Sears hopes Moneyball addition to its board can help revive the company

Here is an odd mixing of the data, sports, and business worlds: Sears recently named Paul Podesta to its board.

Paul DePodesta, one of the heroes of Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” a great 2003 baseball book (and later a movie) about the 2002 A’s that’s more about business and epistemology than baseball, has been named to the board of Hoffman Estates-based Sears Holdings Corp.

To be sure, he’s an unconventional choice for the parent of Sears and Kmart. But Chairman Edward Lampert is thinking outside the box score, welcoming the New York Mets’ vice president of player development and amateur scouting into his clubhouse…

“What Paul DePodesta … did to bring analytics into the world of baseball is absolutely parallel to what needs to happen — and is happening — in retail,” said Greg Girard, program director of merchandising strategies and retail analytics for Framingham, Mass.-based IDC Retail Insights.

“It’s a big cultural change, but that’s something a board member can effect,” Girard said. “And he’s got street cred to take it down to the line of business guys who need to change, who need to bring analytics and analysis into retail decisions.”…

“Analytics has been something folks in retail have talked about for quite some time, but they’re redoubling their efforts now,” Girard said. “Drowning in data and not knowing what data’s relevant, which data to retain and for how long, is the No. 1 challenge retailers are having as they move into what we call Big Data.”

Fascinating. People like Podesta are credited with starting a revolution in sports by developing new statistics and then using that information to outwit the market. For example, Podesta and a host of others before him (possibly with Bill James at the beginning), found that certain traits like on-base percentage were undervalued and teams, like the small-market Oakland Athletics, could build decent teams without overpaying for the biggest free agents. Of course, once other teams caught on to this idea, on-base percentage was no longer undervalued. The Boston Red Sox, one of the biggest spending baseball teams, picked up this idea and paid handsomely for such skills and went on to win two World Series championships. So teams now have to look at other undervalued areas. One recent area that Major League Baseball shut down was spending more on overseas talent and draft picks to build up a farm system quickly. These ideas are now spreading to other sports as some NBA teams are making use of such data and new precise data will soon be collected with soccer players while they are on the pitch.

The same thought process could apply to business. If so, the process might look like this: find new ways to measure retail activity or hone in on less understood data that is out there. Then maximize a response to these lesser-known concepts and move around competitors. When they start to catch on, keep innovating and stay ahead a step or two. Sears could use a lot of this moving forward as they have struggled in recent years. Even if Podesta is able to identify trends others have not, he would still have to convince a board and company to change course.

It will be interesting to see how Podesta comes out of this. If Sears continues to lose ground, how much of that will rub off on him? If there is a turnaround, how much credit would he get?

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