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An “Outside in” Perspective

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Kevin Turner is chief operating officer of Microsoft. He joined Microsoft in August 2005 after nearly 20 years with Wal-Mart. Chain Store Age asked Turner about changes he has observed in retailing and Microsoft’s role in assisting the industry.

Q: In the last five years, during which time you left Wal-Mart as president/CEO of Sam’s Club to come to Microsoft, what changes have you observed in the retail industry? 

A: The market has really changed in the last five years. There are two significant issues that I see impacting retail more than ever before: 1.) “consumerism” and 2.) social responsibility. Consumers are in much more control of their interactions and experiences with retailers. For example, the pervasiveness of the Web has turned customers into digital shoppers who are more knowledgeable about products, brands, features, pricing and even inventory availability before they even set foot in the store. At the same time, consumers are more aware of a retailer’s involvement in larger global topics, such as citizenship and environmental sustainability, and these concerns are impacting their buying decisions as well. Both of these issues are adding pressure on retailers to respond to their customers’ expectations. At the same time, consumers expect a seamless experience, so the promise of multichannel retailing is really coming to the forefront. Consumers shop via every channel—from the Web to their mobile devices—and they are coming to expect a seamless experience wherever they buy.

Q: How has the role of the CIO evolved in retailing? 

A: There has been a definite shift from the CIO as a cost center to the CIO as a business leader who helps impact competitive differentiation in the market and drive profitability of the business. Technology is directly changing the operations and consumer experience. If a store manager can use business intelligence to get real-time data, he or she can react quicker to what customers demand. Additionally, technology is playing a larger role aesthetically in stores, from digital signage to innovative, more interactive, input devices now hitting the market.

Q: I have seen a lot in the news about Microsoft’s latest input technology, Microsoft Surface. How will this type of innovative input device, and others like it, spur more customer interaction at store level? 

A: Microsoft Surface is a game-changing technology. On one hand, it’s an input device similar to what we have achieved with technologies like tablet computing, PocketPC, Windows Embedded and our Windows operating system. On the other hand, it transforms the way people interact with computers. Imagine being able to enable people to explore products, categories and brands in a very rich interface with a touch of their finger.Imagine changing the entire purchase experience, from product research to how payment is made all through touch. We are currently working with many of our partners on creative and innovative ways to deliver this type of experience to the market. This gets back to my point of how technology can truly be a differentiator for retailers today.

Q: What lessons have you learned in your years in retail that are serving you well at Microsoft? 

A: My background in retail has given me an “outside in” perspective here at Microsoft. Meaning, I bring a pretty deep understanding of the issues and challenges facing our customers. I also learned very early in my retail career that no matter what business you are in, people are the key ingredient to everything you do. Staying focused on the people, meaning your customers and employees, is the most important thing. Internally at Microsoft, we’ve built out a strong group of people in our retail vertical. Leaders like Bill Gonzalez, worldwide retail general manager, who recently joined us from Wal-Mart, Geoff Thomas, U.S. retail general manager, with 15 years of experience and Brian Scott, worldwide industry VP, who formerly ran IBM’s Retail Store Solutions Division, are all people we know will help enable our retail customers and partners with great Microsoft technology. Competitors can copy your technology, but they can’t copy your people.

© 2014