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Mariya Zorotovich ‘Retail is an exchange wrapped in an experience’

With over 20 years of retail experience, Mariya Zorotovich is no stranger to leading initiatives spanning both the physical and digital industry realms.

Marissa Tozzi

6 min read

With over 20 years of retail experience, Mariya Zorotovich is no stranger to leading initiatives spanning both the physical and digital industry realms. While spending 3 of those years under tech-based operations – she is fascinated with the ‘how’ of the retail industry, and the way technology plays a pivotal role in driving the progression of the retail space.

Prior to fully immersing herself in the tech world, Zorotovich also occupied leading roles under a key industry player on the business side of retail – holding a 16 year tenure at Nordstrom. Today, recently becoming a member of Intel’s IoT Group as Director of Strategy and Incubation for Retail, Banking, Hospitality and Education, she is in charge of leading incubation initiatives, narrative and ecosystem enablement focused on accelerating new industry capabilities at scale. Her employment within tech companies began while working her last job at Microsoft as the Principal Retail and Consumer Goods Lead for their Industry Experiences team, where she focused on managing industry advocacy and ISV category management for Microsoft’s cloud and AI priorities.

Her experience across various industry channels (operations, sales, marketing, technology and product management), enables her to offer a widespread knowledge of the retail business, continuously aiding industry innovation.

We sat down to talk to Mariya about everything from childhood dreams, to her retail background, her definition of retail and state of the industry, career advice and more.

Tell us about your background?

I would say I’m a business person who has an affinity and a curiosity around retail, what retailing is, and the technology that plays in that space. I have worn many retail hats, from working with a customer on the floor, all the way up to corporate operations technology, and product management-type roles that support that type of experience working with the customer. And then, you know, my jump over into the technology side was just this fascination, and an opportunity to take a domain expertise, pull it over to that side of the house, and dig into solving problems in a different way where I can take on roles to really help translate between the two sides.

Were you actually a sales associate in retail at some point?

Yes, for sure! I had a lot of fun working directly with customers on the floor.

What did you learn from being a sales associate that has changed how you think today?

Well, what I would say hasn’t changed – retail is about people, and it’s about relationships and interaction. It doesn’t mean that the interaction always has to look the same. In fact, that’s what is evolving, especially as technology comes into play – that the foundation of a relationship is still there. It’s a relationship business, and whether I’m a person that wants to go in and shop and not necessarily talk to anybody, it’s still a relationship I have with the brand – I’m still transacting, I’m still exchanging information with you. The fundamentals haven’t changed, but how we interact is starting to evolve, and that’s exciting.

“retail is about people, and it’s about relationships and interaction”

When you say ‘relationship’, do you see that as a human to human? If you look back to your days as a sales associate, where you’re helping someone and you’re a smiling face – what does your relationship look like?

Back in the day, it was very much person to person. I was able to foster my book of loyal customers and our relationships, and that’s how I grew and owned my business. I think today, we have to open our minds to a relationship being with a brand, a product, or a person (or people) representing that brand. The very nature of ‘how’ I can shop or transact with any retailer today has evolved. So based on my lifestyle, based on certain product categories, I may not want to deal with a salesperson. I know the category, I love it, I understand the product, and I can have a digital relationship. That to me, is still a relationship, especially with the data exchange that I may have with them. Whereas in other product categories, I may want more of that high-touch relationship where I want a person to talk through certain aspects of it with me. So the definition has to change in terms of the ‘how’.

Totally different direction, what did you wanna be when you were growing up?

My childhood dream was to be a ballet dancer. That didn’t work out, so why not retail?

There’s a lot of change in retail. What’s your definition of retail today and where do you see it going?

I am a true believer that technology is an enabler – it is just another tool in the toolbox. And just by the nature of where we are today with Cloud, AI, IOT and the capabilities that are at hand, really cool things can happen. But it’s only as good as the business, operating and/or service model the retailer wants to have, and the tools to enable that experience. So, where I’m focused right now is around the delivery and design of experiential retail. What does it really take to evolve what is in our minds and mood from moving through transactional towards experiential? We’re at a point where people are exploring and that’s really cool. I think it’s the ‘how’ that people are doing differently, and that’s the experiential part.

Do you see retail as being almost any human interaction with a purchase? We’re sitting right now in a coffee shop, is this retail? I buy a car, I go to a bank and make a transaction, is that retail? What are the properties behind what retail means?

For me, I see retail as anything of a value exchange. I’m opening up my definition, but it could be something that’s not necessarily a tangible exchange, like data too. And with some of the models that are coming out there,  anything where there’s an exchange can start to be the definition around retail. Why? Because that exchange is wrapped in an experience.

