• Vahe Katros
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Vahe Katros

Consultant, Palo Alto, CA

I’m a Palo Alto, CA based consultant working on a range of technology based projects outside of retail, but I love sharing thoughts here to help keep me thinking about a great industry. Some recent highlights follow and then a long list of former activities that were great to remember.

  • Deal sourcing for Athena Advisors, a Silicon Valley angel firm where I’ve reviewed start-ups launched at leading SV incubators. I sourced iTriage a mobile personal health diagnostic application acquired by Aetna.
  • April 2016 Quora Knowledge prize winner answering – What innovation, if any, could help physical retail stores stay relevant and maintain market share? Found here…
  • For Stanford’s Center on Stress and Health and Dr. Ernie Rosenbaum. I successfully lobbied for, designed, built and currently manage a patient focused portal to help folks cope with the emotional aspects of a cancer diagnosis. The process of building the site required hands on work developing with Adobe Experience Manager and develop chops around social media marketing, Google Analytics, and lots of thinking around identifying finite audience segmentation. This site is in the process of a makeover – find it here…
  • With Dr. David Spiegel of Stanford, created and run a podcast, “Doctor One More Question”, currently in beta. It’s planned to be a series of interviews with experts aimed at helping people understand the unknown/unknowns relating to the cancer crisis. Find it here…
  • Business ethnography and design research, notably: (1) For the USDA, development of guidelines for Web-enabling Farmers Markets that was test by the Massachusetts Farmers Market Association; (2) marketing strategy and shopper experience designs for a publically traded quick serve restaurant; (3) design research for a collaborative shopping application targeting teen shoppers, (4) Narragansett Beer – in-depth interviews to help relaunch an iconic New England brand.


Earlier in my career, I served as a retail technology person involved in a range of innovations in roles that included IT manager, programmer, network manager, consultant, analyst, journalist, standards committee member, newsletter editor, conference developer, industry marketing, and speaker across a range of retail segments.

Highlights include:

  • Retails first clienteling and customer feedback system in 1986 at department store Filene’s (now a part of Macy’s).
  • POS programmer and store rollout management for the first large scale IBM 4680 GSA implementation at Federated Department Stores/Filenes. Attended the second programming class run in Raleigh, NC.
  • Business justification for then start-up, Symbol Technologies, on their first large scale non-food implementation. First person to remove scanners from stores after May Company’s acquisition.
  • Youngest board member and technology manager at the oldest credit union in America; the Filene’s Credit Union.
  • Retail Systems Alert – co-founder and technical editor during their first four years – an experience that allowed me to analyze and write on many major technology developments.
  • Retail Systems Conferences – First conference designer and director for what would become the largest independent retail technology conference.
  • CFT Consulting – Employee #2 at CFT Consulting where I worked at Melville Corporation, Thom McAn, The Harvard Coop, and Swank (the retailer, not the magazine) among others.
  • Java in Retail – Working with Sun Microsystems, I helped launch Java-in-retail working group.
  • Barnes and Noble from 1994 to 1996, reporting to CIO on distributed store systems, data warehousing, and (personally registered in the weeks after the internet was commercialized, if only).
  • Hired by SAP Retail prior to their retail launch to develop sales and consulting resources to justify and validate the ROI of their enterprise software. Speaker at Saphire’97.
  • With Internet Capital Group, engaged to access the viability of investments in CFAR (Collaborative Forecasting and Replenishment) start-ups. The project that involved in-depth interviews with a who’s who of supply chain leaders from leading CPG brands, grocery and mass merchandisers, category killers and thought leaders in the ecosystem.
  • ecommerce for grocery at Publix – working alongside QRS and Blue Martini, managed the development of visual and product information for their web-based shopping initiative.
  • Java POS, evangelist working for Cornerstone, 360Commerce founders who built one of the first web-accessible in-store POS and web platform.
  • Blue Martini, joined founding team as a retail specialist to help build, and grow the retail industries first ecommerce enterprise application. I joined as their 7th employee and we grew to 1000 employees worldwide in 18 months. After a very successful IPO we reached a market capitalization of nearly $7 billion. And then Alan Greenspan uttered the now infamous phrase: “irrational exuberance.”
  • At Blue Martini, organized and led an advisor board that included a former department store CEO from Macy’s, a leading professor in retail and others.
  • Helped design the conference launched by that eventually merged with
  • Multichannel retailing – with 360Commerce and Blue Martini – sold and organized developer resources that led to the first demonstration at NRF Annual, 2000, of a Web-to-Store POS transaction using ARTs XML standards for buy-on-web, pick-up-in-store.
  • Web Ready Merchandise, Supported by NRF, partnering with QRS, and headed up by Reebok’s CIO, the initiative sought to develop web content sharing standards initially focusing on images specifications and content between suppliers and retailers to help reduce the content development burdens faced by retailers, and enhance the brand experience for customers.
  • Brand Marketing Magazine – weekly technical column covering CPG and Grocery technology solutions and standards.
  • Network World – co-authored a comprehensive overview on the future of Networking in Retail in 1990.
  • Published author in the peer reviewed Elsevier academic journal: Technology and Society; titled “A note on retail industry Internet technologies and trends’; 2000.
  • Joint patent holder of “Local Area Multiple Tracking System”, patent number 6,204,813 B1; a radio frequency positioning system that began as an instore position tracking system designed to track and deliver category specific advertising to screens on shopping carts that eventually morphed into Trakus – a system demonstrated during an NHL All Star game in the early 2000’s, issues with the player’s association led to another pivot that led to a successful solution now in use in horse racing. You saw it during this year during the Triple Crown races.
  • Participant in the early standards activities run by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) (while working for Bentley College). Successfully argued for the use of internet protocols (TCP/IP) vs. the not so Open Systems Interface and our benefactor DEC and DECNet.
  • Finally, by being a ham radio operator starting in Junior High, I developed a cultural connection with innovators and alpha geek’s during a time when it was not cool to be a nerd. WA1QQK.
  • The fortune of working with real merchants from and others from back-in-the-day.
  • Posted on: 03/22/2018

