Hall of Fame Profile: Jamie Sohosky
Title: VP, marketing, customer experience, Walmart U.S.
Education: University of Missouri-Columbia (bachelor’s, journalism)
Career Path: Vice president, marketing, customer experience, Walmart (January 2015-present); VP, marketing - small formats, services & omnichannel, Walmart (June 2014-January 2015); VP, U.S. marketing - general merchandise, softlines & apparel, Walmart (February 2013-June 2014); head of marketing strategy & advertising - Asda/UK, Walmart (June 2011-February 2013); head of advertising and media - Asda/UK, Walmart (January 2011-June 2011); senior director marketing - Walmart Brand, Walmart U.S. (October 2008-January 2011); senior director marketing - international, Walmart (November 2006-October 2008); category marketing director, Campbell Soup Co. (1998-2006); media planner, TBWA\Chiat\Day (1993-1994).
Jamie Sohosky, VP, marketing, customer experience, Walmart U.S., is responsible for envisioning, enabling and delivering the end-to-end customer experience strategy for Walmart by building its shopper marketing capability, simplifying the communications in-store, journey mapping, creating an engaging environment and increasing access to a seamless Walmart experience in-store.
On March 13, Sohosky – along with Karen Sales, vice president, digital partnerships and shopper marketing, Albertsons Cos.; and Matt Pierre, director of e-commerce, North America, General Mills – was honored at the 25th annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony, held in conjunction with the Shopper Marketing Effie Celebration, in Schaumburg (Chicago), Illinois. Both events are part of the Path to Purchase Summit.
In February, Bill Schober and Steve Frenda interviewed Sohosky at Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas.
Could you tell us a little about your upbringing?
Sohosky: I am from St. Louis, Missouri. A Cardinals fan, but never a Rams fan. I was born on Halloween, which is the best birthday because it’s always fun. Although, now that I have kids, I do have to remind them that it’s my birthday.
What did your parents do?
Sohosky: My father was a journalist who wrote for The Sporting News and then turned to advertising. He worked on Anheuser-Busch accounts and then for a company called Consolidated Aluminum before he passed away. My mom is my inspiration. I don’t know how she did it – raising us by herself as a public school teacher and always looking at life as glass half full. She remarried when I was 13 to a wonderful man who worked in sales for Dr Pepper, Cadbury Schweppes.
So you grew up with a certain amount of CPG.
Sohosky: Yes. My first dad got me into advertising. My second dad, who just passed away in September, directed me toward business. He loved to come to our Walmart shareholders’ meetings with me, and he sure would’ve loved all of this.
Did you work retail as a kid?
Sohosky: I sure did. First, I had a whole cottage industry going in babysitting. But the day I turned 16, I went out and got my first “real” job at a little gift shop that specialized in gift baskets. Every Saturday and all summer long I’d be in there. New baby, weddings, birthdays, any occasion you can think of – I can make up a gift basket.
Where’d you go to school?
Sohosky: I, along with almost my whole family, went to the University of Missouri. I went to the journalism school – the best school in the country – and I worked on the newspaper and the magazine, and even had an internship at KMOX in St. Louis. I learned about what I didn’t want to do, although all along I was thinking advertising.
Are you a tough copy editor around Walmart’s offices?
Sohosky: Oh, yeah. I have little pet peeves. I have no tolerance for bad spelling, and I still use a red pen.
Upon graduation, you went into advertising?
Sohosky: My first job was as a media buyer and planner at TBWA\Chiat\Day in St. Louis, a very strong creative-led agency. I learned how the pieces work together in the agency world, and I also got a feel for the importance of building relationships and respecting what each area brings to the party.
I then went to work at the Waylon Co., a sales promotion agency that, although I didn’t know it at the time, was probably my foundation for learning shopper marketing. We had great clients including Anheuser-Busch, Tropicana, Nike and Jim Beam. We were doing all sorts of things: on-premise and off-premise promotions, new product launches, in-store events and corporate programs.
