Is getting a job on the retail sales floor a lucky start? For Ron, a temporary college job at Nordstrom kicked off a killer career and cherished leadership lessons from some of the industry’s top mentors.
Ron is leader used to making people feel heard and at ease. But beneath his gentle SoCal confidence is a heart thundering with passion for the magic of great retail experiences and their deep value to the people who work and shop there.
Convrt recently welcomed Ron to the Independent Judging Council. Let’s get into some wisdom.
Starting you off with a tough question – strawberry, chocolate or vanilla?
Vanilla. It’s my ice cream, my protein powder, even the cream in my coffee..
What was your first job and how did what you learned there impact you later?
My first job, while I was in college, was working with Nordstrom.
I never had a desire to go into retail… but I found myself becoming incredibly obsessed with the customer interactions, the obsession with the product and the leadership that surrounded me.
I started on the sales floor and figured it would be just a temporary job, but I found myself going above and beyond and naturally began to instill purpose.
It was clear, right away, that they treated their people incredibly well. I’d frequently go out for coffee with Pete Nordstrom and daily talks with Geevy Thomas, who at that time was my store manager. I found that they cared about my opinions and always were seeking “the voice of the customer”. As a young man, being asked my opinion, truly instilled a motivation that I hadn’t experienced before. Geevy, a wonderful leader, went on to become president of Nordstrom Rack.
The fact that those guys took the time out to check in with their staff, ask questions and really care about their answers to those questions, made a huge impact on me.
In my leadership roles that followed, I always sought out ideas and took the time to engage every member of the front-line within every store. Remembering how I was made to feel at Nordstrom was something that I committed to uphold for decades following.
How does that compare to what you see in today’s retail?
In today’s retail, I see employees often being considered as just a number, and many times, not acknowledged for the role that they play for the Brand.
Today’s retail has become very complex. With online and the technical advancements that are required within the daily operation’s processes, layering on the impact that Covid has played on the store teams – we sometimes underestimate the complexity that is required of the store experience.
When I see retail leaders who are not making time to connect with their stores’ staff, I just have zero tolerance for that. The store team is the most critical interaction that customers will ever have with the brand. This is where customers gain emotional connections, build personal relationships and develop trust. These connections lead to loyalty and often help to differentiate the shopping choices that the consumer makes. If you were to speak to anybody who’s worked for me, I have always interacted with all members of the store team, getting to know them, the role they play, what they’re hearing from the customer, what we can do differently to improve their experience, etc. As an executive, I have an obligation to coach and gain insights to every member of every store. I care about them, as people, as employees and the role that everyone plays with serving the brand’s Mission and bringing joy to every customer that we serve.
Every customer who walks through our door or joins us online, if they have anything but an exceptional experience, we’re falling short and losing market share. We win when our guests are interacting with incredible people, who are authentic, who emulate the values of the organization and knows that every one of their interactions is making a difference.
People work for people, and if anyone believes something different than that – they’re screwed.
Every customer who walks through our door or joins us online, if they have anything but an exceptional experience, we’re losing market share.
So in your experience of retail does success come from being personal?
Yes, but it’s beyond that – the differentiator is going to be:
a) your product within the segment it lies
b) the authenticity of what you’re talking to customers about
People have many choices and they can very easily discern ‘are they just selling to me?’ or are they educating me and do they care about me as a human.
The retail industry went from high-touch, to no-touch, to relying on technology for everything, and now we’re seeing there’s a sweet spot in the middle.
What’s your vision for a great store?
This is a good time to talk about the SONOS stores (pictured above).
The challenge given was to create the best experience that retail’s ever had in history.
So I told the team that I was going to hire musicians and create the very best wireless multiroom speaker system experience that allowed guests to learn, listen and clearly understand why Sonos was the very best option for the home listening experience.
We created a store that opened at 10 and closed at 9 and was filled with people who wanted to be there. Why? Because they’re talking about what they care about – music, and getting people stoked on tools and resources to help them have a better listening experience.
To see customers geeking out with musicians in their listening rooms, talking about how to listen, their favorite music (and I get the chills just thinking about it right now), it just made that experience so much more. Where in retail can you see guests dancing and singing, spending an hour, then coming back and introducing their friends to the experience.
If I would have hired typical SoHo retail sales people, it would never have created the ‘aha’ moment that we were looking to create for all types of listening profiles. We took a risk by hiring musicians, training them to be incredibly connected to customers, work a typical retail schedule and create an environment where they all loved working together.
We were able to connect with people on their terms, they could touch and feel the product, listen to music of their choice and it’s being delivered from a place of authenticity from your staff. That’s the vision of a great store experience.
I really like the philosophy of these two forces – the product and the people. The product has to be good and relevant, and the people have to have a good experience, both staff and customers.
So many people have focused on the operational components to make the experience fast, easy and ring the register.
Not a lot of people have said, “What are they going to think about when they think about our brand?”
What’s your story?
I started off in traditional retail at Nordstrom on the sales floor.
I went to GAP brand and was there for 14 years and that’s where I had most of my upbringing. I had a field leadership role, working my way from working in a store, to running multiple stores, to running hundreds of stores, to leading Global Strategy.
I worked very closely with Mickey Drexler, CEO Gap Inc. Even today, he’s probably the greatest merchant of our lifetime and a wonderful guy. His ability to know customers and his attention to detail on store environments and products was insane, and to be working with him was such a privilege in my overall upbringing as a young retailer.
At that time GAP was starting to lose a little bit of market share from brands like American Eagle. We hadn’t really invested in technology. It was all about the look and feel, and I was put in charge of a global conversion plan for the entire organization: GAP, BabyGAP, Banana Republic, Old Navy, about 3,600 locations. That was a huge success.
Then I was running the field organization at Pacsun for 4 years, 1,000 locations throughout the US. Pretty much surf and skate, all about the Southern Californian lifestyle, and a lot of cool brands.
be incredibly purposeful in giving people a reason to feel magically in love with the brand, and when they do that they stick by your side for a very long time.
I ran global Quiksilver for a short stint. Leadership there wanted every single item they made available in every store. Those stores could be 500 square feet up to 6,500 square feet. So you can imagine these stores were just bleeding with product, over assorted, and never took markdowns. This was a business case opportunity to really match the assortment of stores appropriately to the consumers in the region.
Then came heading up global stores and operations for the iconic SONOS stores. That was the opportunity to reinvent what a retail store could be and position SONOS as the best home sound system that anyone can have.
When I was done with SONOS I met with a few different people in the movie business. Dreamscape Immersive is a VR experience with a physical space that was just unbelievable and we would watch people walk out of there crying or laughing hysterically, but the emotions they shared were amazing.
What’s your superpower?
I’m obsessed with the people quotient of this business.
I’m obsessed with physical retail, which is alive and well, even when it sometimes gets dismissed. It comes back, then dismissed again, and back, and looks different, then it goes to the value segment then premium and on and on.
The one common thread for me is the people quotient. Creating a common purpose among all that ties into the brand, ties into the product, ties into everything we do from a customer-facing standpoint and really creates a moment in time for people to be great and love their experience.
I’ve always been more worried about the people— 30 years later it’s still a very similar conversation— being incredibly purposeful in giving people a reason to feel magically in love with the brand, and when they do that they stick by your side for a very long time.
What do you think about Convrt?
Think about the Oscars and Emmys, it’s the people that are best-in-class for that moment, and I see this as an opportunity to recognize and reward the unseen heroes out there that are doing incredible stuff. They are pushing barriers out there that haven’t been explored, they’re actually testing and modeling things that are a bit risky with a great level of confidence and belief. And they’re putting it in front of the general public, bless them.