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The Three Pillars to Fostering Retail Pride

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Podcast October 22, 2020

The Three Pillars to Fostering Retail Pride

What was your first job? Mine was as a teller at a big box store and there’s a very good chance your first job was also in retail. Maybe you were a busboy at a restaurant, or you bagged groceries or sold shoes at the mall. The retail industry is massive. In the U.S. one in four jobs are retail jobs. And yet working in retail is often seen as a default, not a choice to be lauded.

Today’s guest, Ron Thurston, has had a long career in retail, starting off as a part time sales associate and now VP of Stores for INTERMIX, and his new book Retail Pride celebrates retail careers, including the accidental route many take to their positions. Today, we’re going to dig into some of the things he explores in the book to find out why and how leaders should make retail pride central to their culture.

Transcript

Melinda: Hi, I’m Melinda, and you’re listening to Think Retail.

What was your first job? Mine was as a teller at a big box store and there’s a very good chance your first job was also in retail. Maybe you were a busboy at a restaurant, or you bagged groceries or sold shoes at the mall. The retail industry is massive. In the U.S. one in four jobs are retail jobs. And yet working in retail is often seen as a default, not a choice to be lauded.

Today’s guest, Ron Thurston, has had a long career in retail, starting off as a part time sales associate and now VP of Stores for INTERMIX, and his new book Retail Pride celebrates retail careers, including the accidental route many take to their positions. Today, we’re going to dig into some of the things he explores in the book to find out why and how leaders should make retail pride central to their culture.

Ron, thank you so much for being with me today. And congratulations on the publication of your book. It’s such a huge accomplishment. Maybe let’s start off if you could tell me a little bit about the book and what inspired it.

Ron: Thank you. So, the book was inspired really by not only my career, but the hundreds and thousands of people that I have met, interviewed, hired, sat and listened to along the way, both through store management and multi-store leadership and leading brands. And there was a consistent theme of both it being often an accidental career, and the fact that for many people, this was not a career that was celebrated. People often asked when they’re going to get a real job, this idea of this enormous industry, yet under celebrated. And so I continued to think more about this and felt like this message is such an important one for people to hear that do the hard work every day, all over the world, and need to really be proud of what they do.

Melinda: Absolutely. And you know, when I was reading your book, it really surprised me the sheer magnitude of retail in your book, you note that in the U.S., it’s the biggest private employer with 42 million jobs. I had no idea, to be honest with you, that it was so huge. With so many people working in retail, why isn’t there greater pride in a retail career?

Ron: It’s such an enormous industry, because it’s almost something that you assume is there, you almost don’t recognize that it’s retail because it touches every city, every person, every part of your life, from grocery to pharmacy, to clothing stores, home goods, like the list is so vast. But to answer your question, I think some of the lack of pride comes in the fact that, like I mentioned earlier, it’s often accidental. So you have this perception of, “Well, I’m just going to do this temporarily. So, I’m not going to really speak about this as my career because I’m going to do something else.” Or, “I studied something else,” which is often also something I hear. “I went to college for this, this was a part time job during college, but I love it, and I stayed in it. And now I’m ready to move my career forward.”

So, I think the lack of pride comes from being no specific education that you need to have, that the experience and your success comes from the hard work. And so you can’t say, “I have a degree in law, and therefore I’m practicing law.” Retail is a result of hard work. And that’s not always something that people speak about. And I also think that because you’re so self-taught, it feels a little more organic, it feels a little bit more kind of self-earned, self-taught, and I think that combination of kind of feelings, as much as millions of people love this industry, they also don’t always celebrate the hard work that comes with it.

Melinda: Which is kind of ironic, because hard work is something that I think generally, if someone’s a hard worker, we think of them in a really positive light. So that’s really interesting.

So, can we talk a little bit about your path to becoming a leader in the industry? You have worked with some really impressive brands, Apple, Bonobos, The Gap, and you’re now at Intermix. Tell us about that and how accidental or intentional your path was.

Ron: It was, I think, a combination of both. I grew up in South Lake Tahoe, California, with a family who owned a construction company and my grandfather led an organization that built a lot of the Safeway stores on the west coast. And my entire family worked for my grandfather. But I had this idea that I wanted to do something different. I wanted to be in fashion retail somehow. So I went to FIDM, Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, on the West Coast. And I studied both fashion design and retail administration and earned just associate degrees, I was not highly educated, because I didn’t know where I wanted to land in the industry, whether it was in design, merchandising, buying, stores, there was a variety of different paths. And I wanted to be prepared for all. And after working in the fashion design segment first, I did kind of accidentally discover, working at Gap Kids. And all of a sudden, all of it started to make sense. And it was a very exciting time for that brand.

