Aggie TenX12 Start-Up Showcase (left to right) Andy Ellwood ’04, McCalley Cunningham ’18, Juan Zermeno ’17, Saurav Agarwal ’16, and Madison Nicole Robinson ’20

Texas A&M University’s Center for Retailing Studies (CRS) hosted its annual Retailing Summit on Oct. 12-13 at the Westin Galleria Dallas. CRS is part of Mays Business School.

This year’s conference featured executives from Crayola, Dollar General, GPO, Johnson & Johnson, Nature Nate’s, Poo-Pourri, Root, Signet Jewelers, Walgreens, and Zoës Kitchen. A new addition to the Summit included a session with founders of four start-up companies launched by current and former Texas A&M students.

Major themes emphasized throughout the Retailing Summit included:

  • Customer experience as a key to competing with Amazon
  • Investing in people as assets and differentiators
  • The need for companies to be purpose-driven in order to draw attention from Millennials, who want to be part of something bigger


“Through the proceeds from the Retailing Summit, we are proud to support leadership programs and curriculum for our retailing students,” says Kelli Hollinger, Director of the Center for Retailing Studies at Mays Business School. “This conference embodies Mays strategic commitment to developing transformational leaders, students, and executives, who constantly innovate and challenge the status quo.” 

Keeping the customer a priority

Steve Sunderland, SVP of Store Operations for Dollar General, kicked off the first day. He joined Dollar General in 2014 and is currently responsible for overseeing operations in six divisions with more than 7,000 locations covering the southern half of the United States.

Dollar General’s mission is serving others. That mantra includes both customers and their 127,000 associates. The company strategically invested $70 million to hire better talent to improve their store experience. Aptitudes for leadership, will, and attitude are hiring requirements.

Sunderland discussed the company’s efforts of the company to keep stores focused on delivering simplicity to customers. He added, “Standards will not beat out Walmart…but attitudes can.” Dollar General believes customers want clean, in-stock stores, with friendly associates, and efficient processes. The company believes that it’s better to teach someone how to stock a shelf than how to positively interact with people, which usually cannot be taught.

He closed with videos showing company’s commitment to its associates and customers with relief Dollar General provided for Hurricane Harvey victims. The audience was challenged to think about the experience they provide to their associates, concluding that customer experience will only be as good as the associate experience.

The Woo of Poo:  How to change your business and your life in the time you go to the bathroom

One of the most entertaining and unconventional presentations of the Summit came from Will Clarke, Vice President of Marketing for Poo-Pourri.

Will Clarke, Vice President of Marketing for Poo-Pourri

The irreverent brand openly discusses bodily bathroom functions via comical videos/podcasts that depict how to use its essential oil spray to neutralize unpleasant bathroom odor. Currently, their videos have more than 250 million views, which are marketed through their in-house media group, #2 Productions.

Through these satire videos, Poo-Pourri encourages people to change the taboo on “poo,” and have open conversations about it. Clarke pointed out a few example of how the fear of talking about poo can lead to serious social problems, like teenage girls giving themselves health issues by holding it in, or how it lowers work productivity because employees will go and search for isolated bathrooms.

Clarke also discussed how Poo-Pourri aligns its charitable giving with its brand. The company partners with the UN for World Toilet Day to promote awareness that 2.4 billion people lack access to a clean toilet – which perpetuates the cycle of poverty, especially in places where young girls drop out of school because there are no sanitary or private places to manage personal hygiene.

Clarke’s advice for the audience: The way you compete with Amazon is through the human experience. “Brick-and-mortar retail has an opportunity to be better than Amazon through human connection and delivery of exceptional experiences,” he explained.

Disrupting the Disruptors: Using brick-and-mortar as your digital advantage

Brian Rutledge is the founder and President of GPO, an Austin-based digital search technology and consulting firm that boasts over $2 billion in annual retail transactions.

In today’s digital age, consumers are more loyal to their need in the moment than to a particular brand. Convenience and price efficiency are what customers are looking for the most.

One area where industry disruptors like Amazon, Yelp, and Groupon find success is by leveraging location data of consumers. “Consumers are searching for local information everywhere, on every device, at every point in the purchase process. The Disruptors know this, and are using your [retailers’] locations, products, and services to capture traffic. Then they sell it back to you,” Rutledge explained.

Retail is at the center of disruption, where brick-and-mortar companies are faced with adapting or crumbling. Utilizing localized data is critical. It is necessary for companies to monitor content and update based on consumer interests and needs.

Consumer data: How advanced analytics drive organizational strategy

George Murray is the Chief Retail Insights & Strategy Officer of the world’s largest retailer of diamond jewelry, Signet Jewelers. The company also owns Zale’s, Kay Jewelers, Jared’s, Pagoda, James Allen, and more. Their mission is simply stated “Celebrate Life, Express Love.”

