On the first day of NRF 2023: Retail’s Big Show, Ron Thurston, host of the “Retail in America” tour and author of “Retail Pride: The Guide to Celebrating Your Accidental Career,” hosted a lively panel session about building and sustaining a dynamic front-line workforce.
Joining him for the discussion were Jessica Cloutier, senior director of styling with Nordstrom Inc.; Marie Ford, vice president of customer experience and front store innovation for CVS Health; and Reece Roberson, vice president, human resources business partners, stores with Lowe’s Companies Inc.
Noting that all the panelists were industry veterans of some years’ standing, Thurston asked how they use their own career experience to guide efforts to recruit and retain front-line troops.
“Our CEO, Marvin Ellison, says, ‘There are two jobs at Lowe’s: You serve customers, or serve those who serve customers.’"
Reece Roberson, Lowe's Companies
“We have a sort of inverted pyramid at Nordstrom,” Cloutier said. “Customers at the top, and then the front-line sellers who work directly with them. They tell everybody else on the pyramid what’s important to customers.”
Career development of associates depends on the individual, she said. “We have a ‘Grow at Nordstrom’ philosophy. Everyone’s career path is different: The question is, what does success look like to you? A path to corporate? To store leadership? Or possibly to a career as an amazing salesperson?”
The process is straightforward, Cloutier said. “Get acclimated and get to know the customers, and then you sort of divine where you want to go. Management will help you get there, but a lot of it hinges on your own definition of success.”
“And success is not a solo sport,” Ford said. “You need a squad,” including mentors, people who will help you understand, improve and refine your approach to the job. “You also need sponsors — people who will advocate for your advancement. You need people who will say your name when you’re not in the room.”
Building a career in retail, the panelists agreed, is not like building a career as, say, a college professor or a dentist. “I started in retail because I just needed a job,” Roberson said. “I fell in love with stores and home improvement, which led to a 20-year career helping to create good jobs and improve the lives of front-line associates.”
Seeking a leadership team that shared his passion brought him to Lowe’s. “Our CEO, Marvin Ellison, says, ‘There are two jobs at Lowe’s: You serve customers, or serve those who serve customers.’
“We are working on providing a little less conversation and a little more action,” Roberson said. Over the past four years, Lowe’s has invested more than $3 billion in an upgraded wage and compensation system for store staff, including equity for store managers. The company is also offering a leadership development program that includes tuition-debt-free education. “We will continue to put our money where our heart is,” he said.
The session closed with a lively discussion of customer needs and expectations — which are changing rapidly. “We’re redefining loyalty,” Ford said. “Part of what we’re doing is connecting the digital and the physical, so that the digital feels at home in the physical store.”
Customers value flexibility, Cloutier said. “They want to get inspiration from our website, maybe watch a video, get recommendations and get great service when they’re inside the store. We have to give our employees the ability to provide that service.”
Which is worth all the work, she said. “Once customers get engaged with multichannel service, they’re having fun and spending more.”