The Interview: Cathy McCabe, CEO, Proximity Insight
Cathy McCabe is a retail trailblazer with a career that took her from the shop floor to the top technology leadership roles at brands such as Burberry and Jaeger. She is now CEO at start-up Proximity Insight, which is helping brands use customer data to super-charge their sales. She talks to us about her career, her new challenge at the head of a start-up and offers advice to retailers and industry in-comers on how to succeed in today's tough market.
You’ve had a long and high-profile career in retail, can you take us back to the beginning and how and why you entered the industry?
I decided at the very last minute not to go to University, much to my parents’ disappointment. I was offered a role at WH Smith as a management trainee and started off on the shop floor as a sales assistant in Sounds, progressing to department manager within six months. After three years I left WH Smith to join The Burton Group in my first store manager position and then moved into a head office role as retail operations manager for Dorothy Perkins.
I ended up spending 10 years at The Burton Group (Arcadia) in a variety of operational roles. I then worked freelance as an IT programme/project manager for 15 years working with well-known retail brands such as Burberry, Harvey Nichols, New Look, Virgin Media etc. whilst my children grew up. I benefitted enormously from the strong retail training and grounding that I received whilst at both WH Smith and Arcadia and I was lucky enough to be able to leverage my shop floor experience throughout my career and still do.
I love the way technology can help to improve ways of working and am fascinated by the impact of change. It has always intrigued me how people can be resistant to the unknown and the success of any business project is pretty much underscored by the way in which it can help to change hearts and minds as well as new ways of working.
Technology is now the most exciting part of the industry, but it probably wasn’t always considered to be so, what drew you to a role in this space at the time?
It was kind of a lucky coincidence – I got seconded to a big technology project whilst I was at The Burton Group as a “business user” to help the IT teams understand business requirements and, although at the start it was quite a steep learning curve (I was overwhelmed by all the three letter acronyms!), I completely fell in love with technology and how it could enable powerful change. At the time I was one of the only females to be working in technology so it was also a great lesson in diversity and I continue to encourage females to take up technology roles, sadly there is still a lack of women in IT.
Your career takes in big names from Burberry to Arcadia and Jaeger, what were the key lessons you learnt from these companies?
I joined Burberry in 2010 just as the brand was starting to turn around. It was a really exciting time to be working at Burberry, IT was definitely at the front of the bus. I learnt all about the importance of brand and leadership and how having clear values and purpose has an enormous positive impact on people and performance.
Jaeger was a turnaround position and my first CIO role. When I joined the entire technology stack was creaking at the knees. I quickly learnt about resilience and resourcefulness and how to make the most of what you could with minimum investment. I also learnt how it is really important to make decisions quickly, and in deep contrast to Burberry, how ineffectual decision making and poor leadership can have a detrimental impact on business and people.
Explain to us how you ended up discovering and then becoming CEO for Proximity Insight?
Moving from big corporates to a start-up is quite a gear change, albeit an exciting one. The start of my journey with Proximity Insight actually began at Jaeger. I came across Proximity Insight at NRF, a technology trade show in New York, and loved the concept of their beta product. At the time they were looking for customers and having just spent several years at Burberry trying to build a very similar product in-house I was impressed by the team and their vision. When I left Jaeger at the end of 2016 I wanted to set up my own consultancy to help retailers leverage innovative technology solutions and partner with start-ups. However, the founders of Proximity Insight asked me to become their CEO and it was a natural fit – all the parts of retail technology that I loved the most and a real chance to work closely with brands to make a difference and share knowledge and expertise.
Learning from my own experience of buying software for many years I wanted to help create a company that is so much more than just a technology vendor. I am really proud of the fact that our teams consistently deliver added value that goes beyond a simple user license.
Tell us a bit about the Proximity Insight proposition and how it works and enhances retailers’ businesses and the customer’s experience?
The core of our platform is focused on clienteling and assisted selling – providing customer and product information in a single, easy to use app for sales assistants and service teams to use on a daily basis. Think of it as a digital “black book” for each and every team member.
We help to support each part of the customer journey from management of tasks, appointments and events, to GDPR compliant customer data capture, on brand personalised outreach and recommendations via email, SMS, WhatsApp, Facebook, WeChat to checkout and payment. It is truly a pocket-sized tool to enable teams to get closer to their customers. Our powerful analytics engine allows brands to monitor usage of the platform and measure success. We make it easy to set up new customer journeys to ensure that interactions drive engagement and loyalty and make it easy for brands to connect and inspire both new and existing customers.
Our platform is extremely easy to implement, typically 4-8 weeks and our customer teams support each and every step of the way to ensure that the platform is being optimised. We pride ourselves in ensuring that the brand achieves success.
Can you tell us which brands and companies are enjoying success with the app and how are they using it?
Our platform is used by a number of leading UK and global brands such as MATCHESFASHION.COM, David Jones, John Lewis Partnerships, Al Tayer Group, Agent Provocateur, MCM Worldwide, The Kennedy Group, Harrolds, Lafayette 148 and several other brands that we are not allowed to mention just yet.
Each brand uses our platform quite uniquely and they consistently achieve five key things:
- Significant increases in Customer data capture
- Increased customer engagement with high open rates of between 40-70%
- Average transaction increases of 20-40%
- Repeat purchases typically take less than 14 days
- ROI within 6-9 months
How has the business grown since you joined it, and what are the key ambitions moving forward?
When I first joined just over 18 months ago I was employee number 4 – we now employ 30 people in 3 offices worldwide so we have scaled very quickly. We have a clear purpose and values and our roadmap is ambitious playing to our strengths. We will continue to double our business year on year over the next 3-4 years.
Looking back on your career, what are they key changes you have witnessed in retail and what are the constant truths?
In some ways retail has changed enormously and in other ways it has stood still. Technology has had a huge impact on how customers purchase and in today’s 24/7 world we can buy from any place at any time.
Convenience is key and the customer is more in control of where he/she shops. It was only five years ago that the norm was for purchases to be delivered from the UK only and in 5-10 days – now we expect goods to be delivered in less than 24 hours from around the world!
However, despite such fast-paced change the principles of good retail have not altered. It is a service industry and if you treat your customers well, make them feel special and inspire them with new products and experiences you will have a customer for life.
It’s a very tough market out there, what are the things retailers should be focused on to help them get through it?
Simple. Rule number one whether you are selling baked beans or trench coats – know and nurture your customer. Focus less on conversion rates, footfall and sales per square foot. Establish a laser sharp lens on customer and experience. Create a culture where everyone really obsesses about the customer, not just a talk track. Make Customer metrics your Monday morning focus. Create a customer room. Educate and empower your teams to deliver the best possible experience at all times regardless of who the customer is or where he/she is shopping.
What advice would you give to someone looking to get into retail today?
Retail is a hard industry but a rewarding one. It has always been about long hours and tough deadlines. I have to say that I would always suggest starting off on the shop floor. You learn so much – try and find an apprenticeship or trainee programme that provides you with opportunities to work in different parts of a retail company including the shop floor – that way you get to experience different roles and hopefully find the role that you enjoy the most. Remember that your Saturday job or university job can actually stand you in good stead for the future – you learn how to deal with people, team skills and how the business runs at the sharp end. Always put your hand up to do the things that other people do not want to do and don’t be afraid to try something different.