Magazine Article | April 20, 2015

The Minds Behind Neiman Marcus' Digital Merchandising

Matt Pillar

By Matt Pillar, chief editor

May 2015 Integrated Solutions For Retailers

How an iconic retailer’s innovation lab vets the popular yet pragmatic customer-facing technology it ultimately deploys to stores.

Scott Emmons has been a busy guy. For nearly 10 years, he’s been working tirelessly on many of the high profile and innovative store-level, customer-facing IT projects that have kept Neiman Marcus in the customer experience spotlight. You know — an iOS device in every associate’s hands, the Memomi Memory Mirror, the T1Visions touch table look books — the stuff that makes analysts and press people swoon at NRF every year.

But first came the plumbing. Over a three-year period as project lead, Emmons led the company’s conversion to the Business Objects XI Platform, developed a suite of custom business intelligence tools to enable the company’s access to and usage of its customer, inventory, and other enterprise data, and he oversaw the comprehensive migration of the company’s disparate data assets to the Netezza data warehouse. His work earned him a lot of accolades — most notably, the iconic luxury specialty retailer’s highest honor, the NMG Best award in 2011. Emmons was promoted to Enterprise Architect, a position that gave him the opportunity to ensure the value of his nuts-and-bolts BI (business intelligence) work was being exploited at the operations level.

Then Michael Kingston came along. When Kingston joined the company as CIO in 2012, the development of an innovation lab was high on his agenda. For obvious reasons, he dubbed Emmons its leader and the Neiman-Marcus iLab was born.

The Makings Of An Innovation Lab
Kingston couldn’t have made a better choice to head the Neiman Marcus iLab. The launch of a retail innovation lab typically goes one of two ways: One direction results in a team of big thinkers chasing disruptive technologies du jour in the name of the cool factor; the other, in a team of big thinkers chasing disruptive technologies in the name of operational improvement. The former dreams; the latter does. The former chases the shiny stuff; the latter measures its impact. You get the idea. Emmons, who had been turning the wrenches and tweaking the gears of the Neiman Marcus data infrastructure for so many years, harbors a deep understanding of that data and how Neiman Marcus’ business systems put it to use. Kingston’s pick ensured that the customer-facing technologies that make it through his iLab and on to deployment at the venerable brand’s stores would be shiny, for sure. They’ll also help the retailer know more about its customers, better execute its omni-channel strategy, and, ultimately, sell more stuff.

While encouraging creative, outside-the-box thinking is the only hard-and-fast rule in the iLab, this is no skunk works operation with a blank check to play with technology. Given that iLab research and development is funded by an internal oversight committee, Neiman Marcus vendors, and company executives, the team is accountable to walking the line between carte-blanche pursuit of the “wow” factor and payback on the investments it makes. Still, the work of the iLab isn’t all about the money. “We’re not held to a hard-and-fast ROI equation,” says Emmons. “Our executive staff understands the hard-to-measure, yet extremely valuable benefits of the customer experience.”

The iLab Focus At Neiman Marcus: The Customer Experience
The customer experience sits at the nucleus of many of the iLab’s innovations. “I’m looking for technology that will enhance our customer experience and, more specifically, the relationship between associates and customers,” says Emmons. As such, in its infancy back in 2012, the iLab was responsible for the deployment of iPhones loaded with a clienteling app to 4,000 full-line associates. The app enabled automatic notification to associates when one of their customers arrived in a store, complete with a customer photo and the customer’s store and online purchase histories.

This year, it deployed the Memomi Memory Mirror in select stores. A camera mounted on the mirror takes video and still images of the clothes customers try on, allowing side-by-side, 360-degree comparisons of those clothes. In the spirit of social engagement and one-to-one customer/associate engagement, the customer can share those images for friendly feedback via social media, as well as with the assisting Neiman Marcus sales representative.

One of the recent iLab initiatives that Emmons is excited about expands on the customer experience theme. “In 2013, we had upped the ante on our iPhone deployment by rolling out iPads to store associates,” he says. “The primary goal was to leverage the larger screen of the iPad as a cross-channel look book to drive customer/associate interaction.” The application gave Neiman Marcus associates more on-screen real estate to show customers new and soon-to-be released products, and it helped associates establish an in-store connection to customers’ online activity.

The iPad deployment was well-accepted, but executives at Neiman Marcus were interested in finding something even bigger. A giant iPad, per se, which would provide an even larger format to display cross-channel merchandise and engage customers through personalized clienteling. So, while the rest of the retail world’s digital thinking was mobile and on-the-move, Neiman Marcus was thinking stationary — let’s sit down, look a few things over, and talk about them.

The company doesn’t see digital merchandising as an either mobile or large-format display proposition, mind you. Emmons says both approaches have their own strengths and weaknesses. But for clienteling, he says the limited screen real estate on small-form-factor mobile devices in turn limits the collaborative sharing of information. Importantly, it also minimizes the presentation of merchandise. Besides, Neiman Marcus associates were already equipped with mobile devices. It was time to go bigger. “I went into the 2014 NRF BIG Show with an agenda, and finding that giant iPad was at the top of my to-do list,” says Emmons. As he wandered into a back corner of the show’s lower hall, Emmons had his “aha” moment.

