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Suzanne Jervis - The Value of Sensory

Welcome to "AigoraCast", conversations with industry experts on how new technologies are transforming sensory and consumer science!

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Sue Jervis leads a team of fun and passionate researchers who are focused on providing insights for the development of new Members Mark items across all categories. Her team encompasses Insights, Sensory, and Decision Sciences. Through this effort, she’s able to support the entire business to determine their brand, concept, product, and artwork perception from a Member perspective.

Sue Jervis on LinkedIn

Transcript (Semi-automated, forgive typos!)

John: So, Sue, thanks a lot for being our first guest of 2020.

Suzanne: You're welcome. And thank you for setting the bar low for 2020.

John: That's not true. You're actually an extremely interesting person with many, from their preliminary conversations, such as for the listeners out there who don't know this. Usually, you know, we have some preliminary conversations and I'd say, Sue, you have a lot to share. So I'm really excited about this call. So, Sue, I think one of the things that we've talked about is how you had a really neat opportunity when you began your career at Sam's Club. And so maybe you can start by talking about how you transitioned. When we met, I believe you were still a graduate student at Maryann Drake's lab. Is that correct?

Suzanne: Yeah. I was.

John: And then you went from there to PepsiCo, is that right?

Suzanne: I did. Yeah. So fun fact. When I met John, I found out that I was pregnant for the first time and they had a conference at Colonial Williamsburg, right? Where Busch Gardens is. And it was the weekend that the Busch Gardens open. And I couldn't ride any of the rides because I just found I was pregnant. So my husband had come out and join me and he got to go first on every ride and get off the ride and go right back first in line. And I spent the entire weekend holding our stuff while we walked around the park. I have a very clear memory of that time.

John: Okay. Alright. Well, let's go ahead and transition from that, maybe a happy memory to other happier memories of you. You went to PepsiCo and then you went to Sam's Club. So maybe you take us through that journey in. And we'll start up and talking about your experience there.

Suzanne: So I was a sensory person for PepsiCo Barington supporting global Gatorade. So if it had a G and a lightning bolt, I did the testing on it, no matter where it was in the world. And I had the pleasure of working for PepsiCo for about three years after I finished my doctorate. And I absolutely loved it there. It is a great, great company with great people. I mean, I actually was not looking for a job at all. Sam's Club actually approached me and it was one of those things where they just kept calling and I kept saying, go away and I'm not interested. I'm really happy. And then after, like, literally after about three or four months, the talent acquisition person said, would you please just get on a plane and just come see this place and talk to these people? And I was like, fine. I had absolutely no intentions of coming to Sam's Club. I really didn't. And then I got on a plane and came to Bentonville. And the place here is just beautiful. It is just a beautiful place. And Sam's Club is just amazing. And I really kind of fell in love with the people. But what I really fell in love with was the opportunity because it was presented to me as like, look, we know we want to do sensory, but we don't know what we need that to be. We need an expert to come in here and build something from the ground up. So if you know, this opportunity is really for somebody who wants to build something, how they think it should run. So the opportunity to actually build something on my own is really, really just I couldn't pass that up. So as much as I love PepsiCo, we've moved down to Arkansas and I took that position.

John: And how many years ago was that now?

Suzanne: So it's actually been three. It'll be three at the end of February.

John: Okay. Yeah, that is a dream opportunity. When you really passion about an area, you know, the idea of setting up something from scratch, especially with all the resources that you have at Sam's Club, must have been tremendously exciting. So maybe you could take us through your thought process. Like what it means a lot to do, they're setting programs. So what are your priorities as you set up the program?

Suzanne: Yeah. So it's interesting when you come from CPG where sensory is very ingrained and people understand it, they understand the tool, they understand the uses for it. But then you come to a retail environment where they understand that what they need, but they don't necessarily understand the science. So I actually had kind of a rude awakening when I first came here, when I thought I was just going to just go off the ground running and start building a sensory program. And instead, what it was really doing was teaching the leadership here what sensory is and the value of it and what you get from it. So I actually spent the first year really just coming in and finding opportunities to show the value of sensory, to get the right stakeholders to go, okay, we understand why we should test all of our items. So it was actually kind of a slow process in the beginning. And then it really has rolled downhill to the point where I'm now supporting the entire business. So I started with getting food on board and now I'm testing every single product in the entire club. It's kind of go along with what your question is like, you know, how did I kind of approach this? So one of the first things that I wanted to do was really get some structure behind our cuttings. So in retail, we do a lot of cuttings. So this would involve specific team members who are involved in the project from the merchants sourcing, the project manager PD in sensory. And it would have been just people tasting in a room and offering their opinions before I came in and when I came in instead, we tried to actually have some guardrails on doing things objectively blind, three digit codes, proper presentation orders, doing the proper difference testing when it was applicable. That sort of thing. So we're moving all liking from any discussions and only talking about differences relative to a benchmark.

