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Retail Trends

As "This is Retail" submission deadline nears, NRF staff share their retail stories

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When it comes to working in retail, almost everyone has their own story. Even

President Bill Clinton worked in retail

and admitted "...I could have been one of you." From the manufacturers who make the things retailers sell in their stores to the sales clerk in the Midwest who is one of only a few employees in the town's only grocery mart - retail touches everyone. Employing 42 million people and supporting one in four American jobs, retail is one of the most powerful and dynamic industries in the world.

That's why we're giving retailers and their employees the chance to shine a brighter light on the industry in our This is Retail video contest. Retailers’ real life experiences are what help to drive the economy, spur innovation and change the way consumers live their lives. We’re looking for retail workers to share their individual journeys with us.

But time is running out. Friday, March 16, is the deadline for video submissions. You don’t need to be a professional videographer or professional speech writer; we want the real life stories of how this industry has helped support your family, grow your business or bolster your career path. To make the process easier, you can start the submission process while you put the finishing touches on your video.

Working for the world's largest retail trade association, there are at least 100 people here at the National Retail Federation who also love retail. To show our support of NRF's Retail Means Jobs campaign - our historic initiative to elevate the profile of retail in Washington and across the nation - we asked a few of NRF's finest about their experiences working in retail. Whether in high school or college or right before they joined NRF, their stories run the gamut. As you can imagine, each and every person here has a passion for the industry, helping paint the story of the other millions of Americans who live and breathe retail every day.

For me, working in retail meant spending time with my dearest friends and getting to see first-hand what new clothes came in off the truck every day. My high school friends and I all worked together at Peebles department store our senior year on work release, meaning we got to leave school at noon a few days a week. Those nine-hour shifts were long, but I don't recall a single time I ever came home complaining. In addition to the clothes and the discounts...and the shoe department, I learned a valuable lesson in customer service - something that helps me today in my job as Director of Media Relations at NRF, a lesson I believe will help me for the rest of my career.

Here are the other NRF staff members who shared their retail stories.

Matthew Shay, NRF President and CEO:

Growing up in the small town of Newark, Ohio, my first job in high-school was working at Maybold’s Shoe Store. Maybold’s was founded in the 1930’s, and was located on Main Street across from the county courthouse. I started out making $2.25 an hour as a stock boy, running shoe boxes back and forth for the salesmen and women, and occasionally doing other jobs around the store. I still remember when the store owner, Floyd McKenna, told me that I had “graduated” to a part-time sales position, and that I could work the floor with the other members of the sales team. Most exciting, Floyd told me that I was going to get a raise, from $2.25 an hour to $2.30 an hour. I said “but that’s only a nickel.  Don’t you mean a quarter?”  “Nope,” he said, “I mean a nickel.”  That was my first job. And you can see why I never forgot it…

Scott Vinson, Vice President, National Council of Chain Restaurants:

My first job, at age 15, was working as a cook at a single-restaurant, family-owned franchise of an A&W in a tiny town in rural Iowa. As the only restaurant in town, this particular A&W served more than the usual quick-service fare. In addition to that, we were also a table-service, family dining restaurant, with everything from roasted chicken to fried fish Fridays during Lent, to spaghetti. We made all our family-style meals from scratch on site. I learned how to flip burgers, make a chef salad, wash dishes and dump the fryer grease. You haven’t lived until you’ve been accidentally locked in a walk-in freezer while breading a bucket of frozen chicken. During high school, in a different town, I worked at the local Baskin-Robbins franchise scooping ice cream and making malts, shakes and ice cream cakes after school and on weekends to earn extra cash. The owners allowed us to have one free snack per work shift, and I remember my favorite was a chocolate-cherry malt, made by me. Yum!

