The world of Retail

ImagesI am introduced to people all the time and on occassion you meet someone and the conversation just flows. I met with Ari Bloom who is the man behind A2B Consulting.  He does some investing, he does consulting mostly in the retail space and is an all around good guy.  I am so glad we met.  

Our conversation circled around retail.  He started his career in the Gap training program that Mickey Drexler started.  Mickey was at Macys when I went through the training program.  He knew how powerful the program was and my guess is he brought some of the best parts with him to the Gap.  

Ari and I discussed at length how that retail experience transformed our thoughts around business.  At Macy's you started out in a three month classroom experience that essentially taught you the ins and outs of the store.  My memory might be wrong and that part of the experience lasted a little longer or shorter but it was essential.  We learned about how the store was run.  Top executives came and spoke to us about themselves and what they did.  We would even spent some time in a buying office, only for a week, just to get our feet wet.  There was definitely a method to the program.  Once you left that first experience you were placed in the stores.  They got to know you too so we were all placed accordingly.  Definitely a method to the madness.

I was placed in the cosmetics department in Kings Plaza Brooklyn.  I was responsible for the profitability of the department and managing the 100 women who worked there.  I was 21.  Not sure how I knew this but perhaps it was the training but I just dug in.  I was also a retail/finance major so something stuck.  I went through every single buying/inventory book of every cosmetic brand.  I had each rep come in and make them give us a return for old inventories that were not turning to open up the open-to-buy and replace it with fresh merchandise that would sell.  I cleaned the place up and essentially made it shine.  At that time it was the second largest volume cosmetic department next to Herald Square.  I worked like a dog and I loved it.  I loved managing the women too.  It felt like a community.

Macys takes its HR seriously.  In store line a sales manager would get reviewed from their boss who ran one-third of the store with the guidance of the personnel director.  They took me in one day to tell me that I was too aggressive to be in retail.  The truth is I wasn't very good at politics and the woman I reported to was a goody two shoes who expected me to be wowed by her.  Good news is the woman who ran the store thought I was amazing so I happened to share that bit of wisdom from the personnel manager and my boss. I was quickly promoted.  

In order to move forward with that promotion you have to interview for the next job.  The next job up the ladder is assistant buyer.  I was sent out on my first interview and was asked by the buyer "are you organized"?  I laughed and said very.  I got the job.  It was a totally different way to look at the business. It wasn't so much about the day to day but the numbers, the inventory and the product.  My buyer got promoted and I found myself doing that job solo for awhile.  I was working for a tough guy who made most of the women who work for him cry.  Retail can be a very unattractive place.  I remember going into his office with the next seasons buy and numbers on a spread sheet.  Then the spread sheets were done with pencil and erasers.  No computers.  He took one look at it and tossed it back in my face telling me this is wrong.  I went back and tried again.  I returned and the same thing happened.  This time I refused to leave his office.  I told him that I am not going to go back and forth all day long so either teach me how to do it or have someone else do it.  After that he adored me.  I got promoted.

The next job was being an assistant store manager.  I loved this job.  This is the job that would be great for an entrepreneur to learn from.  I was responsible for 1/3 of the store.  All of ready to wear and cosmetics.  Someone gave me the best advice which was do not spend all your time in cosmetics where you are comfortable on the floor because you know it.  Spend your time in the ready to wear area where you only know it from the buying office.  And so I did.  I applied the same type of knowledge from cosmetics in regards to turning the merchandise to ready to wear.  I loved helping the people I managed learn and move forward in their careers.  Merchandise would come in daily and we would move the old stuff out and the new stuff in.  Each day we would change the floor plan based on what was working and what was not.  You could see the difference every single day when you would get your numbers the next morning.  You were either up or down.  You either sold the new stuff or you didn't.  You had no time to sit on anything.  You had to always think about selling and that meant always moving.  I was promoted out of this job really quickly.  

Then I interviewed to become a buyer.  I found this job extremely boring because at the time Mickey Dressler has moved to the Gap and the powers that be at Macys decided they could compete against the Gap.  The market share had shifted.  Macys wanted to start doing private label and buy mass quantities of the same item.  It didn't work so well for a department store customer.  It gave the customer less assortment.  It gave the buyer less opportunities to be creative.  The company was changing and it was not pretty.  

After one year of buying I was ready for the next challenge.  After all I had just gone through four jobs in a little less than four years because that is how the company was set up.  Where was job number five?  I was told by my boss and his boss that women just do not move as quickly as men so the buying job would be at least four years.  Seriously?  I was stuck.  Talking to HR was going to get me nowhere.  And so I left.  I was one of many who began to exit as the powers that be decided to become a private company and take on huge amounts of debt.  Where was my stock like you get in start-ups?  There isn't any for you.  I saw the writing on the wall.  

