Digital Ecosystems and the Future of Retail and Banking

Digital transformation was something retail organizations and financial institutions were already talking about before COVID hit. The pandemic has accelerated the trend and brought with it more challenges that were not anticipated. While brands have adopted many makeshift processes and systems to address these needs, companies are now wondering what’s going to stick after the pandemic. Today, our guests are going to provide some context to help answer that question.

Stuart Armstrong is Chief Revenue Officer at JohnRyan and is a leading figure in customer engagement and digital signage technologies with a focus on how these technologies underpin business building applications within retail and retail banking industries. Jean-Pierre Lacroix is President and Lead Strategist at SLD, and together Stuart and Jean conducted a joint study with over 500 respondents in the retail and finance categories to find out what companies are dealing with now to gain insights and provide advice on how to move forward.


Melinda: Hi, I’m Melinda and you’re listening to Think Retail.

Digital transformation was something retail organizations and financial institutions were already talking about before COVID hit. The pandemic has accelerated the trend and brought with it more challenges that were not anticipated. While brands have adopted many makeshift processes and systems to address these needs, companies are now wondering what’s going to stick after the pandemic. Today, our guests are going to provide some context to help answer that question.

Stuart Armstrong is Chief Revenue Officer at JohnRyan and is a leading figure in customer engagement and digital signage technologies with a focus on how these technologies underpin business building applications within retail and retail banking industries. Jean-Pierre Lacroix is President and Lead Strategist at SLD, and together Stuart and Jean conducted a joint study with over 500 respondents in the retail and finance categories to find out what companies are dealing with now to gain insights and provide advice on how to move forward.

Welcome to both of you. Stuart, can you start us off by telling us a little bit about yourself and JohnRyan?

Stuart: Yeah, I’d be glad to Melinda. Let me first say how appreciative I am for participating in this with SLD and all of the great collaboration Jean-Pierre has given and his team through this process, I think we’ve really gotten some great findings.

A little bit about JohnRyan, we’re a retail marketing agency. We provide strategy, technology, content execution around optimizing the customer experience, and communications, primarily with a focus on financial services, and a global focus as well. We’ve been doing this for over 30 years, and very proud to say that in February of this year, we were acquired by a company called AUO or AUOptronics, who’s the largest supplier of commercial grade digital screens globally. We also have a sister company, which is also part of the AUO group’s companies, which is called ComQi. Together, we both serve retail and financial services verticals in the customer engagement and digital signage technology side.

As Melinda mentioned, I’m Chief Revenue Officer of JohnRyan, I have been with ComQi and now JohnRyan for over the last 15 years, really focused on customer engagement technologies. During that time, I also served as the elected president of the trade association of digital screen media. And before that, I’ve been on the agency side and customer and shopper marketing research side.

Melinda: Great, thank you.

JP, can you tell us about this study that you and Stuart have worked on?

Jean-Pierre: Yes, the study is a progression of numerous studies we’ve done across North America, it started actually in March when COVID first started to create a disruption in the marketplace and included a study in the banking industry. And then we moved to do a study in the consumer packaged goods sector, and then foodservice, and then finally in the overall retail sector. And we were tracking unique elements for each industry, but also tracking commonalities across a level of pessimism, the level of risk concerns consumers have. This most recent study consisted of interviews with 500 retail executives, banking executives, automotive executives on how they saw the future of digital transformation now that COVID-19 has had an impact on their business. So, we really want to get a sense of the current trajectory of investment, the things that they had invested heavily on, did they change? And if they changed, why? And that’s what the nucleus of this study covers for us, and it provides some recommendations and structures that companies can take a look at moving forward.

Melinda: Great, and we’re going to link to that study in the podcast description. You can also find it at for those of you who are looking for it.

So, as you mentioned, we’ve done these studies over the past six months and one of the things that you have asked in all of these studies is about the emotional baseline as it relates to the pandemic. Where are we right now on this roller coaster ride?

Jean-Pierre: Well, it’s concerning. We started at a 34 percent pessimism level amongst consumers. And we are now at 57 percent, as recent as mid August, and I can imagine now with potential or the reality of a second wave that that level of anxiety and pessimism is going to just go further up. And that’s important to understand because with this level, or this attitude towards the pandemic, by consumers, it is leading and influencing their behavior on everything from banking to what kind of food they eat and what kind of stores they shop, how do they socialize, what’s the role of digital in their lives? These have huge impact based on the attitudes, level of pessimism consumers have due to the pandemic.

Melinda: Yeah, it’s really interesting. I mean, we’re all feeling it in our lives as well, of course. The retail and banking industries share a lot of challenges, but there are some key differences which you attribute to financial institutions being further along in their digital transformation prior to the pandemic. Can you give us a level set of where we see the average North American, say, regional bank versus a similarly sized retail organization?

