Giant Eagle CIO Kirk Ball on what’s fresh in the digital grocery experience
Kirk Ball, EVP and CIO of grocery chain Giant Eagle, sat with CIO Leadership Live host Maryfran Johnson and discussed optimizing a superior customer experience, how digital retail innovations are evolving, the global search for talent, and the benefits of C-suite support.
Based in Pittsburgh and privately owned, grocery chain Giant Eagle, with 34,000 employees across 570 locations, raced to deliver new digital experiences and buying capabilities for their customers during those intensely challenging early months of the pandemic. And it’s during that time when Ball joined, in June 2020.
“The pandemic certainly accelerated the growth and adoption of buying online, and that certainly caused us to accelerate the landscape and breadth of the offering we have,” he says. “We had to mature that offering very quickly to handle the scale and scope of demand, and the ability to personalize the digital interaction with households and customers.”
With annual revenues of around $11 billion, Giant Eagle also decided to disband their corporate office—not temporarily but permanently. So it’s a completely virtual enterprise, and all efforts were made to maintain the close-knit culture Giant Eagle had, as well as transform the culture to one that’s more proactive and assertively aligned with business partners.
“We worked really hard as a technology group to walk a mile in our business partners’ shoes, and understand what kind of objectives each is trying to accomplish in their particular area of responsibility,” he says. “We are here to help you be successful, and that’s gone a long way in deepening relationships where they support and help us to be successful and vice versa. They know we are there to do that with them.”
Another evolving priority is their ability to effectively manage data and create an analytics platform that provides insights into the stories the data is telling, and, in turn, reveal those stories to decision makers across different functions in the business.
“We give them more opportunity to peer around the corner as how trends evolve in their particular area so they can either do a course correction or accelerate in a particular way, whether that’s in growth of a category of sales or driving some efficiency in terms of our supply chain,” he says. “That analytics platform is consistently growing in importance.”
CIO Leadership Live host Maryfran Johnson, recently spoke with Ball about effective digital retail strategies, aligning with the CEO and optimizing the customer experience. Watch the full video below for more insights.
On the CEO as an enabler: I haven’t worked with other CEOs across the grocery retail landscape, but as the CEO, [Laura Karet] is incredibly brilliant. She is very curious and takes a genuine interest in technology. Whether it’s the ability to personalize a customer’s experience, create a very rich loyalty program to interact with customers, use technology to drive efficiency and effectiveness for our team members, or her analytic capability, she recognizes that technology is a competitive differentiator in the industry we’re in. It’s awesome to work with somebody like that. She and the whole executive leadership team have been big supporters in investing in technology so we can create competitive differentiation in the marketplace.
On IT talent: When I got here, I recognized we had a lot of very capable people. In many cases, though, they needed a bit more support, encouragement and empowerment. The pandemic, I think, helped us realize that all of our team members in North America remained very productive, or even gained a bit of productivity, as we went to a completely remote work situation. I think that helped open the mindset of the organization to say whether you’re in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati or anywhere, let’s continue to try and expand the areas in which we search for talent. We then started a journey to open a global capability center in Bangalore, India because we recognized there’s a wealth of talent there. Now we have up to 125 team members over there, but we’re searching for more. We’ll still have a rich, robust presence in North America but this allows us to create a global technology team. It exposes different cultures and approaches to technology. I think that enriches the capability of the whole team.
On emerging tech trends: One thing I have a high degree of interest in, and I think we are curious about in our organization, is augmented reality; virtual reality may be a little bit further out. I think something like up to 95% of business for grocers occurs in a store setting. That implies there’s a lot of opportunity to continue enriching the experience. So how do you animate inanimate objects in a store to create a deeply immersive experience for customers as they come into that store? That ability to bring additional information about product on shelf to life is added promotional information. I can tell you where the source was from, how long an item has been on shelf, some things you can do with this product you may not know about, and so on. That ability to augment reality is quite interesting. Once we figure out ways to maybe have contact lenses or glasses that could see that virtual reality and make it a hands-free experience, I think there is something to that.
On data analytics: The first thing we’ve done is put up a master data management capability. What that’s resulted in, for example, is we no longer have people in a meeting with different reports than others on the same topic, who then spend time arguing because there isn’t a master system of record for that particular data object. We’re also giving people introspection into various sets of data, the way the business operates, so they don’t have to take one set of data. The way the business runs is you have to look at all of those sets of information together to make a collective understanding. Do you have the right product in the right location at the right price, creating the right margin? Putting data objects together the way that the business runs has been very impactful for our business partners to better understand item and product margin, how products are moving through a particular store, and if we have the right products in the right store to match the taste and preferences of that local community.
On leadership: I was always big about frequently walking around and stopping by peoples’ cubes and being informal. And I guess you take that for granted a little bit. I realized, as we got into the virtual world, just how important it is for that frequency of communication when you can’t do it in person. But it’s still important. So I meet with those that I work with directly three times a week, and the leadership team once a week. I also meet with the whole enterprise group once every three weeks. So there’s a frequency of communication because it’s important for those you work with to be noticed, recognized, and listened to. The whole experience with our global capability center has just reinforced that. It’s very important for people to have their ideas heard, and to be able to contribute to the development of the strategy so it becomes their strategy, not my strategy. There’s so much power in that. People buy in and they get energized when they have a chance to contribute like that.