I got married in 1996 and moved to Cincinnati, where I joined Northlich Stolley LaWarre, working mainly with P&G, plus Cincinnati Bell and Jack Daniels. P&G had a group called the “corporate new ventures team” that was charged with driving innovation in areas outside P&G’s current sectors, such as applying technology in new areas and working with R&D. I worked on a lot of fun projects, one of which resulted in them buying Iams pet food.
How did you find your way to England?
Sohosky: My husband was in the bedding division of Leggett & Platt, and they were looking to expand in Europe. At that point we didn’t have kids, so we decided to try it, although we did not know a single person over there. We loved it and I ended up going to work for Campbell Soup. I figured we’d be in the UK for two years and ended up staying for eight, doing a variety of things in new product development, brand management, portfolio innovation and running a category team. Both of my boys were born there; they have dual citizenship, which is fun because we still love to travel.
How did you make your way to Walmart?
Sohosky: The grandparents wanted us to come back to the U.S., and my in-laws had moved here to Bentonville. I was thinking Chicago, but my father-in-law had other ideas; he gave my resume to Mike Duke and the rest is history.
This was in 2006 when you were named Senior Director Marketing - International.
Sohosky: I worked on, among other things, the launch of a Walmart partnership, the “Easyday” retail chain in India. It was complicated because we were in a joint venture, and the government wouldn’t allow us to just come in and open as Walmart. So it was very much like launching a new brand. I studied the customer, how she shops, where she shops, whom she shops with, how often – all of that. It was all informal trade, so we had to decide everything: How big should our store be, what should we sell, the layout, the marketing – everything.
I imagine “Easyday” was foundational to the reinvention work you do today, correct?
Sohosky: Absolutely. For some reason people think that if you work at Walmart, you can’t be scrappy. Well, you’ve seen how we’re set up here – it’s no ivory tower. We joke that we have no “executives” at Walmart – there are only “working executives.”
Eventually Steve Bratspies, who runs our merchandising organization, said it was time for me to come join the U.S. business. I started in a Walmart brand job, working for Tony Rogers, who is still my boss today.
After four years, though, I see you headed back to Europe. Why?
Sohosky: In 2010, I made a presentation at our global marketing summit, which was being held in the UK. Rick Bendel, then the head of Walmart’s global marketing group and also CMO of Asda, told me he had an opening for me because I understood how things work in advertising & media, Walmart and the UK.
A move back to Europe wasn’t part of my plan, but it was the best decision I’ve ever made – personally, because my family has such happy memories, and professionally, because I’d done shopper, CPG and brand marketing by then, but while working at Asda I fell in love with retail marketing. My role expanded to just about everything: marketing strategy, advertising, commercials, insights, pricing, data.
After two years, I came back and was promoted to vice president, U.S. marketing, general merchandising, softlines & services. After a few years, I moved into a customer experience role.
You and Andy Murray have been credited with raising shopper marketing’s profile at Walmart. Was that part of your mission?
Sohosky: When I came back, shopper marketing wasn’t really a thing at Walmart. All of our suppliers did it, but we didn’t. Andy really pushed us to have a view of how our shoppers shop all brands and all categories across the entire store and site. We unlocked our key retail moments of truth that shaped our plans in marketing and across many parts of the organization.
What kinds of “customer experiences” have you been most focused on?
Sohosky: Our foundational shopper work led us to today. We are spending a lot of time studying which journeys matter most to our customers. We’re looking specifically at two big areas. One is the “purchase journey” – the trips where customers purchase goods or services. Do they do it all in-store, or all online, or do they mix it up? Of course, that mixture is almost endless, as you could be doing research online, building a list online but printing it out and heading to the store, or it could all be ordered online but picked up in-store.
The second area is what we call “service-recovery journey.” These might be a product return, or you’re canceling an online order, or resetting your password. So while we have people working on all of the “vertical” areas involved in her experience – planning, shopping, picking up, paying, using – we need to better understand how she interacts with us, which is horizontally. We’re trying to discover what our “true north” should be in this space to deliver a great customer experience.
