Delivering the luxury experience synonymous with the Neiman Marcus name demands consistent execution of consumer-satisfying logistics, and Willis Weirich is passionately committed to an agile, channel-agnostic approach that resonates positively with upscale customers.
As senior vice president of supply chain and operations at Dallas-based Neiman Marcus Group, Weirich leads logistics for designer apparel and related high-end goods under seven esteemed retail brand names, including Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman and Last Call.
As a family man and socially aware global citizen, Weirich brings a similar ardor to helping ensure his own children – and those on the other side of the world – have an optimal chance to succeed, as he shares with readers of AJOT.
What challenges do you see garments and apparel logistics facing, and how should industry respond?
For our segment and for garments on hanger in particular, you haven’t seen as many advances in automation and technology solutions as compared to the flat-pack types of products within the supply chain.
Certainly, there’ve been advancements with RFID and other technologies to support inventory accuracy, but, when it actually comes down to the distribution component of it, I see less notable improvements in that space.
Obviously, garments on hanger is a smaller segment and a little unique to the luxury space in terms of how you package and move the goods through the supply chain. If you step away from luxury, the desire in this day and age to create the try-it-on-and-return-it experience puts additional pressure on the supply chain.
Over the next few years, we are going to see more innovation in returns dispositioning, product refurbishment and unique service offerings that improve the delivery experience for the customer. This will solve some of the aspects of inventory placement, but I don’t personally expect there to be significant investments in automation, despite the fact that there’s a gap there.
There are a few organizations working on shared e-commerce networks that will probably have the greatest value proposition to solve some of these challenges. You have to think about the capital investment and the continued flexibility.
Specifically for garments on hanger, I believe this is where retailers can see the most benefit, because the investment to automate that, given the smaller scale, gives us a chance to really leapfrog in terms of capabilities in looking at shared distribution models.
Evidently, you’re not going to jam a $2,000 dress in the smallest possible box you can find. Are there particular challenges related to being at the higher end of the retail spectrum, and what actions has Neiman Marcus Group taken to address them?
The unique differences of luxury retail are the high average value of the merchandise as well as the SKU [stock keeping unit] depth. We work really hard to connect our customers to the Neiman Marcus experience, so, to your point, packaging high-end apparel into the smallest possible box does not resonate with the customer.
So, to me, there’s a higher emphasis on execution. It draws more of an importance on consistency of on-time delivery to stores, accuracy of the e-commerce deliveries, how we partner with our brand vendors on shipments and what kind of air freight we use as it relates to the latest styles.
In the luxury space, all these things require us to be much more disciplined around execution. I always say averages don’t work well in our business model. When you focus on averages you end up seeing opportunities in the periphery that don’t resonate with customers.
The other thing about consistent execution is avoiding creating a system that lacks agility. As an organization, we’re always willing to test new ideas and solutions that differentiate us in the marketplace. So I have to be careful to balance investment with agility so we can pivot as the market adjusts.
All of our distribution centers have the ability to ship e-commerce merchandise, so we’re truly channel-agnostic, which is a way we’ve responded to the luxury space and again to that SKU depth.
How has Neiman Marcus Group’s white glove delivery program proven successful in a time of increasing online sales – with e-commerce activity representing 35.7 percent of $1.165 billion in total sales for the fiscal quarter ended April 28 ofthis year?
The growth of online puts more emphasis on the supply chain because we – and by extension our partners – are the last touchpoint to the customer.
When you take that a step further, in the spectrum of e-commerce, white glove is the pinnacle of that experience, because we’re often letting our partners enter our customer’s home to make that delivery. Our success in that space has been truly understanding the value of the experience and placing an emphasis on measuring it with our partners.
It requires a holistic view of the experience to understand the value proposition of having the right service model. In isolation, any one part may have an opportunity to reduce cost and/or improve efficiency, but you have to look at the entire lifecycle to demonstrate that poor delivery communication on the part of the carrier can impact a return or customer satisfaction.
It all comes back to driving consumer loyalty to the brand and to the experience. I really think it takes a lot of diligence and internal partnership to evaluate the entire process versus looking at these things in isolation, but I think it’s the only way you really know what levers can impact success.
