In a post-COVID-19 world, the brick-and-mortar retail model is even more in danger. What does the future of retail and shopping look like? How will companies use technology to manage inventory differently? How does technology provide consumers with a retail experience — from online stylists to sales associates? In this episode, we’ll explore the future of retail through the eyes of Sharmeelee Bala, Head of Global Engineering for End to End Supply Chain and Enterprise Data and Analytics, Gap Inc.
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The Girls in Tech Podcast is produced by Tote + Pears.
Music By: Adrian Dominic Walther
Featured In This Episode
Sharmeelee Bala is the Head of Global Engineering for End to End Supply Chain and Enterprise Data and Analytics for Gap Inc. In this role, she is responsible for providing leadership, strategy, and vision in the development, design, and implementation of all global systems that support “product to market” functions for all the different brands, as well as driving the data and analytics strategy for Gap Inc. Sharmeelee is also the Head of Gap Inc’s Hyderabad Development Center.
Prior to this role, she spent almost 20 years with Walmart Labs in various leadership roles in the technology division. She also spent two years as an expat in India responsible for building a leading technology development center in Bengaluru for Walmart Labs.
Sharmeelee is very passionate about encouraging young women and girls to seek interest and careers in STEM. Sharmeelee holds a Master of Science degree in Engineering Technology from BITS Pilani, India.
Adriana Gascoigne (00:00):
I’m Adriana Gascoigne, founder of Girls in Tech. And this is the Girls in Tech Podcast where we’re discussing the ways tech is always evolving and helping the world evolve too. Listen in, get inspired, and learn how you can use your skills to create the change you want to see in the world. Here’s your host, Zuzy Martin-Aly.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (00:21):
There’s a company that will value you for you. There’s a tech job where your skillset and unique perspectives are appreciated. By inviting you to share the real you, the Girls in Tech Jobs Board helps you find that job so that you can take the next step in your career with confidence. Go to jobs.girlsintech.org today. That’s jobs.girlsintech.org.
Sharmeelee Bala (00:45):
Anyone wanting to get into retail. And if they’re interested in technology in retail, the first thing that I would tell them is be curious. Try to understand the industry, try to understand how it’s changing, evolving every day because understanding that is very important for them to do any kind of role that they want to do.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (01:06):
Let’s face it. Retail was facing an inevitable pivot long before we’d ever heard of COVID-19, but the pandemic who’s sadly shuttered some retailers and caused the rest of them to change has also pushed the industry to modernize and adapt seemingly overnight. COVID has also exposed weaknesses in global supply chains forcing retailers to take a closer look at sourcing, warehousing and distribution, and it’s pushed retailers to offer new ways to shop while maintaining a strong connection with shoppers. Contactless pickups, virtual stylists, in-home shopping and online experiences that include augmented reality have become the new norm.
Retailers have scrambled and in many cases succeeded to provide a personalized experience to consumers they may actually never see in person — and technology is leading the way. I’d love to see what the future of retail looks like. So today, who better to speak to than Sharmeelee Bala, head of Global Engineering for End to End Global Supply Chain and Enterprise Data and Analytics at Gap Inc. She has fascinating insights on global systems that support product to market in today’s shifted environment. Here’s my conversation with Sharmeelee.
Sharmeelee, we are so excited to have you on The Girls in Tech Podcast today. Thank you for speaking with us.
Sharmeelee Bala (02:27):
Thank you. Thank you for having me on. Excited to be here today.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (02:31):
Oh, great. You know there are so many things we can talk about when it comes to retail and how it’s changed. And I have to just ask you, COVID-19 it has forced the world to change, especially retail. Many companies have started implementing programs that had only been futuristic concepts and pilots. How much of your shift at Gap was already part of the future vision and how much did you have to sort of roll up your sleeves and figure out because of this pandemic?
Sharmeelee Bala (03:02):
That’s an excellent question, Zuzy. I would say, just in the generally in the retail industry itself, I think most of us were very clear that online was the way to go. So we were all … Obviously, the trend was pointing towards that, and we were all preparing ourselves to get to a point where we were able to provide the convenience that our customers are wanting through online experience. And so we were altering the path of getting us to where online shopping can be made much more easier for our customers.
