Change in the air at JDA Focus event

In the past few years, there's been a lot of confusion in the marketplace about where JDA really fit in best. The moniker – and legacy – of "The Supply Chain Company" hung rather heavily in the air despite the company's clear desire to do more than just supply chain-related activities. Particularly since so many of its supply chain ideas were really functions for merchants. It's not an easy thing to turn around.

So when we set out for the vendor's annual conference last week, Focus 2015, neither my partners nor I quite knew what to expect. Last year's show was, well… a show. And when now-CEO Bal Dail took the stage in the opening keynote, both he – and his colleagues that followed him – took a tone less reliant on bravado and more on conciliatory optimism. "The new JDA," he informed the crowd, decided that its first order of business was to survey its customer base. Indeed, "the first thing we're trying to do is actually listen to our customers". The result of that survey? "We realised that the user experience was not what it needed to be."

He reminded the crowd that with $125 million allocated annually in R&D, even with 10% now going to the veritable skunkworks projects at JDA Labs (announced at NRF this year), "We're still spending 90% of that R&D budget to improve our existing products," including the company's existing core merchandising applications, all in attempt to make that user experience what it really should be. Razat Guarav, executive vice president and general manager of global industry solutions, set out to identify just how those products would be improved upon, many the result of new thinking around a more interconnected supply chain, one which he described as no longer being linear. In his words: "The consumer goods supply chain holds $8.3 trillion in inventory… that's our opportunity." The company also predicts that as the lag time between information exchanges shrink, it will actually create a need for less retail inventory.

After a few meetings and retailer sessions, it became clear there really is change going on at JDA. An award was given to Grupo Marti, a chain of 270 sporting goods stores across Mexico whose use of the vendor's forecasting product has increased sales by 56%, resulting in a staggering 50% in profits. Dunkin Donuts, CVS, Ulta and Loblaw gave independent presentation singing the vendor's praises.

But for me, the single-handed biggest takeaway came in the form that JDA is innovating again. The years of smash-and-grab (or M&A, with little seeming regard for how tools will work together – or which will even survive) appear distant in the rear view. The 10% the company is allocating of its hefty R&D budget to the new JDA Labs initiative is essentially funding a playground with more than 20 projects ongoing simultaneously.

While it's Retail.Me solution looks for its first public client, we got a sneak peak at what it does (shopper segmentation and localised assortment and price planning) and were legitimately impressed. Jean-Francois Gagne, chef innovation officer and head of the labs project, also shared some of the ways the vendor is looking to leverage more bleeding-edge technologies (wearables and augmented reality, in particular), particularly within supply chain endeavours. This isn't wow technology for technology's sake: it seeks to fundamentally improve the way warehouses – and the workers within them – operate.

On how the company needs to be thinking: "The Tesla Model S isn't a product: it's a platform. I buy it now, with an expectation that next August the company will send me a software update that enables the car to drive itself along the highway. That's how we need to be thinking."

The company still has a way to go in both branding and marketing what this new JDA really is and can do. So far, they're using 'Plan To Deliver', a tagline that captures both aspects of their ongoing intent, but that still isn't a word that helps educate the retail community as to what they are. Supply chain certainly doesn't sum it up, and demand chain somehow doesn't quite fit the bill either. When a vendor's offering so heavily features merchandising functionality, there's really not a term we all yet use that conveys that. I'm betting they'll find it.

We're just happy to see them building things again. And from what we can tell, things retailers will want.

This article originally appeared as 'JDA Focuses, Shifts: Finds Another Gear' on The RSR Research website. It is reproduced with the organisation's permission.