Gap, at that time, this was kind of early ‘90s, highly engaged in the teams, highly transparent with your career growth, leadership, training and development very high on the scale. And I spent 10 years at Gap growing my career from sales to leadership, to multi-store leadership, into corporate visual merchandising roles, and led a really large team. And since, I chose brands and often followed leaders based on where the brands were in their trajectory. So, for example, joining Apple at the time, this was kind of early iPhone, this was…I joined right at iPhone 2.

Melinda: Wow.

Ron: And so that energy that was happening at the brand, when you had to wait in line to buy a phone for several days, and the complexity of the business and the growth and the hiring that we were doing. And I was…at that point, I had moved to Texas, and I was running all the stores in Houston, I had 6 stores, and the idea of these enormous $50, $100 million businesses with hundreds of people running them, and this demand for this product, and this kind of intensity that I would call of the team and their commitment to Apple was something I found highly admirable, and something I’ve really tried to recreate, and have since kind of gone on to choose other brands that were really important points in their kind of history and their impact on the retail industry and wanted to be a part of that change.

And so now at Intermix, which is kind of coming full circle, for me coming back to one of the Gap family of brands in the multi-store space, in the highly customer-centric kind of luxury business model is really a pleasure, and to see how the growth has happened for many of the brands I’ve worked for and their place in history, it gives me personally a lot of pride.

Melinda: So I mean, you have the benefit of having had a whole experience with educational background, frontline, all the way up to leadership, and not all leaders in retail have that, how do you think that has shaped you as a leader?

Ron: I think the book is the biggest example of that, I have incredible passion and pride for people that work in stores. Because I’ve done the work, I’ve led the teams, I’ve done every role in the store, I’m highly engaged in every aspect of it, from store design, to marketing, to visual merchandising, to the cleanliness of the store, to being involved in hiring as many people as possible. Even if it’s for a 10-minute conversation before someone joins the brand, I want to be engaged in every part of it. And that passion for me really comes from being in it and seeing where it can go wrong, and where it can be not well-led, and choosing to actually do it really well and be engaged. And I think that whole experience that you kind of reference only comes again from doing the work. You don’t understand the work if you haven’t done the work and you haven’t experienced the kind of the joy and the pleasure and the difficulty and the pain, because it’s also not always fun. People are not always nice. And you have to kind of learn to navigate all the different aspects of this business and help people get where they want to go. And that’s a big part of my whole experience, and in some ways, recreating what was so generously given to me to other people in the industry today.

Melinda: That’s fantastic. And I think every industry has a similar sort of issue with people who’ve taken it from the very front lines all the way up to the top sometimes have this kind of passion that you’re talking about, that is inspiring to people who are working for you.

So, in your book, you talk about what you call the three pillars of retail. And the first is empathy. You even go so far as to state that you would promote empathy over sales productivity, and I can hear some retail leadership just shocked at that. Can you explain to me why empathy matters so much?

Ron: I would love to. And in fact, just yesterday, in the McKinsey report, I was scrolling Business of Fashion in the morning, like I always do. And there was an article that posted from McKinsey, and the title was “The Human Touch at the Center of Customer Experience Excellence,” and I thought, “That’s interesting. Let me click into that.” And it’s an entire article built on the fact that as much technology as you introduce into the business, as much as you try to create goals for stores, and metrics, and KPIs, and all of the different ways that we monitor business from a technical productivity side, their point of view, which really supports this idea, is that nothing replaces great culture, and great empathy, and great human contact, and great connection to store teams, and that it starts at the top. And that as customers have more and more access to things like reviews and rankings and all the data points, the human touch is the one that has the biggest impact on the brand and the customer experience, and how they will speak about the brand and be a promoter if you run NPS systems, all of it is related back to human touch. And empathy is the biggest component of that. And this year of any, you know, as I began reopening my own stores this year, post-COVID, having empathy for your own team first and having empathy for the customer walking in the door has been the biggest impact on getting businesses back on track, getting people back to work, and feeling safe and understood. And really just cared for in a way that I think is really important in our industry today.

Melinda: Yeah, and I mean, I think some people, some brands have done a great job of that. And others have kind of been dinged because they have been seen to maybe not be empathetic.

One quote that you have in the book that is related is, “It’s hard to compete with Amazon on price, but we can certainly compete on joy.” And so now, whenever people tell me they think Amazon’s going to take over the world, I’m going to repeat this to them, because I think it’s a really great quote. Now that being said, we are experiencing unprecedented disruption with COVID, do you think right now we can still compete on joy?

