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Insights into Retail Transformation that Succeed… and Some that Don’t

Steve Dennis, an author, president of SageBerry Consulting, a senior Forbes contributor and host of the retail industry’s top podcast, provided many insights during his “Speaker Series” discussion and livestream at Miller Zell on June 20.


Dennis sat down with Tina Chadwick, Miller Zell’s SVP of Strategy & Creative, to discuss why retail transformations fail and what you can do to avoid that endgame. This was the central topic of his latest book that was published this spring: Leaders Leap: Transforming Your Company at the Speed of Disruption.

During one of his tenures as a retail executive, Steve Dennis heard some incisive analysis from a co-worker about the transformational plan just approved by the company’s board.

“The more I thought about it, it’s not a strategy to win,” the co-worker observed. “It’s a strategy to suck less.”

"We confuse things that have become table stakes with things that are actually differentiators."

Steve Dennis, President of Sageberry Consulting and Best Selling Author


Said Dennis, “The minute he said it, I was like, ‘yeah.’ We were closing gaps that had emerged between us and the competition, but we weren’t really leaping to a new place that had any real chance of being powerfully profitable or customer relevant. It was really just shrinking the distance between us and the competition.”

As he often discovered as an executive, campaigns that were packaged as innovative were often just efforts to catch up. "We confuse things that have become table stakes with things that are actually differentiators,” he said. 

The distressing but persistent truth is most retail transformations fail — 70% according to recent research from McKinsey. Dennis discussed both why they fail and what retailers can do to avoid failure, as well as what that requires of retail leaders.

More often than not, it’s about a willingness to take bold leaps that involve risk, which is not easy, particularly in the short term when external analysis might jump to negative judgments./

Miller zell speaker series steve dennis tina chadwick
Steve Dennis, president of SageBerry Consulting and Best Selling Author and Tina Chadwick, Miller Zell’s SVP of Strategy & Creative.

“Our tendency is to not do things that scare us,” Dennis said. “So, most of us are going to struggle when we are perceived as doing anything that is risky.”

The rewards, of course, are meeting evolving customers where they are and where they want to go and creating a path for long-term ROI.

Key moments from Why Retail Transformations Fail

01:00 | The failed strategy of “suck less” 

10:30 | Collapse of the middle… 70 % of retail transformations fail 

22:00 | CEOs see disruption but don’t know what to do 

29:30 | What’s really happened with customer-centricity? 

31:50 | What constitutes a “leap”? (It doesn’t have to be a moonshot) 

38:00 | Understanding the “useful stumble” 

41:00 | How does corporate culture support innovation? 

46:50 | What are the warning signs? 

52:30 | Find a segment and go deep 

55: 35 | Q & A