John: Interesting. So just real fast for some are maybe more casual listeners. The term cutting is a little bit of a technical term. So how would you define cutting to a non-technical audience?

Suzanne: Yeah. So cutting for us is really a team tasting. You know, they think about it. It's like they're literally cutting the product to present it to people to get their opinions. But for us, it really is just thinking about the key stakeholders that are the immediate project owners in a room evaluating in a very qualitative sense, the products in front of them. We really just trying to get the way that I see it is more eliminating the things that are really different or really far away from a benchmark where you don't necessarily need to scale up to a full different test to figure that out. Like, if we asked for Apple and they gave us an orange, I think we can eliminate the orange that double difference. So that's what we would use a cutting for. Refining our samples down so that we could put only what is really close to what we're trying to create into some sort of larger validation type test, like a COT, a home use test, something like that.

John: But in these kind of internal tests, you're looking just kind of the descriptive profile. You're not, you're getting that done next out and you're just trying to say, let's understand the sensory experiences of these products.

Suzanne: Correct. So that was a big that was one of my hardest hurdles to overcome here, was getting liking out of these team tastings, these cuttings, because it really would be I don't like this. Why a product developer can't tell them to turn down the I don't like this, right? And it got to the point where, you know, it was like, okay, I'm either going to lose my job over this or I'm just gonna say it like it is. And I would just tell these senior leaders, like, I don't care if you don't like it. What's different about it? And people just kind of got used to, you know, used to that and understand when I would explain to them why I would tell them, look, we can't tell this supplier, you know, to go fix it if we don't know what it is that you don't like. So talk to me more about how it's different. So you're right, it got more descriptive, but still a very qualitative sense because nobody here is a trained descriptive panelist. And just about taking our tool kit as a sensory scientist. And how can I adopt it for the environment that I'm in.

John: Right. Yeah. I mean. That's right. I think I've heard the definition of an engineer is someone who solves the problem they have with the tools they have. That's what it has to be an engineer as opposed to say, you know, someone who's more theoretical. You're just it's easy to dream up what you would do under ideal circumstances. But it isn't like that.

Suzanne: For sure. For anything like students who are listening out there, you'll never get a job under ideal circumstances. Never going to happen.

John: Yeah, that's right. Stuff that happens in the real world and it drives creativity. Well, I mean, that's where you get an innovation because you have to do something new. So. Well, there's a bunch of directions we could go in here. I guess I don't want to lose the thread of kind of like the, let's drill a little bit more to the value of sensory. So I think that's something a lot of people struggle with this. So when you were communicating the value of sensory, what was your kind of your pitch to the executives as to like why they should pursue sensory?

Suzanne: Yeah. So what it really came down to was faster product launches with higher success rates. That's really what got people to start listening, was we can have, the senior leaders to be very frustrated that we could have four, five, six rounds of cutting's. We're not getting anywhere. And it's like, well, when you keep giving feedback that isn't actionable, then there's supporters are still revising in the dark, right? But if you bring sensory into it where we can put some control behind it, then we can give them really actionable feedback to get to a revision that is closer to where we need to be. And then we can validate faster because we weren't really validating either at that time before I came in. So now we can go validate with liking with people who actually consume this product. And then we get to launch quicker and things are more successful in launch. And just a couple of really good wins. I remember one of them was on our natural peanut butter. And I you know, I just come in to this and we're doing this cutting on this natural peanut butter. And one of the DMM, was saying, it's like this flavor is just it's just different. I don't know what's different about it. And I just happened to say to him, you know, does it taste more like peanuts to you? Because in my head, it was more peanut as opposed to, you know, more sweet or something like that, just trying to keep it consumer friendly language. And this realization in his face. Yes. That's the words that I have been able to get out. I just keep saying different. I like it. But you gave me the words. So part of my job was to just help get people to use more language. I feel like I kind of played like Switzerland behind the scenes and these cuttings. I'm just trying to help pull like a you could tell the people that they could, they had it there. They just couldn't pull the language out. So helping people get those little realizations. I now have the respect of that DMM. The next time when a cutting, he's going to look more to me on, what is Sue's advice? So when I suggest, hey, I think that we should go to an external test on this because this is targeted towards children and we're all 40 year old adults in this room. They're more willing to listen.

