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May 05, 2015
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Pier 1 Imports Finds a Better Connection with Customers Through Cloud Machine Learning

Guest writer Kristian Kimbro Rickard, Founder & CEO of Microsoft Silver Competency Cloud Partner MAX451, contributed to this post describing her experience working with Microsoft and Hortonworks to implement an end-to-end business analytics solution for retailer Pier 1 Imports. Embracing a culture of innovation, Pier 1 Imports learned hands-on as first-wave early adopters of Azure Machine Learning, Azure HDInsight and Power BI.

When first engaging with Pier 1 Imports, we at MAX451 were pleasantly surprised to observe their team members were aligned across departments and focused on a common, shared vision: to offer a special shopping experience, whether in store or online. Now Pier 1 can use their end-to-end business analytics platform, which includes Microsoft Azure HDInsight, analytics capabilities powered by the Hortonworks Data Platform and collaboration with Microsoft, to predict which products might attract customers back to the brand for something they love.

As Organizational Change Management (OCM) experts at our core, it was important for us at MAX451 to not only introduce Pier 1 to the latest-and-greatest mobile, cloud and hybrid model capabilities, but also to do so in a way with intent to accelerate key, prioritized, strategic business-driven initiatives.

The culture we experienced while partnering with Pier 1 is unique — and important. Pier 1 leadership and their teams are not only visionaries; they also execute with an impressive cadence – together. And that open, social, agile collaboration across departments is key as organizations lead through change. For example, Andrew Laudato, Pier 1 Imports CIO, and Eric Hunter, EVP of Marketing, have a strong partnership, aligned and determined to not just keep up with the speed of change, but to contribute to setting its pace.

In a CRN article by Kevin McLaughlin when general availability of Microsoft Azure Machine Learning was announced, I point out that advanced analytics, such as initiatives involving unstructured data with Azure Machine Learning “…makes sense to customers once they understand how it can help solve business challenges,” emphasizing the importance aligning technology enablement to business-driven objectives:

You really can’t have a conversation with a chief marketing officer about machine learning …. [t]hey know they want predictive analytics and they want to know their customers better, but it starts with understanding the business problem

When it comes to machine learning or other advanced analytics, most leaders ask, “How do I get started?” Excellent question, and we at MAX451 have pre-packaged offerings to help them get started quickly. However, I wouldn’t be a true partner if I didn’t point out that the first question to ask is actually, “Why do you want to do this?

I also mention that the answer has nothing to do with the latest buzzwords we’re all hearing during the current cloud-first, mobile-first paradigm shift. We at MAX451 start simply by asking “Why? Tell us about your current, top-priority business objectives, and then we’ll discuss how we can help you reach those goals.”

When listening to Pier 1 Imports discuss that question, their answers included their ongoing goal to delight their customers. Pier 1 Import’s Senior Vice President and CIO, Andrew Laudato described the company’s reason for embarking on this journey:

“The retail industry is going through a paradigm shift,” said Laudato. “Customers are shopping more online and they have more choices. In response, our goal is to ensure wherever she engages with the brand, whether in the store, on her home computer, on her mobile device – it’s a very personal and consistent message.”

Pier 1 Imports was interested in the power of machine learning for predictive analytics when starting their journey, and we at MAX451 have been partnering with them throughout the three stages of that analytics journey:

  • The beginning is Hadoop, and specifically for the Pier 1 solution, Azure HDInsight, which is ideal for consolidating multi-structured data and processing it in a format where it can be queried via batch, interactive and real-time analytics
  • The middle can include a machine learning predictive analytics model—such as the one created for Pier 1 with Microsoft Azure Machine Learning–that can combine different data sets to allow for more personalized interactions with customers
  • The end is presenting the data query results and insights in an actionable, visual, meaningful way, and Pier 1 Imports is embracing Microsoft Power BI as one of their presentation and insight delivery methods

Solution Benefits

Customer Service Insights

With what they have experienced so far, Pier 1 Imports expects to gain more data-driven insights to make better decisions. “As we learn the patterns in our data, it will help us personalize our website, and merchandise our stores with more accurate and robust data-driven decision making,” said Laudato.

Enhanced Customer Experiences

By better understanding customer behaviors and purchases, Pier 1 Imports can create more personalized marketing campaigns. Sharon Leite, Pier 1 Imports EVP Sales and Customer Experience described it like this:

“Although the Pier 1 Imports brand is the same as it has been for more than 50 years, we are continually getting better at identifying what our customer wants, using Microsoft Azure Machine Learning and resulting data insights.”

Learn More About this Story at Microsoft Ignite

If you’d like to learn more about this story, come say hello at Microsoft Ignite where my Microsoft counterpart and I will be presenting and demoing some of what is mentioned in this post – the session is Wednesday May 6th End-to-End Business Analytics Solution – Real-World Scenario & Demo.

Hortonworks is a Silver Sponsor of Microsoft Ignite, so attendees can stop by booth #339 for a chat with the Hortonworks team and a demo.

If you’re not going to Ignite, and you want to learn more about why a CIO/CMO partnership is important, RSVP for a thought leadership webinar featuring the CIO of Pier 1 Imports, Andrew Laudato and his executive peer, EVP of Marketing, Eric Hunter. After you RSVP, we’ll notify you when the webinar is scheduled. The topics and discussion will be applicable across all industries—not only retail.

Additional Information on Hadoop for Retailers


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