Retail Isn't Dead: An Interview with Perch Interactive's Trevor Sumner '98

Monday, Aug 19, 2019
by Daniella DeLorenzo

Perch Interactive is the leader in physical and digital interactive displays for retail marketing. Perch helps modern brands and retailers -- including Sephora, Petco, Macys, Jo Malone, and Sunglass Hut -- break through the clutter and become industry leaders. In today’s world we are constantly hearing about what retailers are closing down and how people are shopping more online which makes some believe retail is dying. CEO Trevor Sumner '98 explained in an interview why he believes retail isn’t dead, what he does, how Princeton impacted his experience, and what advice he would give to startups.

What do you do?

I'm the CEO here. And I believe the CEO has three core functions that they're responsible for. One is having the right strategy. Two is having the right people, and three is not running out of money.

A lot of CEOs, especially in early stage companies, will call themselves chief bottle washer or anything along those lines, because ultimately, everything ends up with you, right? I think modern leadership has kind of gone to this servant leadership model, where most people talk about the hierarchy of organization with the CEO on top and then people below, but the reality is, it's inverted and upside down.

What kind of impact are you making on this industry?

There are people throughout the industry who have spent decades of their career thinking about different merchandise and are much deeper than I am. I think we are seen as a leader in visual merchandising, and digital in store and augmented reality, mixed reality, or IoT, some of these keywords that are out there. At the same time, if you look at what percentage of retail we can touch, it’s .000000 some number of 1 percent. We have a much bigger vision here, we believe that this stuff should be on every endcap, and every aisle so you can explore products and get the best digital information and physical shopping, and we’ve just scratched the surface.

I think we're starting to change the conversation, we're starting to change the ideas. But we've only scratched the surface of a giant motion, because retail’s $4 trillion market is actually changing the way people shop, the expectations that they have, what retailers and brands work together to collaborate to create these experiences. It's just the beginning.

Do you think retail is dead?

Retail’s not dead. It's ridiculous. It's a bunch of hooey. Physical retail is more profitable, it’s bigger, and the return rates are less. The return rates online for fashion are at like 35 percent so people are losing money. Take Nordstrom, for example. Their stores are so profitable that Wall Street won’t let them hurt their profitability to invest heavily in e-commerce because e-commerce will be a big, big loss leader for a long, long, long time. So stores are profitable, they’re 85 to 90 percent of retail. Customers love them. If you open up a store your online increases by 30 percent in that area, so the store helps the omni channel kind of journey. So yeah, physical retail isn’t dead. 2017 was the year of the retail apocalypse. 2018 was like retail reinvention. The whole narrative of 2019 is like returned to the throne of physical retail.

Digital retail display at Perch Interactive offices in New York City

A digital retail display for Sephora at the Perch offices in New York City. (Photo by Daniella DeLorenzo)

What advice would you give the college-age you?

You don't know nearly as much as you think you know. I think starting a business was one of the most humbling things that I've ever done. I get the quote from the Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, that's something I regularly look at: "Be humble. Be hungry. And always be the hardest working person in the room." Because it's not just about where you are, it's about the slope of how you're improving. And that's a function of work and what you're doing– to learn. And so I think earlier on, I think I would have been a little more receptive to that, you know, older me can slap me around.

If you could give any advice to startups/entrepreneurs, what would it be?

Know what you're getting into. I mean, it's a war of attrition, there's a lot of glorification of startups and these ideas that change the world, and you read all about these overnight successes, and when you actually dig into them, you know, these people toil for 10-20 years, before tracking through. I think startups are a war of attrition, right, the notion that you're going to be well funded. The majority of startups are constantly underfunded, what that means is, you've got to be the chief bottle washer, there's nobody to do these things, you're constantly doing things that are distracting, you have to make up these terrible tradeoffs between investing in the right day and investing in what you have in front of you. As a CEO, you're constantly raising money while trying to grow the company. And raising money takes 40 percent of your time, maybe 60 percent of your time. So your focus is a huge issue. So keeping it small, focus on what you have to prove to get to the next stage so that you get access to capital. I think people really, really matter a lot, who you choose to go into a startup with, because you know, you're going to be working 100 hours, whatever it is, under high stress situations.

I know this great book called The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. And he says that startups never die, they commit suicide, there's always a path. In that same book, he says it's amazing that there are only two emotions of the startup, terror and euphoria. And the lack of sleep makes them both more extreme. And so you have to be on this ride, where it's literally constant states of terror and euphoria. And often like they're separated by two days, right? And so the highs are really high, the lows are really low. You're trying to meditate and do whatever you can for your wellness. And, again, it's war out there. So get ready.

How did Princeton impact your experience and decisions?

Princeton really helped me kind of emerge out of like a purely academic, geeky, nerdy intellectual person into somebody who learned to socialize and empathize with people. And a big part of my college experience was learning how to take these ideas and discuss them with really smart people. When you go to college, you’re kind of off on your own to figure out how to make it on your own, you're kind of your own little startup. And I think one of the pieces of advice I give to people is that every new job is an opportunity to completely reinvent yourself and reinvent your story. And I think to a certain extent, Princeton was the first time I really did that, right? High School, and in Princeton, I was like, "Okay, I'm in a new environment, I can recreate myself." And I think, Princeton gave you the room to do that, and the support structure, the people and everything and I feel like I've been doing that throughout my career, with job to job, to kind of recreate myself and decide, who am I going to be now? And what do I want to care about? And what do I want to do with my life, and I think Princeton's helped me in that journey.

What’s next for the company, and what can people expect?

I think the future is going to be kind of the best blend of physical and digital retail. I think people are going to start making really big decisions based upon the data that we provide. So we can tell how often you pick a product and then converses how often do you buy it? Right? So why do people pick up this one product and not buy it? You can actually look at that conversion rate and say, oh, there's a problem with the pricing, your packaging, your marketing, and for the first time you have that visibility, otherwise, you're just kind of looking at the sales data. And so people are really starting to think about the next gen store experience, and I think I have the data to actually deliver it. I think retail is going to move from this experience where, it's not just about putting products on shelves and having a selection, it's about creating these experiences to select products, interact with them, engage with them.

Perch Interactive won People's Choice at the 2019 Bay Area Tiger Entrepreneurs Conference Startup Showcase.

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