Safeway is a US-based supermarket chain founded in 1915. At the beginning of 2015, the company merged with rival Albertsons, making it the 2nd largest grocery supermarket in North America with more than 2,200 retail stores and 250,000 employees. In 2011, VP of IT Application Development, Sineesh Keshav, was brought onboard to launch and run Safeway’s Just 4 U loyalty program — a first-of-its-kind customer-facing program based entirely on customer engagement using digital channels. The project went from concept to launch in 18 months, and Sineesh’s role now involves leading application development for store, marketing, supply chain and HR systems. As the latest subject of our “IT Visionaries” series, Sineesh shares his experiences in modernizing a very traditional brick-and-mortar retailer, and why there is no longer a divide between IT and the business.

1. Your development team works with all lines of business at Safeway. How can IT work better with business teams, and vice versa?

It all comes down to building relationships. I’ve seen solid business ideas that come from IT teams that don’t see the light of day because the decision-makers on both sides don’t have a “trusted advisor” kind of relationship going. This was something I sought to build from day one here. We were going on this journey never seen before at Safeway: grounding data, web and mobile outside of store walls, taking shopping behavior and engagement and extending it into a pre-shopping behavior. The business was as brick and mortar as you could get. People were not used to thinking digitally, so there was a lot of effort in getting all of the executives in the C-Suite up to speed and on-board with the Just 4 U program. It really comes down to relationships you have with business partners.

In today’s day and age, there’s not a clean divide between IT and the business. It sounds clichéd, but IT is the business. Any company that doesn’t use technology to redefine themselves and keep up with the times is bound to go obsolete. One sign of that is the growing blurring of the distinction between the CMO and the CIO. Any IT leader today has to be able to straddle that divide and be able to talk the business language, and vice-versa.

2. What do you think is the key to building apps that actually provide value?

We focus on an omni-channel experience. Customers have come to expect it.We want to start their experience with us on a web channel, continue on a mobile channel and finish with a conversion in the brick & mortar setting.We give our customers a lot of options in how to engage with us. If you look at our loyalty app, for instance, we show some personalized offers, and lots of other information for customers to sift through if they choose to. We’re all about the concept of “the endless aisle” as it relates to advertising, marketing, and offers. It works well for us in that we’re constantly trying to show customers what is relevant to them personally at the forefront — the offers specific to them based on the data we have available. But they can always choose a dive deeper into the full content if they want to see what else is available.

3. What can be done to create better apps for customers?

It has to start with the customer experience. Too often, enterprise mobile apps represent the internal organizational structure of a company, which the customer really doesn’t care about. The customer experience is sort of guided along by how we’re set up internally. I have to admit that I see it in our own app. For instance, the eCommerce section is very different from the Just For U section, which is different from the mobile offerings for the pharmacy. There’s no reason it should work that way, and there are opportunities for improvements.

Also, mobile has evolved without standardization. At Safeway, we’ve tried to build a standard for ourselves and stick with it. We made the decision to not go after the long tail and focus on iOS and Android. That means giving up some of the user base. It’s not huge, but it’s not an ideal situation to be in when you know you’re excluding a section of your customer base.

4. What kind of challenges do you face creating employee-facing apps?

For us, employee apps present unique challenges. With the merger with Albertsons, we’re looking at 250K employees across the company. Anything from rolling a training program to having store associates complete requisite task lists can become complicated. We’re looking at mobile devices as the platform to get that reach. For example, we’re looking at how the platform can power our communication mechanics into the stores. A store manager can walk the floor and spend time with customers and check in on a mobile device, versus spending all their time in the back room on a computer trying to do the same tasks. We’re very excited about bringing mobile into the workplace. Also, our retail portal will be on the platform when it rolls out and will be mobile.

5. What kind of employee-facing apps are you looking to build on

We have hundreds of applications that we’ve developed over the years over multiple platforms that cater to specific retail employee-facing needs. Perfect example: the slip & fall business process (if a customer falls in a store). The store manager has to fill out a form that goes into risk management database, which then goes through a workflow approval process before we decide what to do with the claim. Sometimes we use paper forms, sometimes we build something non-standard. This is a process that a mobile app could solve. Historically, these kind of specific workflows are left to shadow IT or the business since they’re not large enough to make the cut on broad IT investments year after year. But it’s still a need that needs to be met. Our hope is to use to build apps, hundreds of them, and have a standard platform to house these on. The platform presents us with the perfect opportunity to do that.

6. Safeway has been in the retail business since 1915. What do you think is the biggest challenge for enterprise retail companies?

The biggest challenge is the amount of legacy or traditional IT systems most of us have that are running some of our core functions. Today anyone with a credit card or expense account can get a cloud-based application and that’s our competition benchmark. We’re competing with companies that can take advantage of that. Shadow IT organizations are here as well and they are competing with the traditional IT organizations. Tying back to what I said earlier, IT leaders of today need to be those trusted advisors of business, yet still be open to the idea of not necessarily in-sourcing everything, and finding that perfect balance between total cost of ownership and speed to market. That’s part of how comes into play. We’ll be able to speed up B2E development significantly by moving to a visual interface of programming. We’ll be able to roll out apps quicker and with the merger, we’re expecting to see a lot of them. Not huge apps but small, simple, web or mobile, form-based workflow based apps.

7. What features or services in digital retail will we start to see more of in in the next few years?

We’ll see a lot more companies jumping on the IoT bandwagon in upcoming years and it will be exciting to see how it will play out in the retail space. I’m keeping an eye on the Amazon Dash announcement and what they’re doing there. First we had brick & mortar, then came in the digital channels. Now we’re saying we can do e-commerce without the ‘e’ in it. Take out the computer and mobile device and just have a button click — it’s fascinating. We’re talking about bringing it back to the physical world, but without a mobile device or laptop. That’s scary and exciting at the same time!

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