As vice president of store technology for home improvement giant The Home Depot, Muzammil Akram has defined the next evolution of omnichannel retail, overseeing a team of leading software engineers to build, conceptualize, and run enterprise-scale capabilities for the brand. His team’s technological innovations are deployed across 2,000-plus stores and support hundreds of thousands of employees.
Akram was instrumental in launching The Home Depot’s interconnected retail capabilities, including their state-of-the-art e-commerce platform in the cloud, broad-scale modernization of legacy platforms, and microservices architecture.
“These capabilities enable our customers to shop with us across all available channels,” said Akram. “We are now deploying AI solutions, such as Sidekick, our homegrown app that prioritizes tasks for store associates.”
Akram's team focuses on emerging technologies to enhance operational efficiencies. One emerging trend his team is currently focused on, computer vision, is being used to improve Sidekick's support of store restocking efforts, identifying missing products for associates to restock quickly and easily.
"In turn, associates have more time on the floor to spend with customers," said Akram. "We're also continuing to consider how computer vision might evolve for further efficiency in the future."
The Home Depot and Akram have assembled a team of technology professionals dedicated to innovations that support consumers while sustaining innovative business practices. “From ‘giving back’ to ‘excellent customer service,’ every product we build maps back to these values,” added Akram.
The Editors of RIS
In a year full of challenges and rapidly advancing technologies, the RIS retail influencers of 2023 provide
inspiration on how to “enjoy the journey.”
These 10 Top Movers and Shakers in Retail are meeting evolving customer expectations, enhancing the experience for their companies’ associates, and tackling innovation using new retail technologies like artificial intelligence (AI).
RIS’ seventh annual “Influentials: Top Movers and Shakers in Retail” highlights retail executives and solution providers who are developing and deploying cutting-edge technology to reshape retail, despite any barriers in their paths. The esteemed executives featured below were chosen for their contribution to the retail industry and to their respective companies.
Read on to discover what makes each leader a retail technology influencer and one of RIS’ Top Movers and Shakers.
“Technology is powering every facet of retail, and creating low tolerance for any friction. Investments in resilient, cloud-enabled, and mobile-first technology platforms have helped our business be nimble for customer needs from the height of the pandemic, where demand skyrocketed, to post-pandemic norms.”
The applications of AI know no bounds, and Akram and his team are focusing on its impact on the shopping experience. “Mobile devices and IoT sensors are becoming ubiquitous in retail and everyday life, offering petabytes of data that can train AI models to draw operational and analytical inferences. We believe in the promise of AI – predictive, vision, speech, generative, and much more to come.”
Did You Know?
Akram relies on podcasts, books, and video streaming to help support divergent thinking, with current favorites that include the Sapiens trilogy by Yuval Noah Harari and The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin. “I also get new ideas when I’m wandering on a hiking trail or listening to Radiolab or Lex Fridman podcasts.”
SVP, Digital Marketing & eCommerce
Providing innovative marketing strategy for leading retailers like L’Oreal, Ann Taylor, and Ralph Lauren, Sue Beckett now drives Lovesac’s digital and direct marketing programs, while also guiding strategy and operations for their e-commerce customer experience. Due to the highly customizable nature of Lovesac’s products, an integral part of this experience is the way that customers research and interact with Lovesac’s Sactionals online, allowing them to view a variety of options, including seating, covers, accessories, and embedded surround sound.
“We needed an experience on Lovesac.com that allows shoppers different paths- whether they want to choose from popular configurations to slightly modify or completely build their dream couch themselves,” said Beckett. “Within this experience is dynamic content and AI, in one of the most advanced configurators you will find anywhere.”
Beckett’s team focuses on building technological capabilities to improve the overall customer experience, including a partnership with BlueConic to utilize the information in their CDP to personalize the experience on Lovesac.com. “With the imminent demise of cookies, we have spent the last year with extra focus on data strategy, and the team is eager to set ourselves apart on this front,” Beckett added.
These growing enhancements would not be possible without her team at Lovesac, and Beckett strives to lead by example to help in their continued success, including allowing space to take risks and learn from any failures. “Taking calculated risks is the only way to be a leader in this space,” said Beckett. “As a female executive, I know that I have a responsibility to influence and mentor other women, which I find extremely rewarding. Diversity of teams leads to diversity of thought, leading to innovation.”