John: Yeah, I know, I think that's important. I mean, it's interesting because the whole issue you already touched on about separating hedonic from like the sensory descriptive attributes. That's really really important that it's because there's no way to understand segmentation if you don't do that. Right? Because we can agree that things are are different. But I might like one thing and you like the other, right? I prefer sweeter, you prefer less sweet. And so if, yeah, I mean, this is obviously really kind of deep topic.So that then led to, so that's supported you starting to go out and do your see at this where you could understand things like segmentation or preference. But you had a commonly sensory language now that everything was getting built on instead of being all mixed together, which very difficult.

Suzanne: One of the things that makes makes Sam's Club unique and how sensory is approached is if you think about it. Okay. Let's say there's three segments out there in terms of peanut butter preference, right?I only care about the main segment. The one that it represents the majority of people. Because I can only have one SKU of peanut butter in my club because I have a limited SKU environment. Whereas Walmart could have all three represented. So when you think about, say, line extensions from a CPG standpoint, I'm not interested necessarily in all of the line extensions down the road. Maybe the first line extension, maybe the second. But we're really interested in what the core is.

John: That's interesting.

Suzanne: So that makes things a little bit different when we're talking about, the nuances of what people like or more niche preference profiles. But something I just want to add it was just top of mind, as we were talking about, is, you know, for the other sensory scientists that are out there, you know, we're the technical experts and you have a lot of technical knowledge and that is wonderful and should be celebrated. It doesn't necessarily need to be shared at that same level with the business. So when, you know, when you're working with the business and the business are the decision maker. So those could be your marketers. Those could be your merchants, depending on CPG or retail. You don't need to know what the P value means and what the model was that you used to get this cluster analysis. They need to know from a more simple terms, what does this mean for my decision that I should go and make? So one of the ways that I've been really successful about getting the business to buy into the science is not trying to have them understand all the science behind it. Not that they understand that it's valid, but they don't need to understand everything I know because that's why they hired me so that I know it. So that's one thing I've seen with other scientists that struggle to have that same communication, that same rapport with their business partners is they're so focused on the science, they can't get to the more business friendly language of it.

John: Yeah, that's what genetically do to your title. You know, Director of Product Insights and Decision Sciences. I mean, it is very interesting because I have, you know, prior to interacting with your new title. Soon, I've known each other for a long time. Everybody, we published some paper together once upon a time. But the decision sciences, that's a term I see in the tech world and an overlay of data science because, of course, data science is very interested in providing actionable products. Is that decision science something that you brought into Sam's Club or is it some role they asked you to to fill? What's the backstory with that title?

Suzanne: Yeah. So decision sciences and data science is definitely not new to Walmart Inc. And for those of you that aren't familiar with the Walmart structure, Walmart Inc is our overall company. And then there's Walmart U.S. and then there's Sam's Club. And then there's all the international Walmart's. So Sam's Club falls up into Walmart Inc. So I say that because Walmart is very much becoming a tech company, especially Sam's Club. If you look at scan and go and everything that we're doing, we are a tech company. So no little old me did not bring in that kind of knowledge and expertise. But we need that specific for private brands because we have teams that are entirely devoted to dot com and entirely voted to scan and go and to membership and things like that. But what about private brands? I think data modeling for private brands. I need predictions for private brands. So my team kind of essentially what ended up happening as a startup of sensory. And then I have folks that I work with who come from CPG and understand the value of insights. And so they helped me to build bring in insights into our team. And then we also had a need for data and data modeling and prediction. And we talked about earlier, too, with machine learning. We have a need for all of these things. Well, it doesn't really fall under product development whose technical and doesn't fall under quality, who is also technical. So the only other technical team that it really makes sense with is the sensory and insights, because it's all about taking data and trying to tell a story. And that's really what sensory is. It may be focused on product attributes, but it's really about trying to take a story and or take data and tell a story. So that's why we I actually have one member of my team right now. But I'm slowly annexing another one who does do nothing but different types of models for us. And every time I have another ask, it's okay, let the decision sciences team go figure out how to make this happen. So we've been kind of evolving over time into what we are today. So my decision sciences wing, they do our entire innovation pipeline. They do our calendars because we have big calendars because we bid things out on a certain cycle. We're also working to do predicting of success in market. So like a good scores database type of exercise. We're also working on how can we take every single piece of data that we have access to. So thinking about call center complaint's dot com reviews and feedback. You know, just everything that we get from members, how can we pull that in to one major dashboarding, you know, machine to be able to tell us on not only just here's what's going on with this product, but, hey, I'm going to give you an alert that we're hitting a threshold on complaint's for these items. These might be the next items that are going to be on the docket to start paying attention to.