And this pandemic, I would say only accelerated the plan that we had, especially at Gap, and provided us an opportunity to get things done faster, more creative and, in fact, even better in some instances. And I would say I would echo the same thing for most. Anybody that I’m seeing in the industry right now that are doing well are companies that have had this as a transformation journey and they have been driving it for some time.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (04:13):
Just as you were saying, as of July, online shopping is up 55% year over year. Consumers had already spent 94 billion more online last year. And how much of this do you think will stick after stores fully reopen?
Sharmeelee Bala (04:30):
My personal… And I would say this is, online shopping isn’t a new trend, right? Like I mentioned before, we have been noticing this for a while. Convenience is something that the customers are really looking for, and they have been moving to online, mobile shopping a lot more than what we were used to a few years ago. So I would say it is going to increase. It is going to keep increasing, but at the same time, physical stores will still have a critical role to play. They will have an important role in a true omni, right? If we really want that omni experience, we would still need those physical stores, but obviously, the experience that they need and how they get to where they want to buy, how they want to buy, it will be a lot more increase in online. And that’s why most of the companies are focusing on making it much more easier and simpler for our end customers.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (05:30):
It’s such a crazy time right now. I think everyone agrees that we feel like we’re in a twilight zone, don’t know what’s happening, but this is essentially we’re stepping into the future a little bit faster than we expected, right? Can we talk about the psychology a little bit behind getting customers back in stores and also shopping more online? How do we ease people into these new experiences that are in many cases rooted in anxiety?
Sharmeelee Bala (05:57):
It’s a balance. I don’t think it’s something that we can do. There is no magic bullet is what I’m trying to say. But at the same time, it’s like when we make sure… When we ensure that we meet the customers where they want to be and how they want to shop, I think we can pull them in wherever we need them to because ultimately, the customer experience is going to make a huge difference for how and what they shop. Things that have come into play, right, like in the recent years and this year especially, you have… you hear about BOPUS, Buy Online Pick Up in Store. You’ve heard it for a couple of years, but how much it has increased. This pandemic has definitely accelerated that.
And if you spoke to some of the customers, maybe last year, they would be like, “Oh no, I want to go to the store. I want to be able to touch some things, and I want to feel it and then I want to buy it.” Right? But today they are OK with ordering because of many things that have come into play, right. They can… whether it has to do with grocery, whether it’s to do with fashion, there is AI, there’s AR. There are things that are in existence where people can actually feel virtually, touch and feel, and then they are able to buy.
Another thing that I would also say, things like pick up curbside, you name it. And they are all coming into play. And those are all helping the experience for our customers to be able to do what they want to do. And at the same time, they are not losing anything that they are used to, and that is causing them to be able to continue the shopping experience, continue to buy what they have been wanting to buy. So as long as we can reach them where they are, and as long as we can help them get to what they are interested in, I think we can definitely continue to play a role that we hope the retail industry is playing today. Does that make sense?
Zuzy Martin-Aly (07:52):
Yes, it does. I keep also thinking about the different ages of your customers and how you might have different approaches to the different age groups and lifestyles, be it millennials or, or moms or older shoppers. How do you approach all of the different audiences?
Sharmeelee Bala (08:13):
I’m really, really honored to say that Gap Inc. focuses on all kinds of customers. We meet them at all their life stages like you mentioned, and there are different ways, and every customer age and economic conditions and everything determines how and what they want to do. And there are obviously different things that we have to do to cater to the needs of that particular customer.
So some of them would prefer online shopping, and they are going to just order it and they get it because they are used to knowing what size, type, what fit they like and they will continue to order. Some of them would require something like, “I want to see how this fits on me. I don’t know.” So they would prefer for like a virtual fit, and that’s something that’s coming up in the industry right now, where you can feel yourself in the clothes that you are wanting to buy. And then look at how you look. And at the same time also, “How does this color suit me? How does this fit suit me?” And you can make those decisions virtually and then order those.
And then you also have some of those customers who are wanting to make sure that they go pick it up because they have that habit of like, “I want to be able to go to a shopping center or like to a shop and pick it up because that’s what gives me that satisfaction.” They would go to … They would order it and then they can go pick it up from a store, either curbside or they can just … However they want to do it. So there are so many options that are coming up. And then also the other thing that I was talking about depending on with this pandemic, you do have a lot of this economic conditions that we have that’s going on. We do have some things that are coming up like after pay. So people can figure out how they want to use their money that they have currently. And then also make sure that they get the necessities that they need with some of these options that we are offering our customers.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (10:16):
I think people are getting more used to this, this new way of shopping because shopping, at least for me, and for many women is about feeling confident and being yourself and treating yourself to something you deserve after working so hard. So I’m excited that things are normalizing a bit more. So we know that Amazon drone delivery has just received FAA clearance, and that will surely push us further into the future. I’m wondering what other types of technologies do you see influencing the way we shop in the future?