Ron: I think we have to compete on joy, because websites are not joyous. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with Amazon, that’s where I’m selling my book. And so, we all have the need for kind of this sometimes lack of joy, and these kind of easy access, free shipping, all the things that come that don’t really provide joy, they’re more tactical. And I think the complete opposite, we compete on with joy because you should be able to walk into a retail store and feel the joy, feel the pride, feel their level of commitment, their level of product knowledge, their understanding of the brand, the history of the brand, all of those things combined create joy. So, I think while sometimes we can’t compete on all the different things that are given to us through the different websites, websites are not always fun. And I even experienced that myself working in multi-brand luxury today.

Nothing replaces great styling, having someone who’s really understands you, where you’re going, what are you doing? “How can I help you build your closet? How can I help you build your confidence? How can I make you feel your most beautiful self?” That doesn’t happen on a website. And I’m really passionate that they both serve their own purpose, but the store piece is where you really change the perception of the brand.

Melinda: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s such an interesting time right now where I think people are really eager, depending on where you are and what state of quarantine your area may be in, people who are waiting to get out and experience restaurants and bars and cinemas, they want that, that’s what they want. They want that joy, they want that empathy. They want that energy of being out, and it’s difficult to duplicate that on the internet for sure. I mean, I think people are trying but it’s not the same. That’s my personal opinion. It’s not the same.

Ron: Yeah, I mean, I use a technology called Hero today on our Intermix website, which connects via chat to you with in-store stylists. And for whatever reason, maybe it’s a city where I don’t have a store, but that connection, that chat can be a bit of a replacement, and you can FaceTime and you can turn it to email, you can turn it to phone, you can do whatever you need to do to make that connection. And those are wonderful, but it’s a small percentage of the business versus what walks in the door and is ready to engage and experience the brand at its full expression.

Melinda: Yeah, absolutely.

Okay, so I want to go back to the pillars now. So the first one is empathy. The second one is curiosity. And you state that hiring curious leaders is critical. Tell me about this.

Ron: When I think of the best led organizations, the best people that I’ve known along my journey, they are always curious, and that they ask great questions, they listen, they pay attention, and that curiosity creates change. Because often we sit in senior leadership roles and we make assumptions about what’s happening in our business, what’s happening with the customer, what’s happening with the store teams. But nothing replaces curiosity, and learning, and growing, and then making smarter decisions, or actually completely changing a strategy because you didn’t ask the right people. And I think that sometimes the lack of curiosity creates maybe even more reporting, more kind of lack of understanding. And I’ll shift it back and say, “Well, actually, what does the store think? What does the customer think? What’s the feedback that we’re receiving? Let’s just ask more questions before we make decisions.” And those brands are the ones that will win, particularly going forward, that they’ve learned to understand more about every point of their business, because no one can assume that we know what the future is, we have to ask and learn and be curious in every step of the way.

Melinda: Absolutely. And if you are curious about the future, you might actually be more prepared for anything that happens because you’ve considered different types of outcomes, as opposed to just the one that you are expecting to come true.

Ron: Agreed.

Melinda: Okay, so let’s talk about the final pillar, your final pillar is focus, and I mean, I think we can agree that everybody can benefit from focus. You suggest in your book that traditional corporate ideas about focus might not be as useful to someone working in retail, why is that the case? And what does focus look like in retail?

Ron: So back to your point around sometimes the understanding of what happens in a retail store is not always understood unless someone’s done the work. And when I think about focus, and one of the reasons why I wanted to make this such an important pillar, is that for anyone that’s worked as, I’ll just say, a store manager, which for me is one of my favorite jobs I’ve ever had. The idea of everything coming at you every day, visual merchandising, phone calls, conference calls, HR-related situations, loss prevention, all of those aspects every day are thrown at you. And you have to have the focus and the ability to say, “What do I need to accomplish? What conversations do I need to have today?” That again, going back to curiosity and empathy, sometimes my focus actually just needs to be to listen today, and not check things off the checklist. And so I think of focus in what’s important to my business, what’s important to my team, what’s important to my customer, what’s important to my company, and what do I need to do today? And in order to accomplish that in the retail environment, there are things that won’t get done because so much is coming at you. And I’ll go back to Apple because we talked about that, you know, those years of kind of a launch day, and I would see 1000 people in front of the store waiting to buy a phone. I’m like, “Okay, this is going to be a day, and I’m going to focus on these customers and make sure that every single one of them has a great experience.” And that I would…I spend time, I would walk the line. This is when no one had actually even seen a phone. “Let me show you an iPhone. Here’s how the phone works. Can I get you a snack? Let me find someone to hold your place in line so you can go the restroom.” Like that idea of, today, my focus is going to be the customer experience because this is important for my brand.

Other days, this focus, maybe I need to take a group of people outside the store for lunch and just listen to how they’re feeling about working here. That’s focus, too, and curiosity and empathy. So I interchange the concepts. But if those three things, every day, how can I be more empathetic to what’s happening? How can I be really curious no matter what my role is? And how can I focus on what needs to happen? For me, those are really the pillars of retail success.