Dan Butler, Vice President, Retail Operations:

I started my retail career as a 13-year-old with a work permit.  I thought I was cool because I had a job and all of my friends were still hanging out at the movies. I never knew at that point that it was the beginning of a 35-year career that would lead me to four companies, managing thousands of employees over the years and experiencing life in so many states. Now at the association that represents our industry, I have the opportunity to interact with executives across all disciplines of retail companies, the media, national and international consultants, vendors, store design firms and many others.  And it all began with a part-time job stocking shoes at Dillard’s in Shreveport, Louisiana. My career then took me to Hecht's, and then Macy's, where I where I was a store-line executive for 26 years in 10 major markets in 10 states. The retail industry is loaded with a vast array of opportunities for people who want to build an interesting and varied career. I can honestly say I have never had a dull day in my professional life.

Susan Reda, Editor, STORES Magazine:

I spent about six years working for Fortunoff, a New York-based retailer best known for jewelry and home goods. Over the years I sold everything from dinnerware to towels and from ceiling fans to toilet seats (don’t ask about returns -- ‘cause I won’t go there).  I also spent over a year in the “gift wrap” department.  To this day I wrap a “mean” package – and I can do it with a minimal amount of tape. I think the best part of working in retail was meeting customers and hearing their stories. That defines social retailing a few decades ago.  Often purchases made at Fortunoff were gift-related so I learned to help those on a budget find the best deal. And, I knew just where to steer those looking to splurge. It always felt good to help someone find the perfect “something.”

Eric Olsen, Vice President, Education Strategies:

One of my first “real” jobs was working for Baskin-Robbins, scooping ice cream during the summer (sort of wishing I were at the beach instead…), but it was a great gig for a 14-year-old kid in sunny SoCal. I learned very quickly that the customer was always right, no matter how wrong you thought they were. I also worked on the other side of the retail coin for a top skateboard manufacturer at the time, Powell Peralta, where I silkscreened designs on the bottom of skateboards and fulfilled skateboard product orders from retailers all over the world. We couldn’t make the stuff fast enough to fill the high demand. It was a really exciting time in that industry back in the mid-80’s. Both jobs have been a great basis for the career I have now.

Libby Landen, Vice President, Marketing:

I was a conehead. Literally. That was the name of the all natural, homemade ice cream store where I first learned crazy, over-the-top, rock and roll customer service. We called it “Rock and Roll Customer Service” because the owners were ex-roadies for the likes of Journey, Loverboy and Bruce Springsteen and they preached the gospel of customer service. When I say “preached” I mean they drilled into us the importance of engaging the customer -- making eye contact; welcoming regulars, first timers and rock stars alike; being courteous and working as efficiently as possible without rushing the customer – ice cream selection is, after all, a very serious decision!  That customer focus, service first mentality has stayed with me since then (as did a few extra pounds!) and has served me well throughout my professional career.

Ellen Davis, Vice President, Public Relations:

When I was 15 years old, I sought out a worker's permit for a part-time job at our local discount retailer, Jacks. After detasseling corn in the Illinois heat for two summers, I loved everything about working in a store: the camaraderie with other associates, my "regulars" who would stand in a longer line so they could go through my register, having a little spending money...and working in air conditioning. The way I saw it, every transaction was a new opportunity to give someone a great experience. It was my personal challenge. And even today, many (many) years later, I remember my "HATS" training for dealing with customers: Say Hello, Ask a Question, Thank them, and Smile. That about sums it up, doesn't it?

Whether serving behind the scenes as an executive or serving the best ice-cream in town, retail offers opportunities. And while our industry is full of amazing national brands, 95 percent of retailers are small business owners with only one location. NRF's video contest is designed to magnify the seldom-heard stories of success and innovation that truly represent the American Dream. No matter the size of your business or your role in the retail company you're representing, we want you to tell us how your story demonstrates, "This is Retail."

The retail employees behind the top three video submissions will be honored with a trip to Washington, D.C. and $50,000 in cash. First place takes home $25,000, and second and third place winnings aren't too shabby either ($15,000 and $10,000 respectively). See if you qualify to enter, grab a video camera, check out our "winning" video tips to get your creative juices flowing.

Even if you're not working in retail right now, I bet your experiences in the industry are waiting to be told, too. Share your retail stories with us in a comment. We look forward to hearing them!