Some advice that has served Beckett well over the years is to trust her instincts. “We should rely on data and analytics, but the experiences I have had along the way, both the successes and failures, have honed my instincts, and I rely on that almost more than anything else.”
“I believe that no retailer has really gotten personalization to a place where we really understand smaller segments of our customers and truly personalize their omnichannel experience. In large part, this is due to disparate data sources, not having or gathering the right data, and not asking the right questions of our customers. Technology can help us get there once we have the right data in the right places that are interconnected to all facets of the customer experience such as websites, apps, and point of sale systems in physical locations.”
Even after over 20 years in the retail industry, no day is like the day before, and Beckett enjoys the constant state of evolution. “There’s no room for complacency, and it is never boring. I’m truly excited every day for what the future holds.”
Senior Vice President of Marketing
Ethan Chernofsky joined Placer.ai, known for their advanced location analytics platform, early in their genesis after years of directing marketing efforts for companies like SimilarWeb and Headline Media. Over the past four years, his efforts allowed them to grow their adopters from tens of customers to thousands, supplying cutting-edge innovation applicable to a professional's day-to-day work.
Chernofsky knows data is critical when developing future capabilities and focuses on assuring new sources are utilized and maximized to their fullest extent, including using location analytics to solve pressing needs for retail professionals.
"Unlike many technologies, data provides a perspective more than a specific solution," said Chernofsky. "The joy of working with a product like that is the ability to constantly evolve the perspective to help answer an increasing number of questions and create those focused solutions for the wider
Chernofsky is privileged to work amongst a talented and driven team at Placer.ai, and under his guidance, he assists them in understanding how their efforts impact the bigger picture.
"The more visibility you provide and the more you demonstrate how impactful the work can be, the easier it is for great professionals to apply their own talents effectively," said Chernofsky. "We get to provide such an interesting product and perspective to the world, and it's important to enjoy and appreciate the opportunity."
“Find joy in the journey and the process. There are so many exciting accomplishments to achieve in a career, but the joy any endpoint provides is fleeting. Learning to love the work, the process, and the building is what keeps it stimulating and fulfilling over time.”
Changing Consumer Behavior
With many letting trending narratives guide them to extreme conclusions, Chernofsky feels that analyzing consumer behavior is the only way to get a balanced view of the future of retail. “Consumer behavior provides an amazing compass to guide retail decision-making, but the key is to ensure you have the necessary perspectives to understand consumer behavior and that these perspectives are given the necessary context.”
As the industry continues to evolve, it is experiencing an array of seeming paradoxes, including digital acting as a disrupter, while physical stores experience a renaissance.
“Some of the most innovative concepts are falling flat, while simple shifts are driving major impact. Digitally native retailers are bringing new perspectives to stores, while traditionally brick-and-mortar retailers are pushing boundaries online — the result is a view of the store that is more valuable and impactful than we thought possible.”
President & CEO
Symphony AI Retail CPG
After two decades of driving transformative solutions in the technology and software space, Manish Choudhary acknowledges that his true passion lies within the convergence of technology, strategy, and innovation, especially regarding data analytics, AI, IoT, and data monetization.
As president and CEO of Symphony AI Retail CPG, he guided a transformative phase, pioneering strategies that leveraged the synergy of data analytics, predictive and generative AI, and SaaS to deliver unparalleled solutions.
Under his leadership, his team transitioned traditional retail processes into intelligent, self-learning systems, allowing retailers to be more adaptive, responsive, and predictive. “This not only streamlined operations and increased profitability for our clients but also enriched the consumer experience, making shopping more personalized and intuitive,” said Choudhary.
Their next-gen solutions include GenAI co-pilots, using retail-specific prompts to direct users. "We are gearing up for a retail revolution, underpinned by AI and other emerging technologies, to redefine the future shopping experience," said Choudhary.
Throughout his career, Choudhary discovered the transformative potential of combining passion and purpose. He has strived to foster an environment built on mutual respect, trust, and collaboration, encouraging his team to be curious, challenge the status quo, and consider future innovations.
“It is not just about directing; it is about co-creating the future together,” said Choudhary. “And, as we journey together, my role is to be both a guide and a fellow traveler, learning as much from my team as they might learn from me.”
Choudhary admits that the pace of change and the tangible impact Symphony AI Retail CPG makes in shaping how people shop keeps him deeply engaged. “Simply put, the blend of technology, strategy, and human connection in retail makes every day exciting and fulfilling.”
