Our guest today is Christopher Silver.

Chris joins us from MAC Cosmetics of Estee Lauder Companies where he holds the position of Global Vice President of Brand Technology.

Previously Chris spent 10 years with the Urban Outfitters Group, which includes brands like Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, Free People, BHLDN, Terrain, Nuuly and Vetri Restaurants, where he held global leadership positions specializing in customer engagement, omni-retail innovation and technology.

Join us as Chris reveals which COVID-induced shifts are reshaping the beauty sector, the emerging role of technology within beauty, and Chris’ predictions for the future of retail.

Episode 96 of the RETHINK Retail Podcast was recorded on August, 7. 2020 

 


Hosted by Julia Raymond
Researched, written and produced by Gabriella Bock
Edited by Trenton Waller

TRANSCRIPTION

Julia Raymond:
Hi, and welcome to the RETHINK Retail Show. Our guest today is Christopher Silver. Chris joins us from MAC Cosmetics of Estee Lauder Companies, where he holds the position of Global Vice President of Brand Technology. Chris’ main focus is partnering with the brands on customer experience strategies, complemented with technology, while also working in a transformational role to bring a cross-functional approach to new retail tech that supports Estee Lauder’s near and longterm growth opportunities. Previously, Chris spent 10 years with the URBN Outfitters Group, which includes loved brands like Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, Free People, BHLDN, Terrain, Nuuly and Vetri Restaurants, where he held global leadership positions, specializing in customer engagement on the retail innovation and technology. Chris, welcome to the show.

Christopher Silver:
Thanks for having me. Really appreciate being here.

Julia Raymond:
It’s great to have you on and I’d love for you to just kick us off. You said you’re the global VP of brand technology for a huge company. What is that like? What are some things in your day to day?

Christopher Silver:
I think what that means basically is I frankly love retail. I think it’s one of the most exciting, innovative industries out there. It’s an industry that I fell in love with because it creates a natural connection with people. It’s one of those industries where, when you say what you do, when you say who you work for, people have an immediate nostalgic connection with your brand, with your store, with some experience. And there’s nothing like that kind of anywhere else. I fell in love with that feeling back when I joined URBN now 15 years ago and I absolutely love it. You fall in love with it. It’s an addicting kind of piece.

Christopher Silver:
I joined MAC, one, because when you think about retail, it’s not just about selling things, it’s about helping people. And I think one of the connections that I made long ago with URBN that I’m now making with MAC is that, being in retail, yes we’re offering product and services, but what we’re doing is we’re actually making a connection and a relationship and helping people out with their lives. At URBN and Anthro, we connected them with amazing products that made them feel like they were expressing themselves. And I made the switch over to MAC just because I felt that the beauty industry was extremely interesting and it was kind of the next movement that I wanted to make, because it’s a different type of connection with your customer. It’s a deeper one. It’s you’re making them feel happy about themselves, allowing them to express themselves, allowing them to feel safe in the happiest of times and also in the worst of times. You’re helping them.

Christopher Silver:
And I think especially with MAC — MAC is an amazing kind of brand with a story that’s foundational. It’s one of the ones that has close ties into community and aspects and the give back to the community and standing up for what’s right. It was just the natural progression of kind of what was next with beauty. And I felt that I could help out a lot more and I can do more of what I’m passionate about, which is making that connection with the consumers and helping them out on a daily basis. It just was the next iteration.

Christopher Silver:
I took a lot of what I learned from URBN. It was the foundational days of amazing, amazing people at URBN. And I think what I learned from them is don’t just put things in. Things have to come with a story. There’s a reason. There’s a reason someone’s coming, taking time out of their day, coming to your brand, whether it’s on the website, mobile or anything. And having that opportunity to make a difference, having an opportunity to change their expectations or challenge the norm for them and allow them to discover who they are, I think is what I learned at URBN that I’m now taking to MAC and Estee Lauder. That’s the journey that I came around to.

