(The following article is property of Avenue Code, LLC, and was originally published with permission at TotalRetail on April 27, 2018.) 

While in New York City, I had the opportunity to interview Martin Gilliard, chief information officer, senior executive vice president at Barneys New York. I'm excited to share his fresh perspective on retail and the ever-evolving role of CIOs, which is informed by his expertise in technology and other diverse studies.

Holly Vander Wall: When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? I have a feeling that only a few CIOs know they will go down that path. Do you agree? Why did you become a CIO?

Martin Gilliard: I wouldn’t say I knew I wanted to be a CIO, but I always knew I wanted to solve challenging problems. Becoming the CIO of Barneys wasn’t about the role; it was about the opportunity. What I do differs from the traditional CIO role because I also operate the e-commerce business, employing my technical expertise to change how we present products to customers. Everything is about the customer. In my opinion, retail isn't dying, it’s transforming. What’s killing retail isn't e-commerce, but the inability to adapt to it.

HVW: What expectations did you have for the CIO role, and what opportunities opened up for you when you took it on?

MG: When people talk about a digital transformation, they’re often referring to changing technology, but actually, changing technology is the easy part. What’s harder is changing the perspective of the teams. The people who win in tech are the people who can transform and execute quickly, and part of that means making fast decisions and delivering quality products. What I’ve realized over the past 20 years is that the No. 1 way to make that happen is to get everyone aligned and in agreement. E-commerce demands a different type of executive — one who needs to understand not only the data and technical components, but also the customer component.

HVW: How have you adapted to this evolving role?

MG: It's more about what I've been able to bring to the role. When you work in retail, where margins aren’t big and there are pressures from different types of competitors, getting something wrong can be very risky. Are we brave enough to take a chance? Can we create an environment that allows us to fail and try new things? I’ve invested my time to build trust across the organization, solicit opinions, and understand what sales look like. If the internet doesn’t work, we can’t process transactions in the stores. If all the little components don’t work together, we can’t deliver the experience we want. So for us, it’s important to have our different teams get together and talk strategy in order to present one unified experience for the customer.

My team and I actually go to our stores every month, not just as employees, but as customers. It’s easy to only consider the online customer when you work on the tech side of e-commerce. By going into the stores and distribution center, my team and I are able to think critically about the entire process from start to finish, including what happens once you place an order online and what that looks like in distribution centers. It’s easy to become disconnected, so it’s important to me that my team understands each moving part.

The Barneys Downtown store in Manhattan. Image courtesy of Barneys.

HVW: IT is transforming and evolving. Do you feel the CIO role is changing at the same speed? What have you observed as an innovative leader who is a part of a new wave of CIOs?

MG: Different organizations have different CIO roles, but in general, we’re seeing CIOs take more of a leadership role in business transformation. There’s always a balance between what we aspire to do and the quality of what we actually do. The success for anyone in a CIO role is not about the number of things they do, but the quality of the things they do. I think pricing and e-commerce are just variables. For us, our focus is on how we actually get a full view of who our customers are and how we can meet their needs. We need to be able to deliver to all types of customers, whether they shop online, in-store or both. Our main goal for the upcoming year is to mimic on a mobile phone the same feeling customers get when they walk into our store. We’re paying attention to all details of the in-person experience so that we can translate them into the online experience.

HVW: How have you tried to implement innovation at Barneys?

MG: First of all, I strongly believe that innovation isn't just one person’s job — everyone needs to be committed to it. Near the end of October, we hosted an in-store and online event called thedrop@barneys. We dropped 30 capsule collections geared more towards younger customers and created an in-store experience that actually went viral because people were able to meet designers in-store while interacting with the brand and product. Traffic almost doubled in-store as well as online because of the amount of engagement. We were also able to introduce a lot of new customers to our database as fans of designers discovered we carry their brands.

thedrop@barneys event. Image courtesy of Barneys.

HVW: How do you stay up-to-date with current technologies and trends?

MG: I tend to read about a variety of topics quite regularly, while also connecting with people who are problem solvers in a variety of industries. I talk with people who work in finance and solve security issues, as well as people who work in the auto industry. I like getting a perspective on other industries to see how they solve problems.

HVW: Is there any brand whose operation methods you admire?

MG: When it comes to brands I admire, I mainly think about where customers spend their time, because that indicates what they want. If I know a customer goes into our store and shops online, I look at how much time this customer spends with us. If a customer spends a certain amount of time online and doesn’t end up buying the product, that means we didn’t have the product selection they wanted. We’re not a discount company, and our customers buy at full price because we carry the selection they want. I myself shop at Barneys, and the thing I appreciate about Barneys is that it has taught me how to shop. Now, I enjoy seeing how I can give that same experience to our customers.

HVW: At what moment at Barneys did you feel like you were accomplished? What was your “aha” moment?

MG: Accomplishment is an ongoing process. For me, signs of success revolve around how my team works together and how we communicate. Are we willing to take chances? Are we willing to think outside of the box? On a macro level, successful team interactions translate to building great experiences for customers. The businesses that will succeed in retail are those that put the customer first, which is our ultimate goal.


Holly Vander Wall

Holly Vander Wall is the Director of Marketing and Client Services at Avenue Code. She is an eCommerce enthusiast, a marketing guru, and an animal lover.