“In 2022, the retail industry witnessed several advancements, but the one that had the most profound impact on our business was the accelerated adoption of AI-driven predictive analytics and the rapid emergence of generative AI as a true game-changer. As the retail landscape becomes increasingly competitive, the ability to accurately and rapidly forecast trends, anticipate demand, and optimize inventory in real-time has become paramount.”
Symphony AI Retail CPG is not only preparing for disruptions like supply chain vulnerability, hyper-personalization, and the rise of experiential retail. “We believe that, armed with technology and a deep understanding of retail's nuances, we can turn challenges into opportunities and set new industry benchmarks.”
After studying retail management and marketing at Syracuse University, a move to the Bay Area led Nicole Fountain to discover her industry love: communications. After working in the communications department at Gymboree, Fountain took on the role of communications manager with Sephora, assisting the beauty retailer with in-store communications, including the development of various tools to directly support store and retail leaders.
During a two-year hiatus from company communications, Fountain was tasked with helping to lead the launch of Sephora at Kohl's, including overseeing training initiatives and managing new store openings. Eventually, her current position,
director of communications, opened up, and Fountain knew it was time to return to her passion.
Within her current role, Fountain worked directly with Zipline and BigTinCan to develop Sephora's communication and training platforms, enabling them to shape future platform capabilities through their insight and feedback. "We've helped shape their products in various ways like our managers being able to assign trainings, putting more effective reporting in our managers' hands, integrating various platforms with widgets, and introducing closed captioning for trainings to make it more inclusive," said Fountain.
As a leader, Fountain encourages her team to rely on their vision and POV, not just listening to hers, in their decision-making process because, as she says, they are the experts. “I try to help guide them towards making the decision that will work best for them by asking questions and their opinion. I’ll then help connect any dots if needed."
Vice President of Store Technology
The Home Depot
Fountain commented on the critical role Sephora’s leadership team, including Tara Maffeo, Brandon Hall, and Joan Willat, to name a few, have played in her development as an industry leader. “I’ve never worked for a company that is more supportive or unwavering in their team’s individual growth, and I wouldn’t be where I am today in my career without them!”
“It’s always changing, and there’s always something new to work on! Each day has a new challenge. I also love that retail is also about the experience – the products we sell bring joy and confidence to our clients.”
“If you’re uncomfortable trying something new, then you’re doing it right. To grow in your career or even as an individual, you have to stretch yourself and try new things (e.g., public speaking, taking on a new role), and that usually means living in the discomfort for a little bit!”
Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer
Chad Fox is known for building brands and devising integrated marketing campaigns that have delivered results for companies like Walmart, Tyson Foods, and TRG. Leveraging his 25 years’ experience in brand strategy, marketing, and media, Fox has driven innovative solutions for Dollar General (DG) within an ever-changing digital retail landscape, establishing meaningful connections between DG and its customers.
Joining DG in 2019, Fox transformed its marketing strategy focusing on data and technology-driven initiatives, including the evolution of its in-house retail media network, DGMN, which connects DG vendors with their hard-to-reach and hard-to-measure customers.
Earlier this year, DGMN partnered with Meta and tested capabilities allowing advertisers to connect with some of those hard-to-reach consumers. “We’re proud to be the first retailer to offer this innovative solution to advertisers as it allows them to reach DG’s more than 90 million unique customer profiles across the Meta ecosystem via Facebook and Instagram News Feeds, Stories, and Reels,” said Fox.
Approximately 80% of DG stores serve communities of 20,000 people or fewer. DGMN allows them to reach more than 90 million unique customer profiles leveraging DG’s first-party data, helping them extend their reach in smaller, more rural geographies.
“Its reach is revolutionary given the approximate 30% of Americans residing in rural communities that are often overlooked by traditional digital platforms focused on efficient high-volume markets,” said Fox. “By providing real-time data with trusted brands, DGMN innovations help brands better serve DG’s unique consumer base across 19,000-plus stores in 48 states, delivering more than two billion transactions annually.”
Before DG, Fox was vice president of retail marketing with Walmart, guiding marketing and media activities across all merchandising categories, seasonal events, and digital products and services.
DG’s partnership with Meta has allowed them to uncover new insights and evaluate the business impact of these investments compared to more traditional and directional metrics.
“As we continue our work refining this advanced solution, our focus remains steadfast on creating more meaningful experiences for advertisers that resonate with our customers in their shopping journey.”
