by Anh H. Nguyen
I met with Mark Weber on a December day a few weeks before Christmas. The holiday retail season had just begun its full swing and Mark was positively, hectically occupied, but he granted me a chat just the same. I arrived at our meeting place - a quiet cafe close to where two of his stores were located - 10 minutes ahead of schedule, only to find Mark had beaten me to it by 20 minutes.
He had utilized the extra time to tackle his own work, then went on to lend me a hand in prepping for my interview with him. An old-school soul who consistently put forth his best efforts in every situation, Mark carefully jotted down all questions and answers on paper before appearing on camera. The number of questions far exceeded our previously agreed upon amount, yet his only suggestion, and an expert one at that, was how I should restructure them for better effect.
It was Mark's unexpected warmth and generosity, traits not commonly associated with someone in his position, that occasionally made me lose sight of the fact that he was my client, not my undercover mentor.
For nearly 30 years, Mark Weber was a fixture at Aldo, a company founded in 1972 by Aldo Bensadoun, the youngest in a four-generation family of shoemakers. After nearly half a century, Aldo has grown into a worldwide corporation with nearly 3,000 stores. Mark was the former Vice President of Operations at Aldo in the Middle East, Europe and Asia Pacific with a track record of successfully opening over 700 retail stores all over the world.
In 2022, he joined Nha Thai/VTIJS and became the head of Aldo in Vietnam.
When I asked him, “Why Vietnam now?”, his answer was simple:
“Aldo has been in Vietnam for about 15 years, and we have over 30 stores. The plan is to have between 80 and 100 stores within the next five years. We have launched new flagship stores in Ho Chi Minh City and in Hanoi, and we have plans to elevate at least five more of our stores in the next six to twelve months. The brand is growing very fast.” A fast-moving ship needs a captain with steady hands and steely nerves, and Mark Weber was the man uniquely qualified for that job.
When we started moving to shoot in the Aldo stores, Mark visibly lit up. He instructed his staff to showcase the best merchandising with the flair of a virtuoso. It was clear Mark loved everything about Aldo: the stores, the goods, the people. And he said as much.
“Aldo is a brand for the people. It is not only a luxury brand. This brand was designed so that comfortable, quality fashion was available for everyone,” Mark said, which made Aldo perfect for the Vietnam market, because it was “one of the fastest growing middle classes on the planet.”
Even more palpable than Mark’s excitement about Aldo’s future in Vietnam was his appreciation of the brand’s philosophy. “What I have always respected about the Aldo brand is that Aldo has always focused not only on the customer that purchases the product, but also the customer that is the employee. And as a brand, the brand Aldo has always invested heavily in helping people reach their full potential. A lot of young people who enter the retail world do not have experience. And by being specific about what behavior equals success, Aldo has allowed a lot of people with very little experience to achieve a very high level of performance.”
Employee empowerment is an important tenet for Mark personally and Aldo at large
This was one of those instances that so often distinguished Mark’s wisdom and empathy. During the one year that I had worked with him, my impression of Mark had progressed from a tough, highly demanding executive to a tough, highly demanding man who cared deeply about his workers. His vast expertise was at first intimidating, as well as his exact standards. Mark Weber was a man who knew perfectly what he wanted to achieve and how. It was the same way he spoke: with clear, definite statements full of clear, definite figures.
“Retail has changed a great deal over the last 10 years. It used to be possible for an average brand, for example, to still be successful. And especially in developing markets like Vietnam, if you were an international brand and you came, that was enough. You didn't need excellence in visual merchandising, you didn't need excellence in product selection, you didn't need excellence in customer service, you just needed the brand. And that gave you success.
But it is not like that anymore.
Not only has the customer evolved in the developing world and developing markets, but brand competition has grown significantly in the last 10 years. So now you are competing against other brands with similar offerings.
And so the difference between one basis point of conversion can be the difference between success and failure. Just one basis point increase in conversion becomes around 15 to 16 percent increase on top line sales. If you add on top of that an increase in AOV by 10%, now you are over 20% increase in top line sales.
So anybody who doesn't think it is important to track these KPIs and effectively change the behaviors that affect them will probably not find success in retail today.”
Evidently, for Mark, the magic formula for success involved diligently tracking KPIs and aligning them with behaviors. Naturally, I could not resist asking him to dive deeper into the details.
“A lot of companies make the mistake of thinking that just because they know what their traffic is or they know what their conversion is, that that somehow will make it better.
But that is not true.
You have to link those key KPIs to specific behaviors that you want to replicate that directly impact that consumer experience. That gets them to buy more products from you and gets them to buy more products more regularly.
It is a combination of having the right data provided consistently and accurately and then understanding what behaviors you are trying to create to replicate in order to affect those KPIs. So it is a mixture of retail performance management systems and accurate KPI tracking.”
For Mark, it was a constant return to the heart of the matter – the people. Having spent close to three decades with Aldo, he considered the workers more than just colleagues; they were like a family to him. Mark was unwavering in his commitment to ensuring their success. I had personally witnessed this countless times, often through his requests for Palexy’s additional data or tailor-made reports. To those unfamiliar with his methods, these reports might seem like mere numbers, but to Mark, each figure encapsulated the intricate nuances of Aldo people's performance.
Encouraged by his positive feedback on our solution, I eagerly requested a concrete example from him.
“One of the first things that we noticed that was affecting our conversion in a really big way was the customer-to-staff ratio. How many customers one staff member talks to within an hour was too high during the peak traffic period. And so we realized that customers during our most important hours were not getting the best service because we didn't have enough people on the roster.
We also realized that because of the original way that we scheduled, we were only employing full-time people so there were a lot of overlapping shifts that were very difficult to change. Because if you bring in three people in the morning and you have three people at night, you end up with six people overlapping in the middle of the day, but that is not when our peak traffic periods were.
