Tom Litchford may have joined NRF as Vice President of Retail Technologies only a few weeks ago, but he has certainly hit the ground running. Drawing on more than three decades of retail technology experience, Tom is already knee-deep in final preparations for the NRFtech IT Leadership Summit next month, where leading retail CIOs from across the country will gather to discuss the latest tech challenges in the industry.
That’s easy! They say that retail gets into your blood, and it’s true. My first job was with Red Lobster (Darden Restaurants) and then I moved to Maas Brothers, one of the Federated Department Stores (now Macy’s). Coming out of college with a computer science degree, it was just natural to start my official career with NCR where I could apply technology to address many of the business inefficiencies back then. After 18 years with NCR working primarily with store systems, then 14 with Microsoft where I was able to gain experiences in marketing, industry management, and channel development across multiple retail verticals and departmental disciplines, I was thrilled when NRF approached me about this opportunity.
This is an exceptional chance to join a great team that is focused on advocacy, communications, and education – and working directly with some of the most influential CIOs in the industry. The rules have changed since the Great Recession. CIOs no longer just manage the company’s internal systems; they must collaborate with other business leaders – especially the CMO – in providing the digital technologies and tools to facilitate direct relationships with customers. NRF, and particularly the Communities team, is in a unique position to drive that collaboration.
What’s your top priority as you get started in your new role?
I think there are a couple great opportunities here. On the ARTS side, it’s making sure the proper resources and investments are there to continue to deliver industry standards and products that reduce IT costs – from technology acquisition and life-cycle maintenance, to taking the complexity out of system integration.
ARTS has had a phenomenal impact in the industry over the last 20 years, especially with its Unified POS de facto standard, and its data model that facilitates the exchange of data in real time. The need for standards is even greater today – whether it’s updating existing content, tackling the bigger issues around mobile or the need for some structure around Big Data.
There’s also the community aspect of my role and developing and enhancing strategic programs, activities and relationships that facilitate collaboration across the ARTS, CIO Council, Shop.org, and RAMA communities. That work will start with the upcoming NRFtech Summit.
The NRFtech IT Leadership Summit is coming up soon in August and will be attended by 100 of the top retail CIOs in the country. What are you personally most looking forward to at the event?
The networking and learning experiences. This summit is, in my opinion, the industry’s premier event for IT leaders. This is the one event where I could not only build relationships with some of the industry’s most influential people, but also hear firsthand the top-of-mind issues these leaders are tackling as they implement various technology solutions.
Tell us a little bit about the state of the retail technology industry and what you’ll be focused on at NRFtech. What do you think are the most pressing challenges and promising opportunities for retail CIOs right now?
Mobile, mobile, and mobile. Throw in a little Big Data and social, and you pretty much have the technology landscape. I remember Bill Gates’s early vision was “a computer on every desk and in every home.” Well, as the industry CTO at my prior job put it, you now have “a computer in the hands of every shopper.” This is having profound effects on the industry. Consumers are incredibly knowledgeable and truly powerful. They control the shopping journey, and the retailer must be ready and able to engage the consumer on their terms – when they want, where they want, and on what device they want. The CIO’s challenge – aside from traditional IT principals around data privacy and security, system deployment and manageability – is to rapidly build new core competencies in customer facing solution development as well as mining volumes of external unstructured data to gain insight into their customers’ preferences. I’m looking forward to discussing these issues in detail at NRFtech.
What’s your favorite thing about working in the retail industry?
The people. The friendships and relationships developed over my career make it fun to get up and go to work every day. And it never gets boring. Every day can bring new and unique challenges – like I mentioned, it just gets into your blood. I can’t imagine a more fulfilling experience than working with these folks and being able to solve real business issues.
What’s your advice for young professionals getting started in retail technology?
A couple of things. First, keep an open mind about technology and strive to absorb everything you can. I’ve seen too many people develop tunnel vision because they’re captivated by their favorite company or emerging technology. Technology is moving so fast that for an IT professional to be relevant to the business, he or she must be able to apply technology to drive efficiencies across business processes, or perhaps more importantly, differentiate the brand through better customer experiences.
And speaking of relevancy, you’ll never understand the business sitting in your office. Make it a point to know the store ops people, the marketers, the merchandisers, and get to know the challenges they face in doing their job on a daily basis. Immerse yourself in the business.
What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?
Well, in this age of the Internet and social networking, I’d be surprised if people didn’t know this already, but I used to be a certified EMT and firefighter. Those credentials have long since lapsed, but I continue to have a passion for emergency services. I currently sit on the board of directors for Seattle and King County’s Medic One Foundation, which provides training, service quality oversight, equipment, and research to arguably the best paramedics in the world. I believe that no matter where you work or play, it’s important to give back to the community, and this is an opportunity to help people at their greatest, most urgent time of need.
That’s another great thing about the retail industry–the power to make a difference in communities around the world through great organizations like the Retail Orphan Initiative (RetailROI) and Fair Factories Clearinghouse. There are some great people in the industry doing great things to make a real humanitarian and environmental impact, and I think it’s important to be a part of it.