Big Interview: James Kitto, Vice President of Sales, Samsung

Samsung's vice president of sales James Kitto was promoted from sales director last year. He is now faced with continuing the tech giant's strategy in 5G, as well as driving customer loyalty and its ecosystem proposition. Retail Gazette discovers Kitto's plan to prosper amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

James Kitto Samsung S21 Galaxy Buds online shopping covid-19 pandemic lockdown KX
James Kitto.

James Kitto is certain that people have evolved and adapted in the way that they shop, particularly over the last year thanks to the Covid pandemic.

Speaking to Retail Gazette amidst the latest UK-wide lockdown, the vice president of sales for Samsung said the pandemic has been a critical factor in how shoppers have evolved. He also believes the mobile market helped keep people stay connected with loved ones during this time.

Kitto went on to say that Samsung has been focused on building penetration into the market for its audio products. The Galaxy Buds Pro have especially been a big part of his focus as he aims to build that as a new business function within the company – which operates as a tech brand and retailer.

James Kitto Samsung S21 Galaxy Buds online shopping covid-19 pandemic lockdown KX
Samsung said the mobile market has helped connect people during the pandemic.

Kitto also said Samsung was “re-entering the computing market” by launching a brand new range of Galaxy Book products, including 5G enabled products to “bring a Galaxy experience to core mobile customers”.

“We haven’t been in personal computing for a number of years. We’d like to harness the power of the Galaxy brand,” he explained.

The pandemic has understandably led to an increase in demand for computers and mobile phones, particularly as current restrictions require people to work from home if possible. As a result, Kitto said Samsung experienced significant growth in demand for premium mobile products, as well as tablets and computer products.

James Kitto Samsung S21 Galaxy Buds online shopping covid-19 pandemic lockdown KX

“We’re all now looking at the technology we have available to us and thinking is it fit for purpose?” Kitto said.

“Is this going to help me work from home? Is this going to help me home-school my children?

“We’ve also seen people redirect significant investments into their homes. We’ve seen an uplift in sales of home electronics.

“Our customers have budget that they would otherwise be using for holidays, but due to lockdown, they are figuring out how to bring entertainment to their homes – and technology plays a big part in entertainment.”

Kitto is adamant this trend will continue for the most part of 2021, given that customers’ shopping habits have changed. He pointed to the launch of the Samsung Galaxy S21 mobile in mid-January as a sign of this. He said the product had a “fantastic start on pre-orders when it launched” and was a cheaper range compared to its products from 2020.

“We’ve listened to our customers by making our product more affordable, while still packing it full of amazing technology,” Kitto reflected.

Samsung “listens” to customers by talking to customer panels, talking to its existing customers, and conducting market research – both at a local market level and a global level.

“Social media trends are something we should be watching to understand how consumers are interacting with technology,” Kitto added.

“With the information, we think about what to do next. What do we do to define our next product experience or our next service?”

According to Samsung, 2021 represents almost a new chapter in the technology industry. Kitto told Retail Gazette that customers were already embracing a new digital era of consumer experience, but the crisis has radically accelerated that.

“The online channel will now be the dominant channel in 2021 and beyond”

“We’ve rewired how we sell and how we engage with the market,” he said.

“Mobile already had a market with three core channels with call centres primarily in the operator space, with retail being the dominant channel at the beginning of 2020.

“And then, of course, online. What we saw with the lockdown – which ensued a number of store closures – was a significant rebalancing of the ship of the share of those channels.

“Online drastically increased its share, and remains a very important part of the market. I don’t see that trend reversing now. We’ve rewired how we go to market.”

Kitto expects the online channel will become the dominant channel in 2021 and beyond, and for Samsung he predicts that the highest proportion of its sales will derive from online.

Reflecting on how Samsung has fared through Covid-19 so far, Kitto said the firm was “a relentless pioneer as an organisation”, although he conceded that the pandemic was now the dominant theme or link among its list of challenges.

“We’ve looked at how we can adapt and flex our model to react to the changes that have been put upon us by the pandemic,” he said.

Kitto himself began his career at mobile giant Nokia in 2008, working as retail director before being promoted to sales operations and marketing director in 2012.

He said he was a “massive fan” of Nokia and of the mobile industry more broadly. As an early adopter of a mobile phone back in 1993, he was “fascinated” by the device and its technology long before it became his career.

