Leading a 176-year-old US retail titan’s journey in India with new age talent and latest technology

Making an impact that matters: Sears Holdings India

Leading a 176-year-old US retail titan’s journey in India with new age talent and latest technology

Brick and mortar retail stores have been facing a tough challenge in view of rapid growth of online and ecommerce stores. In a situation like this, one giant company continues to hold its own, weathering storms after storms in its quest for return to profitability. Sears Holdings Corporation, the company that owns retail giants Sears and Kmart in the US, and is parent to Sears Holdings India, has always lived true to its mission of ‘Members First’. Since its inception in 2009 in Pune, India, Sears Holdings India(SHI) has been sitting at the heart of the retail tech revolution in delivering disruptive technology solutions to its parent company from its three development centers in India – Pune, Bengaluru and Hyderabad.

SHI has anchored its position to successfully contribute to SHC’s retail prowess by developing and maintaining business critical systems used by SHC and its subsidiaries. Among the gamut of solutions provided to Sears Holdings Corporation, SHI builds products that SHC uses in its stores, supply chain channels and other areas of the customer lifecycle. The organization also provides software technology for store applications, e-commerce, analytics and member insights along with omni-channel services that give the Sears and Kmart members a wonderful shopping experience. SHI helps members troubleshoot product issues and assists them with using and managing their products, creating a world of immersive experience for SHC’s loyalty program (Shop Your Way) members.

Our objective is to assist SHC in making the Sears retail experience simpler and smoother so that members can shop anytime, anywhere.

A candid chat with the leader who currently holds the reins of SHI:

What is the role that SHI plays in the overall business strategy of SHC?

SHI upholds the mission of serving, delighting and engaging our members while they shop their way, by employing the power of analytics and big data to personalize the shopping experience and customizing every member touchpoint through artificial intelligence. We communicate only relevant offers and discounts based on member shopping history by building applications that are self-learning and adaptive to the dynamics of retail shopping.

The idea is to provide an omni-channel experience that works out best for the member – cost-wise, time-wise and effort-wise. The one and only objective is to be obsessed with customer experience and build everything we do around it.

What are your plans for future?

The retail industry continues to evolve with the inclusion of artificial intelligence and Internet of Things as commonplace today. SHC is becoming one with this retail revolution through its new concept stores, use of data analytics and machine learning to understand members and provide targeted offers. We strive to contribute to this transformation through smart hiring from the pool of talent that are experts in cutting edge technologies. Our products, applications and services enhance the capabilities of our parent company to offer a rich product assortment at the best price and the most convenient and pleasant shopping experiences to members.

We pride ourselves in being part of the transformation story of a 176-year-old organization.

How do you view the consistent job losses that the IT industry is going through?

Well, first of all, loss of jobs has been the bitter truth in the domain of IT. The best way to fight this insecurity, according to me, is by building a diverse skill set in your life so that you are always relevant.

I urge everyone in the industry to keep investing in your skills; empower yourselves. It would be prudent to build a long-term plan that includes several technologies and diversification of skills. One must be actively engaged in continuous skill development to continue to be relevant.

Which technology according to you, will impact the output of retail sales in the coming future?

According to the U.S. Census data released in August 2017, 90% of all retail purchases in America were made in brick-and-mortar locations during Q4. In September last year, the National Federation of Retail in the US released a report that indicated that only 5% of Americans are primarily online shoppers – a majority of customers still prefer the in-store experience, albeit with a good amount of mobile or desktop research before heading to the stores.

This indicates a very important insight. While brick and mortar stores are being declared dead across all media, there is one aspect missing – the preference of the consumer to touch and feel a product. Here’s where Sears beats its competitors with a fusion of traditional and latest technologies – we call it integrated retail. The objective is to provide an immersive experience through omni-channel communication with members. A Sears member walks into our new concept appliance store, heads over to an interactive display, browses products, and is able to actually visualize how it would look in a kitchen setting. That’s the power of integrated member experience – one of the indicators of retail sales in the coming future.

Another latest introduction at Sears stores is an alternate payment option for members who do not have a credit card option. It is member experience that will bring footfall into brick and mortar stores – research indicates the same, and I believe with optimum use of our member database and self-learning analytics, we will be able to make the much-needed difference in the right way.

Further, we employ member analytics to understand each member’s individual preferences and use this knowledge to communicate targeted offers with incentives like FREECASH in points. We are defining machine models on member behavior that self-learn and identify preferences to give machine generated offers without human intervention.

To answer your question, what’s most important that will influence the output of retail sales in future is artificial intelligence, devices speaking to devices and humans, and vice-versa, and predictive analytics and big data – all converging to give members the least trouble while shopping from anywhere, anytime using any device, and the best experience.

Do you think the software currently used in stores is able to keep up with the fast pace of technology? What about legacy software? Is upgrade easy? How’s SHI contributing to this aspect?

Like any legacy organization, we have applications that are working on traditional technologies, but there is a consistent effort to move to new technologies such as cloud, IoT, etc. As we march ahead on the path of transformation for a return to profitability, we plan to move to distributed technologies, retire mainframe single boxes, data centers & other legacy software, and introduce cloud in a big way.

