John Ross on why retail needs new tools

John Ross, President of the IPG Emerging Media Lab John Ross recently joined IPG’s Mediabrands to become President of the Emerging Media Lab. John brings 20 years of retail experience to the job, most recently as VP of Advertising and Marketing for Home Depot. I sat down with him during a recent visit to Los Angeles (John will be managing a trifecta commute between his home base in Atlanta, Mediabrands offices in NY, and the Lab in Los Angeles) to talk about why retail and emerging media are well suited, and what challenges lay ahead for both sectors.

DR: What is the biggest challenge for the retail sector in terms of effectively harnessing the power of emerging media and technology?

JR: [Retail] needs to embrace and employ new tools that allow them to access the dialogue that’s taking place about their business. They need to have new listening tools and these tools need to be snapped into the way they make business decisions. Social media combined with retail has so far been a terrifying combination, it takes courage to really listen and a fear of that that dialogue might get out of control in ways that could be dangerous to your brand.

One problem is figuring out how to harness the tool, the second problem is technology faces is what is the equitable substitute for the newspaper construct if that medium is in fact dissolving? What is the replacement devices that are going to allow me to do what the newspaper does so well? What is that device? The event nature of a newspaper ad–it wasn’t here yesterday, it is here today, it just broke, doesn’t match up with a 24-7 perpetual global communications space.

DR: What is retail 3.0?

JR: The transformation that is happening with the way that customers communicate with each other and the retailer is unavoidable. The consumer is bringing in a completely different mindset into the retail store today than they did in the past. Retail 3.0 comes along, and that’s where the power base has shifted into the hands of the consumer. Now the consumer chooses where they want to shop. The information that was so tightly controlled before about cost, about pricing, about availability, about supply, about demand, warranty and repair records, all the kinds of things that you had to go to a very limited group to get, today is distributed to anyone.

DR: So retail 3.0 isn’t about the technologies informing retail, but it’s about where the power lies?

JR: It’s the shift of power base, that’s right. The power sits with the consumer. The consumer can and frequently does walk into the retail store far more informed than the associates standing behind the counter.

DR: That must create a huge challenge to provide adequate customer service.

JR: It is an interesting dilemma. Before, how would you have gotten information about the Bose loud speaker program 20 years ago? Your influence set was your friends and family. Maybe the people at the soccer field, maybe at your church, but you’re talking about a very small group of folks who were very influential on you. They are still influential, but now your peer group is the world. It’s as broad as the nets you want to bring. And there may be subject matter experts in the world who know far more than your aunt or uncle. One of the people in that social group may be the product engineer who actually built the product and you can follow their blog.

DR: Is this keeping CMOS and retailers up at night?

JR: It’s terrifying and it’s liberating. It’s a new way to communicate to consumers and listen to them, I’ve got new listening tools I didn’t have before. And that’s profound and that can help me do some incredibly powerful things. But on the flip side of it, the consumer’s demands for me have been raised dramatically. And the other thing is, I can’t keep the technology out of my store. The customer walks in with everything available. They can stand in my aisle and look on my Website and see the customer reviews for the product that I am too clumsy to get the four and five star ratings on the tag–I can’t figure that out? The customer stands there and looks at it and says, “the Dewalt’s the best one.” It’s unavoidable. Technology is in the retail box whether I want it to be there or not.