Sharmeelee Bala (10:49):
We spoke about some of the things already but making sure that there is a connection point when we are buying. And if it’s not, it’s not something about just ordering something, it’s not like I’m ordering like, “Oh, OK. It’s the same tomatoes and potatoes.” Right? But it’s like, how do you build that connection with the end customer to make sure that the customer is clear about what they’re actually trying to buy. And do they really like the product? Do they really like how it fits? Do they really like … So IoT will play definitely a big role, making sure that things are added on, where it can build that. AR is going to continue to play a role. And I’m sure that there’ll be like 3D will continue.
So these would definitely be something that I would say we have to look out for in every field. A couple of years ago, we would have never thought about some of the things that are in play today, thinking about, “Do we really need them and how are we going to use them”? But now they’ve become like table stakes, right? So I think we will continue to evolve. We will continue to learn and we will continue to use what is going to be built based on the needs because we have got to meet our customer. We’ve got to make sure that we take care of their needs.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (12:10):
COVID has also revealed weaknesses in global supply chains. I’d love to talk about that for a moment and understand what changes are you expecting to see in the near future in terms of sourcing and warehousing and distribution? Obviously, globalization and world politics has a lot of influence here. How do you think tech will influence these changes?
Sharmeelee Bala (12:37):
So tech is definitely an enabler, right? And we’ve all realized that; everybody understands this. Tech is an enabler. Just in this year if you notice, there is a lot more things that are coming into play. Gap has been a very good proponent of automation, making sure that there is robotics in the distribution center. So they have been, and I’m not sure if you’ve seen any of the articles before, but they have been in this journey for a couple of years because they knew that this would play a vital role. So this year I’ll give you an example of … So we converted one of our biggest distribution center in Ohio to be fully automated. And that particular DC is one of like … It’s got all of the things that we have tested in all the other DCs, technology-wise, it’s got it all.
So we’ve got auto baggers. We’ve got like orbs for picking faster than anybody can do so that our people can be focused on things that they need to be focused on. It’s got like the huge cranes and for sorting, for making sure that we have it like storage retrieval. This particular DC can do almost a million units a day. So it’s like state of the art, I can say. And that’s how we’ve been preparing. And this has definitely helped us.
The other piece to that question that you had asked about how the overall supply chain, the sourcing and everything that happens for products. And I want to give you an example of how well Gap executed. When the pandemic hit us, Gap decided, “OK, we need to bring in masks. We need to be able to provide masks to our customers, and how do we do it?” And this wasn’t part of a plan. And as you know, apparel, when you plan from concept, like design … Concept, design, to actually reaching the hands of the customer, it’s usually a few months’ journey, and you can’t make it happen before that.
The masks story is such a story, like a powerful story. It was all done in a matter of like few weeks because they had to get it in place and worked with manufacturing, worked with everybody possible across the supply chain to make it available for our end customers. And it’s a successful story. And we are doing obviously B2B, B2C. So it’s something that … Creativity came in play, innovation came into play, partnership came into play. Because it wasn’t something that one or two people can do it. It’s like an entire organization with multiple organizations involved, vendors involved. They were like so many different groups involved to make it happen. So things are going to change. Things are going to continue to evolve. And at the same time, innovation is going to be key.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (15:37):
So before all of this, there is always talk about the end of retail and how it had to shift. And retail is such an important part of our fiber, I think. And now we see new hope with technology infusing so many different advances in retail. Can we talk a little bit about jobs and titles and career paths? What job titles or skills would you say are in demand now and in the future, given the shift in retail?
Sharmeelee Bala (16:08):
Excellent question. Because there are so many, there is no one answer to this, and you can see my passion come through my voice because it’s like, there’s so many options available out there. I will pick a few, but the first thing that I would say, like anybody, anyone wanting to get into retail, and if they’re interested in technology in retail, the first thing that I would tell them is like, be curious, try to understand the industry, try to understand how it’s changing, evolving every day. Because understanding that is very important for them to do any kind of role that they want to do. The different options are the roles that are really in, popular right now, I would say data and analytics. Like we spoke before, data is becoming a very, very crucial aspect of anything that we try to drive. Because if you want to do customization, you want to do personalization, you want to do anything data is going to play a role.
