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With retail revolution in her sights


"Retail is probably the most unattractive thing you can research, but I don't care!" So says Malin Sundström, a person who likes to stir things up and start from scratch, but who is not fond of shopping.

She predicts a retail revolution in which digitalisation is better utilised. Many new services that make things easier for the consumer are being developed. But first, retail must realise what opportunities are available and how they can be developed.

It's full speed all around Malin Sundström. Her mobile buzzes and plings constantly until she turns off the signals. People often look into her room at the University of Borås and exchange a few words.

When we meet, a meeting has just concluded and some people linger for a chat. Soon she will be photographed for this summer's work in Almedalen. But first, some emails and a visit to the Retail Lab to show what it is.

Malin Sundström is a retail researcher. But it was only after many years at the University of Borås that she realised it was in fact retail she researched, that this was the title that could fit her research, which dealt with marketing, consumption and advertising.

"When I was at a retail conference in 2008, I felt like I had come home," she says. “Everyone was talking about things that I liked and I was interested in absolutely everything. It was then I realised that it is retail I'm researching. It is an area that spans many disciplines such as mathematics, marketing, psychology and computer science.”

In the next breath, she says that that retail is probably the most unattractive thing you can research. She believes this because somebody who does research on retail is expected to support retail activity, which is often regarded as a bit simple and perhaps not so cleanly delineated in the research world.

"But without retail, we have no vitality in our communities. There will be fewer stores out in the smaller communities, and that is not good at all! But fortunately, digitalisation can contribute to better retail even in small towns, e.g. by unstaffed shops where you come in and pay via mobile banking ID or similar solutions. New store formats are coming in the future, rest assured! And even if this means fewer store employees, then those who work in the stores will have to be even more knowledgeable than today.”

Malin Sundström

Is: Docent and Academic Director of SIIR (Swedish Institute for Innovative Retailing).
Likes: People who are not satisfied, but rather think they don't know so much.
Also likes: Going to auctions and watching how people behave and how they are bidding.
Lives: In Borås, but has had Holsljunga in her heart since childhood.
Family: Partner and the world's finest children x 2 and a cat named Dexter.
Motto: "You have no home unless you have a piano and a cat."
Interests: Biggest interest is retail, but also food and socialising with people.
Makes me happy: My children.
Getting angry about: self-centred people, injustice, pettiness.
Have: A mind of my own and I always say what I think.
Can: Change without feeling the loss of prestige.
Personal qualities: Happy, curious, open to change, kind.
Is good at: lyrics to old songs and new.
Dreams of: To have a horse farm. This will never be realised, but will remain a dream.
Favourite apps: SVT news, YR and Hemnet ("It's very fun to see how estate agents' styling props are reused in house after house").
Want to be able to: Paint with acrylics and watercolours and appreciate theatre and art museums.
Driving force: Wants to change and try new things + curiosity.
Plays: Piano when no one can hear, both classical and pop.
Writes: Blog on retailingresearch.blogspot.se and 7ha.se

Digitalisation has made a breakthrough

On the way to the Retail Lab, we stop for a photography session in the university entrance. Meanwhile, we're talking about digitalisation.

"It will bring a revolution to the retail sector so that the valuation models are changed and the whole perception of stores will be different."

Traditionally, a store and its location have been crucial to a company's value. But with digitalisation, consumer buying patterns have undergone major changes, and continue to change. Nowadays, we shop wherever we are.

We can be inspired to look up a new pair of sneakers we have seen someone wearing while working out. Maybe we'll even look them up on our smartphones on the bus ride home. The purchase can be complete by the time we get home.

"Or we want to go into a store to try on and feel the products, but maybe we won't want buy them directly and have to lug home everything we bought when we are on shopping spree," says Malin Sundström. “I expect that the stores located centrally will become smaller and not have so much in stock, rather that deliveries instead will come from more peripherally-located warehouses.”

She herself loathes shopping and makes most of her purchases digitally.

"I was probably the very first customer when the grocery store reintroduced e-shopping. Now, I buy all heavy foods online and get them delivered to my home; it saves both time and effort. I also buy clothes online. I have learned what brands I like and what sizes suit me, so I usually choose these brands. Except sometimes when my daughter tells me to buy a specific jacket, for example, that she thinks I need.”