Changing Consumer Behavior
“CPG brands are relying on retail media networks to provide critical first-party data to plan, measure, and optimize in-store and online experiences. Beyond optimizing the planning and measurement of customer insights, first-party data is also critical for quickly and seamlessly furnishing in-store purchase data for closed-loop measurement – a feature rising in importance as data privacy becomes increasingly integrated in consumer conversation and regulations.”
Executive Director of Store Systems and Technology
While studying at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Tyler Grubbs began his career as an intern with RaceTrac, a gasoline convenience store chain in the Southern U.S. Over a decade later, after working in various roles in finance, project management, analytics, and food service merchandising, Grubbs now serves as the executive director of store systems and technology, elevating the customer experience and reducing customer friction during the checkout process.
"I know how frustrating it can be for customers when they approach the checkout, only to find that the kiosk won't load their loyalty points or accept their preferred payment method. These issues not only disrupt their day but also have a negative impact on their loyalty to our brand," said Grubbs.
Grubbs rolled out an enhanced technology architecture, reducing customer frustration at checkout, decreasing major outages and critical hardware failures by 90%, and reducing the average time to resolve issues by 75%. "This work represents a significant leap forward in creating a smoother shopping environment that aligns with evolving customer expectations for a seamless checkout and, ultimately, points toward the future of frictionless retail technology," Grubbs added.
Grubbs inspires his team to put customer-focused innovation at the forefront while enhancing the employee experience and automating tedious day-to-day tasks and processes. "This streamlining effort not only serves to simplify employee roles but also enhances overall operational efficiency, ultimately benefiting RaceTrac customers with a more enjoyable experience," said Grubbs.
The ongoing modernization of store system security and architecture is an area of particular interest for Grubbs. "A prime illustration of this within RaceTrac is our recent implementation of GK Software's solutions, such as OmniPOS, GK Drive, and T+. This technology can become another example of our mission to elevate the customer experience by not only streamlining the checkout process but also by enhancing the reliability and accessibility of our POS systems."
"One significant focus is on enhancing the employee experience, which is especially crucial amidst the ongoing labor shortages in the retail sector. As I've mentioned before, there are many repetitive tasks that burden store employees each day. They often find themselves juggling multiple responsibilities, and one of our primary objectives in the coming years should be to eliminate the need for manual data entry and reduce the administrative workload."
Changing Consumer Behavior
Consumers have become accustomed to highly personalized and seamless experiences, providing convenience across various touchpoints, forcing retailers to adapt technology to enhance processes. "This shift will reduce friction in the shopping journey, meeting these expectations and fostering long-lasting loyalty."
Digital Wave Technology
With over 30 years of expertise in technology, analytics, e-commerce, consumer products branding, retail merchandising, and marketing, Lori Schafer brings her dynamic experience to drive innovation as CEO of Digital Wave Technology, a software solutions company transforming retail & CPG business processes through the power of AI.
With its commitment to innovation, Digital Wave Technology delivers AI and generative AI-powered enterprise-grade software solutions, revolutionizing the omnichannel product journey for industry-leading brands and retailers.
Through the use of advanced technologies like MACH architecture, low/no-code platforms, and unified data models for scalable AI solutions, Schafer guides Digital Wave's development and data sciences team in pioneering generative AI use cases for retail, including automating marketing efforts like product copy, SEO, and digital ads and campaigns. These innovations also allow them to develop AI-driven product attributes for merchandising planning and forecasting and AI-aided design previews for use by product designers.
"Generative AI is a groundbreaking advancement, growing at a rate surpassing the web's initial adoption, representing a major technological leap," said Schafer.
As CEO, Schafer strives to lead by example, tackling challenges alongside her team and developing an environment that fosters continued growth and learning. When operating at a high level within the intersection of technology and retail, Schafer comments that agility and adaptability are in demand, qualities she promotes through continuous learning.
"Influence, to me, is about establishing a culture of excellence and perpetual learning, enabling our team not just to cope with change but to thrive within it,"
"The most influential advice I've ever received can be summed up in a powerful mantra: listen more, talk less, and when you do talk, ask questions. It's about infusing every interaction with passion, enthusiasm, and unyielding
The retail industry has dealt with transformative changes due to changing consumer behavior and technological innovations, including augmented reality, generative AI, and in-store technology, altering the customer experience. “To stay ahead, retailers must adapt to these technological evolutions, always keeping consumer needs and preferences at the forefront of their approach.”
