Episode 4: Lilly Minkove – Luxury retail expert

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May 2, 2017

Lilly Liu Minkove is an expert in the luxury retail sector. She focused on the luxury retail industry as an investment banker at Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, and as a management consultant at McKinsey & Co.  Then she gained experience in industry as a Director of Strategy at Coach and as a Director of Stores for Louis Vuitton. Presently she is a partner at ArtLogica Strategy Group which she co-founded with fellow McKinsey alum Jessica Zhu. ArtLogica is a marketing and strategy consultancy for the consumer, retail, and luxury industries.

In our discussion, Lilly gives an insider’s view into what she looks for when she does an in-store diagnostic.  We also talk about how an independent professional can work with agencies to do large scale consumer surveys.

Learn more about Lilly’s work at http://artlogicagroup.com/


Will Bachman: Tell us about the path you took to where you are today. 

 Lilly Minkove: I started in investment banking for consumer retail brands at Salomon Smith Barney and worked in early stage venture capital for consumer branch services companies at Goldman Sachs Ventures. After that I went to business school at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, then joined McKinsey, focusing on consumer retail customers. I knew that that was where I wanted to be longer term. From there I joined Coach’s International Strategy group. For personal reasons we relocated to Washington, D.C. and I then left Coach to join Louis Vuitton as a Retail Director in the Mid-Atlantic region. 

 At that point in my career I realized my true love was the strategy piece. It was also at that point that I needed more freedom and flexibility. I decided to step back from the corporate world and try to launch an independent consulting practice. Since then — it’s five years now — I founded and work in a consumer and retail advisory firm called ArtLogica Strategy Group. We primarily work with consumer retail and luxury clients on growth strategy, brand strategy, international growth, really leveraging consumer insights as a strategic data source. Because I can say that I’ve previously planned them and lived them and executed them, the value our team adds is much more focused — not only on the business objective but also the operational, executional factors that will be required to make it happen.  

 When you walk into a new luxury goods retail store, what are the things you pay attention to and look at? 

 Given my retail operational experience, the first thing is really the level of service. What happens when I walk into the store? What greeting do I get from a customer service person? The second is what merchandise they’re trying to tell a story with. Those visual cues will tell me a lot about what the brand is trying to say. I usually ask to try something on or for some level of assistance to get an understanding of how well trained the store staff is beyond a greeting, to see how much they’re telling me about this product. Are they just saying this product is $500, or are they saying something that gives you an emotional hook and connection? 

 I try to understand some of their marketing collateral. Usually there’s a booklet or catalog in the store, and I’ll ask the customer associate what’s different about the brand. Well-trained associates in a brand with a true story will have an origin story to share that gives the consumer a clear understanding of what they’re about and why they exist.  

 I’ll also look at inventory that’s on the shelves and go onto their website to understand whether the store and the website are in sync and telling the same story. I want to see how easy that transition is because that’s how consumers are shopping today. At the end of the day it’s really about what the consumer perception is.  

 What type of projects do you work on? 

 It ranges from high level, blue-sky strategy projects to much more operational, tactical strategy. It can be a three-to-five-year strategy looking at a portfolio of where each of a company’s brands should be playing and where the growth areas are, or a strategy for a specific brand. Some of the other work I do is about channel strategy — how to balance strategies across retail, eCommerce, wholesale, international, corporate.  

 I’ve also done more tactical work as an interim executive. That work is anywhere from setting the strategic planning for the next few years to actually talking to vendors, vetting vendors, helping integrate different, new platforms onto the site, starting site design and doing X to Y projects. The commonality between all of my work is that it’s all consumer facing. That’s where my passion is and that’s what I love about the flexibility.  I have the luxury of choice as an independent consultant. I wanted something where there is a very tangible end-consumer view, and I can choose that because I’m doing the independent work. 

 Do you strictly work alone, or do you have a virtual team?  

 I’ve picked up a lot of different collaborators through the years. I have a core partner, Jessica Zhu. We work both together and separately in our own consulting practices, but we really love working together. I also work with a number of associates or analysts who I’ve met through my prior days at Coach or through the independent community.  

 From a tools and other virtual team perspective, I use Upwork frequently because they’re such a broad base of talent and have a very quick turnaround, especially if you can find someone on a different time zone to turn the thing around the next day. I also have someone to help do all of our personal errands: getting dry cleaning, taking care of my children, doing things that let me be much more productive.  

