Retail Podcast 416: DeAnna McIntosh on Brand Diversity Strategies

DeAnna McIntosh on Brand Diversity Strategies

Bob Phibbs interviewed DeAnna McIntosh, Global Retail and eCommerce Consultant at The Affinity Group International. In this episode Bob and DeAnna talked about inclusion strategies for black-owned brands.


Tell me something good about retail

DeAnna McIntosh on Brand Diversity Strategies



Bob: Well, thanks for joining me here on Tell me Something Good about Retail. We have a bonus podcast guest today. When I had finished recording this season, I suddenly realized that times have changed a lot and not just because of COVID, but certainly because of protests and demonstrations.

And most importantly, we have all realized that something has changed. And so, I am pleased today to be able to welcome DeAnna McIntosh. She is a global retail and eCommerce consultant with The Affinity Group International. Good morning, Deanna.

DeAnna: Good morning. How are you?

Bob: I'm very well, thank you so much. So, I always have to start off with tell me about yourself. You know, you started in retail, like most of us, so take me into your world and bring our listeners up to speed.

DeAnna: All right. I fell in love with retail fashion, starting in middle school where my mom used to dress me head to toe in all one color and you know, my crayons had to match my outfit.

So, I think that's where it started. And I ended up going to the Fashion Institute of Technology, FIT, in New York City. My degree is in international fashion merchandising management, which is a mouthful. So yeah, I've been loving this fashion world for a long time. And after school, I went to Chicos as an assistant buyer and did that for a few years.

And then I was promoted to associate merchant when I was in charge of woven tops. And after that I was in charge of their TV ads, print ads and catalogs, and just bringing together those from start to finish.

Bob: Quite a varied background.

DeAnna: Right. I got a really well rounded view of the fashion industry from the beginning of my career.

And so, after Chicos, I went to a different retailer, Office Depot, and did strategy for them. And I often found myself in project-based roles. I come in as a buyer and then they would see something more in me and either create a role for me or put me into a role that manages multiple projects at a time, which I thought was interesting.

Bob: Right. Becoming indispensable to a company. That's always good.

DeAnna: That is true. It's only an issue when you go to look for another job buying or merchandising. And they're like, wait, so you weren't a buyer? What, were you? So yes, note to recruiters. I was well-rounded, that's a good thing.

Bob: I like that.

DeAnna: While I was at Office Depot, I launched my company, which is The Affinity Group International. And I launched it because I saw that the small business community had a lot of questions and they weren't really sure how to run their retail or eCommerce businesses the way I knew.

Right. And you wouldn't. If you don't work in a retail headquarters, you're not going to know those same strategies.

Bob: Oddly enough people don't wake up when they're in seventh grade and say, you know, I'm going to learn how to become a retailer. And everyone says, Oh great. We'll support you. It's like, No, get a real job do a real career.

Right? And that's the problem that so many people it's like, I, you know, I'm no different Deanna. My part time job became my career. I mean, I went to college to become a conductor, and then I got my minor in music ed. So, that's really the story of retail. So the fact that you also see the same thing that, you know, most of these people who have one or two locations, didn't get into this game with a playbook.

DeAnna: Right, exactly. And so that's when I made the decision that I want to help small to medium sized businesses compete on the same level as these bigger companies. That's why I founded The Affinity Group International, and we do consulting for retailers and brands.

But even more so now with coronavirus, that impact and now the Black Lives Matter movement, and just seeing the changes that are happening. I want to become more of a strategic partner on behalf of these businesses. And by that, I mean going to trade show owners and saying, Hey, what's your representation of small and indie brands here and how can we grow that? Or what's your representation of people of color, brands of color.

How do we improve that? And that's the turn that I'm going to take and talk about today.

Bob: Well, that's great. Look, the world is changing and we can embrace this and say, Oh my gosh, We can make the world a better place or we could try to hold onto it and kind of like try to pull the caboose back because the train is going.

I mean, we have never seen demonstrations around the world about something that happened in America. It's usually the other way around, which to me says, Oh my gosh, This is a great opportunity of hope. Would you agree?

DeAnna: I absolutely agree. It's refreshing. And of course, you still get the really negative comments, which are disheartening at times, but I think it's better to just focus on the positive and how we can move forward.

Bob: Yeah, I would agree now, you know, again, what's been your experience in retail? You know, I was thinking about this, this morning. Was it 10 years ago that Oprah had gone into a Parisian boutique and wanted to get something like a designer purse and the woman wouldn't take it down because she wasn't all Oprahed-up like she was going to be on camera and the woman kept saying like, Oh, well, you know, we do that for everyone. And it just rang so hollow and yet nothing changed after that.

DeAnna: No.

Bob: What's your experience been in retail as a person of color?

DeAnna: It's been interesting and I've had many of the same experiences as Oprah did. And I'm clearly not Oprah, but I mean, today it happens. If I go into a Bloomingdale's or a Saks, any of those luxury-type places, I definitely get looked at a certain way.

