Retail's future with BJ's Wholesale Club's Chris Baldwin

Since taking the helm at BJ’s Wholesale Club in 2015, Chairman, President and CEO Chris Baldwin has brought a laser focus on technological innovation and customer experience, culminating in the wholesale giant’s recent IPO. Baldwin, also chairman of the NRF Board of Directors, has 33 years of experience in the consumer packaged goods and retail industries. He’s mastered the art of thinking like the customer, and has learned a thing or two about leading billion-dollar companies along the way.

We sat down with Baldwin to discuss his perspective on the dynamic retail industry, his philosophy on leadership and the recipe for retail success today.

Chris Baldwin

Chris Baldwin

What was your first priority as CEO of BJ’s?

The most important thing we’ve done — that I believe all retailers need to do — is establish exactly who our target customer is. Ten years ago, you could’ve said it was anybody in America with a few bucks in their pocket. That no longer works in today’s competitive market.

We determined that the customer we’re privileged to serve is a middle-class family working hard to create the life they want. Gaining this simple insight gave us clarity on BJ’s path forward.

Aside from staying true to their target customer, how can retailers maintain a competitive edge?

Consumers are demanding value. With the rise of online shopping, shoppers have access to total price transparency. They can be anywhere in the world and find out what something should cost in about 10 seconds, and that has a huge impact on their purchasing decisions. At BJ’s, we love this, given how great our prices are for our members.

We also think about how we can stay ahead by selling products and services at the intersection of value and freshness. It doesn’t matter if you’re selling bananas or apparel, if you offer something that’s fresh — and by that I mean trendy, new and exciting as well as fresh in the classic grocery sense — and at the right price point, you have a chance to win.

The retail industry is shifting and so are the types of jobs needed to sustain it. How is BJ’s thinking differently about its workforce?

Eleven of the top 20 people in our company joined in the last two years. Data has become critical to successfully serving customers. We need people who know how to interpret and act upon it, so we’ve added significant analytics capability to our company.

Beyond that, I believe that hiring somebody for just one job is silly. We create career paths for people based on their capabilities. The more freedom someone is given to explore and flex their skills, the more valued they feel and the more value they provide to the company.

“Transformation is always going to happen in this industry because we reinvent our customer base every day.”

Chris Baldwin
BJ’s Wholesale Club

What’s your take on the retail landscape today?

Transformation is always going to happen in this industry because we reinvent our customer base every day. New customers come in and old ones leave. When you’re in a business like that, innovation needs to be perpetual.

It’s a fascinating time to lead a company of this size through this level of reinvention. It’s both uncomfortable and really fun.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

As CEO, you’re the chief morale officer. Every day, 26,000 people count on me and my team to make decisions that make BJ’s a great company. If we can get 26,000 people to come to work tomorrow morning thinking they work for a winner, we are on the right path.

What is the most important job in your company?

The general manager. They each manage a large business with more than 100 people and a really complicated supply chain. About a third of our 215 general managers started as hourly workers. These team members make excellent managers because they already know every job in the store.

What’s your most important job as CEO?

Cultivating and maintaining company culture is one of my primary responsibilities. I believe culture should reflect the atmosphere and experience we’re striving to create every day for our customers. We’ve flipped our culture to be much more employee- and member-focused and less executive-centric. BJ’s is here to serve members and I’m here to serve our employees.

What is your advice for other retailers?

So many retailers are doing such great work re-imagining their businesses. In my role at NRF, I thoroughly enjoy the interaction with other CEOs. We tend to push each other out of our comfort zones. When we do that, everybody wins because everyone learns.