Historically, there has been a powerful disrupter approximately every 50 years in the retail industry. From the start of the department store in the 1860’s, the shopping mall in the early 1900’s, the discount store (Walmart/Target) in the 1960’s, to digital/online retail of the present day.

According to Murray, Amazon has become a major disruptor much like Walmart was they gained market share. Like Walmart in the 1960’s, Amazon has the largest selection of product, and can lower the cost of goods and fulfillment. Amazon has followed this model.

Since there is so much data that companies can use to gain a better insight into their audience and customers, consumers have elevated expectations in today’s digital era. People crave relevant messaging, great in-store experiences, and rewards for their loyalty. Murray explained that while he didn’t think brick-and-mortar is dying, digital retail is changing the way we shop.

Data helps companies provide more individualization to customers, which can better retain their business. There is no excuse for companies to not utilize data to improve service.

Disrupting the customer status quo

According to Gary Magenta, SVP of Root, there are three key factors to change: disrupt, defy, and differentiate. He defined a “disruptor” as a company that changes the traditional way an industry operates.

One of the early examples he cited was Sears, when they first introduced their mail-order catalog in 1896. They were a major disruptor at that time, becoming the world’s largest retailer. Then he fast-forwarded to the present day and explained how Sears failure to innovate and change with the times led to its downfall.

Gary highlighted three factors that lead businesses to failure (denial, insularity, and paralysis). Denial results when a company refuses to accept the idea that it should change. Insularity happens when companies refuse to hear outside perspectives. Paralysis comes when a company refuses to evolve and loses relevance with customers. He used Kodak as an example, a Fortune 50 firm that was a disruptor in film for many years, but refused to innovate in the age of digital photography and photo sharing.

Aggie TenX12 Start-Up Showcase

A new addition to the Retailing Summit this year highlighted the entrepreneurial efforts of four start-up companies launched by current and former Texas A&M students.

Andy Ellwood ’04, co-founder of the Basket smartphone app, which provides shoppers with a platform to upload grocery list items and locate the most affordable local places to purchase them. In addition to being an Aggie entrepreneur, Andy is the current President of the New York A&M Club, the largest outside of Texas.

The next presentation came from McCalley Cunningham ’18 and Juan Zermeno ’17 of End Hunger health snacks. For each individual product sold, End Hunger pledges to purchase a meal for a malnourished child in an undeveloped country. McCalley initially had an idea to provide financial resources to support this cause after a former college roommate from Nicaragua showed her the conditions of her native people, which included routinely scavenging for food in landfills.

Another showcased company that presented was FishFlops, created by sophomore Madison Nicole Robinson ’20 when she was only 8 years old. Her idea started with designing colorful fish cut-outs to put on flip-flops. Since then, FishFlops has signed contracts with Macy’s and Nordstrom, and recorded 60,000 sales in 2013. Madison also gives back through her company, donating over 20,000 pairs of FishFlops to organizations including Shoes for Orphan Souls, Texas Children’s Hospital, and Snowball Express Military Charity. She believes anyone can be successful with a good idea and “never quit” attitude.

Saurav Agarwal ’16, a current Ph.D. candidate in Aerospace, Aeronautical, and Astronautical Engineering, is the Founder and CEO of Stocked Robotics. His company sells automated forklift kits that optimize stocking capabilities and enable retailers to reduce labor costs.

The presentations successfully showcased Texas A&M and its students as sources of technical innovation and new consumer brands in the retailing industry, and clearly resonated with the audience.

One attendee noted, “I loved it! A definite repeat!” Another commented: “Awesome! Amazing talent and drive, made me proud and I’m not even an Aggie!”

Growing a differentiated brand through core values and culture

The closing session of the first day featured Zoës Kitchen CEO Kevin Miles, Aggie Class of ’89. Miles highlighted Zoës brand and culture, and how their company represents its core values.

With 238 locations across 20 states, Zoës Kitchen is positioned for growth. The company has a “hub and spoke” location strategy, which focuses on breaking into larger city markets and then spreading to surrounding areas. Female customers make up 70 percent of the company’s consumers, so that is the demographic where Zoës focuses its marketing efforts.

Zoës Kitchen prides itself on fostering an employee-centric culture, and that is displayed in the company’s five core values: Strive for Greatness, Love Life, Be Humble, People First, One Team…One Zoës. These values were developed from Zoës team members at all levels across the country. “I didn’t want it to be ‘Kevin said this is what we’re going to say.’ That’s not culture. That’s a dictatorship, and that’s not who we are,” Miles explained.

As a result of establishing its core values, Miles believes they have improved recruiting and retention, and given a voice to the company brand. He added, “I wish we would have done it twenty-four months prior to that and invested in it. It was truly an investment in the business, and I think had we done it sooner, it would have helped along the way.”

“I enjoyed learning about the new trends of technology and how other companies keep their employees engaged. As an HR Manager it is nice to hear how other companies work with their employees,” an audience member remarked.