Although she does not venture out on her own shopping trips, Malin Sundström still spends a lot of time in stores. It's part of the job. And her family life as well, as her partner likes to shop.

When she is in stores, she takes the opportunity to study both them and their customers. There are lots of questions that need answers. What do they do when they become interested in an item? What do they talk to each other about? How do they comment on the goods? And how do they seem to make their decision whether to buy something or not? And those grocery stores lacking in mobile coverage so people can't use their shared shopping lists or contact each other--what are they thinking?

"Digitalisation has made a breakthrough for private individuals shopping in a store. It is common for a customer, especially a young one who is about to buy something, to photograph or film it and spread it via social media to their friends, even if one or two friends are with them in the store, helping to give advice. In this way, they can quickly get feedback from perhaps 20-30 friends. It's a bit sad that there is so much uncertainty and fear of buying the wrong thing, but this is something that stores may also help out with later on.”

In the future, digitalisation will provide even greater effects. Malin Sundström is currently participating in a research project that explores how the digital landscape can become a driving force for innovation, new business models, and the development of shopping venues. It examines how digital tools can provide added value to customers and which venues can be developed from this.

Mobil ligger bredvid vitt plagg

Perhaps the grocery store can keep track of allergies in your family, and then your screen will display only foods that do not contain these substances? And maybe the clothing store can come up with suggestions for a jacket that matches your latest purchase of a pair of trousers? Or provide repair or replacement if you buy a pair of nearly identical trousers very soon again, and they find out that they previously needed mending?

But where are the limits of what we think is okay, and how do we as consumers deal with the fact that someone else knows so much about us?

"The ownership of data must be moved to the individual level so that it can then be shared with those you want. Today, consumers have every cause to be suspicious about how their activities on the Internet and social media are stored and used. There must be a change so that no company or government owns this information. There is very exciting research that can be done about possible future services; we as researchers need to be responsible and inform and influence legislators.”

Digital tools for more satisfied consumers

Malin Sundström is Academic Director of SIIR, the Swedish Institute for Innovative Retailing, a centre at the University of Borås. Centres are areas considered to be strategically important for interaction with the surrounding community; they are primarily financed by external funds.

In SIIR, there are researchers from several different fields, such as computer science, textile management and marketing. Digital tools are developed and analysed and their ability to assist both retail and consumers is their meeting point.

"When I was asked to start SIIR, I took it on under one condition: that I would be able to do what I wanted. I got it. Then I thought that we would do a lot of experiments in the Retail Lab and investigate things like consumer behaviour in various store environments. But instead, it has become an inspiration source for visiting companies.”

In the lab, there are examples of how different IT systems can help customers make better decisions. Take the fitting room, for example. It's virtual. Malin Sundström shows how, by pressing any of the screens, she can get the mirror image to show her wearing any clothes from the computer system. She turns around and switches between different virtual dresses and shirts, and says that this in particular tends to be particularly popular with visiting middle-aged men from different companies. Especially appreciated is the ability to see oneself in the mirror while wearing a virtual Batman Costume.

Malin provar kläder virtuellt

On the wall a ways away hangs a computer screen with questions to a prospective customer who is out to buy a pillow. Clicking on answers about sleeping habits and similar topics narrows the range until there remain only a few pillows that may be suitable for that particular customer.

"These IT systems can connect the front office, that is to say the store and the customer, with the back office, thus warehouse and logistics," says Malin Sundström. "This can, of course, be developed quite a lot. Some of the visitors of the Retail Lab get a look on their face as if they have come into a church and seen God.

Research intended to analyse which tools are helpful to customers when making purchasing decisions is also conducted. Then, consumer groups of different compositions are invited in to test tools and provide researchers with answers to questions about how they are affected, what they appreciate, and what they lack in variety of digital devices.

Research for society, not for the researcher

In a docent position, there is typically some teaching. But right now, Malin Sundström only has time to supervise doctoral students. Becoming a teacher was not a given for her. On the contrary.

"There are many teachers in my family and it was something that I had decided absolutely not to do," she says. “But as so often happens with me if I have decided to refrain from something, I will end up doing it for some reason anyway.”

When she was hired in 1997 as a lecturer in Borås after receiving her Master's degree in business and economics, teaching was primarily what she wanted to do; she had gotten so much out of the seminars and always wanted to discuss and make her voice heard during her studies. Teaching felt like a continuation of this, and something she felt was both fun and stimulating.