I love that definition, a “value exchange wrapped in an experience…”

Look at the financial industry, look at healthcare – they’re all talking about improving the experience given their rich service orientation. Retail is broadening, and the fundamentals are being placed in new industries.

As we’re breaking down walls between traditional channels, does the word ‘retail’ still make sense? 

If you look simply at the aspect of designing a customer experience, those of us that have tried to design experiences have done it in a linear format across a customer journey, pinging between channels. Today’s technology has blurred those lines. And what has emerged is the figure 8 loop journey reflecting the phase of engagement rather than the channel in which it takes place.  So, I think that is evolving. The way we are defining the customer’s path of engagement is evolving, but for now retail still makes sense. And I’m open to hear thoughts by others!

“at the end of the day if you don’t have really great product, it really doesn’t matter what your experience is”

Do you feel optimistic about retail? We kind of get mixed messages from the media, how do you see the future going?

I think when we look back, even in the twenty plus years since even Amazon has even been in existence, retail really hasn’t changed that much. I think if anything, we are going to start to see brands being much smarter about ‘how’ they retail. One area that I’m optimistic about are digital native vertical brands. What I love is that digital native vertical brands have brought the focus back on product. Because at the end of the day if you don’t have really great product, it really doesn’t matter what your experience is. So, we’re seeing what it means to own the communication and distribution channel of those products, plus data-savvy and customer-minded service approaches. These types of retailers are shifting product ownership to relate to a lifestyle and community. Reimagining retail, creating brand identity beyond today’s standard.

In your experience as a woman in tech, do you have any advice for young women getting into this industry at this stage?

I’ve been in tech for three years. Coming from retail, which was predominantly women in my workplace, and going into tech was a very stark contrast. I think for the younger generation of women coming into tech – there’s a lot of great programs out there that are embracing and talking about this openly. My comments would be, find your network – and not just women, men too. Build a network of mentors and sponsors of all tenure, of all background with real diversity to improve your perspective on a number of topics. Ask hard questions and be real about it. I would say that coming into a predominantly male workplace, is tough. You have to have the confidence to stand on what you know, on your experience, but be really humble and open to learn, so that you can bridge across and start building dialogue from the other side.

After being in this environment, has there been any tactical advice that has helped you survive or evolve?

First and foremost, you need to be authentic to who you are. There is something to be said about presence, being accountable, and having a voice. That doesn’t mean your body language or behavior are beyond what your natural scope is. What it means is, if you’re in that room, you’re sitting at the table. You’re engaged in the dialogue, you share your point of view. Naturally I’m an introvert, so I have learned how to practice these behaviors and make them authentic to who I am.. It’s something you practice over time. You have to be willing to look at yourself and what you’re doing in a situation and learn and grow from it – have a lot of self-awareness, I guess. When you open yourself up to growth, you also start to understand what’s on you versus what’s on the other person. So, my advice would be – if you get mentors, when you talk to people, ask your questions. A lot of people I’ve come across have been super open to sharing this, especially if you’re setting the context that you’re just trying to learn.

I’ve been in situations where high-ranking women have voluntarily played into the “women in the workplace” gender bias while in a meeting full of men. They’d set the tone by taking notes as if they were in a subordinate position to the males in the room. Do you have any advice for young men on how to deal with a case like this?

When I have experienced this, at appropriate times, I’ve asked the person to stop being the team’s assumed note taker. And before certain meetings or after a meeting, I’ll say “Let me tell you the perception of the room when the first thing you do is pull out your laptop and start taking notes.” Through experience and where I’m in at my career, I have no problem saying that. It is a community of awareness that – if you are aware of it, you should say something, and if you aren’t aware of it, you should start paying attention. You know, all of us have a young person in our lives, and we think about what we are showing and teaching them, and their generations. We need to be cognizant of of what our behavior signals over time. That’s the evolution of leadership – it’s not just about the business we do, it’s about how we conduct ourselves in that business that’s super important.

What’s your take on Convrt? 

I think the idea of being able to uncover pockets of just, really brilliant people who are trying to swim upstream or change the rules of engagement within the system is always fascinating. And there are people who are doing it in fantastic ways that will never necessarily get a light shined on them, just because of the nature of this business – it’s fast-paced, there are a lot of participants and the ecosystem is extensive.  What I appreciate is Convrt is looking to recognize people driving great change at all levels. The value is uncovering these moments, shining the light on people and organizations who are moving the needle. And when you are able to relate to those being recognized, it starts to create momentum for greater change, and that’s what’s important.

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