Large-Format, High Definition Display Suits Luxury Merchandising
There in the shadows of the tech giants, relative newcomer T1Visions was displaying its Interactive Retail Table in a 10x20 booth. Emmons was intrigued. “As a luxury specialty retailer, very high-quality product images are extremely important to our digital initiatives,” he says. “We wanted a larger format screen to show off those high-quality images.” The 32-inch Ultra HD 4K touchscreen bringing life to the table in the T1 booth fit the bill, and then some. The table format struck Emmons as completely congruous with the consultative sales strategy that’s synonymous with Neiman Marcus. “I envisioned a collaborative experience — the associate and the customer side by side, working through looks and fashions together in a very personalized engagement,” he says.

Emmons left New York the next day and took the concept directly to the Neiman Marcus visual merchandising team. “We presented the T1Visions solution along with a few other large-format digital display solutions, and T1 came out on top,” he says. A development budget was established, and the Neiman Marcus iLab team and T1Visions began building prototypes.

Interactive Tables In Action
Over the course of the ensuing several months, the interactive table concept was tested, a support model architected, and the technology was deployed to the retailer’s stores in Austin, TX; Topanga, CA; and Chicago in time for the 2014 holiday season.

T1Visions delivered, installed, and configured the finished products, then trained store-level associates on their use. “Training was simple,” says Emmons, “because the OneShop interface wasn’t all that different from the iPad look books they were used to. Our commissioned associates eagerly adopted the tables, because they’re keenly aware that if the technology we deploy helps customers, it will help them as well.”

The displays are flush-mounted into the surface of 34-inch high by 70-inch long, high-quality wood tables and powered by T1Visions’ OneShop software application. “There are plenty of display vendors out there who can develop this kind of technology, but T1Visions really had the design concept nailed down,” says Emmons. “These tables are high-end fixtures that fit right into our store ambience. They don’t look like a piece of technology, but the technology that’s built into them allows us to present our digital assets at their very best.”

In addition to displaying the latest trends in fashion offered at Neiman Marcus, the OneShop application allows customers and associates to browse and filter Neiman Marcus’ enterprisewide (any channel, any site) inventory in real time, as well as merchandise that’s coming soon. Customers can add items to their favorites and wish lists, which can then be emailed along with live product links to reference for immediate purchase or later review. OneShop also supports the Neiman Marcus recommendations engine that suggests relevant merchandise based on customer search results. “For years, our online and marketing teams have worked hard to develop the algorithms that generate our recommendations, so we were sure to leverage that work as we developed this project,” says Emmons. “Some sales associates are really great at doing this on their own, but a baked-in tool helps, and it mirrors that great personalized experience our customers get online.”

“We had already achieved cross-channel, enterprisewide inventory visibility for the data feed that powers our iOS look books, so we just had to set up the OneTouch software in a manner that would ingest that data,” says Emmons. “When users choose an item, they can drill down on its availability, whether it’s in that particular store, in another store, or online.”

interactive retail table 2.0
While Emmons and his iLab team at Neiman Marcus are thrilled with the progress they’ve made with the Interactive Retail Table, he’s equally excited about the work to be done. “Our initial deployment is limited to the shoe salon, which was a strategic decision because we carry far more shoe styles than any single store can physically have on hand. Now we’re exploring other departmental applications for the tables.”

In the longer term, Neiman Marcus associates will be able to consummate transactions right at the table. Currently, if a customer decides to purchase merchandise selections originating from the interactive table, the transaction has to be completed via POS or e-commerce. “There are no barriers to enabling the table to function as an additional POS, which will further blend the in-store shopping with the online experience,” says Emmons. “We’re likely to test that in version 2.0.”

Emmons also envisions more direct integration with customers’ online favorites and wish lists, most likely via the consumer’s mobile device. The only obstacle to achieving that in the initial rollout, he says, was time. “We consider it critical to create one place to go, as opposed to several different applications, so that integration is coming. I’m a big fan of having in-store technology interact with customers’ smartphones; that creates a lot of magic.”

Meanwhile, Neiman Marcus is early in the process of measuring the magic the solution is creating as it exists today. “The interactive table experience is very similar to a Web-browsing experience. That includes back office analytics,” says Emmons. “We can collect all the same data we do on a browser to measure length of interaction, click-throughs, and our customers’ engagement level with specific merchandise. When we enable transactions at the table, we’ll be able to gather conversion and sales metrics as well. That’s important to us — we have a team of scientists here that enables us to do amazing things with data — so the evolution of our analytics package is a top priority.”

As Neiman Marcus’ interactive table initiative progresses, there’s a good chance we won’t be privy to the hard ROI numbers it achieves as a result of increased customer engagement. Retailers tend to hold that stuff tight to the vest. But Emmons’ deep business intelligence background suggests the return will be measured, and that it will be significant. After all, that’s why he’s head of the Neiman Marcus iLab.