Redefining omnichannel: Bridging the gap between physical and digital

Kenya Jackson, Vice President of Pharmacy & Retail Operations at Walgreens, discussed the company’s efforts to better the experiences of their customers.

Walgreens has implemented strategies to simply promotions and online shopping. The company currently has around 30 million unique monthly visitors on its digital shopping features. Every second, Walgreens fills more than one prescription from a mobile device.

The company recently announced a partnership with FedEx that allows customers to drop off and pick up packages at various Walgreens locations. This added convenience helps the in-store customer experience.

Mission-driven retail experience

The second day of the conference included an appearance from one of America’s most beloved brands, Crayola. Victoria Lozano, SVP & GM – Attractions & Retail, discussed Crayola’s mission-driven culture that nurtures creativity.

Crayola is one of the most recognizable brands among kids and mothers, not to mention being a trusted brand for five generations.

At its core, Crayola believes that creativity is an essential skill. Creativity can be taught, but above all it needs to be experienced. With that mission in mind, Crayola Experience was created. What started as a community fair in Easton, Pennsylvania to help revitalize the hometown of the crayon has now grown to three physical locations in Easton, Pa., Minneapolis, Mn, and Orlando, Fla. In 2018, a fourth is expected to open in Plano.

At Crayola Experience, children have a space to explore and grow their creativity – and parents don’t have to deal with the inconvenience of cleaning up. Kids can experience things they can’t get at home. Visitors can see how crayons are made, and even customize their own set. The facility was carefully designed to make it a unique experience for all ages.

While the crayon is Crayola’s flagship product, the company is much more than that. As a division of Hallmark, Crayola is the #1 producer of children’s art, supplier, and largest toy brand. But their cause is simple: kids.

Finding your fit in today’s new digital ecosystem

Another classic American brand was represented by Sri Rajagopalan, Vice President of eCommerce at Johnson & Johnson, in an engaging two-way discussion with the audience.

Sri described Amazon as a tech giant that has ushered in the end of the “brand era”, and introduced artificial intelligence into shopping. He also pointed out that the company has a distinct advantage over traditional retailers. Amazon has become an ecosystem, with businesses in web hosting, video production, advertising, and Prime Fresh.

Retailers need to compete on the “digital journey,” not on the basis of price. Amazon’s superior analytics make other retailers “price followers.” But Sri pointed out that retailers should focus on leveraging their strengths. This involves emphasizing relevant content, providing an appropriate assortment of products, and understanding the importance of ratings and reviews. These are things that today’s consumers expect because of the way Amazon has reshaped the shopping experience.

Sri also discussed the importance of search engine results. When you Google Domino’s, all of the links that come up on the first page lead directly to Domino’s website. Retailers need to optimize their search results, like Domino’s, to be more visible to consumers.

An attendee commented, “Sri was so inspiring and entertaining as a speaker with a lot of insight into the retail market from a digital standpoint – very helpful!”

A raw & unfiltered story of entrepreneurship and sweet success

The final session of the 2017 Retailing Summit featured a unique story about the business success of Nathan Sheets, Founder & CEO of Nature Nate’s honey.

The idea of Nature Nate’s first started when Sheets saw a TV commercial of a woman beekeeping. He began to pursue it as a hobby. Sheets purchased a hive from North Dallas Honey Company, a company he would eventually purchase in 1997 – which officially began the journey of Nature Nate’s.

With a background as a Christian missionary, Sheets started his new business with the goal of giving and living selflessly every day. That is at the heart of what Nature Nate’s stands for, and what keeps Sheets and his employees motivated. Nature Nate’s has a goal of donating 5 million dollars every year.

Lacking the brand-recognition of other honey producers in their industry, such as Smucker’s, Sheets described how Nature Nate’s has taken steps to innovate and grow their company. They have become the #1 seller of honey on Amazon. The company is also looking to expand their product line to other items such as drinks, jams/spreads, and healthcare.

Nature Nate’s greatly values its employees. After raising the company minimum wage to $15 dollars an hour to better support his workers, he soon realized that some employees did not know how to budget money. The company now offers financial consulting to all associates.

From donating a beehive to support communities in the Amazon rainforest to looking after his employees, Sheets believes the ability to make a personal connection with others and making a difference in people’s lives gives local companies like Nature Nate’s a major advantage over online competitors.

“Nature Nate’s left me inspired,” said one attendee.

Next year

The 2018 Retailing Summit will take place Oct. 11-12 at the Westin Galleria in Dallas. For more information, visit

Remarks from attendees

“It’s always great to hear from industry leaders on how they are tackling the ever-changing retail landscape!”

“An exceptional variety of speakers. Very good networking with a balance of retail and services!”

“Great content and engaging speakers! Strong brand presence, and I loved their willingness to share their journeys.”

“I am a first-time participant but my company has been in years past. I really enjoyed how the speakers were well rounded, with multiple topics discussed.”