Ari and I talked about that experience of being in retail.  The energy, the constant change, the ability to know how you are doing each day in dollars and cents.  In many ways that is how great entrepreneurs operate.  They know to listen to their customer and make changes quickly.  Not to linger on something that they believe will just work out because of sheer will.  Going to work for a large company was probably one of the best experiences I could have done to build a solid foundation that helped me grow to where I am now.  It is not the rule of thumb these days as many just jump into the start-up world early on but there is something to say for working in an organization to see how they operate or how they don't operate.  

Looking forward to more conversations with Ari in the future.  

Comments (Archived):

  1. pointsnfigures

    great story. love your chutzpah. I also love how people “our age” have to describe what work was like prior to computerization. I was in sales. No for me. A box full of 3×8 cards that I had to scroll through. Wore suits in a body shop selling glue and abrasives!! not glamorous.What really interests me is your views on the hyper change in retail. How do the brick and mortar stores compete and stay relevant? My gut tells me there is a way, but they really have to change their operations and business model. Do they have the guts to do it?

    1. Gotham Gal

      They have to be creative. Check out the story in the NYTimes yesterday on the Story. It is a very clever retail store.I had a huge rolodex that moved in circles!

      1. andrewghayes

        I was just going to comment and see if you were following the Story story – such a genius concept run by a very thoughtful founder.

        1. Gotham Gal

          Absolutely. Love what she has built

    2. LE

      I also love how people “our age”I’ve noticed that memory wise it’s no advantage to have all those crutches now though. Not to mention that if you are curious you are just deluged with new info that you find important and you want and perhaps need to remember.

  2. bethweinstein

    I *love* this post! I can relate completely. I wanted to learn the retail business, understand how products move, what makes customers buy, so I went into the Macy’s Executive Training program at 21 years old. I managed +20 unionized associates, most who were more than twice my age, at the world’s largest department store, in this huge city I had just moved to two weeks prior. It was probably the most challenging job I’ve had (besides currently launching my own business), but one of the best learning experiences ever. I wish more people could see the value of working in retail…I recommend everyone try it once so at the very least they have more respect for sales associates, whether at the local bodega, Duane Reade, or Barney’s. Thanks for sharing this!

    1. Gotham Gal

      The union stores were the hardest!!

      1. bethweinstein

        I used to get a lot of those citation papers…always getting in trouble for moving merchandise. These women were so tough on me my first year, I never cried so much in my life! When I left 2 yrs later, they were the ones crying begging me not to go. 😉

  3. LE

    They took me in one day to tell me that I was too aggressive to be in retail.And this was, amazingly, in NY metro.Imagine if you had been at a store in the midwest.

    1. Gotham Gal

      they would have showed me the door.

  4. LE

    The energy, the constant change, the ability to know how you are doing each day in dollars and cents. In many ways that is how great entrepreneurs operate. They know to listen to their customer and make changes quickly.There is something to be said to being in a business where you can’t sit on your laurels (and just milk a cash cow) but have to wake up each and every day to slay the dragon.I’ve always said that business gets boring when you know the outcome. It’s no fun at all and certainly less motivating when you know in advance what your year will be like because of a relatively steady stream of predictable business and profit. (And there are businesses like that..)Not that it can’t and doesn’t happen but businesses like you describe are certainly less likely to get stale and complacent. And so you are constantly motivated.Things being to hard in business are no good. But neither are things that are to easy.

  5. Jim B

    I worked for Marks and Spencer in the UK more than 20 years ago in IT/Finance. First job out of college but also a great training ground in business management and business communication. In the UK M&S training was always known as a good general management training ground. Even in IT you had to do a store rotation doing real store work. The store is the sharp end of the business so you had to understand what makes a store tick. Meetings started on time and were extremely focused and we had crystal clear communication from the CEO down every week about how the business was tracking week to week and year on year.There was a definitely a philosophy of deliver, deliver, deliver to the customer and whatever functional role you were in you were expected to know what shape the business was in. Particularly because we were in the foods division there was mentality of “watching the pennies” daily. It wasn’t cheapness, it was just a really well run business at the time.Without being nostalgic I can honestly say I’ve never since experienced such a tightly defined culture with such a focus on common goals as I did then more than 20 years ago.

    1. Gotham Gal

      thanks for sharing.

  6. JLM

    .Formal training by big corporations is one of the most important elements of the American economy. On a political note, I think training may be the key to chronic unemployment. Could be.Small companies can do the same thing.Why is Special Forces special?Because of the training. They start with the same raw material and then they break it and rebuild it. Training.Training.JLM.

    1. Gotham Gal

      Training is beyond key

  7. Yinka!

    Great story. Do you miss being in a fulltime operational role, Joanne? I assume you act mostly in an advisory role now, with your portfolio companies.

    1. Gotham Gal

      everything i do is operational in some respects. probably the backbone to my existence.