    Segmentation is central to Nike’s success

    Brands -- especially those with stores -- intuitively know their shopper and what ends up as a persona usually ends up that way for a strategic reason. Each persona needs to be supported as if they were say ... subscribers to a magazine. So now you're a publisher, how often do you need to publish? What do you need to publish and how will each be actionable? I suppose if you put together a paper prototype and tested the idea, it will help you uncover the unknowns, but brands are already into this in a deep deep way. So, taking a step back, since this question is being asked on RetailWire, I am going to guess that this is really directed at retailers who may be taking their first steps at this. First, the good news is you have stores where you can learn the high level magazine titles and potential articles -- the classic persona project -- but in the end, it becomes a publishing project. And that brings us back to last week's User Generated Content article here on RetailWire. I think imagining yourself as the publisher of multiple magazines might be a good way to start. Of course $50-75k will buy you some nice 2X2 diagrams and infographics to help figure this out from a branding agency. Perhaps that's the real question: what goes into an RFP to engage an agency and once you have their results, how do you execute? "Go for it" is a slogan, not a plan. Just thinking out loud.
  • Posted on: 03/21/2018

    Albertsons launches an online marketplace for small CPG brands

    Food is like music and there are some great brands and bands in the long-tail. In fact, I regularly torment my friends about them as in: Friend: "Enough Vahe, I'll go to Whole Foods, Laudemio Olive Oil, got it." Vahe: "You have no idea, just lettuce, that's it, and the salad is amazing. Oh and go to Amazon and please, please order the Timeless Foods Black Beluga Lentils, you will die they are so great ... do you like Orzo...? You get the drift and to be sure, I'm not a foodie, I just like What The Foodie (WTF) likes and my friends apparently agree, they're always like: WTF Vahe but look, the point here is related to something start-ups know: it's better to have a small group who love you vs. just like you because from love comes word of mouth marketing. Facilitating the long tail is sharing the love of brands that don't sell enough records to make it to the shelf. Finally, I looked at their marketplace site and didn't see a way for me to suggest a brand because if there was a way I would recommend Hidden Springs Organic Vermont Maple Syrup ... OMG, do you like pancakes? Enough, Vahe.
  • Posted on: 03/20/2018

    Macy’s CEO discusses mobile checkouts and other planned changes

    I'm rooting for a miracle on 40.750275 | -73.988146 (34th Street) as well! I think young people who finally have some cash and don't want to spend it on a car, and get tech naturally, will appreciate the risk mitigation achieved through VR -- nailing the price and reducing the risk will get folks off their phones and into the store. Once there, they might appreciate another category. I was also moved by the comment made by the CEO regarding the mobile phone being the "front window to Macy’s and we consider it a flagship." That's a great organizing principle and Macy's has the roots and access to design talent to do something interesting.
  • Posted on: 03/19/2018

    What’s the next leap for user generated content?

