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Q&A with Mary Turner, President of DSW/Designer Brands Canada

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Mary Turner, President of Designer Brands Canada Operations, leads the retail banners The Shoe Company, DSW Canada, and The Shoe Warehouse with 141 stores.

She spoke to Retail Insider recently about her career and the state of the retail industry in Canada.

Retail Insider: Can you tell us a little bit about your career?

Turner: “I’ve been a retailer all of my life – before, during, and after university. I’ve been really, really fortunate to have worked for some of North America’s great retailers – Hudson’s Bay Company, Holt Renfrew, and now of course Designer Brands.

RI: What about your current position?

Turner: “I joined Designer Brands about four years ago and I became the President about 18 months ago. I joined initially as Chief Merchant and got the opportunity to learn more about the business and obviously we went through a fascinating time. I joined just pre the completion of the acquisition by Designer Brands of Town Shoes Limited. So it’s been a very, very interesting time.

RI: Pre-COVID 2019, what was business like for the company?

Turner: “2019 for us was absolutely a landmark year. We exceeded every one of our metrics. We like to say internally it was our best year ever. And quite honestly we were poised to continue that momentum right through into 2020.”

RI: Why do you think you had such a good year?

Turner: “Well interestingly one of the big drivers of our success in 2019 was the fact that we were able to re-launch our e-comm business on the ATG platform that the U.S. also uses. We completed that just about I guess it was March of last year and that was a huge contributor to our success in 2019 and as you can imagine a huge win for us as we moved into COVID. We re-platformed to a much more sophisticated system.”

RI: Since mid-March, what has been the impact of COVID for you as a retailer?

Turner: “It certainly has been a fascinating learning time. I think we were very fortunate in three ways actually. First of all we had this amazing new platform that we would not have had the ability to use before. Secondly, we fulfill 100 percent from stores and that I think that gave us a real advantage over people who were struggling to get orders through their warehouses. It also allowed us to keep our staff engaged and employed in the business. And thirdly the nature of our business. Our strongest categories in footwear are athletic, kids, casuaL, and comfort. All absolute home runs during this period of time.”

RI: What’s happening right now in terms of the reopening of stores in Canada?

Turner: “We have 93 percent of our stores open now. The only stores we have that are not open are Newfoundland stores because Newfoundland hasn’t declared a plan yet and our mall-based stores in Ontario. And we are super encouraged. We’re encouraged by how passionate our associates are about being able to open their doors and look after their customers. We’re really encouraged by how our customers are responding to all the things we’ve done to ensure the health and safety both for themselves and our associates. And we are just extremely encouraged by the return of the customers.”

RI: With such a tactile experience in the business you are in, how are the stores reopening in terms of the protocols they have in place?

Turner: “A couple of things. First of all, if you come in as a customer to try on we have designated spaces for you to leave the shoes you tried on rather than putting them back onto the shelves. And the associates gather those up, spray them down and sanitize them before returning them to the inventory. If you bring in a return, we quarantine the return for three days.”

RI: As you look forward and beyond, what’s your outlook for the retail industry in the future?

Turner: “Well, I don’t pretend to have a crystal ball about the whole retail industry because I think we’re going to see some very substantial changes. I will tell you that for our business we’re taking a very aggressive stance this fall. We feel we came quite strongly out of this both in terms of the cleanliness of our inventory and also the strength of our categories and we’re going to drive that right into fall. We know we’ve got lots of work to do as I’m sure many of my fellow retailers do in terms of being able to service the customer in any channel she chooses as we continue to go through a world, or a period of time, where not every customer wants to use the store.”

RI: Any plans of expansion in terms of the number of stores?

Turner: “Absolutely. We actually had a number of stores on the go for 2020. We’re working with the landlords now just to decide on the right cadence to actually open those under the circumstances.”

RI: On a personal note, when we have a crisis like we’ve seen currently and a few years ago with the financial crisis, how do you as an executive deal with things like that in making decisions?

Turner: “I’m a really huge believer in the power of positive momentum. So when we get into these crazy times, like we just have done with COVID, to me it’s so important to find something that we can impact and that we do have control over, and get the team focused on that and set goals around that and get people moving ahead. It is tremendously important I think in terms of rallying the team and I’m so proud in how the team did rally to this and how much they enjoyed learning what they could do that they would never have realized they could do before. I think the other thing we really learned through this period was the incredible importance of staying in touch. I would tell you that as a team, an extended team including the store managers, we probably have spent more time together virtually through COVID than we did physically when he had the ability to do so.”

RI: Any final thoughts?

Turner: “I think the only thing I’d say I can honestly tell you I’ve been a retailer for more years than I’m going to admit to you and I would have to say this has been the most fascinating period of my career.”

Article Author

Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi, based in Calgary, has more than 40 years experience as a daily newspaper writer, columnist, and editor. He worked for 35 years at the Calgary Herald covering sports, crime, politics, health, faith, city and breaking news, and business. He is the Senior National Business Journalist with Retail Insider in addition to working on his own as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training.

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