Ryan Mathews

Founder, CEO, Black Monk Consulting

Ryan Mathews, founder and ceo of Black Monk Consulting is a globally recognized futurist, speaker and storyteller. Ryan is also a best selling author, a successful international consultant and a sought after commentator on topics as diverse as innovation, technology, global consumer trends and retailing. He and his work have been profiled in a number of periodicals including Wired, which labeled him a philosopher of e-commerce and Red Herring, which said of him, “It’s Mr. Mathews’ job to ask the hard questions”. In April, 2003 Ryan was named as “the futurist to watch” in an article on the 25 most influential people in demographics over the last 25 years by American Demographics magazine.

His opinions on issues ranging from the future of Internet pornography to ethnic marketing have appeared on the pages of literally hundreds of newspapers and magazines including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Business Week, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Advertising Age and American Demographics. A veteran journalist, Ryan has written cover stories for Fast Company and other leading magazines has been a frequent contributor to National Public Radio’s Marketplace on topics related to innovation. He is widely regarded as an expert on consumers and their relationship to brands, products, services and the companies that offer them. Ryan has also done significant work in related areas including supply chain analysis, advertising and new product development.

Ryan is the co-author (with Fred Crawford) of The Myth of Excellence: Why Great Companies Never Try To Be The Best at Everything (Crown Business), which debuted on the Wall Street Journal’s list of Best Selling Business Books. Myth was named to the bestseller lists of Business Week, 1-800 CEOREAD and other business book tracking services. It was also a bestseller on, whose Business Editors selected it for their list of the twelve best business books released in 2001. Writing about Myth Federal Express chairman, president and ceo Frederick W. Smith called Ryan an “exceptional strategic thinker.” A.G. Lafley, president and ceo of The Procter & Gamble Company said the Consumer Relevancy model advanced in Myth was, “…the best tool I’ve seen for incorporating consumer wants and needs into your business.” Ryan is also the co-author (with Watts Wacker) of The Deviant’s Advantage: How Fringe Ideas Create Mass Markets (Crown Business), which received uniformly high reviews from the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, Fortune, the Miami Herald and Time magazine. He was also a contributor to the best selling, Business: The Ultimate Resource (Perseus). Ryan is currently at work on his third book (again with Fred Crawford), tentatively titled, “Engagement: Making Sense of Life and Business” which addresses issues as diverse as a new model of branding and the search for the elusive global consumer.

A frequently requested keynote speaker Ryan has addressed a wide variety of subjects in his speech practice from the future of beauty to the future of house paint. His audiences have included labor groups such as the United Food & Commercial Workers Union; not for profit organizations like Planned Parenthood; associations from the Photographic Retailers Organization to the Grocery Manufacturers of America; academic institutions like Michigan State University and Pennsylvania State University; high technology forums such as Information Week’s CIO Boot Camp and Accenture’s E-Business Symposium; consulting audiences including Cap-Gemini, Ernst & Young and Deloitte & Touche; to consumer goods manufacturers from Sherwin Williams to Procter & Gamble, Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola and numerous others. He has worked and spoken extensively in Europe for clients including Grey Advertising, Musgrave, Ltd, the British Post and Unilever. In addition to speaking and his other areas of expertise Ryan has done significant client work in organizational development as a facilitator and scenario planner.

Ryan received his BA from Hope College in Inner Asian history and philosophy and did his graduate work at the University of Detroit where he studied phenomenological ontology. He is a Kentucky Colonel and his reputation and experience as a chili authority won him a seat on the International Chili Society’s board of directors. He has also served on the Advisory Board of the Department of Marketing and Supply Chain Management at Michigan State University’s Eli Broad College of Business.

  • Posted on: 02/15/2017

    Zappos takes to the road to connect with consumers

    Of course, it all depends on how you define "enough" but, yes, this kind of activity builds excitement, rewards loyalists and maybe even converts a few skeptics. The primary place pure digital players have to connect is obviously online, but I see nothing wrong with a little physical flag waving now and then.
  • Posted on: 02/15/2017

    Will having the same buyers for online and stores work for Walmart?

    There are clearly differences in digital and physical fulfillment, but fewer in the buying function itself. If you really believe you need to be channel agnostic, why not have a single buying contact?
  • Posted on: 02/15/2017

    Is Amazon the most innovative company in retailing?

    I might agree that Amazon is one of the few genuinely innovative retailers today, especially if you define innovation as the desire to try new things without fear of embarrassment. Amazon is relentless -- and very public -- about its experiments with new platforms, supply chain innovations and uses of other retail technologies. Can't think of anyone else quite like them.
  • Posted on: 02/14/2017

    Will Neiman Marcus find gold with its women’s plus-size pilot?