And it depends too on how I'm dressed. You know, if I'm dressed down I definitely get those looks. And if I'm dressed, I guess, more professional or business casual, I get the looks, but then they might actually say hello.

Bob: Yeah, well, you know as the Retail Doc, I definitely do go out and I think about how I'm dressed only because of that. But so, you're consciously thinking when you go into a store, you realize like, you know, you're taking a risk by not dressing a certain way, is that correct?

DeAnna: That's definitely correct. And I make it a point now that when I walk inside of a retail store, if no one speaks to me, if I go from the front to the back and not one person speaks looks, even in my direction, I'm not buying, I am turning around and I'm walking out. I don't care who you are. So, you know, it's discouraging.

And especially because I know retail. Right.

Bob: There's a social contract that I have enjoyed because of who I am. And that's why I was hoping you could just let us in on this world because the point is for me to shut up and to listen.

DeAnna: Okay. Well I will start with the fact that, so I worked in Chicos in high school and I was 15 and 16 when I worked in Chicos. And you know, the customer is a much, much, much older, typically a white woman in her 50s, 60s, but I loved it and I loved the customers. So it wasn't even, I mean, I didn't even look at it that way.

I just loved working there. And when I graduated from school, because I worked in the stores, I was able to send them my resume and get the job as the assistant buyer. When I got to headquarters, I was one black buyer out of actually, there was two, when I first started, there were two of us out of maybe 35 buyers.

Mind you, again, I just got out of college. I can't remember how long I had been working there. It might have been six months, but there was nobody trying to help me and try to teach me what it's like to work in corporate.

It's different. It's very different and what they expect from me and things like that, but it seemed like my peers who obviously were not black were getting that mentorship and that training and that hands-on attention. And I was just set up to fail.

Bob: Do you think that was a bias by your boss or was that …

DeAnna: Yeah.

Bob: Cause to me, people quit people, we don't quit companies.

DeAnna: Right. Totally. I do think yes. In that instance, I do think it was bias from my boss and her boss because as a leader, you shouldn't want your people to fail no matter what they look like. So, you would want to invest back in them because it makes you look good when I perform. Right? So, I didn't understand that.

Bob: But see, it's a delicate thing because I'm sure there's going to be some people on here that say, well, you know, she wasn't performing. So, what difference does the color make? Well, that's right. As a white person, that would be something I would say, except when you see the disparity between what your peers received and the attention you got from your boss. And isn't that what we're talking about here.

DeAnna: Exactly. That's the difference. And if you want to really look at diversity, if I'm only one or two persons of color or a black person, you just might want to try to cultivate an environment where I might feel safe and comfortable if that is what your company stands for. And that's what I always say it’s like, if that's not what you stand for, okay. Then don't … you shouldn't have hired me. Right?

If you really don't feel diversity is your thing, whatever you want to call it. Whatever your stance is, if you are just firmly against it, don't hire someone as a “token person,” just to say that you have diversity because that's not enough.

Bob: One woman commented on a post of mine and said, Oh, well, affirmative action never works. It's like, we're not talking affirmative action. You know, it's like, Oh, well the best person doesn't get hired. It's like, that's not really what we're saying in the slightest. Right?

DeAnna: Absolutely.

Bob: So, what are you saying?

DeAnna: I'm saying that, you know, yes, it's funny because everyone always said I don't look at color. And I think that's the biggest shift that's happened is yes, I get what you mean. What you're trying to say by saying, I don't see color. I see everyone as equal. Everyone's a human. You might not see color, but the rest of the world does. It affects people differently.

Bob: Today is June 10th. And, HBO has pulled Gone with the Wind because they don't want it on their streaming service, even though it's one of the, we consider it as one of the great, you know, as white people, Oh, that's a great film. You know, it's got all these great characters and music and sets, but when you look at it in 2020, you're like, My God, what would it have felt like to be watching this for the last 50 years and realizing like, Oh, that's the image.

And here's where I want white people - you know, bias is created by what we were exposed to my history books, what wasn't said, who wasn't shown to us, whose stories didn't matter. And all those moments where you look at the TV shows we watched and you look at the albums we listened to, or a million posters on the wall.

There are so many clues that have defined our bias and it's not like white people are the only people, we all have biases of who we like and don't like, but we just have to open our eyes and say, maybe somebody else has a different experience than I do. Right?

DeAnna: Very true, and really it goes to show. So the victory story in that story, I just told you, which was just brutal for me and really shut me down in a lot of ways, because I would try to speak up at meetings and I would get shut down immediately, like in a big way in front of everyone every time I tried to say something.

And so, it kind of created this kind of a little fear to be honest, to say anything. And so, they moved me to a different team with a woman who I love who's a white woman. And they said they moved me to her team because she's a great trainer. She's great at training people and getting them on the right track. So, I said, okay, sure. So, they moved me to her team. She was amazing. And her name is Abby Schearer. I'm going to say her name because I love her.

But, I went to Abby's team and Abby trained me, Abby showed me what to do, and I got promoted under her. And, the crazy thing is though I was not taken off probation. I was kept on probation for 90 days, no longer than 90 days. And then they lifted the probation part, as it was because of performance.