So we recognized the need to have employees that could work four-hour shifts.
By using Palexy to track the number of customers every hour versus the number of staff we had active in the store, we were able to establish a customer-to-staff ratio by hour and then create an automatic scheduler that would recommend the number of people you would have on your schedule each hour based on the average number of customers that would enter your store during those peak traffic periods.
That is something that we've now implemented, I would say at 80%. We are still going through the process of balancing our full-time and part-time teams, but it is an ongoing process that's helping us with our conversion.
I mean, you can establish customer-to-staff ratio, but it is going to be very raw data and then you are going to have to take the time to do the breakdown of customer-to-staff ratio manually, which is time consuming.
By having Palexy to make recommendations, you essentially can create automatic scheduler by store, which could take a district sales manager hours every week to do manually.
Palexy can do it instantly.”
One dimension of Mark Weber was that he was a very cautious man. He never rushed, nor allowed to be rushed. In the initial stages of our professional collaboration, I suggested numerous features that Palexy offered, only to have him graciously decline and choose to proceed at his own rhythm. His philosophy was clear: he preferred excellence in one area over mediocrity in all. He then reminded me of that.
“In the past when I first started working with traffic counters 20 years ago, you had to work with raw data and you had to do all your own analysis because the companies that were providing you with traffic counters, that's all you got. They did not explain which customers were non-customers, meaning that your own staff counted in traffic, non-customers like children and searching customers, or even mall staff and different people that enter and exit your store, all of that was part of your data, your traffic data.
AI can differentiate data now. It can tell you who is real traffic, it can tell you how long people stay, you can decide if you want to have a certain number of seconds before traffic gets counted so that the person that affected the traffic counter but never really stopped isn't part of your traffic. AI has all of those capabilities but in the past companies had to do all of that by themselves through statistics.
So one of the first things we needed to do here was create consistency and accuracy. We did not immediately start working with Palexy on the more advanced capabilities of the AI tools, because we first needed to create a foundation around traffic conversion and average order value.
We knew that the behaviors that are linked to those key KPIs, whether it be greeting a customer within 15 seconds, whether it be offering, presenting the merchandise in a certain way at the bench, whether it's thanking and reassuring the customer at the end of a sale, all of those types of basic behaviors, we needed to establish that foundation first.
As we worked with Palexy more, we started working more with interaction rates, how long customers stayed in the store, where they went in the store. We even started testing fraud detection now, which is kind of a next step for us, which is, of course, available from Palexy as well.”
Delighted to learn that Mark intended to incorporate more features from Palexy, hence ensuring my job security for the foreseeable future, I inquired about the thought process guiding his selection of a tech vendor.
Unsurprisingly it also circled back to the human component.
“So, working with a company that provides you with accurate, timely reports is important,
But it doesn't solve my problem.
Having a company that is willing to be in an alliance with me that recognizes the value of the advanced performance management systems that we have experience working with, and reports to back it and track the changes in KPIs that are linked to specific behaviors, that is the strength of our alliance.
Palexy’s willingness to work directly with retailers to understand what specific behavior that they want to standardize and then replicate because they believe it will affect one or more KPIs, that is the strength.
I really respect the flexibility that Palexy has shown in the early relationship. Our alliance with Palexy has been really effective because Palexy has done a very good job explaining the technology that they can offer. They have been flexible enough to create reporting specific to our needs.
And they have constantly demonstrated excellence in customer service. When we needed things changed, when we needed reports modified, Palexy was there for us to understand our needs and make those modifications.
I think the other thing that has been really great with Palexy is just constantly being reminded of what could be next, what extra services we could work on together as we establish those foundational rules and policies.“
Sensing a rare opportunity to uncover tales of his past experiences in distant lands, I seized the moment and asked Mark about his endeavors with Aldo in other markets. Instead of regaling me with amusing anecdotes of gold-plated cars or gold-dispensing ATMs, Mark further elaborated on the golden retail management system.
“Today if I was to consider all of the markets that I've worked in, probably the most advanced retail management systems I experienced is in Dubai. There are other parts of the Middle East that are also very advanced, but Dubai is really the most advanced system that I have encountered with regards to, you know, key performance indicators being tracked and linked to performance management systems.”
Mark was optimistic about the adoption of Palexy solution in such markets.
“There are hundreds of other companies that operate retail brands in the Middle East and African region and, let's face it, all across Asia as well, that have not yet adopted an advanced performance management system that is linked directly to key performance indicators that Palexy helps organizations track. Whether you are talking about traffic and conversion and ATV, which are very basic, or you are actually trying to track consumer interaction, the effectiveness of visual merchandising, the effectiveness of marketing, all of the things that Palexy offers are needed by a lot of organizations within the business.”
While I instantly daydreamed of assisting clients in the Dubai Mall and sipping coffee with a view of the Burj Khalifa, Mark brought me back to Earth. He reminded me that while our interview had come to an end, our work had not. The filming crew turned off the camera. Mark and I began to discuss our plans for 2024.
May I have a selfie to go, please?
But then he did something else. Mark started advising me. Transitioning seamlessly from interviewee and client to a bonafide mentor, Mark shared insights into the motivations of other C-level executives, revealing what drove them, what they looked for in a solution and a strategic partner, and provided guidance on how I could effectively capture their attention and support.
The reason he did this, he assured me, was his genuine belief in our solution and his desire for our success. While I acknowledged those words, deep down, I understood that Mark's belief extended beyond the solution—it was in me. In a way, Mark Weber had taken me under his wings, much like he had done for many others before me. And in this year’s season of thanks, my gratitude lies with the way my professional endeavors have connected me with Mark Weber.