    While I applaud Neiman Marcus' decision to recognize that women come in a variety of shapes and sizes -- and that that's OK -- I hate the name "Curvy Chic." It is patronizing and -- as code language for "bigger" or, worse, "plus" -- continues to linguistically body shame larger women. If you are going to make a group of customers uncomfortable with themselves, why stock larger sizes in the first place? I have always thought the Meijer approach was better, since it avoids the trap of segregating customers by rack and allows them to purchase the style they want in the size that fits. I would love to see Neiman Marcus make all customers feel welcome, regardless of size. I just hope they come to their senses about that name.
  • Posted on: 02/14/2017

    Is third-party content more effective in generating online sales?

    User content continues to grow in importance, generally at the expense of seller- and/or manufacturer-generated information. This is especially true with later-stage Millennials and Generation Z shoppers. The challenge though is whether or not the infomediaries remain pure. It doesn't take much of a leap to imagine a market where "user" generated content turns out to be created by sellers -- just think "fake news" applied to retailing. If this turns out to be a broad-based practice, we may have to revise our theory of the case. As to the second question I think that "authority" is a less compelling argument than it used to be and content created by manufacturers and/or retailers is increasingly what lawyers would refer to as "fruit of the poisoned tree."
  • Posted on: 02/14/2017

    Will women buy lingerie from Amazon?

    I would say they have a reasonable chance for success. If the entry is indeed at the lower-price end of the market then I'd expect to see them eat into the sales of lower-end retailers -- including Walmart, Sears, J.C. Penney, various women's retailers and maybe even Target. Taking on Victoria's Secret may be another matter, since the appeal there is status and fit -- two areas it may be difficult for Amazon to compete in, at least initially.
  • Posted on: 02/13/2017

    What goes into productive sales calls at retail?

    In a phrase, "Focus on the consumer, not on gaining temporary economic advantage." That's good advice -- for both buyer and seller.
  • Posted on: 02/13/2017

    How price competitive does Whole Foods need to be?

    I don't know if it is getting lost or if it's simply under attack. Foodies have been critical of Whole Foods for not being "pure" enough -- a problem with any business that is selling "purity" as part of its brand. What may be getting lost is the notion of differentiated quality -- why my purity is purer than yours. As to price, they may need to be closer, but they don't have to match. Their customer isn't motivated by price, unless they are facing insult pricing.
  • Posted on: 02/13/2017

    Should L.L.Bean ditch its legendary return policy?

    You can economize in many ways, but never at the expense of your core brand promise. I don't know whether the "No questions asked," policy is being abused, or at what level, but it is foundational to the L.L.Bean brand identity. Unless the numbers are way out of line, I would leave it alone. It's iconic in the same way the Craftsman lifetime guarantee on hand tools is. Do people find broken hand tools in the street or at yard sales and bring them back to Sears? Of course they do. Does that warrant a change in policy? I don't think so. The same is true at L.L.Bean.
  • Posted on: 01/20/2017

    Will online sales redeem struggling brick and mortar retailers?

    When will we finally acknowledge that the digital ship has sailed and that consumer behavior has changed and will continue to change in ways that do not -- in the main and with notable exceptions -- favor physical retailing? The roots of this problem go deep and precede the Internet. Twenty odd years ago I published editorial after editorial warning that U.S. retail in general -- and food retailers in particular -- had made a critical mistake by mindlessly and relentlessly pursuing an item- and price-based marketing strategy. If you spend all your energy (and most of your marketing budgets) from, say, 1920 through 2017 telling consumers the most important thing is buying branded products at the lowest possible cost, they'll start to believe it. That belief is the core enabler of online commerce and goes a long way to explaining the success of Amazon and others. Add a subtext that -- after price -- convenience is king, and it's amazing anyone goes to a physical store. The problem traditional retail faces in a multi- (NOT OMNI!) channel environment is that they are playing two different games: the first is the physical store game that fewer and fewer consumers are interested in playing and the second is the online game where -- by and large -- they aren't as skilled or scaled as the competition. The answer to the final question is, of course, the Trillion-Dollar Solution. If I knew this I would be in Tahiti right now polishing my gold. This is the question that is on the mind of every retailer I speak to. While the answer may not be obvious yet, it's clear that the current approach isn't working and will continue to fail over time.
  • Posted on: 01/20/2017

    What factors weigh on tech purchase decisions?

