Highlights from the first CIO leadership breakfast club.

By Lou Sterzenbach

Until recent years, information and technology executives usually worked in silos, managing legacy and sourcing and implementing new systems. The proverbial “tech-stack” was a list of accumulated service providers and platforms that were leveraged by discipline across the organization at different points of the product and customer journeys. While information and technology are critical to operating a business today, it took the emergence of omni-commerce, a pandemic, and supply chain issues to elevate the central value that retail CIOs and CTOs provide to organizations and how important they are to driving and scaling transformation. The pivot from support department to managing leaders didn’t happen overnight, yet it has become the new norm for retailers and a mandate for emerging new brands. From headless platforms to scan/leave payment functions, to merchandise tracking and  predictability, to subscription models and security and privacy, information technology teams are at the forefront of nearly every retail initiative.  So, if you are trying to find out what is happening in the retail industry, chatting with CIOs and CTOs is the place to start. 

Andy Laudato, COO of the Vitamin Shop and long-time retail executive, led a group of 12 C-suite colleagues to discuss what they are working on, the challenges they are currently facing and what they are focusing on in the near future. The breakfast club was comprised of professionals from the equity side of the business, apparel, sports/street apparel & footwear, health & beauty, department stores, home goods and even auto parts. Here are five highlighted themes of what’s on their minds:

  1. Headless technology
  2. Customer-centered and digital-first data integration
  3. Systems architecture and organizational processes
  4. End-to-end supply chain and product development visibility and predictability
  5. The customer experience, service and consistency


Not a new theme but one which is becoming more mainstream and finally coming into fruition with established retailers. Cloud-based fueled technology and the emergence of best in breed functions have led retailers to look for custom plug and play solutions to meet consumer and operational challenges. A headless approach allows companies to wrap all of their logic and functionalities into one set of APIs that can then hook into any front-end channel/platform for specialization. This is becoming more popular because it opens up the solution choices and provides endless flexibility and scalability—all mandates for unified commerce.


What used to be a marketing catch phrase has morphed into information and technology initiatives that consider a customer-centered and digital-first approach to data integration and systems solutions. This means a re-evaluation of nearly every aspect of data input and output and how both are accessed by disciplines across an organization. It is no longer an option to have data flowing from various sources flowing into different areas and being stored and evaluated with various criteria. Centralizing first party behavioral and transactional data from shoppers, across channels in real-time is the goal. Historical selling, future trends and YOY planning for inventory and product offerings is pivoting to consumer-first,  product development second.     


Depending where a retailer is in their business development, some will require a step one approach to transformation. Understanding not just what systems and platforms are being used is not enough. CIOs are looking at how they work with each other, how they are being accessed and by whom. They are focused on deplatforming less flexible and scalable solutions and transitioning to more flexible architecture and providers. This is happening in lock step with an assessment of organizational processes and creating a more agile way of working vertically and horizontally throughout the business. What may have once been led by human resources and department leads, this type of workflow creation and technology enablement is now being driven with/by the information and technology c-suite executives. 


The pandemic led to store closings, cancelled or backlogged inventory, off-season merchandising, enhanced promotional activity and an array of other challenges for retailers. Many executives agree that becoming more proactive and less reactive would have minimized the pandemic’s impact on business if they had been able to anticipate early supply chain issues and manage the product from material to warehouse with greater detail and visibility.  Brands would have been able to shift development to other countries, re-route deliveries, re-merchandise key sales products with more readily available materials/hardware, minimize early season discounting and lean into core items that are less vulnerable to seasonality and offer higher margins that protect profitability.   Would have, should have, could have. But now they can. With CIOs and CTOs at the helm, retailers are building supply chain transparency with new exception-based AI intelligence that can trigger decision points earlier in the process. This is creating a more modern approach in the business model to be more behavior and predictive-driven, and less historical and plan-driven. 


This theme pretty much includes everything and more. Specifically, however, CIOs are focused on creating consistency and personalization for consumers. Consistency across channel shopping, in getting customer service (in store, on line, via chat, via phone, via text, through social), in inventory availability, in shipping speed, in security, privacy and even in loyalty and subscription services.  Personalization in recommendations and offerings, web site experiences, device and engagement preferences.  The customer experience includes the shopping journey, the marketing communication offerings and even the transactional & delivery methods and sale attribution. In sum, what brands offer, how they offer it, at what price should they offer it, when they offer it, to whom they offer it, and how they offer it. And it all requires information and technology. 

Indeed, everything from design to planning to allocation to sales and post purchase behavior is now within the scope of CIOs and CTOs to enable and deliver upon.  The pandemic was pivotal in revealing business process and system limitations. It was also pivotal in driving innovation and transformation. In addition, as the consumer emerged to become the center for brands, the once product-initiated linear process for retailers was turned on its head. New agile solutions were required to respond to channel agnostic, speed to market, always in stock, doorstep/car trunk delivery expectations. And the role of information and technology has evolved from being a luxury to being a requirement. So if you want to know what is relevant to retailers today, ask your Chief Information Officers and your Chief Technology Officers. Chances are they are already working on it. 

About Lou Sterzenbach

Lou Sterzenbach is an IT Retail Executive with over 25 years of experience. Lou served as VP of Applications, leading an organization of 120+ employees; managed an annual capital budget of $30 Million. His team launched a successful ecommerce website; led and designed the Point-of- Sale solution for over 1,100 locations. He is currently a partner at Columbus Consulting and serves as a consultant to IT retailers as Program Manager for large IT initiatives primarily focusing on IT Infrastructure.

About Columbus Consulting

Columbus Consulting delivers solutions that drive true value and have been transforming the retail and CPG industries for over two decades. We are a boutique retail consulting company of industry experts.   Our approach is simple, if you do it, we do it. We are more than consultants; we are experienced practitioners who actually sat in our clients’ seats. We understand the challenges, know what questions to ask and deliver the right solutions.  Columbus offers a unique, consumer-centric approach with an end-to-end perspective that bridges functional & organization silos from strategy to execution.  Our specialties include: unified commerce, planning & merchandising, sourcing & supply chain, inventory management, finance & operations, data & analytics, information technology and people & organization. Let us know how we can help you.  To learn more, visit COLUMBUSCONSULTING.COM.

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