Julia Raymond:
And it sounds like a great journey. You said it’s not just about selling things, it’s about helping people. That’s the core of retail. Was the transition from apparel to cosmetics and beauty a big leap? Or are there a lot of parallels? Just because I know the beauty industry, cosmetics is maybe even a little bit further ahead in terms of technology.

Christopher Silver:
Well, take technology out of it for a second. And I think one of the biggest things and the difference is the amount of training tutorials, personalities, come into beauty that I just personally was not aware of.

Christopher Silver:
There are different techniques, depending on who you feel you want to be for the day, you can express yourself differently. It just opens up a whole host of different opportunities from a technology standpoint, to help enhance that inspirational spirit that a consumer has coming in and working with an artist. I think it takes fashion and it and it explodes it even more because it gives you a tremendous opportunity that you have to apply different things, training materials, how do you do things, tutorials and then there’s different trends and looks depending on where you go in the world. It’s quite amazing and tons of opportunity.

Christopher Silver:
And then coming over and seeing just the amazing talent that MAC Cosmetics had and in researching this position before coming here, I knew that the artists were extremely well versed. They’re some of the best in the industry at what they do and just hearing them talk and them teaching me certain things, it’s just phenomenal. I think I’ve always learned, you have to get close to understand what you’re trying to do. You can’t just sit in an office, you have to go up to them. You have to understand how do they interact with customers? What does the customer want? And my customer is the associates and how do I make their lives better? It’s the customers, they go to the eCom, the mobile, they experience the brand as they come through it. It’s really how can I help meet their expectations and then go beyond it?

Julia Raymond:
Sure. And it sounds like you mentioned the different platforms MAC uses to reach customers. And when I think back about the beauty industry even 10 years, maybe a little more than 10 years ago, if you wanted to learn about different products and applications, you would actually have to go into a department store. And MAC was always one of the flagship brands in the department store, but how has that changed over the years? Just the way beauty brands connect with customers because of technology?

Christopher Silver:
I think that’s one of the greatest things about Estee Lauder and MAC is that there are so many amazing people here that just have the whole host of history of where beauty was, where it’s going to, how has the consumer behavior changed going on times? How does the consumer expectations change as new technologies kind of entered the market? And where are we heading with that? I think collaboration efforts between a lot of the different departments is truly critical because there’s a whole host of amazing experience, amazing knowledge, amazing folks that have just dove into this industry. And they’ve been part of there.

Christopher Silver:
The folks on online, the folks in omni, folks in IT, from retail counters, all the different pieces, I think they have an amazing story to tell that shows you the transition. And I think it’s all about understanding the history of where we came from to understand the history and the future and where we want to predict our strategy to go. And then, how can I help with that story as we travel from end to end experience with the consumer.

Julia Raymond:
I like how you said the story, because it definitely is a story, especially when it comes to that, creating that brand connection with consumers. I wanted to switch a little bit to technology. Broadly speaking, how does Estee Lauder, how does MAC view connected experiences? What are some of the things that you’re looking into in that area? AR whatever it may be.

Christopher Silver:
There’s different technology that I think adds to it. And you mentioned the part about a story. There’s a story for everything. You can’t just have point solutions in the store. It has to do something. It has to mean something. And I think too often, we go around and we see in a lot of different retailers, just kind of, you could tell it was just, hey, let’s put this in here to meet this rising trend and it just doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t fit. There’s no consumer value for it. There’s no business value for it. It’s just kind of there. I think one of the big things that when we talk about what a connected experience is for a consumer, number one is, you have to talk about a connected experience in terms of who we work with at Estee Lauder.

Christopher Silver:
I think bringing everyone to the table in a collaborative environment is definitely number one for that. That’s one of the big pieces when coming to Estee Lauder, I was so anxious to work with was because you have the whole breadth of all the different departments, all the different experience, all the different markets and regions that we’re in and the function. I think one of the big things is how do we cohesively tell that story of the consumer just new journey from start to finish, whether it be whatever, in a channel-less type of approach, but having that piece of approach that everything that you put in the store tells a one connected story for them. And it just makes sense.

