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The Surprising Secret Behind Family Dollar’s Mobile Reinvention

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If you ask Siri where the closest Family Dollar is to your current location, our guess is it wouldn’t be more than a few miles away. Family Dollar (NYSE: FDO) is one of the fastest-growing discount retail chains in the country with 8,100+ stores and 58,000+ team members spread across 46 states.

The organization has doubled in size since 2002, adding hundreds of new stores each year – with plans to continue that growth indefinitely. And in talking with CIO Josh Jewett a few weeks back, he noted it’s not just the company’s mantra of “value and convenience” and its merchandising mix that drive continued expansion, but its focus on reinvention – particularly when it comes to the systems Family Dollar is built on – that has maintained its stronghold as a Fortune 300 company for years.

While many companies are just waking up to the need to reinvent systems around mobility, Jewett was quick to note to that the idea of “mobile” is hardly new to retail. Most brick and mortar operations have used the predecessors to smartphones and iPads – handheld radios, POS solutions and credit card terminals – for the past decade.

Of course, the consumerization of IT and widespread adoption of more cloud-based, mobile-friendly software across big companies has provided new opportunities for all industries, retail included, to reinvent themselves once again. Jewett was quick to note that the pace at which this shift has occurred has been faster than anything he has seen in his 25+ year career in IT – which is why he partnered with Appcelerator to embrace change and leverage mobile across the 8,100 Family Dollar stores nationwide.

Reinvention from the Inside Out

While most organizations dream of building the perfect consumer-facing app that customers can’t get enough of, Jewett took a different approach to his mobile reinvention. He recognized that the business impact of optimizing employee workflows was greater than anything consumer-facing his team could develop. With that in mind, Family Dollar’s mobile initiative has centered on streamlining internal operations, namely creating more elegant and efficient automation processes for inventory management, scheduling and payments for the company’s 300+ district managers. With each district manager responsible for managing 20-25 stores, the potential impact of creating new tools that not only adapted to their preferred communication method (mobile device versus company-owned laptop or pen and paper), but also reimagined certain processes to make individuals more efficient was, in a word, significant.

Working with Propelics, a leading enterprise mobile strategy and app development firm, Jewett’s team developed the “Cash App,” a native iPhone app (his employees’ “most appealing” form-factor) that allows district managers to take quality surveys for each store. When your business is built on the principle: “satisfy the customer and the customer will return,” ensuring each location hits all the required marks is essential to creating a delightful experience. The mobile “Cash App” surveys evaluate store layout, pricing, merchandising organization, cleanliness, employee compliance, and more. What used to be a completely manual process, now takes seconds on an iPhone, saving district managers hours of paperwork and data entry every week. When you think of the impact at scale—making this process data collection process more efficient for 600+ employees—we’re talking about clear (and immediate) ROI.

Jewett has also worked with Appcelerator to create a mobile portal that allows district managers to quickly access data for each store location, giving them access to information in real time as they walk through stores. He is in the process of rolling out a third application to further optimize district manager productivity, allowing them to review data trends – a required Monday activity to ensure proper inventory and payment activity – in a much more simplified, streamlined, and mobile-friendly process.

All three initiatives have whet the Family Dollar appetite for what is possible with mobile and the business impact possible – in this case, empowering district managers with the tools to support more stores and/or support stores with higher sales volume. With two apps now live and a third in-progress, Jewett’s next step this year and into 2015 will be working with Appcelerator to replace existing, often tedious processes for 8,100 local store managers with streamlined, intuitive mobile apps.

He also has plans to extend his mobile strategy to more customer-facing apps down the road – though he is much more focused on reinventing internal operations before exploring more consumer-facing mobile strategies, such as bringing loyalty programs or couponing models to life. And for good reason. Jewett’s inside out approach to mobile has proven to be valuable to the Family Dollar brand.

Invest in Immediate Impact

In his 12+ years as CIO at Family Dollar, Jewett has recognized that it’s essential to first invest in the area that will give you the biggest return. In a world of many options and finite resources, the most successful IT leaders don’t try to solve everything at once, instead identifying a few very specific needs and delivering solutions that meet them. That’s the guiding principle behind his work with Appcelerator – one which has been successful. Not only has feedback has been positive across all parties involved (executive team, employees and IT alike), but the cost of assets has been low and the impact has been immediate in the form of increased employee productivity: a win-win-win.

He also recognizes that it’s not enough just to improve on an existing experience – creating a better catalogue or bringing a paper-laden process online, in the case of retail – and expect the revenue to flow. Instead, entire experiences need to be rethought from the ground up to capitalize on the opportunities that mobile enables. That’s exactly the kind of initiative Jewett is leading at Family Dollar.

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