Where do Millennials fit into your thinking?
Sohosky: We define our strategic, target customer as “the busy family.” It’s not only Millennials, but Millennials are becoming a larger part of the spending power in America. And Millennials actually like and need Walmart more than a lot of people think. They’re entering a life stage where they have more kids and more demands on their dollars, so services like online grocery pickup becomes a game-changer for a busy family.
Are you involved in the evaluation of concept formats like the Neighborhood Market?
Sohosky: I look at the end-to-end customer experience no matter how she shops us, so concepts like the Neighborhood Market have to be included because she expects consistency.
How is the in-store pickup of e-commerce program going?
Sohosky: You can now pick up general merchandise and consumable items in every store. And we’ve introduced other ways to make it even quicker, such as automated pickup towers, which can retrieve orders, literally, in a matter of seconds. We’re trying lots of things. You may have seen lockers in some of our stores as well because some oversized items don’t fit in the tower.
We now offer drive-through grocery pick-up in 1,100 stores. We call that the “killer app” because customers love it so much. They go on social media and tell their friends that they’re grocery shopping in their pajamas.
One of the small but very important things customers told us is that they want to be able to order “eaches” – produce by the piece. When we started out, we were offering produce by the pound, but a pound of jalapeno peppers, for example, is a whole lot of peppers. Another element that we’ve added for customers is the ability to designate items and brands that they’d accept as a substitute for the item ordered. For example, some people absolutely insist on Diet Coke only, but others are OK with Diet Pepsi as a substitute. So we’ve worked those options into the ordering menu. It’s really important to give the customer control at the beginning of the process so it’s a better overall experience.
Is the Lyft/Uber delivery test still underway?
Sohosky: Yes, and we are excited to continue to test in that space. In fact, we just announced we will expand grocery home delivery services to more than 100 metro areas this year.
How is self-checkout going?
Sohosky: We’re still testing Scan & Go. We want to give people options. We are still perfecting the experience on your phone versus the in-store handheld. But we are committed, and we’re rolling it out to another 100 stores right now.
You talked about some “old school” ideas at your Path to Purchase Expo keynote in 2016, such as opening more checkout lines.
Sohosky: We introduced “Holiday Helpers” or “Happy to Helpers” – the people in yellow vests – two years ago. They are now there, year-round, to point shoppers to the shortest lines and, in some cases, they also can open another register if there are more than two people in a line.
We’re also close to releasing new features in our app that will make shopping in-store easier. There will be an enhanced item locator, an enhanced list maker, and a better presentation mode when you are in-store that’s designed to help you navigate and shop.
What can brands do to help you in this mission?
Sohosky: The key words that they should take away are our focus on customer “journeys” and “experiences.” And this involves a whole lot more than just suggesting signage. I suggest to brands that they need to be thinking about creating engaging moments that give customers a reason to go to our stores.
Here’s another thing: Let’s test and learn. You don’t have to do everything at scale all at once.
Sohosky: As I mentioned before, our group’s focus has evolved from understanding the shopper to looking at the end-to-end customer experience from the point of view of the customer – not operations, not business, not what we think, but what the customer thinks. And in December, they asked me to expand that project. It’s a two- to three-year assignment because there’s a lot to do. I’ll be reporting to our CMO, Tony Rogers.
Hadn’t you been doing this sort of thing all along?
Sohosky: Yes and no. We’ve built a foundation, but now I’ll be stepping back from focusing primarily on the stores, and instead I’ll be looking at the entire retail landscape. The store will still play a big role in shopping in the future, but we have to reimagine and redefine it: Why is she going to come? What does she want to do? What kinds of experiences will matter?
Our shopper has higher expectations and more choices, and it involves a lot more than just the emergence of e-commerce. Technology is changing how the customer experiences us. She thinks her journey should be a more consistent and more elevated experience with less friction than she has today. We didn’t have anyone that really owned that view. We have a lot of people doing really great work vertically, but the shopper interacts with us horizontally, and we need to knit that all together for her.