 On the research side, there are a few firms that I work with frequently. For each different type of research project I have one or two that I go to often and I usually try to find at least one new firm every time I do a different project. 

 What are some best practices for doing consumer insights work as an independent? 

 It can be as intensive or as light touch as you need it to be. I’ve done quick and dirty — a few in depth interviews of five people – that have been just as informative as a several-months-long project that involves quantitative and qualitative. I find qualitative to be the best quick and dirty tool. The quantitative work tends to be a littler heavier because it requires much more planning and more assistance, but there are better tools and technology that have made it much simpler.  

 With qualitative you can be very creative in terms of the audience you’re trying to reach, how to reach them and what exactly you want to ask. With an in-depth qualitative I find that probably 60 or 70 percent of the insights help generate the hypothesis you need to start to test the next round. My advice in doing many levels of research would be to do it on an interactive basis. One phase might be interviews to validate what may be true about the broader population, then maybe doing a more in-depth qualitative with a few focus groups or a much broader range of sample size. Last would be to validate that using some sort of quantitative approach. 

How should an independent pursue a quantitative approach 

First you need to figure out the key questions you want to get from your respondents and think through how you want to filter through the whole universe of people to get to only the respondents you want to reach. Then it’s about the key areas of the survey. Assuming you’re doing an online survey, we’re talking about length versus incentive. If you work with an online panel provider or full-service research firm, they’ll be taking care of that incentive, but if it’s something you’re sending along to a broader base of people then you might consider gift cards or sweepstakes.  

 The other piece would be how you’re going to host and design this survey. Both Survey Monkey and Google Surveys are pretty robust platforms now that are very user friendly in terms of building out your survey and creating a logic. I think the really important part in designing your questions is thinking about how you’re asking them. Before I do any type of quale I’ll have some level of qualitative input, even if it’s just talking to two people in the industry to get a sense of what the right questions are and what the potential reasons are that people might be engaging in behavior. You want to limit the number of open-ended questions.  

 Once you’ve designed your survey, how do you work with an outsourced provider to get respondents?   

 They’ll usually send your link to their group, which has a higher likelihood to respond to surveys. They’ll do some sort of math to determine the incidence rate for the population you’ve defined, then if you want a thousand people, for each of those thousand people you’ll be paying between $10, $20, or $50 depending on how prevalent that audience is. 

 On the back end, depending on what platform you’re using, you’re able to then see the results directly in your analytics screens. If you want a more high-touch model that can do things like cross tab the most important questions, they have some pretty well-defined user interfaces that will save you both time and money.  

Do you have recommendations for outsourcing firms? 

 Qualtrics is a more advanced version of a Survey Monkey. They provide the platform for more robust quantitative survey hosting as well as analytics on the back end.  For panel providers 

Research International is quite good for the U.S. market, and I’ve found TNS has a really broad panel for more international work.  

Aside from the work itself, what most appeals to you about independent consulting? 

My husband and I have moved through four cities in the last seven or eight years, and the amazing thing is that because I have my independent consulting practice I’ve been able to maintain what I’ve been doing that entire time. That’s been immensely valuable for our family life but also for my professional growth. If I had a regular job it would have required a job change every few years and would have been highly disruptive, so it’s really given me a ton of freedom. I serve a lot of clients on the East Coast and now that I’m on the West Coast, time difference aside, I’ve still been able to maintain a lot of those relationships. 

On a personal note, I’m originally Chinese and I’ve been teaching my children Mandarin from the moment they’ve been born. It’s a really important thing for me that they maintain their language skills.  We’ll be spending the summer in China and I’m able to be there with my children and actually get some work done also. I’m able to stay connected, continue to build relationships while also realizing some important personal objectives. I think that would be nearly impossible with a more traditional career. 

 Lastly, the independent consulting has enabled me to meet some amazing people who have been inspirational in terms of how I want to live my life and spend my time. This emerging economy of work is really fulfilling on a professional level, but also enables a lot of personal freedom. It has been so refreshing.  

Ipeople want to find you online or contact you, what’s the best way for them to do that? 

I have a website, www.artlogicagroup.com, and I can be reached at lilly@artlogicagroup.com.