Christopher Silver:
I think a lot of retailers do this amazing. And I think having that connected piece, whether it be the new way we want to engage a consumer, the new way that the consumer wants to engage with us, which is much more important. I think it needs to tell that end to end story so that the story of a connected experience with the technology is also one of a connected experience with your own internal teams and how you can collaborate together. Because it’s not one person that decides everything no matter what. It all works on a well-oiled machine of bringing everyone together and collaborating on what’s the best approach of putting the customer first?

Christopher Silver:
And I think that’s where you come up with your greatest kind of example is when all the teams work together.

Julia Raymond:
And you did mention, you said at URBN, one of the huge things you learned is you don’t just put things in, especially when it comes to technology. Have you had any examples you could talk about where it was a flop and there was a big learning there?

Christopher Silver:
Well, there’s always flops. But they’re not really flops.

Julia Raymond:
Yeah, because you learn from it.

Christopher Silver:
There’s always that being perfectionist and in our organization we always feel we could do better. When you put something out, you obviously want to put something out, you want to try it, you want to see if it works because most often for a lot of the projects that we did at URBN, we were ahead of everything. And same thing with the projects here at MAC, you’re always kind of trying to stretch what that looks like. And being with a lot of these people that have amazing backgrounds, who are problem solvers, who are customer experience folks, I think being a perfectionist comes natural with that.

Christopher Silver:
It’s great, but it also hurts you. I think not necessarily flops because we have very close ties with brands, with the artists in the stores, with the associates, to understand before something goes customer facing, do we have it all taken care of? But does it always work out exactly the way we planned? Is there always something we could make better? Do better with? Absolutely. Absolutely all the time. But I think that’s where introducing a continuous improvement.

Christopher Silver:
The Simon Sinek Infinite Game approach, meaning you put something in, but you’re never quite done with it because the consumer behavior is going to change over time. What you’re always trying to set up is, how do I put something in that gives me flexibility to meet today’s needs, but also sets me up in a strategic roadmap that I can always shift with the consumer? I think retail moves faster than any other industry flat out. And because you’re shifting with consumer trends and we all see with Instagram, TikTok and everything, consumer trends change immediately.

Julia Raymond:
So fast.

Christopher Silver:
We need to set ourselves up to be able to pivot at a moment’s notice. And yeah.

Julia Raymond:
I like to say retail never sleeps because it is so fast-moving. Really, my heart goes out to anyone working in retail. It’s just a lot to keep up with.

Christopher Silver:
They are amazing folks that love people, love engaging. Truly some of the most caring people I’ve ever met. Actually, really care about you. It’s a great industry to work in.

Julia Raymond:
Great. And you touched on a little bit of the Simon Sinek stuff with Infinite Game. And I wanted to ask because we just launched our Shift Happens survey for the fall and one in four retailers said because of COVID, they’re deploying more customer-facing technology and then one in five, so a little bit less said, they’re focusing on marketing and advertising technology. Does one come before the other? Or how do you approach where to prioritize investments?

Christopher Silver:
It’s a little bit of a chicken or the egg, but also you have to put yourself in understanding history. Simon Sinek Infinite Game and I hate when people usually mention certain quotes and different things, but in general, it makes sense. Thinking the long term, but setting yourself up so that you can pivot quickly is key. I think one of the things that comes out is that we go through crisises on a regular basis, they’re going to come again. It’s going to happen again. But after a crisis or a pandemic or an economic situation, things aren’t quite the same when you come out of it. We will come out it, we will get through it. We will be different when we come through it. It’s just a matter of how we set ourselves up. We saw the same thing with the 2008 economic crash.