Jean-Pierre: Yeah, that was a very interesting insight. You know, what COVID-19 did, and it was highlighted in our previous studies, is accelerated the use of digital technologies. And so when you look at banking, and the banking sector that started on digital transformation more than 10 years ago, they migrated due to a goal of reducing their costs of transaction, they migrated consumer behavior to online and mobile banking, visits to branches were on a decline, and obviously leading to closures of branches. What COVID-19 did is accelerated that behavior. And we’re seeing a lot of banks in the news just recently, U.S. Bank closing a significant number of their branches because they’re realizing that the consumer is comfortable, now that they’ve been forced to, comfortable shopping online.

You can’t say the same about the retail sector, the retail sector was really focused on creating customer experiences, which was much more in the moment in the physical environment. They were slow adopters of digital signage, they still are slow adopters of digital signage. And their focus has been on ERP programs, back-of-house automation programs, and not so much on the front of the house integration of digital technology. What’s good to note is that if you look at the performance of retailers, and you look at those who have survived and prospered during this pandemic, they are those retailers like Walmart, Target, who have had a significant commitment to their digital transformation. They’re already in online shopping, they were already in mobile wallet, they were already in AI and robotics. And so there are some great stories about retailers who have actually prospered during this pandemic. But I would say in general, looking at the number of closures, a lot of them were not on this digital transformational journey, and they paid the price by going out of business.

Melinda: Absolutely. And I do think it’s been extremely interesting to see how Walmart has done so well, not just because they had a digital experience, but because they had those retail locations as well.

So, when asked about their priorities, the difference between the retail banks and the retailers is quite notable. Banks priority is that they’re thinking about rethinking their whole business model. But retailers are still trying to track the effectiveness of their digital technology. If a retail brand wanted to leapfrog over the competition and get ahead, what advice would you give them?

Stuart: I think that’s a great question. And really, at the end of the day, the retailers aren’t that focused about leapfrogging, but they are focused on meeting the changing needs of the consumer and getting behind these use cases that are now emerging, that are addressing these evolving needs and moving the needle on business objectives. Well, that’s pretty obvious. But let’s look at for instance, digital signage is a technology that can be of tremendous service for retailers, if deployed in smart ways. And one of the things we often hear in the industry is that content is king. And I would revise that, because really now more than ever context is king, creating relevant content that delivers, that can penetrate through the cluster and grab a share of mind and shape a behavior.

The challenge in producing more contextualized content has always been the human intervention that’s been required to deliver that content. And now what retailers need to do to leapfrog is really to take a page out of the way in which web pages are assembled, being able to automatically render content and localize that content with very limited, if no human intervention. And that really, that’s part of the study and the importance of AI, artificial intelligence, or machine learning and being able to do that, and then working within a company’s Digital Asset Management System, to be able to have pointers to content, pull that content, render the content that’s going to be optimal for that particular use case at that particular time at that particular location, and be able to show that up on the screen. That’s going to be key and the technology is there. And retailers need to start to implement that to really get the true value out of digital signage, but also be a key component in the overall ecosystem of digital technologies going forward.

Jean-Pierre: Yeah, if I can just build on Stuart’s comment. It’s interesting that retailers, they’re on this continual digital transformation, they’re still on the level of justification of the investment. They’re still looking at, how do we migrate our operating platform to a new platform that integrates remote POS stations like the Apple store? And how do we actually launch our digital signage program that allows for customization and quick response to competitive initiatives? You know, they’re still on that continuum whereas the banks have…that happened five years ago, that happened seven years ago. So it’s really interesting to see on that continuum of digital transformation where these two sectors are falling and the impact it’s having on their business.

Melinda: That’s a great point. And I mean, that was something that really surprised me when I looked through the report was that so many respondents indicated that they are most challenged simply by having to justify digital transformation through a business case. And I mean, if the pandemic isn’t the business case, what are organizations missing and what’s the risk?

Stuart: Yeah, so it’s always curious to me that they’re having to do this level of justification around such an essential component to what retail is now. I think what they’re missing is the importance of technologies to underpin superior customer service and to do that with consistent quality and scale.

I’m going to give a little story here, and I’ll make it short. But I want people to think about going maybe back in time and think about Sam the grocer, who owns a general store in small town America, he’s got displays outside the store to attract customers, he greets them as they come down the street. And in one of these instances, he sees Mrs. Smith walking her seven-year-old daughter, Kathy, in tow, and he greets them by name, and offers Kathy a cherry lollipop, knowing that Kathy loves that flavor. And the mother has already said, “Okay, that’s no problem.” He comments on their last purchase, what they bought, if the family liked it, and also did you like the apple pie, and tells them that they have freshly baked cherry pies in and that he’s sure that they’ll love them. She wasn’t planning on going shopping that day, but Sam lured her in through this interpersonal connection. And then she made purchases and she bought the cherry pie. And later that day, she was with a group of her friends. And she asked them if they shopped at Sam’s and enthusiastically promotes his excellent products and services.