So data and analytics would definitely be something that I would suggest people look into if they are studying and if they want to add on courses. And if they want to add on more to their knowledge base, I would focus on data and analytics. Overall and then obviously the mobile development, because everybody, most everybody is trying to go into a smartphone, trying to do things. So we want to get to and cater to the needs of the end customer at a place where they are more comfortable with. So mobile development would definitely be something that will continue to evolve and will continue to be a good space to be in. And then, apart from all of these different roles and jobs, what I would also suggest is everybody, every organization that you talk to because they are focused on speed and quality, they are evolving and they are getting into this DevOps practice, DevOps model.
Now, it’s a lot more like with that agile mindset and agile development lifecycle, it’s a lot more DevOps model that exists today. I will be the developer at the same time I will be supporting my own code. So I better make it in a way that I understand what the infrastructure is. I understand what it’s made of, and I understand how it can, it should, work with everything that is integrated with it. So that end to end, I own it.
At the same time, there is a lot of automation in the process, too, right? So there are lots of tools that are coming into play. So understanding the tools, the availability of the tools, and making sure that we can be prepared to be in an environment where that ecosystem is built and it’s much more easier for us to be able to add in the capabilities that we need. And then also at the same time, the automated way of testing, the automated way of the CI/CD pipelines, where that can be rolled out. And things like making it very easier, but at the same time, making it very secure for our developers are in place right now.
So I think that would also be another thing that I would definitely recommend people to understand, spend time, make sure to get the experience in those areas. Does that answer your question?
Zuzy Martin-Aly (19:30):
Yes, that’s great. That’s really great. And I would love to hear any final thoughts you’d like to share or final advice for people who really love retail and want to become part of its future.
Sharmeelee Bala (19:45):
My main thing I would say is, like I said, be curious, learn, because if you have a passion and if you want to be in retail unless you understand the entire industry to an extent, you are not going to find it interesting. It’s true for anything right, like if you want to be in fintech, you need to understand before you can get in. So definitely just be curious to understand what’s going on in the industry and what everybody else is doing.
The second one that I would say is be very focused on what you want to like … It’s an ocean. There’s just so much going on. So if you want to focus on data analytics, just be focused on that so that you can learn that, get to expertise that you need. And then you can always move on to something else that would want you to be involved in.
Similarly, like if you want to be in security, then just make sure that you’re focusing on that. So learn that. And the last that I would say is have fun because that’s more important. We spend most of the hours that we are awake at work. And if we don’t have fun, if we don’t enjoy what we do, if we don’t have that passion to do the things that we like, then it’s not going to be good for anybody. So I would say definitely having that fun is very important. So and that’s why it’s important for you to choose and anyway you’re going to have fun when you’re going to be passionate about and continue to focus on those areas because then that can take you to where you want to get to. And at the same time as a woman, and I’m very passionate about making sure that there are more and more women in technology because it’s very important.
And take just Gap for example, for us to be able to cater to the needs of our customers, we need to understand that, and we need that diverse thought process. We need that mindset. So we need them as our customers to be our own part of our technology team, part of our teams, to anticipate and understand what is the need and at the same time, figure out ways to give them more than what they need. Right? So I would say stay focused in technology, making sure that you spend the time that you need to, that you’re passionate about. And at the same time, have fun.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (22:18):
Be curious, be focused and have fun. That is incredible advice for retail or for any industry. Thank you, Sharmeelee. Thank you so much for speaking with me today.
Sharmeelee Bala (22:30):
Thank you. I had fun. Thank you for having me here.
Adriana Gascoigne (22:36):
Thank you for listening to today’s episode. The Girls in Tech Podcast is a production of Tote + Pears. Were you inspired by what you heard today? Head over to girlsintech.org to find more resources for starting and advancing a career in tech, including our jobs board, and personal and professional development programs designed to help you excel and be sure to tune in every other Tuesday for new episodes. See you next time.
The Girls in Tech Podcast is produced by Tote + Pears.
Music By: Adrian Dominic Walther