We’ve seen a lot of success with white glove by taking that more holistic view of the end-to-end lifecycle of the customer experience and then putting resources in place and partnering with the right providers to make sure we really execute on that.
What principles have you applied to your work over the past two years at Neiman Marcus from your preceding five-plus years at Target and four years before that with Airgas, as well as your education in earning your bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Purdue University and MBA from the University of Minnesota?
The key is how you assimilate each of these experiences in looking at your current challenges and how you solve them. All of these experiences allow me to effectively dissect problems, to understand my own leadership capabilities and to have the power of continual learning.
Early in my collegiate career, I gained an appreciation for solving the root causes of issues. I can’t pinpoint a particular class or experience, but I felt like my time at Purdue created that environment. Throughout my career, I’ve refined the process and applied my experiences, but I’ve always felt college gave me that set of problem-solving skills that has been invaluable in my career.
While my undergrad was more technical in nature, my MBA was an extension and refinement of those skills, with a deeper application toward business. With an MBA in Minneapolis, you work alongside some of the brightest people from a variety of companies, like 3M and Best Buy and many others.
I’ve had the chance to work for tremendous leaders along the way, but I’ve also worked with individuals who you learn can negatively impact a culture. The first group is certainly exhilarating, but the latter is obviously more draining. The key is that there are learning experiences in both circumstances about what type of leadership resonates with people.
I’ve developed a keen awareness of my own strengths and opportunities and building a team around me that complements that. It’s a continual journey. The thing I think I’ve grown to enjoy the most about my career is the leadership dynamic.
And then I think the third thing – and obviously I have a passion about continual learning – is that I still enjoy reading about other industries and finding correlations to retail, and, as you know, attending conferences and reading about a variety of topics.
As far as my career and the success I’ve had, it was always about creating the longest runway possible, not getting down it the quickest. As a result, I think I’ve learned a lot along the way, and it makes me a better problem solver and leader.
What has motivated you to be engaged with social service ministries, such as Feed My Starving Children and Anurag Society, and how are these volunteer efforts fulfilling?
Once I had children, I was really impacted by the sense of profound responsibility to prepare them for their own twists and turns in life. Reading books like Dr. James Dobson’s Bringing Up Girls and Dare to Disciplineand just understanding the impact you have as a father on your children is coupled with the fact that, through my career, I’ve had a chance to travel to many places and see how children, by no choice of their own, often lack basic needs commonly available in the U.S.
If you look at the research on children’s ability to succeed in life, there’s a profound correlation to early education, pre-kindergarten, and to nutrition. I became passionate about these organizations because of their ability to meet those needs and hopefully help children born into these situations overcome the statistics and ultimately become a self-fulfilling effort to help their own societies.
I’ve had the chance to go to children’s homes in India and Haiti, and you can just see the potential in their eyes. When you look at them, it’s hard not to see your own children, but they really need those basic essentials in order to even have a chance to succeed in life.
I’m just passionate about investing in kids, because, ultimately, we all want what’s best for our children, and we know the caché that children are our future, so, for me, it’s been something for which my passion has grown.
What other activities beyond the workspace do you and your wife and two children enjoy?
We really enjoy spending a lot of time outdoors. Having lived in a number of places, we’ve grown to appreciate the diversity of seasons and topographies, from the Midwest to Down South. A lot of our time is spent around bodies of water, which we’ve grown to appreciate in Texas, because you need the water to escape the heat.
As a family, we enjoy traveling together and exploring new cities and cultures. My wife and I certainly understand how fast the time we have with our children goes. I heard an expression the other day that the days seem long but the years go fast, and that really resonates, so we enjoy spending a lot of time traveling with them.
My wife and I are focused on our children having more of a world view. You can teach a lot more of that through travel and, of course, some of the missions work that we do.
Given that we’ve moved a fair amount, we also spend some time traveling back to visit our friends, because we really want to show our kids that the relationships you build don’t have to cease to exist once you’ve moved to a new place.