You mentioned that SHI offers opportunities to work on state-of-the-art technologies. Could you please name some of them and the areas where they are being applied?

Technologies like SPRING Boot, Mongo DB, Angular JS, Node JS are being used for software development, to build better service-oriented architectures, and mobile and web applications.

We use R Programming, SPARK, and Python for machine learning and deep learning to work with big data. Inferences from these analytics empower us to make informed decisions about various services, offers and communications that we send out through various member touchpoints. The mode of software delivery is agile. Insights about store/member profitability, optimum assortment and pricing levels and how to improvise on margins – are just a few examples of applications our programmers are working on.

From pricing applications to e-commerce programs, store performance systems to customer spend analysis, our web and mobile applications drive the retail tech network of SHC.

What kind of contribution is SHI doing towards making a difference in the world?

The CSR clause in Schedule VII of the Companies Act, 2013 mandates companies to spend at least 2% of their average net profit on CSR activities. The Act lists out a set of focus areas eligible under CSR. Companies may implement these activities taking into account the local conditions after seeking board approval.

At SHI, we are constantly on the lookout for avenues where we can make a difference at the right places, to the right people. In the recent past, we have helped various NGOs working for the upliftment of specially-abled children, women education and healthcare. From donating solar panels, refurbishment of a school for the underprivileged, donation of an NDYag laser unit, two biomedic scanners and two phaco machines to a state-run tertiary care hospital, we have donated approximately  0.13 million USD.

Our philosophy is to identify those organizations that are making a tangible and evident contribution to the society – and partner with them for fulfilling our corporate social responsibility.

Your message to our readers:

Sears Holdings Corporation is undergoing a transformation to return to profitability. Watch out for the turnaround story – for it’s going to be interesting and path-breaking.

As a part of the process of return to profitability, we continue to introduce innovative concepts that make use of the latest technologies to offer a better product assortment, best prices and offers, reach out to members on demand, whenever they want, wherever they want and in any way they prefer. Our most important objective is and will always be a commitment towards enhancing member experience beyond their expectations.

The keyword here is ‘beyond’. And the direction is ‘upwards and onwards’.

Dynamic Leadership

Mr Rakesh Chawla

Vice President and Managing Director

Rakesh is an alumnus of BITS Pilani, with over 32 years of experience in technology companies like IBM, Microsoft, Unisys, Amazon (Kindle and Market Place), to name a few. In these organizations, Rakesh successfully conceptualized, architected and established new companies and teams, developed new in-house capabilities and incubated new products and technologies. He has proved his mettle in successfully leading business units across areas of product design, architecture, product engineering, technical delivery management, solution development and program management, and he is known for being a hands-on leader.

Rakesh is an avid reader, an accomplished cook, a keen golfer, and loves to play the guitar and spend time with his family.

About SHI:

Launched in 2009 in Eon IT Park, Pune, India.

BLR center at Embassy Tech Village was launched in 2015

HYD center at Phoenix aVance Tech Park was launched in 2017

Key differentiators:

  • Being part of a 176-year-old old legacy organization is in itself a matter of great pride and learning.
  • Sears Holdings India offers a variety of latest technologies, including R Programming, SPARK, SPRING Boot, Mongo DB, Angular JS, Node JS, Hadoop, Scala etc. We have many teams working on state-of-the-art applications using these technologies.
  • With a great culture built on our seven cultural beliefs, “Members First”, “Own It”, “Embrace Feedback”, “Show Pride”, “Learn and Innovate”, “Earn Trust” and “Be Authentic”, we provide our associates with a positive value-based working environment. Each of these vaiss are self-explanatory and we wholly abide by them.
  • There is no way to retain an employee if one does not provide opportunities to enhance knowledge and experience. We provide a fertile learning ground to associates with a choice of in-class and online trainings, and internal expert talks on various subjects. Associates get ample opportunities for experiential learning on numerous challenging projects while on the job.
  • Sears Holdings is going through a huge retail transformation under the able leadership of Eddie Lampert and being a part of the turnaround story is a matter of pride for all of us.

Awards and Accolades

  • SHI was recognized by the India CSR Awards in 2016 for three categories under “Recognizing CSR Innovation & Leadership”:
  • National Digital Literacy Mission
  • Lila Poonawala Foundation Donation
  • Donation of Laser Unit to Sassoon Hospital Pune
  • SHC won the 2013 Global Excellence in Outsourcing award for establishing best practices of outsourcing with SHI
  • Awarded with the 7th Employer Branding Awards – Best Employer 2012 – 2013: Award for Talent Management
  • KRDWG (Knowledge Resource Development & Welfare Group) IT Innovation and Excellence Award 2012.
  • SHI was the proud winner of the Computer Society of India award (CSI)
  • SHI won 3 awards at 4th Asia’s Best Employer Brand Awards (in Singapore):-
  • Award for Best HR Strategy in line with Business
  • 7th in Asia’s Best Employer Brand
  • Award for Talent Management

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