Christopher Silver:
Essentially that retailers had the pivot. And that’s where a lot of the omni experiences and the omni technologies came in to play was after that, because we had to change behaviors and we had to change the way that we were offering. We had to be more efficient. Margins aren’t quite the same between fashion and beauty, but still, we need to kind of pivot. I think the difference with this pandemic, as we’ve seen with previous ones is it’s going to change behavior. As things change behavior, different core ways that we’re interacting with the consumer is going to come in. You say, do we do technology? Do we do advertising? Well, there are hand in hand. I think one of the things that we need to make sure that we take advantage of and one of the things that changed with this pandemic, especially if you take a look macro wise on it, is essentially time changed.

Christopher Silver:
Time changed and location changed for the consumer. Right now, it used to be okay, I have this set path that I do. I have this set path that I follow. Schedules were the same. Well, what happened when COVID hit, we went into shut down. What we saw all over the world was retailers defaulted back to email as primary communication. I don’t know about you, but for the last four months, my email box when I wake up in the morning is about 250 to 300 promo messages. And I think the other thing we’ve noticed is that consumers are treating retailers different. Things are becoming just like you have control over your TV with on demand with Netflix. Well, things are going to happen the same way with retail. We now have to shift our calendar, our schedule, we have to be more agile with providing services.

Christopher Silver:
Things aren’t tied to a store opening our store closing, or hey, I’m going to launch at this time. I think on-demand services, remote services, having services. And I use services widely in terms of physical services, one on one appointments and just different technologies that we’re providing them, can no longer rely on set launches. Events, things have to shift because people are getting used to working remotely, having control over their calendar because work schedules are becoming more flexible. I think when we discuss marketing, I just mentioned the 300 emails I wake up to, is that the best way to communicate? Is that the way that the consumer wants? Or are we just wasting money and they’re just mass deleting their promotions tab in Gmail, like I do every day?

Julia Raymond:
Or go down the rabbit hole, promotion.

Christopher Silver:
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. But I think the biggest thing is, how do we set ourselves up to be more personalized, to be more dynamic, to use intelligence technology, not for creating a sale, but for creating a better relationship with the consumer? And using that technology to share certain things because I think some things came out of this pandemic that are very important and it became who are we? And consumer seems to be more interested in that they’re doing business with someone that cares. That they care more about the product, that they care about the people who did it and why are we doing it? I think using these systems, going across time, it’s understanding why a lot better.

Julia Raymond:
And I wanted to touch on that. The why, because I like how you really summed it up when it comes to COVID. the macro change was time and location and there was an unprecedented shift, a little bit for beauty purchases to go online versus going and trying it on and interacting with the great sales associates and having that experience. Do you see trends in terms of the buying patterns? Are people sticking to what they know and love and just repeating past purchases? Or is there still discovery going on?

Christopher Silver:
I think there’s definitely still discovery going on. It’s just changed. One of the biggest experiences that you could have and one of the best ones that MAC absolutely loved, which was interacting with our artists. Just because of everything I mentioned previously of learning different looks, learning techniques, learning how to apply things, what’s trending? What’s the next thing? How do I express myself? And learning that through all the tutorials and it’s a passionate kind of piece. I think a lot of this is enhancing the way that discovery happens.

Christopher Silver:
It’s using social, it’s using all this interactive, augmented reality technology. It’s mixed with, okay I understand what your preferences are, take a look at this. Or maybe for the day you want to dial up to something, more of your personality because you’re feeling a bit more daring or you have a big event coming up. I think it’s going to expand the way that we engage with the consumer. It’s going to make things a lot faster, but it’s relying on a lot of this new technology to come out that’s not necessarily a transactional base, but more of experiential technology. And it’s going to change the way that we’re seeing and voting on how this technology gets implemented.

Julia Raymond:
And when you talk about some of the interactions customers can have online with, I guess, your internal teams of artists, do you think that internal teams are becoming more like brand ambassadors? And this has been a trend that has occurred, not just because of COVID, but over the past couple years. Is that something you think will increase in addition to recruiting outside influencers?

