The retail industry has experienced a tremendous amount of upheaval in recent years. Much of this change, of course, has been driven by shifts in customer behavior seen during the pandemic. Given the rapid change that has enveloped the industry, organizations were forced to adjust — and do so quickly. During a session at the Women in Retail Leadership Summit last month, a panel of retail leaders addressed many of the challenges that presented themselves during this time of transition and, more importantly, the solutions they put into place to address them.

In a engaging conversation moderated by Trish Mosconi, executive vice president, chief strategy officer and corporate development leader, Synchrony, panelists Muriel Gonzalez, executive vice president, chief merchandising and marketing officer, The Vitamin Shoppe; Shelley Liebsch, chief merchandising officer, J.Jill; Sharonda Weatherspoon, senior vice president of retail stores and co-chair for diversity and inclusion, Ralph Lauren; and Rebecca Wooters, chief digital officer, Signet Jewelers, offered insights into how they and the organizations they work for addressed common challenges impacting retailers today.

The Customer May Not Always Be Right

“One of the things we learned during COVID, and probably the hard way, was that there were a number of people that we had to ask not come back to our stores because of how they treated our employees,” Weatherspoon said, addressing an audience question on how to optimize in-store staff performance during trying times. “Wearing a mask was a very polarizing topic. I do think there are times the stress of life gets to all of us and you never know what people are dealing with. One of the biggest things I tried to instill in the team is that we don’t really know what people are going through, so when possible we need to give them the benefit of the doubt. We need to treat people with kindness. I’m finding that when we are kind, even when people are having challenges, it helps. When you are customer-facing, there are some basic requirements — liking people, wanting to interact, wanting to be a problem solver — becomes very important.

“We have to start asking people what do they like. And if they don’t like their role, let’s not put them there because it’s definitely going to show.”

Building a Cohesive Team

Wooters was asked about how she interfaces with Signet’s chief technology and chief marketing officers to create seamless experiences for the jewelry retailer’s customers.

“Role expectation is important,” noted Wooters. “I actually own technology for anything customer facing. So it carry it all the way through, and then we have marketing teams that sit within our respective banners. What was really necessary for us was to not only be very data driven and customer voice driven to be able to share that with the respective banner teams, but also have routines that allow them to share what they were looking for. That was a little bumpy in the beginning as were ramping up and all trying to run 100 miles per hour. Really being smart on role expectation and explaining it so that people buy into the culture of small, agile teams. Share why it’s important to provide empowerment to these groups and have them work together, which includes representation from other parts of technology or marketing. That allows these teams to go and run together.

“That’s always a culture change when you have someone bringing in a new digital transformation. That’s probably the biggest thing or most important factor in starting up an organization [or department] like that. Have them buy into the agile process and what that means. We now have marketing teams working in an agile process, and our technology that is not customer facing has now moved to product teams.”

Gonzalez touched on this topic as well, addressing the culture shift at The Vitamin Shoppe.

“The culture of the company, especially through the pandemic, learned how important omnichannel was and how important digital was,” Gonazalez noted. “Everyone starts their journey online — or 80 percent of our customers start their journey online. So our marketing team really understands that part of their role is to drive digital traffic. Sure, there’s a few things that digital controls that marketing wishes it controls, and vice versa, but there’s great respect for each role within the company because we’re very focused on the end result and we want the same thing.”

These are just a few of the points touched on during this session. In addition to what’s covered above, Liebsch addresses inventory management and margin improvement at J.Jill; Gonzalez details The Vitamin Shoppe’s transformation; and Weatherspoon talks more about talent acquisition and retention. Women in Retail Leadership Circle members can watch all session recordings from the 2022 Women in Retail Leadership Summit here.