    If you notice, one critical option was missing from Salesforce's chart, "Allows my business to innovate and/or grow." Why should cost outrank efficacy or innovation? Well, because the people purchasing the technology are focused on point solutions to past or current need, not on long-term change or growth. So that's a problem in and of itself. I suspect many retailers would be better served hiring a tech consultant -- but where would they find her or him and how would they evaluate his or her experience and judgement? The best answer, if you are a retailer, is to do your tech homework before you have a need for a patch to keep you going. Retailers need to think about where they are going, how they want to present to the market, who their customers are and what they want and then -- and only then -- should they begin thinking about what kind of tech infrastructure they need to support their ambitions.
  • Posted on: 01/20/2017

    NRF Show attendees aren’t sure how 2017 will shake out

    To paraphrase a former President's campaign, "It's the customer, stupid." The success of retail is largely tied to consumer confidence and the aggregate optimism -- or lack thereof -- of the purchasing public. I'm just not optimistic that that confidence will be there this year. I expect the divisive tone which has characterized America's political, social and cultural context for past 18 months to continue at least through the early days of the the new Administration. In addition, President Trump will either succeed in driving his agenda and/or the Congressional Republican agenda to the degree that it is different and lots of the underpinnings of consumer confidence will begin to erode; or he won't and the public will feel like they continue to be trapped in the political gridlock that has characterized the past eight years. So, for example, if the Affordable Care Act, Medicare and Medicaid are cut in favor of health care savings accounts, people will spend less. Ditto with the proposed cuts to Social Security. And it is still unclear to me how long free-market Republicans are going to go along with a President whose tweets keep putting his thumb on individual companies he disagrees with. That's great when he is perceived as saving jobs, not so great if you are a shareholder in one of the targeted companies. Then there is the whole trade issue. With 630 key government appointments not filled yet -- and no proposed candidates in sight as late as Inauguration Day -- it is impossible to speculate how the Administration will actually pursue everyday trade policy, but the prospects of a weakened dollar and the shadows of restrictive tariffs and, yes, even trade wars loom over the horizon. Will it all get sorted out in the long run? Maybe, maybe not. But in any case I don't think consumer confidence will be higher than last year's unless and until things quickly stabilize a bit and we see what new demands are, or aren't, placed on household disposable income.
  • Posted on: 01/19/2017

    Will Walmart’s Scan & Go catch on this time around?

    This is, of course, a really old idea. Some European operators have been using handheld self-scanners for years. Scan the items as they enter the basket, put the scanner back in its cradle when you are done, get a receipt, pay and you are out. It's a simpler system really and accomplishes the same things. That said, if you want to develop an app-based scanning system it should be an agnostic platform. So it shouldn't just be available from Google and it shouldn't just work at Walmart. I'd like to know a little more detail about what has changed since the first attempt failed. Does Walmart think customers have become that much more tech-saavy? What about the obvious security issues? Are there other solutions such as 360 degree scanning pay stations? I salute them for trying something new (again) but I don't think this is the last chapter.
  • Posted on: 01/19/2017

    Target gets creative help from Gen Z in new apparel line

    The simple answer to both questions may be yes. The full answer is a bit more complicated. Generation Z's motivations and behaviors are being interpreted by Millennials (for whom they are a direct rival for marketers' affections) Generation Xers and even a stray Boomer or two. Except for the very oldest members, Generation Z hasn't had a chance to speak for itself -- unfiltered. So yes, it does seem they are more collaborative and clearly they are deeply involved in social networking. And no, they don't seem as hung up on the notion of ownership as preceding generations so "product" will likely take on new meanings as they come of age and to market. And that may be my largest caveat here. A consumer cohort who views utility as a higher value than ownership is likely to be more concerned with how things work rather than how they look. After all, things like cars, etc. aren't likely to be purchased, just rentals, so who cares? Also, early indications are that this will be a generation that places values over value, so what's behind a product may be more critical than its exterior.
  • Posted on: 01/19/2017

    Will a movie and gourmet food combo drive crowds to the mall?

    In my area I can already go to any number of theaters with reserved fully-reclining seats. Some of them already feature on-site meals and drinks. So ... why would I go to a mall to replicate what I've been able to do for years? It's a rhetorical question aimed, in part, at deconstructing the question of the importance of entertainment. If I think of food and wine and movies as entertainment -- been there done that. I think malls will have to develop more differentiated offerings if they plan on entertaining. But is that the right strategy? Many local movie houses are shutting down because they just aren't profitable enough, so don't malls need to really take entertainment to another, more profitable, level? Several years ago I did extensive research on the question of entertainment and retail. It was at the time that Pine and Gilmore's book on the experience economy was all the rage. Tens of thousands of quantitative and qualitative interviews later we found there was a market for retail-based entertainment -- the very, very poor. I'd think about this one long and hard before I committed if I were a retailer.

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