    I looked at the Lamps Plus site and it's very impressive and I offer the following fictional account for the back story. Lamps Plus Experience Design Leader: "Lamps Plus realized that if we just sold lamps we were dead, so we asked ourselves, why do we exist, surely it was more than just the geographic location of our stores. In fact, people came to our stores after visiting our website so we went digging. "We realized real fast that we were part of a trend called the "at home" economy -- you know, the lifestyle facilitated by Netflix, high speed internet, Domino's, and home delivery. So once we realized the context, we went looking for how and why people shopped the website and store and we realized that our customers knew more than we did. Of course, some of those customers were professionals, so we thought, let's capture some of the specifics, but really get narrow and deep, because our customers were really into nailing the 'at home' experience. The more we studied, the better we got! In fact, our knowledge around 'at home dimmers' for the smart home is leading us to a whole new solutions category of the smart home. So yes, we sell lamps, well we sell lighting, in fact, did you know that it was because of lighting that leisure time activities were possible, hey, maybe we should look into lighting for camping!" Now, I may be way off (it's UGC after all), but here's my advice to retailers. Go to this page and do some reverse engineering. How is their content organized, how deep do they go? What's the format for their writing? How do they integrate social media? If they are not in your category, will they take a call and help you learn? You can do this without hiring consultants. I think these folks get it in a deeper way than facilitating reviews and instagram photos. These people are publishers and they source their stories from customers. How might you do that or at least try doing that? Final thought: Retail = experience = publishing = knowing how to convey your meaning with media = strategic. UGC is more than a tool to sell stuff, it's a way for you to figure out why people shop and how you can make the reasons behind that even more enriching. Why do you exist? What's your purpose in life? If it's Every Day Low Prices, I think you have some competition.
  • Posted on: 03/16/2018

    Survey says ‘retail is retail’ no matter where the sale is made

    Retail is retail when it resolves the Forest Gump condition that, to paraphrase: retail is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get. When we resolve the dial tone issue of navigation and expectations, then we can get back to delivering the desired sugar fix, but, switching from Gump to Einstein: “Problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them.” So what’s the problem? How do we design retail? What’s the mindset? That stores matter. Who is the audience? Retailers in all the sub verticals. What’s the challenge? Incumbents are less flexible from a technology and business model POV. How should that mindset change? That stores only matter if they matter? Why should we care? Because we are the NRF and we care about these things. How do you care? We help our members from a lobbying point of view. What might you do? New ways to change leases, tax support to reinvest in new technologies. Is there an argument from a public policy POV to help with this transition? Disclaimer - just having fun, as usual! Have a great weekend.
  • Posted on: 03/12/2018

    Will acquiring tech startups help Nordstrom boost its digital ops?

    Congratulations to Nordstrom. I don't see these events as acquihire's; I see them as a strategic decision to not spread the wealth on tech they helped evolved, built around next generation real time/AI friendly environments. I see this eventually as being a huge validator to the shift from old enterprise architectures to new. The value in this is in the back end, not the front end, from a tech point of view.
  • Posted on: 03/12/2018

    Will acquiring tech startups help Nordstrom boost its digital ops?

    Nordstrom has decades of knowhow in the clienteling domain. BevyUp is mobile and while there are mobile clienteling apps, why would Nordstrom want to spread nuances of their competitive advantage to third parties? Preserving their process knowledge is perhaps more valuable than paying a little extra to make tweaks to a mobile applications (and yes, we can get really deep into the tech chops necessary but I don’t think anything more than two pizzas on a weekend – at least for now.) MessageYes’s tech process model might not defuse quickly into retail – I can see it sitting on-top of SalesForce or Splunk, but how many retailers are ready for that? So they have time to work that opportunity as well.
  • Posted on: 03/07/2018

    Retailers finding answers in-house, through partnerships and acquisitions

    Around here, acqui-hiring is (was) a common theme where a tech company buys another tech company for the talent more than the product (the product is often taken out back and shot). The acquired company may have a funding crunch and so an acqui-hire is better than death. Also, giving money back to investors is not a bad long-term move for founders who may want to try again but this is different -- it's not like being acquired by Google (with all it's perks and demands). This scenario may have some great benefits: helping to save a company from being Amazoned while moving away from the traffic and cost of living in tech centers sounds like an idea that would resonate. In fact, that's why acqui-sourcing is a business. I think integrating the talent is where the opportunities are greatest -- not so much buying the tech. This is a developing story that is worth a follow-up and I thought to include some of these blurts to add to the discussion. I don't have any recent knowledge around the topic -- the usual disclaimer. Oh, I almost forgot – Silicon Valley is over so if you are a Midwest retailer, you might be able to leverage the angst!
  • Posted on: 03/06/2018

    What do we really know about Gen Z?

