The Best Kept Secret: My Summer at Big Lots

This summer, I am a Marketing Strategy Intern at Big Lots in beautiful Columbus, OH. It has been a great introduction to many, many things, including the retail industry, the corporate world, and being an intern. Here are some of the things I have taken away so far.

Big Lots is a unique company in that no one else really does what they do. They are a somewhere in the grey area between big box retailers and dollar stores. Their inventory is a mix of many different products anywhere from food, to household goods, to couches and mattresses, including a variety of discounted name brand products along with private labels. They have over 1500 retail locations in the US and have the second largest distribution center in the country right here in Columbus, OH at about 2.7 Million square feet.

Being an intern…
My experience as an intern there is unique in that I am the only MBA intern they have this summer. In the past year, they went through many changes including hiring a new CEO and new CMO. Expanding the intern program was one of the new initiatives, so here I am. It is a particularly interesting time to be working with the marketing team because they are in the middle of revamping their digital presence, including launching an E-commerce site and working towards a mobile platform. I am getting to see how incredibly complicated this process is and I have gained a huge amount of respect for our colleagues who have developed these for other companies.

An interesting challenge Big Lots faces is building brand equity, and they have a unique situation that no one in their industry has to overcome in order to be successful. A major hiccup they have with this initiative is their sourcing strategy. Here is an example. Imagine you are working for a major CPG company and selling toothpaste. You, as a new brand manager, decide you want to move the brand logo 3mm to the left on some of your packaging. After this change is made, all of the previous inventory of the toothpaste is now not properly branded and cannot be sold on major retail shelves. You then sell it to Big Lots, who buys all of it at a discounted price, even cheaper than you sell it to all other major retailers. In exchange, Big Lots is not allowed to advertise the price of the product in order to not upset their competitors who are buying it at full price.

So to make a long story short, one of our biggest differentiators cannot be marketed to our audience because of contracts with our suppliers. That’s enough for any marketing strategist to lose their mind over, and a huge challenge for the team I am working with this summer.

The projects…
First of all, I am really glad that I loved strategy class because I am their strategic analysis guy for the summer.  My first project was to take a deep dive into our competitor’s offerings for the holiday season, specifically for the Thanksgiving week and Black Friday. I then performed a SWOT analysis on Big Lots and made suggestions for the upcoming holiday season. I really liked this project because I learned so much about how the retail industry works as a whole and the vast spectrum of challenges a company like Big Lots faces when competing with some really powerhouse companies.

My second major project that is starting this week is to take a deep dive into mobile marketing. This includes looking at what our competitors and other retailers are doing, as well as anything outside of retail or even commercial that is interesting and could possibly be applied to Big Lots. I am excited for this project because I can have immediate impact on the direction of the company with the recommendations from my findings.

The coolest thing…
By far the coolest part of my summer was sitting in on a meeting with our creative agency. I was sitting in a small room with the CMO, the three other members of the Marketing Strategy team, and the five agency representatives. The agency was pitching their ideas for the upcoming quarter and we were giving them feedback on their creative ideas as well as the strategy behind it. It was fascinating to see how the whole process works, as well as really fun watching them pitch their ideas. A lot of the creative at the agency are alumnus of the The Second City comedy group in Chicago, so the ideas were really fun and unique. I can’t say anything about the upcoming creative, but it should be very funny!

Overall, it has been a great summer so far. The work has been challenging and has allowed me to interact with many different professionals at Big Lots. I look forward to the next 6 weeks there and growing personally and professionally, as well as catching up with everyone when the semester starts in August!