But research was not something she'd ever considered.

"When I was hired, it was assumed that a lecturer would do research, so then I got to do it as well. But I was very critical during the doctoral programme because I thought there was too much focus on models all the time. I missed the connection to applications of what we researched. Eventually, I realised what all the models would be good for. It's about what competence ultimately is: to have theoretical knowledge and the ability to use it practically.”

Her research was successful and resulted in a thesis on online retail. But that critical bent is still present in Malin Sundström.

"It annoys me that there are some researchers who just research for its own sake. I'm a fanatical opponent of it and think that as long as we are government employees as researchers we have a responsibility and we must do research for the public good and not in order to become a docent or whatever it may be. The system in the research world makes most significant one's efforts towards one's individual career, and I don't like that.”

She emphatically gives examples of what she means. When a researcher is going to write about her or her merits and has written a textbook and scientific articles, the researcher will certainly choose in the first hand to write about the scientific articles. This is because these give the impression of being measurable and evaluable; scholarly journals are ranked and if the article is published in a highly ranked journal, that's considered very worthy. A textbook can't be judged that way. It has to be read to be evaluated.

Has she has written textbooks? Certainly! Among others, Marknadsföringsboken on marketing, together with Lena Mossberg, a book that received the Course Literature Prize of the publishing house Studentlitteratur.

Test av ett nytt program som ska hjälpa kunden att hitta rätt produkt

"The latest that has been issued is Köprevolutionen, where I, among other things, discuss how advertising and marketing are not as far ahead as consumers. Advertising is still based on the idea that people make buying decisions based on a process that includes needs, information finding, comparison and so on. But in fact we are nowadays in an ongoing buying process, in a continuous flow that is about purchasing. Advertising must follow and find the key "touch points" where they can meet customers and reach them. It requires analysis to find these occasions: how people use mobile phones, where are they when they click the buy button?"

A force to be reckoned with

This subject of retail and consumers is something that truly engages her, and has done so ever since an early age. Malin Sundström is clearly enthusiastic about the discoveries she speaks of. She is happy and infectious.

"I remember as a child going shopping at home in Holsljunga. Back then, I thought it was super exciting to look at what the others had in their baskets and carts. Well, that's the way it goes..."

As a child, she often went her own way and she has always liked change and innovation. Why is that? One guess is that her family relationships come into play: she has three sisters and a brother. It gave room for her to find her way as the parents were already seasoned parents, but she also did not have to play the role of the youngest, as small and cute.

Within retail, she feels that there is too little independence and innovation.

"It is a world that consists of far too many guys, of both sexes. By that I mean that there is a reluctance to absorb that which is new and inertia to change. But fortunately there are a lot of companies, perhaps especially here in the Sjuhärad region, that are more open. I have many contacts with people who have strengthened me immensely over the years.”

There are even more who have noticed that she is strong. A force to be reckoned with. When, in recent years, the newspapers Market and Icanyheter, by a jury and votes by readers, voted on Sweden's heavyweights in the retail sector, Malin Sundström made the list, and she's moving up. When Borås Tidning newspaper ranks the most powerful women in Sjuhärad, she is in the top ten.

Do you feel powerful?

"Haha, no, I would not say that. But I realise that I have influence. For example, I noticed that what I write about on my blog immediately has consequences and that some people change strategic direction based on what I write and what evidence I present. I do not like power and do not want to decide where people should go. But I want to tell them that they ought not stand still.”

You yourself then, where are you going in the future?

"I can't answer that, because I don't know. I make many personal decisions using intuition and gut feeling. But when I was at an industry meeting last year and realised that I knew basically every one of the 1,000 participants, I thought that maybe I should do something else. So it's possible that I will do more good elsewhere, or maybe I will expand the team that I work with.”

What do you look for in a job?

"What I like best of all is to stir things up and have a free hand but not so much money. That's when I work best, because everything depends on my own abilities and I think that is very stimulating.”

Read more:

Read more about SIIR

More about Malin Sundström

Malin's blog Retailing Research (external link, in Swedish)

Text: Lena M Fredriksson

Photo: Suss Wilén and Lars Adarve

Translation: Eva Medin