New Zealand retailers are dancing a fine line between adopting smart technology and waiting for consumers to be ready, says Nagaja Sanatkumar, Icebreaker's general manager of global e-commerce.

Most retail companies here are behind innovations rolling out in Silicon Valley and China, says Sanatkumar, who has been with the merino clothing company since February last year.

"What's potentially prohibiting some of that technology from becoming mainstream, such as voice, is really concerns around data privacy, moreso than a lack of willingness to adopt.

"Consumers here, and everywhere else, are becoming more and more savvy every day, and understanding exactly what they're going to have to give up to get a certain product or service," says the 41-year-old.


"The risk in adopting voice and other technologies for retailers is really around whether there's enough framework for them to continue to be true to consumers and their needs."

Sanatkumar has plenty of experience with both retail and technology, having worked in leadership roles at e-commerce behemoth Amazon and travel booking company Expedia.

She left Amazon in 2015 to move to New Zealand and has since worked for Paymark and Pumpkin Patch.

"What I brought from Amazon to Icebreaker, I think, was really a style of operating and thinking about digital strategy and how to solve problems with technology.

"Amazon is an intensely customer-centric company and has very high standards for execution and excellence and that's one of the things that I really enjoyed about working there, that's what I've tried to take to every company I've been at since."

Sanatkumar grew up in Bombay, now Mumbai, India's financial capital.

An only child, the mother of two says some of her fondest childhood memories were spending time with her parents, who worked as an IT professional and engineer.

Sanatkumar studied chemical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology. Deloitte hired her out of school and she moved to the US to take up a consulting role. It was during that time that she met her husband.


The pair later moved to Seattle, where she joined a small start-up company working with financial services and technology, and later worked for Expedia.

She stayed with Expedia for seven years, working on the technology side of the business, first in its flights team and then became a director of hotel lodging, driving investment and product design, before joining Amazon.

"Amazon is a wonderful place to work, actually, it's really high-pace, high-energy.

"I started by owning customer experience from a product perspective for Amazon Fresh, which at that time was Amazon's entry into the online grocery space and it was a bit of a pilot, it was still only in Seattle at that time, and we were finding ways to scale that up to be able to take it to other cities," Sanatkumar says.

"My team was responsible for customer experience through mobile and website, ensuring we were able to provide Amazon customers with the best selection of product in a way that allowed us to ultimately distribute and fulfil that."

Nagaja Sanatkumar, general manager of global e-commerce at Icebreaker. Photo / Greg Bowker
Nagaja Sanatkumar, general manager of global e-commerce at Icebreaker. Photo / Greg Bowker

She also worked as a senior leader for Amazon Trade-In, which buys used products from consumers, for refurbishment and resale.


Sanatkumar left Amazon after four years, and 17 years in the US, to move to Auckland. "My husband and I had travelled here in 2008 when our oldest daughter was just a baby ... when we came here, we knew that at some point in our lives, if we didn't live here we'd regret it," she says.

"It is such an amazing place to raise children - which we didn't even know when we first made the pact to live here."

In her role at Icebreaker, Sanatkumar is responsible for a team of 15. Part of that team is based in Munich and Vancouver, so the role requires her to travel three times a year.

Icebreaker was sold to US retail giant VF Corporation for $288 million in April.

The company's e-commerce channel has grown steadily over the past few years. It now operates six websites, in four languages, and ships parcels to 23 countries.

Sanatkumar says a typical day starts at 7am with calls and meetings to team members in various time zones. Her current focus is making sure her team has the resources to "drive a digital road map" to grow Icebreaker's e-commerce business.


"Doing what I do now is my passion," she says. "Working in an environment that's forward-looking, leaning into a world that's changing really rapidly, not just digitally but everywhere very fast, and being able to keep up with that pace, ride that pace, sometimes be ahead of that pace of change - in a way that is meaningful to the lives of people - is ultimately my passion."

Consumers here, and everywhere else, are becoming more and more savvy everyday, and understanding exactly what they're going to have to give up to get a certain product or service.

This month Sanatkumar won the Institute of Director's emerging director award for her role in governance.

She says she is passionate about problem solving, which is part of the reason she has an active interest in governance and directorship roles.

"What's appealing to me is there's a wide variety of organisations, both government as well as charitable not-for-profit and corporate, that need digital skills applied in a way that allows them to be more relevant to their purpose. For me, being able to support and assist them in that capacity is very appealing."

Sanatkumar is a "future director" on Spark's board, and a director of her husband's not-for-profit start up, Imagen8.

Sanatkumar says voice technology is the biggest disruptor facing the retail industry, though it is yet to hit home in New Zealand.


"The unlimited potential of where voice technology is going to go, is going to be difficult and challenging for many industries to be able to play catch-up, but at the same time it presents tons of opportunity to change how we do things," she says.

In the United States, for example, 44 per cent of people who use a voice-activated speaker now say they use it to buy groceries and household items at least once a week.

"The applications of [voice technology] are still tightly bound to the people that are developing the technology, and retailers haven't yet taken full advantage of the capabilities," says Sanatkumar.

So is Icebreaker working to introduce such technology? No comment.

Inside an Amazon fulfillment centre in the United States. Photo / Getty Images
Inside an Amazon fulfillment centre in the United States. Photo / Getty Images

New Zealand retailers are using world-class technology, but can only introduce innovations in line with customer expectations, Sanatkumar says.

"Consumer behaviour in New Zealand is a little bit different to customer behaviour in the US or in some other places where the technology is more [common]. New Zealand retailers are trying to get ahead because they see how behaviour is changing elsewhere. Part of it, though, is give and take.


"If your consumer isn't quite ready or isn't really expecting that from you, then do you leapfrog that and make them get to where you are, or not, and I think that's a bit of a dance retailers here do have to play," she says.

"It's harder for a country like New Zealand to be able to always be at that bleeding edge of what's going on in technology because Silicon Valley is so far away.

"Retailers here are rapidly understanding the need to innovate and stay up to date with what their customers are expecting as it's becoming a small global world."

Nagaja Sanatkumar

Age: 41
Job: Icebreaker general manager of global e-commerce
Education: Bachelor of technology, Masters in business administration
Family: Married, two daughters aged 10 and 8
Last book read: Dream Teams by Shane Snow
Last film seen: A Plastic Ocean, directed by Craig Leeson
Last family holiday: Taupo
Biggest disruptor facing industry: Voice technology