A Chat With Rob French, Chief Digital Commerce Officer, Décathlon Canada
In this exclusive interview with Total Retail, Rob French, chief digital commerce officer at Décathlon Canada, discusses the next big digitization initiatives in retail and shares his method for identifying innovation opportunities.
Avenue Code: Tell us about your personal career path. How did you get to where you are today?
Rob French: My career began in England, where I was born and raised. I wasn’t naturally inclined toward academics. Instead, I wanted to work in the market as early as possible and learn to be a leader. I cultivated management skills in the hotel industry for three years before moving to Canada, completing my university certification at McGill, and gaining experience in using online marketing to boost business performance.
The key to my career success is the network I created. I've made many connections that have led to great opportunities in e-commerce at agencies and major retailers. Now at Décathlon, my niche is e-commerce, sales and marketing.
AC: How have your digital initiatives related to commerce and marketing pivoted since COVID-19?
RF: We shifted all of our focus to e-commerce, where our two biggest concerns were stock availability and transport speed. We set up backup transportation options and monitored our customer behaviors very carefully. We also kept ourselves current on the evolving realities of the lockdown in various locations so that we could time our offerings accordingly.
For example, we offered curbside pickup as soon as possible, and when our stores opened, we had to quickly adjust to a huge demand for bicycles. We've learned from all of these challenges and adapted to sustain our supply through the ongoing realities of the pandemic.
AC: What are the most important factors in sustaining and growing retail and consumer brands during and after the pandemic?
RF: Having a healthy P&L is important, but at the end of the day, money is less important than people. Every business should make sure its employees are happy. This is especially key during the pandemic because sustainability hinges on people. Leadership needs to focus on finding ways to motivate and retain employees and hire when possible. Among other things, this means being transparent and putting the keys into the hands of the team so they can help you lead.
AC: What are the biggest trends we’re seeing in retail globally?
RF: For Canada in particular, enabling speedy delivery is a priority since it’s the second largest country in the world. At Décathlon, we’re working on testing same-day delivery in areas of Montréal and second-day delivery in Toronto. We’re also adding fulfillment centers and implementing in the future a ship-from-store model so consumers can get products faster.
Mobile first remains a priority when it comes to user experience, creating a new channel and improved conversion rate. We’re focusing on the best-in-class technologies and design, but there’s still a lot of room to master mobile for e-commerce.
Finally, it’s key to stay abreast of emerging e-marketing channels. For example, Gary Vaynerchuck recently announced that voice advertising is becoming increasingly important because customers want to get products fast through voice search rather than text search. We’ll see this and other innovations continuing to gain importance in retail.
AC: In what ways are you digitizing brick-and-mortar experiences at Décathlon?
RF: We’re bringing in an application that gives autonomy to customers to scan items, pay, and leave; we’re also putting apps in our employees’ hands so that they can help customers find inventory at neighboring stores and have it shipped to their location. Our applications are integral to supporting customer satisfaction as well as to upselling cross-sellers.
We’re also seeing in Décathlon retail stores in other countries robots help us improve inventory management. In our Singapore R&D center, we’re using RFID technology that helps customers scan and pay for items; it’s also capable of performing inventory checks for the entire store, which means we can make items available to customers within minutes instead of hours.
We’re also using artificial intelligence to improve in-store and online forecasting, using the data to support future in-store digital and our e-commerce initiatives.
AC: From your work history, it’s evident that you’re able to identify new business opportunities others overlook. What's the key to your success?
RF: The key is to recognize what to exploit vs. what to explore. It’s important to explore opportunities carefully before investing in them, and it’s equally important to keep this process fast so that you can exploit something as soon as you’ve vetted it. For us, B-to-C e-commerce is an area we’re exploiting, but we’re simultaneously exploring other avenues like B-to-B and marketplaces.
AC: What are your recommendations for companies building an innovation strategy?
RF: When it comes to digital innovation, my advice is to always build a strong business case. Technology is never cheap, so it’s important to do competitive analysis, complete a financial analysis, evaluate market and consumer needs, etc. It’s also important to seek advice from fellow entrepreneurs, businesses that aren’t competitors, and executives and employees within your own company.
AC: What's the key to successful strategic partnerships?
RF: I always look at where partners fit in terms of culture and brand, especially if the collaboration is consumer-facing. For me, partnerships should be based on DNA alignment, customer satisfaction, and quality over price. I also seek alignment in process. I believe we shouldn’t be afraid to try a soft launch of a MVP and optimize from there rather than waiting for perfection.
AC: What are you personally most passionate about in your career?
RF: I’m passionate about challenges that I can transform into successes. When I first joined Décathlon, it was like buying a car with chipped paint, an old engine, and missing keys. At first, it was hard to know what to prioritize, but I had the opportunity to create a vision that my team can support, and now we’re transforming the car, one piece at a time.
AC: What is your vision for the future of Décathlon?
RF: This is a very exciting time for us because everyone in the company, from retail to logistics to supply, has a clear vision for our future. We’ve significantly improved our technology, and now we’re introducing customer applications and even strategizing our own marketplace.
I don’t think any retailer today offers everything in one place, from new products and second-life equipment to ski passes, virtual and physical fitness activities, etc. We couldn’t do any of this without a strong tech foundation, but now that it is in place, we’re ready to innovate.
AC: What advice would you give to emerging entrepreneurs?
RF: Always listen. To be an entrepreneur is to learn from others and carefully understand situations before making decisions. It’s also important to remember that money is not always the bottom line — you need to consider the people you work with and the people you want to hire so that you’re learning and making the right decisions. Everyone will make mistakes, so don’t be afraid to try new solutions. Just be attentive to learning.
Alfredo Moro is a business development specialist at Avenue Code, a software consultancy delivering end-to-end solutions.