Scott Emmons is Head of the Innovation Lab at Neiman Marcus Group, where he identifies and invests in technologies that will enhance both the overall consumer experience and the ability of NMG sales associates to connect with shoppers.
Avenue Code: Thanks for joining us today, Scott! Can you share how the Innovation Lab at Neiman Marcus came to be?
Scott Emmons: I’ve personally been with Neiman Marcus for about 12 years, in various roles. Prior to the Innovation Lab, I founded the enterprise architecture team here, which was really focused on innovating and modernizing by using technology to tackle problems. Of course, we were doing this in the back office, but we were also paying attention to what was happening for our customers. This was really the origin of the Innovation Lab, and a little over 6 years ago, we got it kicked off. My work operates across all areas of the business and involves collaboration with colleagues in a wide variety of roles. At this point it’s hard to imagine doing anything else - the last 6 years have been amazing.
AC: Tell us about some of the things that have come from the Innovation Lab, such as Memory Mirror.
SE: This technology is a great example of what we’re up to here. We have to look at investments from the business side and the customer side, as well as from the perspective of the technology teams and the underlying infrastructure required to make the ideas successful. My key role is to keep these visions aligned. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about Memory Mirror in particular because the concept so clearly solves real problems for the customer.
When we tell people for the first time about a mirror that allows you to try on an outfit in a different color or pattern, record a makeover session, or try on different sunglasses and then remember the results, we always get the same response: “Why haven’t we always done this?” The answer, of course, is that it took some very innovative technology that was realistic and workable for the customer. When I first met with MemoMi, they had developed it. They had amazing patented technology they were using to deliver the mirror experience, but they didn’t necessarily have the retail background to deliver it successfully.
It became a great partnership in which both parties were very receptive to feedback and collaboration, and after nearly a year spent perfecting the Mirror, we introduced it into stores. Our expectation was that Memory Mirror would primarily interest younger people, but in fact, it was appealing to shoppers across all age groups. As with any new technology, there’s some shyness about trying it, so it’s critical for the sales associates to introduce it and ensure it’s accessible.
AC: How do you find these kinds of gems that are not fully developed yet? You’re helping them get to the finish line and achieve their potential. What is your vision as the creator?
SE: That’s really a major question in its own right. For me, it always comes down to the same question: does it really solve a problem for the customer? Oftentimes you find technologies that feel like solutions looking for problems - but every once in a while, you hit upon those that are actually doing something for the customer. And of course, our sales associates are a very important part of what makes Neiman Marcus special. So here again, it’s about finding technologies that enhance their ability to be great at what they do. When I find a technology that solves a real customer problem and enables our associates to go to the next level, I know it’s a winner.
Of course, demonstrating potential ROI is also critical - in the innovation business, you’re never going to get a "yes" right away, especially if what you’re proposing means changing the way things have been done. You have to be persistent when you know the idea has potential. ROI, of course, can mean a lot of different things and isn’t easy to quantify. Especially as a luxury retailer, part of what we’re investing in is the customer experience, regardless of whether there is a direct profit attached.
AC: It seems that the Innovation Lab has been producing features to enhance consumers’ in-store experiences. Much of retail is currently shifting from brick and mortar stores to online transactions. How does the Innovation Lab bridge the gap between physical and digital consumer experiences?
SE: In the early years of the Lab, we had a greenfield opportunity to introduce customer-facing technology. Of course, we had back-office tech in place, but we were fortunate enough to have a whole new opportunity to introduce customer-facing tech coupled with a mature digital organization. This afforded us some valuable resources we could bring to bear when it came to delivering these experiences in store. As the pendulum has swung more toward digital initiatives in the last several years, the larger and faster growth for retail in general has been on the digital side.
Our thinking at the Lab has been to identify what we do well in stores and create it in a way that a digital-only customer can have the same feeling and experience. I see myself as a bridge between these two channels, and many of my colleagues outside the Innovation Lab are thinking the same way. The goal for us is to blur the line to the point where we deliver an amazing customer experience that is recognizably Neiman Marcus, regardless of where customers are shopping.
AC: At what point did you realize you were on the right track with the Innovation Lab?
SE: The confirmation came fairly early on. We spent the first four months or so building out concepts in the Lab without much idea of whether the larger business would be receptive. But during our first show-and-tell with the CEO, it became abundantly clear that we were on the right track and would have support to try what we wanted to try. Of course, we didn’t create the Lab to innovate just for the sake of innovation, but there was an appetite across the wider business for technology that would go beyond order-taking. We’ve done so responsibly, of course - I anticipate further growth of the team, but historically I’ve been the full-time guy in the Lab, rallying the troops around whatever projects were active at the time across all areas of the business. Because we've generated only minimal expenses that are directly related to active, high-priority projects, we’ve been successful and stayed productive. We also try to be creative - we work with interns, in-house staff, and our solution providers themselves. The outcome has really been remarkable. If you look at the way our entire IT organization runs today, you'll see we’ve evolved to be more Agile, more collaborative, and freer from process for its own sake.
AC: Do you have any closing thoughts for us today?
SE: My final thought is this - retail in general is experiencing a revival. For the last couple years, the story has been one of retail doom and gloom, and that’s changed recently. Retail in the end is about delivering what the customer wants and needs, and a lot of retailers get that. I’m excited to work for one of them!
AC: Thank you so much, Scott! It’s inspiring to hear what you’re up to at the Innovation Lab, especially in terms of the alignment between business and tech to enhance customer experience.
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.