Dan Whitacre

Dan Whitacre, Senior Director - Kroger Labs and Transformation at Kroger

(USA and Canada) IMAGINE THIS: You are standing in a room with a sea of tables, each table holding a different unsolved jigsaw puzzle and a pile of loose pieces yet to be connected. Each puzzle must be solved simultaneously while new puzzle pieces are streaming into the room from all angles. As new puzzle pieces arrive, there is no obvious indication of which piece goes with which puzzle, and you only have seconds to decide where a piece may fit into every puzzle in the room; some pieces may fit into multiple puzzles. Moreover, while the pieces swirl around you, the colors and images of unsolved puzzles may change, resulting in a new expectation of what the puzzle should look like when completed, and new pieces may dislodge pieces that were previously a good fit. 

 

You can use the above imagery as an analogy to describe the relationship between data and a retailer’s challenge to craft the desired customer experience and value during every interaction. Every jigsaw puzzle represents a single customer experience. Each experience is unique and exclusive to a customer. Customer expectations and desires continue to evolve over time and across a spectrum of journeys, therefore making the uniqueness temporal and situational. At times, the customer may want convenience, and at times, discovery may be more important than the speed of the interaction. Regardless, all customers deserve the best possible experience, so the challenge for the retailer is to solve millions of unique customer experience puzzles simultaneously. The technology and digital capabilities within The Kroger Co. are what make solving the room full of jigsaw puzzles — or delivering a customer experience that exceeds expectations — simultaneously possible. 

Kroger offers an expansive nationwide footprint of nearly 2,800 stores coupled with deep commitments to our customers, data, innovation, quality and convenience. 

The Kroger Technology & Digital team is comprised of talented associates who use customer insights and data to provide customers with a seamless experience where they can have anything, anytime, anywhere. The common denominator that is the underpinning of an ecosystem which allows the technology, science and organization to work together successfully is data. Data is the only thing that can measure change and represent value across the ecosystem. 

In the puzzle analogy, new puzzle pieces streaming in represent the constant influx of new data in a retail environment. New data could be a new fact, new assumption or new derivative of a previous set of data. As new data streams into the environment, each piece of data may be applicable to one or more customer experiences. New pieces of data — such as availability of product on the shelf, wait time at the deli, spill in an aisle, proximity of an open parking space, availability of carts in the lobby, a change in the weather, accessible product information, product recalls, new promotions and more — may impact a single customer or a group of otherwise unrelated customers. At Kroger Technology & Digital, each new puzzle piece (or piece of data) must be assessed for its impact on the customer experience and whether an action is warranted. If so, these actions must be done at a speed that matters — the speed of the customer experience. 

Along the way, a customer’s expectation and objective for their current shopping experience may change. We must expect that objectives and expectations are temporal and situational. Therefore, the expected image and color of the jigsaw puzzle in our analogy could change while we are putting it together. New data creates new options and new decisions for the customer. As a result, the customer may desire and choose to look for a different experience mid-journey. For example, the customer stopped at the store to pick up a few items but then found something interesting and decided to spend additional time to do more discovery, and then they get a phone call, again changing the journey. 

Forming a solid underpinning of data does not happen by coincidence, rather it is an intentional process based on a philosophy of “managing data as an asset”. Think of managing data as an asset as an inventory management system. Similar to how we use inventory management systems to ensure we have the right product in place, understand the cost of bringing that product to market, understand products more vulnerable to inventory loss, and understand when we have too much product or no longer a need for product. Managing data as an asset is an inventory management system for data where we know what data we have, where it is, if it is for use for distinct purposes, the risk associated with loss, and when it becomes obsolete. 

 

In the past, data was slow and small; the number of jigsaw puzzles were few. Each puzzle had fewer pieces, new pieces trickled in and the expected solution to the puzzle was deterministic. Perhaps we thought things were slow, small and stable because we did not have the data to tell us otherwise. It was not technically and economically possible to gather the data and derive insight. However, today’s world is much different. Composed of a sea of jigsaw puzzles and swirling puzzle pieces, data has become fast and large. 

A “just in time” data inventory management system is needed to gather the essential data to provide insight into customer value in real time and at the speed of every customer interaction. That data inventory management system is composed of a complete and connected approach for validating data quality, understanding its providence, defining the valid uses of the data, chronicling the exceptions that occur over time, and maintaining awareness of the impact of external change on data, as well as the risk associated with loss of data. 

As data science is increasingly heralded as a competitive advantage for organizations in every industry, those that are responsible for the maintenance and care of data become more and more vital to every organization. After all, we will always have data and it will endure without science or software. If data is not understood and managed well, it will be of no value. After all, the world was once flat. 

As Kroger continues to redefine the grocery customer experience and create a seamless ecosystem that offers anything, anytime, anywhere, our technology and digital capabilities enable us to create innovative customer experiences and additional value driven by insights and, most importantly, by data. 


Dan Whitacre currently serves as the senior director of Kroger Technology Transformation and R&D. In 2015, Whitacre was asked to rejoin the Kroger team to lead an initiative to transform the organization from an enterprise approach to data and analytics architecture, technology, practices and strategy. 

For three years prior to returning to Kroger, he served as the CTO and vice president of business development for a technology services organization that went through a transformation to become a data and analytics consultancy and then was eventually acquired by Data Intensity, LLC. 

Whitacre also spent six years consulting at IBM on information & analytics strategy and architecture in multiple industries, including retail, healthcare, manufacturing and the U.S. Intelligence Community. While at IBM, Whitacre served as part of the IBM Federal CTO Office, the Information and Analytics Tiger Team, the Big Data Champions team, as a client software advocate for IBM R&D, the IT Architecture Certification board and the Information On Demand Executive Architecture team. 

He began his technology career at Kroger where he held a variety of leadership roles in software development, reengineering, data analytics, business intelligence and data management across multiple business units. During his first tenure at Kroger, Whitacre learned of the transformative power of data and the disruptive impact it can have on an industry.