So, I want you to take that story and now think about a modern retailer with 500 plus stores all over the country, varying demographics, tens of thousands of customers and close to 100 percent staff turnover every year. The only option of getting even close to the personalized customer service that Sam offers is to underpin that with technology, AI generated content to support video analytics to personalize information to that shopper, both generally on a public digital signage screen and privately on that shopper’s phone. An opt-in CRM database that tracks purchases and makes recommendations. A clienteling technology that informs the sales associate of information so they can better serve that customer in the store. And then social media that enables that customer just like Mrs. Smith did, to tell her friends about what a great experience she had at that store. So that’s what I think that they’re missing. What we’re trying to do is have technology allow us to scale up to hopefully be as good as Sam the grocer is. And that’s the essence of retailing is that interpersonal relationship between the brand and the shopper.

Melinda: Yeah, and I really think that because we’ve seen so many parts of the world, local brands are doing so well, and it’s because they have the advantage in that situation. And so, it’s interesting that retailers are lagging on taking advantage of technology that is ready to go.

Jean-Pierre: Yeah, just wanted to build on that. If you look at what was driving the reason for digital transformation, if you looked at how did the CIO justify the hundreds of millions of dollars of investment required to bring those technologies to life in their stores, or in their bank – a cost benefit statement about efficiencies ­– technology was embraced as a way of reducing cost, cost of transaction, cost of loyalty, I mean, cost of engagement. And so, it was really on the cost reduction side of the equation, it wasn’t actually on the add value side, it’s only in the last, I would say three or four years that we saw the emergence of frictionless relationships, and omnichannel and seamless experiences. And those are all things that talk about a customer-centric view of technology. And we’re seeing more of that. And so, when you ask, if I was a retailer, how would I leapfrog the industry, I would start with the customer at the center of the exercise. And I would ensure that, during that customer journey, that we eliminate as many friction points, but also answer a lot of those hidden needs that are currently not being met by retailers, or by banks. And that’s really important. And one of those hidden needs that we’ve seen consistently across every industry is advice and knowledge. Right? When a customer is coming to a store, they’re looking for help by an individual, they’re looking for help, they’re looking for advice, they’re looking for knowledge. And what is lacking is the ability of a frontline staff to deliver that. And so, you’re going to see, for leapfrogging, it’s about customer centric. It’s about answering those hidden needs that currently are not being met in the marketplace.

Melinda: So, on the theme of leapfrogging, a lot of the respondents indicated their organizations are already implementing digital transformation, but very few felt they were ready for 5G. What are your thoughts about why this might be and the implications?

Jean-Pierre: Well, 5G is… We’re fortunate because we have an office in Shanghai and work extensively throughout China. We are starting to see the benefits, just the beginning of the benefits of 5G and I would correlate that to when we first were introduced to a laptop or a to a home computer. A lot of people, the argument was what is this going to be used for? Like, is there really a purpose for a home computer? Well, that has proven to be an answer that has changed our lives. And 5G will do the same, it’s going to shift the computing power from your laptop, your mobile device to a remote server, so your phone will no longer need all that processing power. You’ll be able to download high quality videos like you’ve never done before. And more importantly, as a retailer, as a bank, you will be able to monitor the entire ecosystem of that customer’s life. Right? Through where they’re located, what products they purchase. So, it’ll provide a higher level of information, insights. And the challenge for that is that retailers and banks are struggling today to leverage and commercialize all the insights they have now. And with internet of things and 5G, it’s like drinking water from a firehose, those who will be able to capitalize on that data and make it actionable will be the winners in this new game and digital transformation.

Stuart: First of all, excellent list, JP, of how 5G is really going to allow for this acceleration of adoption of technology, especially coming out of COVID, that all of this is going to get accelerated. Thank goodness 5G is right here and it’s emerging when it is because it’s really going to be the enabler for a lot of this. And to remove a lot of the latency issues that consumers experience now, as you said, with higher quality videos, the use of AR and VR, the churning of all that big data in order to have that inner personalization between the brand and speeding up transactions, all of that’s going to happen, which is going to allow both retail banking and retail to bring that shopping experience to the shopper on their mobile device in more experiential ways. But also, to enhance that in-venue experience, and bring more application to the shopper, as you were saying, to advise them and to instruct them and to educate them in much more dynamic and experiential ways. Thank goodness for 5G. I’m hoping it’s going to reach my house soon. Because I need it. I’m still struggling with 4G here.