Christopher Silver:
Well, I think anyone that represents your brand in any fashion, whether it be in a store, whether it be me right now talking, whether it be products that you see on shelves everywhere, there’s definitely ambassadors to your brand. I think taking advantage of the knowledge that they have, but also empowering them is extremely critical to this. In terms of relationships and the way that things are going, I think it’s very important. And what we’ve seen is out of this pandemic is the sense of community. Because we’ve all been shut down. We’ve said community in the past, there’s been a ton of amazing community experiences we’ve seen technology done. But I think one of the things that has shown us throughout this whole crisis is we want to be together. We want to discuss, we want to be open. We want to be there with people.

Christopher Silver:
The whole piece comes with, well, how do we make this hyper-local but also giving them breadth of what’s globally happening? And that’s a very tough thing, but I think that’s why your artists or Lulu calls them educators, they’re called different things everywhere, which is amazing, but they are a representation and not just influencers, but really the artists in our store, our store associates. It’s very important because they maintain the relationships. It’s all of us empowering them to keep and make and keep that connection with their own communities that I think is the biggest powerful thing right now. I think that’s where everything’s kind of headed, which is how do we help that? How do we enable that? How do we give power to our artists and associates?

Julia Raymond:
I love that. When you’re working, MAC is a huge banner for Estee Lauder, is there a natural tension between the parent company and then the brands that interact in that ecosystem? Or what is that like from a technology standpoint?

Christopher Silver:
There’s a definite benefit approach, but just like every brand, even previously, there’s always internal competition. From the brand because brother and sister brands, we all want to be the first, we all want to be the best. We all want to be the one that connects with the customer more, has the best engagement. I think that’s there. As a technologist that sits across with an amazing team and it’s not just me doing everything. I have an amazing team that I work with that sits across all the brands from an IT, digital perspective and even with the marketing teams and everything, everyone kind of works together. I think there’s one approach to ensuring that we’re working as efficiently as possible so we can bring the best technology very quickly, but also that makes sense and fit a storyline.

Christopher Silver:
It’s a real collaborative story where it’s my goal is I want to bring all the folks to the table that tell this story the best. I want to work with the best people and it’s pulling everyone together to understand how do we do this extremely well? And what do we want to do? There is that sense of everyone helping out each other but they’re completely different messages. MAC has a very different message from Estee Lauder, which is a very different message from Clinique, from Tom Ford, all the different ones. And then even the same at URBN, there was a completely different customer, different everything between Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie and a Free People customer. You definitely want to keep that uniqueness. You definitely want to keep that brand culture with it, but it’s all about harnessing the power of that collective to bring the best forward.

Christopher Silver:
I think that’s the best piece is pulling everyone together and understand how do we move forward fast as a collective team and a collective group, one spirit? But also maintaining our individual identity, customer service, culture, sponsorship. I think that’s big and the leaders at Estee Lauder are true visionaries in beauty. They’ve been here forever. They’ve seen the complete trends in beauty, back and forth and I think what they bring to the table in terms of thought processes is huge. It’s exactly the thought process that we had at URBN and Anthro with the thought leaders there. It’s that same. It’s questioning how we’re doing things. It’s bringing the best forward. It’s thinking of the consumer first.

Julia Raymond:
Chris, you’ve been in retail for a long time now with some of the top brands that people know and love. What advice would you give to some of our listeners who maybe are more early on in their retail career?

Christopher Silver:
I love this question actually specifically, because one of the big things is I love talking to new hires, interns that come in, just simply because of that.

Christopher Silver:
I think one of the biggest things that I take every year from going through the NRF mentor foundation, talking to students, talking to interns, I think one of the biggest things is that retail has a passion. There’s a certain passion about this. And I mentioned earlier, that’s why I do what I do here because you get to help people. And I think you don’t go in it for your specific trait, but you go in it because it means something. There’s a passion behind it.

Christopher Silver:
When talking to young folks in the industry, I think it’s extremely important to them that they question everything. Question, constructively question I’ll say. Because coming up in the industry, there is a history of why we do things. There’s a history of where the company came from, a history of why we do a lot of different things. But it’s important to constantly keep questioning your status quo strategy. Because everything shifts, everything’s dynamic, everything’s going to change. And I think it takes these young minds coming in and giving their honest opinion, not worrying about titles, not worrying about who’s sitting at the table because it may hurt my career.