Schafer's parents, with their unwavering commitment to hard work and no-excuses attitude, served as a constant source of inspiration to her career and life.
"From them, I've learned not only an incredible work ethic but also core values such as integrity, compassion, and an insatiable curiosity about the world. Every day, I find myself embracing these values more deeply, thanks to how they raised our family and the enduring impact they've had on my life and career."
Vice President of Store Operations
As vice president of store operations for Burlington Stores, Vikram Subramanian has deployed successful operational systems and procedures, enhancing the overall experience for consumers and frontline associates. With 20-plus years' experience working with retailers like Groupon, Gap Inc., and Sears, and consulting on operational solutions and cutting-edge technology, Subramanian relies on his unique experience in supply chain and logistics, marketing, and technology to make a significant impact.
Among his recent achievements, Subramanian implemented in-store capabilities that gave frontline associates more control over store scheduling.
“The system will have an immediate associate impact by allowing them to be in control of their schedules and hence their lives,” said Subramanian. “In turn, it allows our store leadership and associates to serve the customer by matching where and when they work to customer needs every hour of every day.”
Subramanian and his team are also actively researching and integrating innovative AI technology to strengthen communication strategies in Burlington stores and amongst field leadership. "It's certainly a new
frontier for us that will require some experimentation to perfect," Subramanian added.
Relying on effective communication while establishing clear expectations allows Subramanian to develop a working environment where everyone feels ownership in the company's success. "I influence my team by attempting to clarify our goals and objectives and how their work connects to it so they have a sense of purpose and ownership,” said Subramanian.
“In a world of so much noise and many distractions, I try to ensure we
“Have a compass, not a map. Don’t be fixated on a pre-ordained destination; be prepared to enjoy the journey and change course along the way as you learn and discover more about yourself.”
Subramanian believes the industry will have to discover methods to make technology advancements more “human” like. “AR, VR, and AI are all interesting areas to watch, but we should not lose sight of the fact that as a business, the customer is at the center of it all, the end goal is to solve a customer need, and you have to do it by leveraging the technology to connect with the customer in a unique way.”
Dynamism within the retail industry keeps Subramanian consistently examining ways to keep pace with changes in the consumer environment, economy, and technological advancements.
“The general public had not heard of ‘supply chain disruptions’ until a few years ago, and now it’s a household term. There’s truly never a dull moment, which means there are always opportunities for you to learn and grow.”
Chief Technology Officer
For more than 25 years, Scott Vifquain has leveraged the power of technology to enhance the customer experience and optimize retail operations, helping them excel in the competitive omnichannel world.
As chief technology officer at Tailored Brands, the menswear retailer known for brands like Men's Wearhouse, Jos. A. Bank, Moores, and K&G Fashion Superstore, he has strived to improve the alignment of technological innovations with the best interest of the business, including generative AI and its potential to impact operational efficiencies substantially.
Vifquain cautions the importance of staying grounded when discovering the best use cases for this type of technology, and his team is well on its way to deploying these innovations at scale. "Striking this right balance with emerging technologies — between exploration and innovation and pragmatic value realization — is so important," added Vifquain.
Culture is crucial for Vifquain when assembling and supervising his team, believing that a good culture shapes values that drive behaviors, fueling execution. "I foster a culture of empowerment, inclusion and transparency with my team," Vifquain said.
Vifquain encourages his team to approach communication transparently, actively listening to team members to understand the collective's needs better. "I truly believe in contextual solutions to complex problems that often only surface with effective and thoughtful listening," Vifquain added.
“Today’s best retailers are differentiating themselves through experiences. And the very best realize that each consumer defines a good experience differently. So, building individualized, personalized experiences is paramount.”
Retailers who can scale high-quality personalized experiences will have the most significant potential to capture a sizable market share, and this is where Vifquain feels technology can act as a differentiator.
“At Tailored Brands, for example, we’re applying traditional AI/ML to build more localized assortments and focus on the granularity of our customer marketing segments. Now, we’re looking to the emergent power of Generative AI to
unlock the value of truly personalized customer messaging and content creation at scale.”
Changing Consumer Behavior
“Customers’ appetites and expectations for seamless bespoke experiences and products will continue to grow, creating both challenges and opportunities for retailers. Technology is increasingly becoming a more critical part of realizing these lofty expectations. Those who adopt the right technology – thoughtfully and effectively – will establish a distinct competitive advantage.”