Imagine that you’ve just stepped into a retail business that has been operating at a loss for over a decade.
A retail business that is careening towards its second bankruptcy within three years. A toxic workplace culture with lots of top-down do it or else, and without Wi-Fi or store connectivity.
I doubt you’d say to yourself, well this will be easy to fix… And James Rhee didn’t say that either when he decided to accept the lead position at Ashley Stewart. In fact, he had to sell the scrap metal piled in the warehouse just to make payroll.
I heard him speak at Shop.org in Los Angeles and later hosted him as a guest on my podcast and found his reinvention story uniquely inspiring.
Founded in 1991, Ashley Stewart had about two hundred brick-and-mortar stores for plus-sized, primarily African American women. The company was losing 6-7 million dollars each year. Rhee had to beg his friends to give him money. He talked about it as a humiliating experience, yet the brand came out of bankruptcy in 2014.
Rhee could re-imagine the brand as a media business that was trapped in apparel clothing. He had to create a new retail sales strategy based on his core values of kindness and loyalty.
He went back to discover why the founder founded the brand in the first place. Rhee listened to customers and employees and discovered that the core values that the brand always stood for were friendship, fashion, and fun for women who wanted to be confident. He then crafted a vision and asked each employee, “Do you agree?” If they didn’t, they had to go.
When they did agree, he asked them, “How are you going to help us amplify the core values of the brand?”
This is what you need to learn from him to re-energize your business…
1. Strategy first. To re-energize your brand, you must come up with a great business strategy, take the time to explain it to all your employees and expect buy-in and collaboration. This is why I believe this. Do you have input? Will you co-author this plan?
Rhee’s core belief is that culture, decency, and ethics give you high returns. A culture that was fair, fun, and innovative had to be created first.
That's because when things are in a bad state, people don’t trust each other.
Rhee spent six months re-establishing a culture based on merit. He had to inspire his employees as much as the brand inspired its customers. Their corporate attitude became Ashley Stewart is my friend.
2. You have to earn trust.The moment employees felt safe, they became leaders in innovation. Until they trust you, nothing else matters. A leader can’t force them to become something new. Tell them your vision, make it safe to share their concerns, and get a consensus on direction.
3. Intangibles are valuable. You build your brand on friendship, goodwill, and trust. Your brand’s friendship is earned, not bought with a coupon.
4. Return on investment. You have to look at everything as a return-on-capital test. Rhee always looked at the return he would get from his investment in a person or product. From that philosophy, he attracted better people to help grow the business. This mirrors my own advice to see training as an investment and the return more important than whatever it cost you.
5. Focus on margin. His belief is you must hold onto 50% margins unless you have massive sales like Walmart. You must look at your inventory and return on that investment – not build up your inventory and sell it for whatever you can.
6. Know your job. His job is to be Ashley Stewart’s best friend and know her better than anybody. That means his employees must know their customers better than anyone else too. As a leader, you must be able to know your specific customer better than anyone and be able to describe them succinctly.
7. Inspire self-expression through your products. At its best, Ashley Stewart provides very high self-esteem for women. The role of employees in their community is to foster and celebrate that. Whatever product you offer, there must be some emotion customers receive from visiting your stores. Name it.
8. Employees as advocates. Culture is rooted in wanting everyone to win. Selfish behavior cannot be allowed. Employees must advocate for every customer 100% of the time. Do yours?
9. Loyalty to the shopper. The way Rhee measured progress was loyalty over sales. He said, “If you don’t want to work for her, don’t work here.” A committed team can accomplish many things.
In short, the care you give your customers reflects your community; retail is always about people.
When you have earned a shopper’s trust and have her heart, you can sell anything. According to Inc. Magazine, since the business makeover, Ashley Stewart has become one of the fastest-growing, top-grossing plus-size fashion brands.
They are a movement. Check out their Finding Ashley Stewart event at Kings Theater here.
Did you understand the main points of this post or would you like a one-minute refresher? Watch the video below.
Ashley Stewart customers feel that in a world of being ignored, they are being heard.
That trend of being heard is finding its way into musicals like Evan Hansen that insist you will be found and like Hamilton that I’m not throwing away my shot.
In a world of fear, we’re all looking for reassurance and confidence in the brands we choose to buy. In short...
How can you give that? You need retail employees who share your vision of how you make a difference in your customers’ lives.
That starts with you being your brand’s number one advocate with a relentless focus on your customer. Use these tips to start brainstorming with your crew now, before it’s too late.
If you enjoyed this story, you can hear my conversation with James Rhee on Tell Me Something Good About Retail, here.