During his time at Nokia, Kitto said he enjoyed the fast-paced industry and had already gained “a broad set of business management skills” from studying an economics and accounting with law degree at Bristol University.

Samsung felt like “the right fit” when he first joined in 2017 as sales director, before being promoted to his current role in March last year. Under his tenure, Samsung has seen some of its biggest launches to date, including the release of the Galaxy S10, Note10 and the Galaxy Watch. Despite these achievements, Kitto said Samsung’s biggest challenge at present was looking beyond the pandemic and defining 2021 and beyond.

“My role as a leader within Samsung is to think about our global mission, which is to continue to deliver innovations that define barriers to progress,” Kitto said.

“Many of the challenges due to Covid-19 will be long-lasting challenges and will change our behaviour.

“We talk about defining the next normal, but we don’t know what that next normal is going to be other than it’s going to be different to the last normal.”

James Kitto Samsung S21 Galaxy Buds online shopping covid-19 pandemic lockdown KX
According to Samsung, 2021 represents a new chapter in the technology industry.

Customers’ fondness for technology was evident prior to Covid-19. In fact, Samsung launched its KX store in London’s Kings Cross in September 2019 as a haven for Samsung lovers.

The 20,000sq ft store, which is currently shut due to lockdown, offered guests a range of experiences, events and skill-sharing workshops curated in partnership with several local community groups including Central St Martin’s and University College London.

The shop also intensifies competition with main rivals Apple and Microsoft and their respective networks of customer experience-focused retail flagships.

Nonetheless, Kitto said the KX store has been interesting for Samsung in that it allowed the brand to demonstrate products and connect with customers in a unique way.

“We wanted to give customers an immersive experience into the world of Samsung across all of the core products that we offer, whether that is in refrigeration, in home cooking, televisions, or whether it is in our mobile products and services solutions,” he said.

“We’ve been really pleased with how Kings Cross has been received by the UK consumer.

“Due to restrictions, we have had to change and think about how the store adapts to the challenges thrown at us.

“So Kings Cross has become a platform where we are live broadcasting from we are delivering live shows via YouTube or platform.

“We want to deliver live experiences straight into web purchase journeys, given that everything is online now.”

James Kitto Samsung S21 Galaxy Buds online shopping covid-19 pandemic lockdown KX
Samsung launched its customer experience-focused store in London’s Kings Cross in 2019.

Kitto remains confident that Samsung’s stores will return to pre-pandemic levels once the vaccines have been rolled out and lockdown restrictions are lifted.

“In a world where Covid is in the rear view mirror, there should be no reason why retail can’t recover,” he told Retail Gazette.

With the KX store’s unique selling point being experiential retail before Covid, Kitto believes this is the same reason why retail will remain strong in 2021 and beyond.

“Giving people a reason not to buy online is the reason why retail will exist going forward,” he said.

Meanwhile, Kitto believes that one thing that keeps Samsung ahead of rivals is its stance on sustainability. In a year which saw countless calls for retailers to improve ethical business practices and reduce plastic packaging, he said Samsung “takes sustainability incredibly seriously” – even during the pandemic.

With people locked down at home for weeks on end this year, attention has arguably been shifted towards crucial social issues, such as human rights, fair treatment of workers and cutting plastic usage.

In the past five years, Samsung has reduced the plastic weight of Galaxy S Series packaging by 92 per cent. In 2019, Samsung pledged to reduce plastic packaging and said it would begin substituting plastic packaging currently used for its mobile phones and home appliances with recycled plastics or paper alternatives.

Most recently, the Samsung Galaxy S21 excluded the charger and headphones from its box after the company looked in detail at what customers need and want from a mobile product.

“What we found is that the majority of customers already have a charger cable. Samsung customers are very fortunate in that we’ve been using the same charger cable since 2017,” Kitto laughed.

“We excluded the charger from the product which is part of our plan to reduce waste.

“We still offer charges available at very affordable price points for people who genuinely need another one or a replacement.

“We’re also making sure that our packaging is utilising as much recycled material as possible, and is recyclable itself.

“Our job as a brand is to continuously look at customer feedback, understand trends and think about how we can continue to deliver innovation in the market.

“Let’s see how 2021 rolls out.”

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