One on One with Alvarez & Marsal's Tom Phleps

Tom Phelps, Managing Director, Alvarez & Marsal With the holiday shopping season in full swing, retail businesses are at their busiest. This year, with six fewer shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas than usual, retailers are looking to leverage technology and earlier-than-ever sales events in an attempt to get their wares in customers’ hands. Unfortunately, the boom time on Wall Street has been slow to reach Main Street, where many people are trying to stretch their holiday dollar further than ever. Alvarez & Marsal recently integrated the team from ClearLine, a boutique firm with whom they have a longstanding working relationship, to enhance their retail offering. Former ClearLine CEO and newly minted A&M Managing Director Tom Phelps sat down with Consulting to offer his insight about the merger and steps retailers are taking to avoid a stocking full of coal this holiday season.

Consulting: Why the timing for the merger and what are some of the early goals?

Phelps: Over the past 5 years we have seen the shift from Retailers implementing EPM point solutions to taking a more holistic approach that addresses the entire spectrum of both operational and management processes in an integrated manner. As a part of A&M, we now have the breadth and depth of skills required to deliver these fully integrated, high value, transformational initiatives. The rationale behind the merger was to combine very complimentary skill sets, allowing A&M to address more complex problems for our clients, and providing expanded career opportunities for our consultants. Our short-term priorities will focus on ensuring the successful integration of ClearLine staff into the A&M culture, continuing to enhance the skills of our consultants and embracing the full range of services A&M has to increase the value we provide our clients.

Consulting: What do you view as the biggest opportunities?

Phelps: There is a real opportunity to help companies worldwide—not just retailers—better leverage technology to plan effectively, guard against risk and improve profitability. These corporate solutions—focused on improving operating and financial performance to accelerate positive change—are a strategic priority for A&M. Another priority is to continue to build market awareness of our EPM services across all industries and integrate these services further in our solution delivery.

Consulting: Being retail season, what are some things clients are losing sleep over as we head into the holiday spending season? How are they working to overcome it?

Phelps: The two biggest issues that I think Retailers are losing sleep over are a) with only 26 shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, this is the shortest “Christmas Season” that can occur (six fewer shopping days) and b) even though the stock market is setting new records, the most important metric for successful retailing is employment and, unfortunately, there are still 21 million Americans that are underemployed. To combat these two realities, Retailers have been aggressive with introducing sales promotions earlier than normal, opening their brick and mortar stores for “Black Friday” sales on Thanksgiving Day, and focusing on their e-commerce strategy to drive additional sales to remain competitive. The focus on sales and promotions concentrates heavily on luring those that are trying to make their paychecks stretch while the online shopping and store opening strategies are targeted to help solve the issue of a shortened Christmas retailing season. We have been working with leading Retailers to help address these unique challenges through more responsive and integrating business planning, data discovery and analytics to gain greater visibility into their customers across all channels.

Consulting: What are some of the more successful technological elements being employed by brick and mortar retailers to stay relevant in an increasingly digital retail environment?

Phelps: Brick and mortar retailers are embracing the fact that the customer experience is an omni-channel experience, and that brick and mortar has a key role to play in that experience. It’s the place where customers can embrace and enjoy the retail brand, and physically interact with the brand. It can be a place to bring the web/mobile presence to life – and capabilities such as online order-store pickup (convenience), mobile checkout (convenience), transparent pricing (branding), price match guarantees (competition), and synchronization of message across the channels (branding) all help to re-enforce the brand. An integrated technology strategy is key to enabling omni-channel in the stores. The service the customer receives at the store is also a critical element to re-enforcing the brand. Labor planning technologies are allowing retailers to maximize labor productivity, aligning labor to meet demand, with a focus on an improved customer experience. Store staffing is one of the highest costs a retailer faces. Planning solutions help maximize use of the labor pool to improve the in store customer experience while removing administrative barriers. Advances in ‘Big data’ technologies are beginning to allow rapid integration of external sources such as social media to provide retailers with much greater insight into customer purchase patterns, sentiment feedback and competitive insight, down to an individual basis. This is facilitating greater customer service precision.