sarah

Six takeaways for merchandisers from Walmart’s Sarah Wallis

tammysarah

When Sarah Wallis asks you why, you’d be be wise to have an answer.

In fact, you’d be wise to have seven answers. The Walmart.com vice president of lifestyle at Walmart Global E-commerce is a big believer in asking “why,” to get to the core of a challenge or a proposed solution.

“People don’t care what you do; they care why you do it,” Wallis says, with a nod to consultant and why-master Simon Sinek of Ted Talk fame. “The why is a critical point. Why are we doing something? Why are we trying to achieve something? If you ask that, you’ll get the context that you need to get everyone moving in the right direction.”

The “why” strategy was one of a wheelbarrow full of insights that Wallis shared in San Francisco recently with a room full of merchandisers, some from among the country’s largest retailers and others from retailers that hope to get there someday.

The Site Merchandising Connect + Learn event, sponsored by BloomReach, was a chance for digital merchandisers to network and gaze out from the 22nd floor at the Bay Bridge in twilight. And, oh yeah, it was also a chance to pick up tips on merchandising and career-building from a recognized retail superstar.

The evening provided a master class in merchandising and digital retail for about 60 attendees. And while the scope was broad, the fireside chat between BloomReach’s Tammy Sanders and Wallis, a 15-year merchandising veteran, focused on six key points, ranging from merchandising to career advice.

Merchandising tips

Data is nothing new in the world of merchandising:

“Merchandisers have always been data driven, so I think merchandisers have always had to embrace it. The extent to which they have, well, that depends on their strengths.”

We are all human after all, Wallis said. We gravitate toward our strengths. But more and more merchandisers need to become comfortable with data, whatever their strengths.

“There is no escaping it,” Wallis says. “And it’s not just merchandisers.”

She says the creative teams at Walmart study click rates and conversion rates along with  everyone else.

“It’s no longer (just) about drawing up storyboards. It’s about understanding what’s working and what isn’t.”

Don’t debate art vs. science. Successful merchandising requires both:

“There is still an art and a science to merchandising,” Wallis said. “What’s really shifted in the world of merchandising and e-commerce is data — the granularity, the availability, the nature of it, our ability to process it. You still need those folks who are left brain and right brain and can use data to extrapolate into the future. At the same time we need to be much more numbers oriented, analytical.”

Data is not the end all and be all, but it is a key piece of a successful merchandising operation.

“I think of it in terms of building a house,” Wallis said. “The data is the structure, the architecture, the concrete, the plumbing, the wiring. If you have a really solid foundation, then you actually can do more from the art perspective to bring it all together.”

In other words, solid data, and a solid understanding of the data, gives you the wiggle room to follow your instincts and rely on your experience. It allows you to try things — and to measure the results.

Data comes with its own pitfalls:

“At what point do you shift away from data?” Wallis asked the assembled merchandisers. “If you think about data, data is numbers, and with the exception of predictive data and data science, data for the most part is backward looking.”

That means successful merchandisers have to understand the methodology they are using when they analyze the data in pursuit of an answer.

“And,” she says, “you also have to use a little intuition and art to look forward.”

Asking “why” (you knew this was coming) reduces the risks of pitfalls:

Merchandisers are faced with so much data today — buckets and buckets of data — that it’s no longer sufficient to use data to see what is happening. Wallis says you can look at fabulous data and identify the trends. But you need to ask why — as many as seven times, she says — to burrow in and find an answer.

sarah

“What you’re really trying to understand is, what is the fundamental shift that is happening, either in consumer behavior or in technology,” she said. “What is happening that is causing this trend?”

Career advice

Take one part core competency and one part willing to learn:

Wallis said that as she built a successful career — moving up and over in digital retail — she made it a point to never move too many steps from the last step she took. She dissects a new opportunity, looking for two contrasting elements.

“I always look for something new,” she says, “and then I look for what is it that I’ve done before that is going to help me be successful.”

She looks for the same sort of combination in those she’s contemplating hiring for her e-commerce team: Someone who can handle part of the job without breaking a sweat. But also someone who will be challenged by other aspects of the job.

She always keeps in mind the balance on the team, striving to stock her team with people who have complementary skills.

“I need some folks who are very creative and intuitive,” she said. “I need people who are data-driven. It’s hard to find someone who has it all; and if they have it all, what’s in it for them to keep growing?”

She said she looks for people who know specific categories of retail — apparel, grocery, baby clothes and accessories. And she provided a hint for job seekers while talking about the power that being nimble with data brings to any candidate.

“In general the folks that are able to take data and either have it be analysed, or do the analysis, or see the patterns and extrapolate insights and take actions, those are the folks that are really, truly providing value to the organization,” Wallis said.

Networking can’t be forced, but network nonetheless:

When asked what advice she would give herself as a beginning merchandiser, Wallis said she’d counsel herself not to sweat the small stuff. But she also suggested that merchandisers not go it alone — whether sweating or not.

“I would probably have started coming to events like this and broadening my relationships earlier in my career,” she said of the meetup of professionals in San Francisco’s financial district.

Networking doesn’t have to be a rigidly structured plan with strategies, success metrics and targeted outcomes.

Wallis said she’s taken a fluid and broad-based approach to networking — talking to people, engaging with them, offering help when she was in a position to do so. And the more people she’s talked to, engaged with and helped, the more confident she is that when the time comes that she needs advice or help, that she’ll find someone to turn to.

“In general, life is easier, your career is easier, the more people you know and have relationships with, whether they are mentors or not,” she said. “There are no limits or hierarchy of who you can learn from.”

And making your life easier just makes sense. There is really no need to ask why, not even for Wallis.

Photo of Tammy Sanders and Sarah Wallis and photo of Wallis by Paige 9 Productions.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.