By Sarah Hoodspith
Over the last decade, North American consumers have modified their purchasing habits due to various factors, including experience-spending taking priority over material goods and homes, casual fashion becoming more acceptable in the work environment, as well as the exponential rise in online shopping, to name just a few. The retail industry is complicated, swiftly changing and sometimes contradictory, making it challenging.
To highlight International Women’s Day, the following features a selection of dynamic female leaders using innovation to succeed despite these obstacles.
Judith McKenna, President and Chief Executive Officer, Walmart International, has been instrumental in driving the company’s successful online retail strategy. In Canada, through its Women in Retail Program, Walmart has achieved an impressive milestone – more than half of the country’s full-time managers are women. The concept of McKenna’s program follows Forbes’ study entitled “Global Diversity and Inclusion: Fostering Innovation Through a Diverse Workforce,” which recommended including mentorship programs and ‘stretch assignments’ that enable women to take on senior management responsibilities on a temporary basis while still working at middle management positions.
Many retailers, which have maintained the same management for extended periods, have stagnated and, in some instances, have even gone bankrupt. Examples include Sears and Kmart. Although most retail analysts do not point to the issue of gender diversity when analyzing why Sears, for example, failed, they do describe them as stuck in the past. The Network of Executive Women, a leadership organization serving the retail, consumer goods, financial services and technology industries, recently published their “Women 2020: The Future of Women’s Leadership in Consumer Products and Retail Report”, which states that customers feel more comfortable when the workforce reflects their own characteristics. This report also maintains that a diverse workforce fosters more innovative solutions.
Bonnie Brooks, the former Vice Chairman of Hudson Bay, revolutionized and modernized Canada’s oldest clothing retailer’s inventory and presentation style. This significant upgrade enabled the iconic retailer to become viewed by Canadian consumers as a dynamic upscale retailer, reflecting both her style and that of its target customer.
From a local perspective, neighbourhood vacancies have propelled the growth of female entrepreneurs that are leveraging a number of trends including sustainability and direct to consumer retailing. She joined Chico’s FAS last year as CEO and over the past 10 months, she has been instrumental in leading the turnaround of our company. That includes driving three quarters of sequential sales growth for the company and in Q4 of the year and securing the first positive sales comp quarter for all three of Chico’s brands.
In 2016, Linda Farha, Founder and Chief Connector of pop-up go, saw a void in the marketplace and the growing demand for short-term tenancy and launched this firm dedicated to connecting landlords with brands and supporting both parties. From testing new locations to creating brand awareness through experiential marketing campaigns, pop-up go provides retailers like Fresh Produce, Native Brands and others the opportunity to connect with their target markets in a non-traditional way. Most recently, Farha has partnered with Grace Donati, founder of IN Lifestyle Event Space, an advocate for women’s leadership in retail and business. Donati’s commitment to young entrepreneurs is evidenced by her preferential lease rates extended to the community.
Women held 31% of senior management roles in North America in 2019 – the highest number ever recorded. However, the sector is lagging behind with the percentage of women-helmed CEO positions in S&P 500 retail companies standing at 5.6%. We are still far from a gender balance. The retail sector must capitalize on the formidable talents, perspectives and strengths that women bring to the table and needs to better meet women’s aspirations to fulfill such leadership roles by providing more opportunities for them to lead. Gender diversity has been credited for driving innovation, renewing a connection with target markets and, at times, creating a competitive advantage.