Melinda: So, I want to take things in a little bit of a different direction. One of the things that surprised me in the study was that store closures didn’t seem to be as critical of a concern as I would have thought. Many respondents did note that customers are moving around and accessing different channels. Can you tell me a little bit about this and what it means for a post-COVID channel strategy?

Stuart: Yeah, I’ll start with that. It’s very interesting. Omnichannel and multi-channel environments was such a buzzword. I’m hardly hearing the word omnichannel anymore. And I think that that is a really, really good sign. Because what it is is just the way we’re doing retail now, across multi-channels, and the way in which we’re reaching consumers, from the sofa all the way to the shelf and in all these various areas. And companies, I think, are looking at this and they’re starting to prepare for it – I’m seeing it within the lab environment that they’re working in, and they’re looking at the technology rollouts that they put on hold when COVID hit, they’re now going to be revisiting going forward, the automation has become more widely accepted by consumers and workers. So, I think that they’ll embrace that. The facial recognition now is being modified for mask wearing is become more widely used to identify shoppers in contactless environments. We’re doing some work with a retailer right now and utilization of voice to be able to help them make their shopping experience more efficient. And you sort of see that with Bank of America with their use of their virtual financial assistant of Erica, and I’m sure that the adoption of that is going to increase going forward. And I expect that every aspect of the store from shopping carts to coolers are going to be more intelligent as they become again, another device or a thing in the internet of things or IoT.

Melinda: So, I’m going to ask each of you now to take your top two most interesting and relevant insights from the report and share those with our listeners. JP, why don’t you start us off?

Jean-Pierre: I think the two big insights, number one is that we are seeing a shift from digital transformation to digital ecosystem. You know, COVID-19 has accelerated a lot of what I’ll call digital transformation behaviors with consumers. And specifically with those consumers who are the least willing to embrace technology. Now you take the older consumers who didn’t bank online, who didn’t have a mobile wallet, who are forced to embrace those technologies in order to survive. And so, we’re seeing the shift from digital transformation to what I call a digital ecosystem that further supports and enables customers to do more with their mobile devices, more with the bricks and mortar environment. So that’s the number one thing we’re seeing.

Another thing that I noted in the report is that retailers and banks are looking at the importance of transforming their customer journey. They’re spending a lot of time right now, one of their priorities is remapping their business model and their customer journey. And so those lead to the realization that the old paradigm of how retailers and banks generate revenue is over the sunset, and that they need to really look at how they’re going to create revenue in the future. And technology plays a really important role. But it’s an enabler, it is not the center of the universe, the customer is the center of that universe.

Melinda: Stuart, what about you?

Stuart: I thought there were two things that I felt were interrelated in some of the results that came back. One was the high ranking of automating digital signage content through AI or machine learning. And how that dovetailed with the answer around who they’d like, who would they want as a supplier to do this? And the answer was looking for a single digital technology supplier, they can address all their needs. What does that tell me? My takeaway from that is that the customers going forward, are looking at more levels of automation, more levels of integration with the enterprise and anticipated IoT ecosystem technologies that they needed to be deployed easily. And they want one point of accountability to get that done. That they also are, and this goes to the content answer, they’re looking for lower cost, they want to be able to do things efficiently at a lower cost, easy to deploy, and not a lot of human intervention, to meet a very sophisticated need of delivering the results of that technology and digital signage, delivering that localized or hyper localized content. So, I found those results from the study very interesting, very encouraging to me at JohnRyan, and the work that we do. And so that I thought was a key takeaway.

Melinda: Great. Well, thank you both so much for sharing all of your thoughts with me today, you both have such a positive energy, it can be a very difficult time to find that energy, that lift that makes you feel good and optimistic about the future. But both of you do have a really positive outlook on how things could transform in a really great and exciting way. So, thank you both so much for sharing that with me today.

Jean-Pierre: Great. If I could just leave one parting thought to our audience. If you look at the level of pessimism and anxiety in the marketplace, it’s an all-time high with the level of employment and businesses going out. What brands can do is provide hope and optimism to consumers. So, as you look at your marketing programs, as you look at your service model, as you look at your product offering your social strategy, focus should be on optimism and hope, because that’s what consumers are looking for today.

Melinda: Absolutely.

Stuart: Well said JP, thank you so much.

Melinda: If you’d like to read the report on the future of digital engagement, you can go to and look under insights and I’m also going to link to it in the podcast description. Thanks to JP and Stuart for giving us a lot to think about and thanks to you for listening.


Stuart Armstrong is the Chief Revenue Officer at JohnRyan, a retail marketing agency that provides the strategy, technologies, content and execution to optimize customer experiences and communications for financial services firms around the globe.

Jean-Pierre Lacroix is the President and Founder of SLD. He is seasoned strategic thinker who has led numerous strategies on personifying brands through immersive design.

Think Retail is a podcast where top designers, strategists, thought leaders and business people discuss what’s coming next. For more information, email