John: Yeah, that that is really the future. And I am kind of excited what you said about Sam's Club becoming a tech company, because I think that it's you see this all over that Nike's becoming a tech company that makes shoes and Domino's is a tech company that makes pizza. I think that really the future retail is tech companies who do X, you know.

Suzanne: Absolutely agree.

John: Yeah. So I assume that you've got of course, you have access to the sales data as well? Is that something that goes into your model?

Suzanne: Absolutely.

John: Yeah. I mean, that's one the thing I think it's exciting. A big advantage you have as a retailer, right? That level of information. Yeah. So that's really. So we have to be careful here because you don't want to go into proprietary information.

Suzanne: I can't say anything other than I have.

John: Which is kind of obvious. But let's talk then about the different tools you've been using of your program. I know that you're a fan of Red Jade, for example.

Suzanne: Very much. Yeah. So I was very lucky that Red Jade was procured right before I had joined. And so we've been really working with Steve Wellas from Red Jade to help grow the capabilities that we use here at Sam's Club. So we use it for cuttings and we definitely use it for our internal panels. But we are also using it for doing online work now that they have static URL's so we can use it to launch surveys. We could potentially use it in club to talk to members directly. And it's also a really great database in itself because it's all cloud based. So we can generate lots of reports and records to be able to show to the business here's all that we know about our chicken salad. And here's the last three years worth of work that we've been doing with it. So it's been a really great great program for us. We're also utilizing a lot of different software applications. I can't speak to exactly which ones they are, but we're building an online community. So a lot of really great brands have done this. But it's gonna be an online community of members where we can they are really engaged members and we can just pass them ideas and show them concept, show them artwork and help like they can help us to actually formulate the right products for them. We really want to use this as what is it that you want us to go and make? Because, again, we have a limited SKU environment, right? So every product that we sell, that's Member's Mark, should only be things the members actually want because they're paying to shop in our stores. So we don't want to put stuff out there that we think they want. We only want to put stuff in there that our members say, yes, I want this at Sam's Club. So we're really excited to be able to use that community to help build that.

John: Right. And you're up now into the, you know, several thousand, right? Maybe more than 10000?

Suzanne: Our goal is to be at 20000.

John: Wow. Yeah, that's an enormous resource once you get that together, I mean, it gets back us how tech is changing. New technologies are changing sensory because you could never once upon a time and like interact with all these people. And, you know, but I guess it's going to be fairly straightforward.

Suzanne: And there's so many great resources out there. I actually just went to Temari, the marketing research. I got to say expo, that's what the E stands for, but XO makes sense. And there were a lot of really great vendors there who have just various capabilities on how to reach your target consumer. Lot of them are data modeling. Some of them are just surveys. I should say Juska surveys are amazing, but they have just there's so many different resources out there that as a sensory person, you really should just go and explore like your insights partners, if you're CPG have a wealth of resources. And a lot of the resources that I've been bringing in are traditionally Insight's resources. But they don't have to be just Insight's resources, just like sensory is, it's a methodology, right? They're tools. And some folks think that they only have to apply to food and they don't. You can apply them to any thing that a consumer can interact with. Same thing with all the insights tools. They're not just for insights. So really go and explore what else is out there and bring more to your toolkit. And then your stakeholders are going to see more value and what you're bringing to them.

John: Yeah, that's really interesting, actually, you know, I had recently a call with Thierry Fahmy, the founder of Addinsoft, and he was saying that he thought that sensory really needs to be more widely used. You know, that you've got it isn't just for CPG or, you know or for fast moving consumer goods or personal care. But really, I mean, even like, for example, with the dish, what you all think dishwasher's. Is that right? Is our Member's Mark have dishwasher.

Suzanne: We do not have a dishwasher? But we do have general merchandise. So we have our own like dining room sets and, you know, cozy fros and chairs and stuff like that.

John: Are using sensory even on these chairs?

