.

Be it online ordering, magic mirrors or electronic displays… technologies are second nature to digitally enabled retail students.

MANTHAN: How do you help your students prepare for the today’s changing retail industry?

SUE: We initially brought in InContext Solutions, ShopperMX software and made it available to any interested students. The goal was to use technology they are familiar with (a gaming platform, Unity) in a real world scenario – shelf and display planning. The software does a lot more than that but to show students the exciting ways technology is making some of the tedious processes in retail more efficient and fun, we started there.

We are completing the second group of students who will receive certification showing they voluntarily came back to class a week early (from the holiday break) to enhance their skills and resumes by completing 6 hours of training.

MANTHAN: What do you perceive to be a key difference in the way you are preparing your students today as opposed to a few years ago?

SUE: I recently joined the university from industry so I do not have a PhD or years of teaching. However, within the past 10 years I have trained dozens of business insights analysts and knew that in order to reach more, I needed to be inside the university environment. My favorite class is a marketing class, Category Management, that is facilitated by me and IRI but we have guest industry speakers every week and we assign the topic. The students are broken into teams and each has to create a data-driven sales story to support their new product idea and design the marketing launch / campaign. 

Every student says it is a very significant class and they learn more from these interactions that any textbook (as it is hard for authors of textbooks to keep up with the changing dynamic reality of retail).

MANTHAN: You have held research and analytical positions with the Nielsen Co., Eli Lilly and Co. and Marsh Supermarkets… how is analytics largely perceived by retailers?

SUE: Retailers have been collecting Point of Sales (POS) transaction data since the early 1970s so they have databases larger than any other industry besides the credit card companies. In addition, as more retailers create “member based” or loyalty programs, retailers begin to have the power to know who is actually shopping and purchasing, not just who lives around the physical location.

The retailer’s ability to synthesize and identify implications of the data is now a higher priority than just acquiring the systems and integration previously needed to store and access the data. So now that technology has enabled insights, retailers are scrambling to compete for shoppers and consumers based on real data, not just perceptions or traditions. 

The goal of the Retail Lab will be to challenge assumptions, test theories and collect as much real interactive data as possible in order to identify nuances among the Shoppers of the Future – our student populations.

Retail Lab Goal: Challenge assumptions, test theories, collect data, identify nuances of the Shoppers of the Future.

MANTHAN: As a younger more digital active generation, what interesting insights have your students put forward on consumer behavior or consumer experiences?

SUE: We have only recently been given a space for the Lab so to date they are still learning and acquiring the skills needed to test and research live consumer experiences. Students created Facebook and now students are propelling SnapChat so I envision the next retail app will come from their insights.

MANTHAN: How do you think advanced analytics can help improve retail and supplier collaboration?  

SUE: It isn’t analytics as everyone seems to be able to build a dashboard these days with scorecards and highlights.  I think it is Advanced Insights and Implications which will help identify recommendations for action. Just because you can identify niche markets or predict trends, unless you can act to influence or change behavior based on this new knowledge, you are no better prepared to react than you were before you spent profits on analytics.

Thank you Sue!