    I have a few articles on Quora, a social Q&A site, relating to my mother's experience before, during and after WWII as a refugee and another, an interview with a decorated WWII vet. I have close to 1.5 million views and 10,000 likes on a few articles and I regularly see Gen Zers liking stories that have to do with old school sacrifice and duty. Theory: Gen Z, in the face of infinite options and choice, is becoming more conservative, to combat the time and effort being spent trying to win them over where conservative means traditional values. I don't know.
  • Posted on: 03/05/2018

    Is AI the key to finding the right location, location, location?

    Using AI data to crunch through drone-captured parking and traffic data (including supplier delivery truck data) or data from cell towers or maybe trash analysis or sales tax -- to back into the number of categories/sq/ft needed to find ROI and negotiating strategies vs. say an enhanced vending machine approach -- might be a good use of machine learning. Like others have said, the power of AI was enabled by the ability to handle more data. That ability was thanks to new high performance computers (GPUs etc) and AI software and methods. The system figures out the weights and relevance on what matters. Traffic volume is cool, but what if the type of car and brand was an indicator?
  • Posted on: 03/02/2018

    Will automation make retail teams less efficient?

    A: Who's the new guy? B: Watson. I hear that these robots just showed up today in all of our stores. Watson: "I will be leaving for a few hours to go and find executives who thoughtlessly dropped all of us in the stores, if you have any stock in this retailer, I suggest selling it now." A: Cool, I like this guy. (One year later at an employee training offsite...) A: Hey, how are you! B: Excellent, what classes are you taking? A: "Robot collaboration for managing merchandise returns" how about you?" B: "Agent, AGENT, AGENT!" It's a conflict resolution class for customer/robot issues. (One year later...) A: Wow, glad to see you still have a job, how did you pull that off? B: I decided to go to Robot programming school, check this out: "Hey Watson, I've been waiting here for help, what's going on? Watson: "Playing, "What's Going On" by Marvin Gaye. A: Now that's cool! The moral of the story: I will be the first to be replaced! Video of robot collaboration from the test store - here.
  • Posted on: 03/01/2018

    Is AI-driven shopping curation a good thing?

    This reminded me of that saying: "Products complicate, brands simplify." Isn't the assortment or the curation a brand statement? I guess if your brand is an endless product catalog, cool. But if you are attempting to connect to an idea and an audience then how many factors are involved in coming up with what your show? This is where AI and computers fail relative to humans -- the number of variants in making a decision is mathematically a "factorial" -- that becomes a computing challenge real fast when the number of options are greater than 11? (not for quantum computers but that's a sidebar). AI should be used in the back-end to help merchants find the ballpark, but the last mile should happen in that computer called the prefrontal cortex and in that last mile lies your brand statement. More watercooler thoughts from the left coast.
  • Posted on: 02/28/2018

    How valuable are social tags as research tools?

    It's a coincidence that Palantir's CEO, Alex Karp, appeared on CNBC today. Palantir is expert at deriving "aboutness" from information. The interview is here. #AlexKarp is a valuable tag. #interesting, not as much.
  • Posted on: 02/27/2018

    Barnes & Noble, once an indie killer, is losing out to mom-and-pops

    Thanks for responding Al. There were many moving parts and perhaps Len should have spent less time with GameStop and more time on B&N. If they focused on the store would they have retained more book lovers? How about the Nook? To be sure, there are many others who have better hold on the forensics, but what you are saying is so fundamental, short the stock when the store quality and experience metrics go below the 200 day moving average.
  • Posted on: 02/27/2018

    Barnes & Noble, once an indie killer, is losing out to mom-and-pops

    I'm not going to try to answer your question, but I thought I'd add a few recollections -- a footnote on culture. I worked at B&N in the mid '90s on a project to build an inventory management system that ran at the store level -- Len Riggio, founder of B&N wanted a way to localize the mix. I remember an exchange where he said: "My competitor is not Borders, it's Loews Theatres, I want to be the Friday night option." Also, during a walk through the store, upon seeing a group of college kids with book bags, he said: "This is good, I am part of their life ritual." There's more, but the point is their DNA was not bean counting, it was experience (see the quote below.) I wonder what would have happened if they didn't sell books on Trinet/Prodigy in the 1980s -- would they have responded earlier when the net was commercialized? The moral of the story: retail reflects culture and culture is a moving target -- especially when something as transformational as the Internet comes along. Props to Len and Steve. De mortuis nil nisi bonum. “Long before Howard Schultz, the chairman of Starbucks Coffee, popularized the idea of a ‘Third Place,’... B&N created a locale with amenities such as public seating and restrooms, a place where people were encouraged to browse, to stay to buy another book ... a magazine ... some music; to relax in a comfortable armchair, nestled in a reading nook, while thumbing through a best-seller.” (From 2005 book "Category Killers: The Retail Revolution and Its Impact on Consumer Culture.")
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