Melinda: Yeah, at one point, in the book, I think, you peppered this throughout different sections, but there’s a bunch of testimonials from people who work in retail, and they could be store managers, or buyers, all across different roles. And there are people who didn’t intend to work in retail, but were really happy that they now have a career in this industry. If leaders want to hire the right people and nurture these happy accidents, how can they approach hiring and staffing differently?

Ron: I really think about this as a hiring manager. And through the different points of my career hiring at all different levels, from senior executives to part time stock, we’ll just say, for different companies, is that kind of idea of, “I am here to make sure you have the best experience possible as an employee. And whatever your goal is, whether this is accidental or not, my responsibility is to make sure that you have the best experience possible that your career is moving at the pace that you want it to,” but in a transparent way, that is helpful to understand where they are at any given space. So, kind of nurturing this idea of happy accidents is, “This might be accidental, but I’m going to make you fall in love with this. I’m going to ensure you have the best possible experience.” And the idea of investing in development, investing in giving great feedback. And this constant loop of investment for me is how you take it from, “I’m just going to do this for a while to see what happens,” to, “Wow, this really is something that I love, and I appreciate that my leader is taking the time to help me get where I need to go.”

And I think that’s a mind shift, sometimes it’s not just about what the company provides, but what can you provide as a leader to your team to make sure that they’re getting what they need. And I believe, inherently, that’s one of the reasons people love working in retail, is because it’s so emotional and so connected. And they naturally have those skills, which is different than people that work in an office environment. And it’s one of the reasons why I love it so much.

Melinda: So the name of the book is Retail Pride. Can we end off with three ways that leaders can do a better job of instilling a sense of pride in retail?

Ron: So there’s a couple different things I would say, one, there’s a part of the book where I suggest building a board of advisors for yourself, that can kind of support and encourage, connect, help you build relationships, help you get where you need to go. And this kind of pride that comes from recognizing that, “This is my career, this is no longer an accident, I’m choosing to make this an important part of my life. And I’m going to build a team around me, of people who can help me get there.” And to kind of spending this time thinking about this mental shift from accidental to intentional, those two things, for me, really help instill pride, because you’re not proud of something that you aren’t committed to. Because when I’m committed to it, I say, “I’m a proud retail leader, I’m proud of my accidental career in retail,” that is a very different statement than, “Oh, like, this is fine, but I really want to study medicine and do something else.” You’re not committed to it. And so I think in terms of those two, and then the last one I would say is pay it forward. You’re proud of something when you have the ability to pay it forward. And you talk about it, you help bring other people along. When someone reaches out on LinkedIn and says, “Hey, I think you’re really interesting. I’d love to have 15 minutes of your time,” do that and do it for other people. Because that cements this idea of pride in the industry, supporting other people and finding resources to support yourself.

Melinda: I mean, the retail industry in many places right now or all across the world really is, I think, feeling a little beaten up right now. And so I would just say I’ve read the book, if you need a pick me up, it is really inspiring, it lifts off the page. It’s an easy read, it’s engaging. There’s a lot of information in there. But I think it’s a boost of joy that a lot of people in the industry might need right now.

So if they’re feeling like they do want to read your book, where can they find it right now? Is it on the shelves?

Ron: It’s on the shelves and on Amazon, primarily, so you can find it on Amazon, you can also find it on retailpride.com. There’s a link there to Amazon and then other media that I’m doing, and I’m thinking about kind of how to build community because I think one of the other subset goals with my book is to help us build more community. So we can do that. If you sign up on retailpride.com, I’m building this kind of vast email list that can help us create events and come together and learn from each other and grow. Be curious, be empathetic, and help us build retail back to either what it was or even better, because I really believe that retail, this is how we’re going to reconnect the world. And I feel very strongly that this is the first step in doing that.

Melinda: Fabulous. Well, thank you so much for talking with us today. And we are going to link to all of these different locations in our podcast description. So if you want to buy Ron’s book, we’ll help you get there.

Ron: Great. Thank you so much, Melinda.

Melinda: All you retail leaders out there, how are you finding inspiration these days? How are you connecting with your frontline teams and making sure they feel safe but also empowered? I highly recommend Ron’s book. It’s a great read. And I’d love to hear from you about what you’re doing to find inspiration and lead your team through this challenging time. Send us an email at info@sld.com and thanks for listening.

About

Ron Thurston is the Vice President of Stores at INTERMIX and author of Retail Pride: The Guide to Celebrating Your Accidental Career.

Think Retail is a podcast where top designers, strategists, thought leaders and business people discuss what’s coming next. For more information, email info@sld.com.