Suzanne: We are. A fun little story for everybody. And so that you can understand how you can apply sensory differently. We have something called a lift chair, and it's a chair designed for folks who have limited mobility that need help standing up. So it's a motorized chair. You can push different buttons and it will help them stand up. And our current lift chair from a specification standpoint, is wonderful, but it needed some updates. So we had several different options come in from suppliers. And what we did is we actually partnered with a local retirement home who allowed us to bring the chairs into the home. And we conducted a very traditional sensory test wherein a very balanced design, we had folks sit on the chairs and give us feedback on the comfort and their shoulder support, neck support and the material and the way that the remotes work and the insights that we gained from that were invaluable. Well, we didn't even think about things that they were like, you know, because this is only pictures. I don't understand what this means. It needs to say up and down, like things like that. But again, it was incredibly valuable. But for me, it was taking the old tool and just applying it a new way. We were able to go to that senior leader and say, here's how we helped your organization, you're a part of the organization. And they were overjoyed because they had no idea that they could have this resource. Even the company thought it was only applicable to food.

John: Yeah, it's fascinating. You know, you do see a lot of influence of kind of design based thinking in data science. And it seems like there's a lot of overlap between this kind of design based thinking and sensory as well that you're talking about improving the design of these chairs. And so you have a lot of overlap I think in the methodologies in terms of you're delivering some insights about how to design a better chair, but now you're coming in sensory science. Yeah. Very, very interesting. Okay, well, amazingly, we are almost out of time here. So this is really interesting conversation. So, you know, what would be some of the kind of key, like looking forward, like as you're saying, Sam's Club is becoming more of a tech company? How do you see the next two years you are leveraging technology there at Sam's Club in the sensory group. And how would you recommend that sensory scientist kind of that large start to capitalize on more on the technological advances that are happening?

Suzanne: Yeah, I would say in the next two years, it's going to be incredible how much tech we're utilizing for sensory. Our goal as a private brands team is to have everything that we're dreaming of be integrated into Sam's tech. So that is so hypothetically, everything we want to do is housed in the Sam's Club app so that we're interacting with our members in terms of sensories and surveys and whatever it is in our app. And that's pretty incredible when you think about it, because traditional sensory is I've got to go to a central location and they do it on Red Jade and whatnot. So it's gonna be it's gonna be big. In terms of the sensory scientists out there, especially the budding ones that are coming out of school or just starting their careers, branch out of what we have been taught as the traditional sensory. It's foundational. It is critical. But you have to be able to apply it in so many various ways that fit the job you're going to be in, because I guarantee you you're not going to even at PepsiCo, which was very established in the science. They still apply it to, in a way that makes sense for their brands. And so you have to be able to be fluid with that. And one of the best ways that you can bring something new to the table is by investing knowledge in what's going on in tech. Understand what all is trending. Understand what it means. Go to conferences, listen to a podcast, different things so that you can understand, because being behind the curve and just applying it is fine if you just want to stay in your role for the rest of your life. But if you really want to grow and become a leader someday, you've got to be innovative and be aware of what's coming and how it potentially be applied.

John: Right. There's a saying "You want to ride the wave, not paddle after it."

Suzanne: Right. Exactly. That's much more elegant way to say it.

John: Well, I just happened to read that.

Suzanne: Googling the quotes as we go.

John: Alright. What if someone listens this really inspired and they want to maybe apply for a job at Sam's Club or they just want to reach out, they've got some other questions. How should people find you? How should they get in touch with you?

Suzanne: Yeah. So the easiest way is through LinkedIn. I do check it quite often. I get alerts on my phone. So if you just want to send me a message through LinkedIn, that's definitely the easiest. You're more than welcome to reach out to me directly at Sam's Club. It's my [name].[lastname]@samsclub. com. But given spelling errors, I think the easiest thing would just be search on LinkedIn and you'll find me that right. Well, there's not too many Jarvis' out there.

John: We'll put the links in the podcast notes so anyone that is interested. Yeah, it's really exciting. I mean, so you all are there. It sounds like a dream position to be like working for major retailers. Got all these interesting products that you're making a lot of freedom. You're leveraging technology, able to do fundamental science. But in a useful way. Sounds like a really great situation.

Suzanne: Yeah, it was hell to get here. But now that I'm here, it's awesome. And I will stay as long as Sam's Club lets me.

John: That sounds great. Okay. Any last words for our listeners today?

Suzanne: No, but thank you very much. I've really enjoyed this is a lot of fun.

John: Okay, great. Thanks a lot, Sue. Looking forward to seeing you in conversation in the future.

Suzanne: Sounds great.

John: Okay, that's it. Hope you enjoyed this conversation. If you did, please help us grow our audience by telling your friend about AigoraCast and leaving us a positive review on iTunes. Thanks.


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