Christopher Silver:
I think being open, honest, having their opinions met and saying, “Well, why are we doing that? Why are we doing this? Why does the customer want to do that? What have we seen?” And just questioning and asking that I think it’s the innocent questions of just the passionate that want to learn is what’s going to help, at least our brand and the brands that I’m involved with kind of pivot and change and move with the way that we want to help our consumers more. It’s the way we want to engage, how we want to help her. I think listening to all the folks that come in, but also question everything. Ask why we do something. Don’t take something as is. I think the way we’ve always done it is the worst ever where, oh, it’s not in my job description.

Christopher Silver:
I absolutely hate that. Question why. Just don’t do things blind. There should be a reason behind everything. And if you can’t find a reason, there’s a problem for that. And if your strategy, and strategies are meant to be broken. They’re not meant to be written in stone. I don’t know any strategy that’s written in stone for a long period of time, where it actually holds all the way through. It’s meant to be questioned, it’s meant to pivot and it has to be flexible. And the only way to do that is to get everyone together, working together. And that’s listening to everybody in the room at the table. Having one person is the smartest man in the room it’s a bad thing. Having everyone cohesively coming in and sharing on that and sharing their experiences is key to everything and listening.

Christopher Silver:
That’s what I tell all the folks at the NRF mentor foundation. What I tell when I chat to all the new hires and the interns. It’s, I don’t know anything. I don’t want to express that I’m the key expert in anything. I think everyone has to come to the table and it’s let’s figure out how this works together because many minds is better than just one. And titles don’t necessarily mean you’re right. I think there’s different ways to do things. Question everything, constructively.

Julia Raymond:
Undoubtedly. Absolutely. Question everything. I like that, Chris. That is the mantra of the new retail, either graduate or someone new into the field. When you were looking at the industry, broadly speaking, I like to ask people, you say, I don’t like to say I’m an expert, but for my purposes, you are definitely an expert. And so from your point of view, what would you say is maybe the one thing that you are most excited about in the industry moving forward the next five years?

Christopher Silver:
Sure. I think literally where we’re headed because of the pivot that we need to make, it’s slingshotted us forward. And speaking in different markets, different things, it’s slingshotted forward a lot of capabilities from an end-user perspective for engagement. It’s opening a lot of doors. It’s allowing us to stop, rethink and you know what? The consumer is ready now because of everything. And speaking North America, UK, Europe and Asia, I think we see, and Latin America, we see a lot of change in consumer behavior. I think just as we saw a few years ago with the AirPods obviously being introduced with Bluetooth, with different technologies, with different options and I’m not saying this is great for technology, this is great for the consumer because we now as technologists and we now as brand experience folks, have a whole host of different new tools in order to express how much we love what we do to you, the consumer, as you come walking through to enhance your experience even more.

Christopher Silver:
I think where I see things going is I see time not being a factor anymore, but taking more an on-demand approach. I see the sense of a community. Us as a brand being more community-related. I see our ability to bring technology into your experiences and complementing your behaviors in the store, online, mobily, is huge. And being able to understand what you care about, what you love, what you’re interested in and then showing you something that can expand who you are as a person and really touch you and help out. I think that’s where I see things moving in a much more faster way.

Julia Raymond:
I love your answer there.

Christopher Silver:
And that’s what I’m absolutely thrilled about. Yeah.

Julia Raymond:
I do, because you’ve mentioned it’s almost more of a theme of our conversation is you’ve brought up how important community is when you’re talking about brand. And I think that’s huge. And like you said, with time being less of a factor and location on that macro-level moving forward, it’s going to become even more important.

Julia Raymond:
Chris, global vice president at MAC Cosmetics, thank you so much for joining RETHINK Retail today. We really appreciate having people like you on the show who are in the midst of retail and everything going on. Thanks for joining us.