Pharmacology was Jon Sanchez’s original career plan, but that took a sharp left turn when he landed a high school summer job at Best Buy.
“I spent most of my time on the sales floor, but Best Buy was a data-rich company, so I also got to spend a lot of time in the back, digging into all that data,” he recalls. “That was my first exposure to analytics, and I loved it.”
Today, Sanchez is the director for digital and customer analytics at Panera Bread. Once in college, he changed his major to business administration and continued working at Best Buy. After graduation, he was hired full-time at Best Buy’s Minneapolis headquarters as a demand planning analyst.
He then joined New Balance in a similar capacity and became immersed in the commercial and operational parts of the company’s website, including web analytics, experiment-based conversion rate optimization, and digital marketing. He discovered that seemingly insignificant changes to a website’s structure or functions could influence sales.
“Coming up with hypotheses to test, running an experiment, and then changing the website based on those results often made me feel more like a scientist than a businessperson. I still often feel that way,” he says.
He moved to Panera Bread in 2016 in a strategic finance role, with the gradual addition of digital commerce and loyalty marketing. In 2019, Panera’s chief digital officer, George Hanson, created the digital commerce department as a standalone business unit, and Sanchez was promoted to his present position a year later. His key task was the development of the digital and customer analytics team, with a broad scope of involvement.
Throughout his career, though, he’s often been the only Latino in the room. “I’ve often felt like I had to prove that I’m smart enough and hard-working enough to be in the positions I’ve attained,” he says.
He’s become a champion for more diversity in the profession. “Analytics is not strictly objective; there’s a lot of creativity involved, especially in data analysis or developing a machine-learning model,” Sanchez says. “Any problem will have many possible solutions, depending on how you interpret the data—so relying on diverse viewpoints can lead to unique insights.”
He’s found that, as a career or profession, analytics is overwhelmingly populated by white men, and he strives to change that.
At Panera, his team is divided among three “pillars”—traffic analytics, conversion analytics and customer analytics. There’s plenty of diversity in the team itself, Sanchez says. “It’s over 60 percent female and 40 percent BIPOC,” he says. “All told, 75 percent of my team is either BIPOC or female. I take great pride in this, because it makes us better as a team, more capable of solving the complex problems that come our way.”
The data analysis his team does impacts the company from several angles. “We can determine where our guests come from, what influences them to visit us in-person or online, and ways we might reduce ‘friction’ to make their experiences smoother and easier,” he explains.
Thanks to his team, Panera can apply more advanced analytics and machine learning techniques to broader strategies, such as assessing business performance in terms of expected customer spending, and determining which products and services resonate with customers.
His colleagues outside the company have been impressed by his work. “As a leader, Jon has a knack for fostering talent and getting the most out of a team,” says John Adamo, client partner at Epsilon. “Whether it be a direct report, or partner organization such as ours, his passion is contagious.”
In 2020, the company launched its coffee subscription, which in 2022 evolved to become Panera’s “Unlimited Sip Club,” a $10.99-a-month (plus tax) subscription that grants members a practically unlimited amount of Panera’s self-serve beverage offerings. “It’s the first in the industry, and there was some apprehension at first,” Sanchez says. “The combination of ‘free,’ ‘unlimited,’ and ‘subscription’ often indicates high risks from a strategic standpoint.”
Despite launching during the onset of the COVID pandemic, the program has been a hit. “My chief role in it has been to oversee the data analysis—customer behavior and spending patterns. It appeals to many of our regular customers, and has actually drawn in new ones,” he says.
Despite his success, Sanchez still must deal with certain stereotypes. “I remember a lightbulb going off while reading a book about Google search data. For years, you could enter ‘Why are all Mexicans . . .’ into the search bar, and the auto-complete function would add ‘stupid’ or ‘lazy,’” he says. “The algorithm was simply reflecting what had often been entered before—the biases that people keep secret, but whisper to that little bar.”
Sanchez has two pieces of advice for others. The first: “Have a ‘growth mindset.’ Realize that resilience, hard work, and coaching—striving for development and growth—are more important than our natural talents. I often think of Albert Einstein’s statement, ‘It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.’ It resonates with me, because I think that’s how I try to approach things.”
“I’m learning to let go of the need for constant perfection,” he says. “I’ve found it to be freeing.”
The second: “Don’t be afraid to fail.” In analytics, he explains, you’ll see issues and situations that don’t have clear and immediate answers. It’s vital to have confidence in yourself, and in your team, that you’ll be able to figure it out together. Hold them accountable for their successes, not their failures. But be there when they fail to cheer them on, and make sure they don’t give up.
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