And then they left me on because they said that I didn't speak enough. Literally I was on probation because I didn't speak enough, but yet when I try to speak, nobody wants to hear anything I have to say. So they just left me there with this probation looming over my head, not knowing any day, if I could just be let go, and so it just didn't make sense.

And from there, like I said, I was promoted, ended up launching a collection that drove a million dollar increase over the previous year. So, then I went back to them and I said, so was it me? Or was it the lack of training here?

Nobody wanted to answer that question.

DeAnna: They didn't answer as always, but you know, there's many more stories where that came from. One in particular that I have to share is that Abby went off to another team. She got promoted because she is amazing, obviously. And so, they brought someone in over me to run the department that I was in and she was also a white woman.

I was probably 23 at the time just to put it into perspective. And the woman was probably in her upper forties, but I was running the department by myself and doing great sales, getting increases month after month and so it was running flawlessly. She came in and as a buyer, she didn't know how to use Excel. Right? She didn't know how to use Outlook.

She literally didn't know how to do her job. And I was just very confused and my job was to train her - funny how that works, right? But my job was to train her, which I had no problem doing, and I did. However, then it started to show that she didn't know what she was doing and she would project it out on me.

And one day she comes into my cubicle and puts her hands up. In my cubicle blocking my way in and out and starts reaming me. I don't even remember why, yelling at me at the top of her lungs so badly that people on the other side of the building could hear her. And so, it was just like that type of an environment for me.

And it was crazy. Yeah. But nobody was on my side. Do you know that they actually put me back on probation from that? Because they said I wasn't helping her do her job correctly. Like you would never believe these types of things, but it was just the worst time ever. And then a couple of days later she was walked out and then I was taken off probation.

With no, like, I'm sorry, we didn't listen to you or anything like We should not have treated you this way – nothing.

Bob: It’s easy for people listening to go Well, that was just a bad person. It’s convenient to say. The problem is we aren't really listening for your story, which is what would that have felt like to be one of two black people out of 35 and this happens and it feels like this. And yet there's no recourse. There's no support, right?

When you hear people talking about diversity more or finding ways to kind of, I don't know if it's fix as the right word, but, come to a new place. There's a certain amount of education that has to go on as well as a structural change. Would you agree? And what would that be, do you think?

DeAnna: I definitely agree. There has to be. We don't have as many resources for whatever reasons and it's systemic reasons. So, it's not just as simple as people think. I think that's the biggest thing is it's not simple and surface level. It's not like, well, Deanna should have gone back to college to get more education, to learn how to do her job. It's not that simple, you know.

Bob: If you can put it into, is it like, you know, theoretically, we like to believe, well, I like to believe that I treat everybody the same and in a perfect world that happens.

But it doesn't happen. I think personalizing it is the key for all of us that it's, you know, it's not some guy, it's this woman that I know, it's Deanna, I heard her story, or this is what's going on. And, and trying to, I guess, make a safe place for you to be able to tell those stories. So that way you can say, from what I've learned, what would need to happen?

DeAnna: You just have to look at your organization and make sure that you have people in place who look like the people, like me. You have all these people who can bring those experiences.

Bob: Well, that's the key to all of it, but it's we're right now, we're talking about Black Lives Matter, but Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, it really is a matter of saying Let's build a team that represents our community, not just say, Oh, well the most qualified person got the job and you know, there's a new initiative right now. It's the 15%. Can you explain that for our audience?

DeAnna: Yes. The 15% pledge is a pledge that was started by a black owned brand and they want major retailers to pledge 15% of their shelf space to black owned brands.

And it specifically calls out Target, Sephora and Shopbop, these are three of them, I think Whole Foods was another. They want them to publicly say that they'll give 15% of their space to black owned businesses. That's what that's about.

Bob: Is that bad? Is that good on the surface? It sounds great. It does. It sounds like a step,

DeAnna: Right? It does sound like a step, but this is where, because I now have that experience in retail, and at Office Depot, for example, bringing in all of those small brands into their stores, I know that it's difficult. And it's not as easy as Target or whoever saying tomorrow, Yes. I'm pledging 15% of my space to black owned businesses, and then they just show up in their warehouses the next day. It's not how that works. So it's a great, it's definitely a great step in the right direction.

Bob: And how would you merchandise it? I mean, Deanna, would you, this just sounds, I'm an ops guy, you know, so is there going to be a banner on the website that says that, is it going to be, is it going to have a star by it?

So that, I mean, there's, I know the devil's in the details, right?

DeAnna: It is. And Target, we can talk about is a great example of what they're trying to say. Which is, if you go to Target beauty section, if you've never seen it, one it’s beautiful, but there's a section for women of color. I have natural hair. So, I've never had any chemicals in my hair for the last 11 years, and if I went to Target before the section existed, the only products that applied to me were in a little tiny section, hidden somewhere.

I couldn't even shop at Target for my hair. And now there's an entire section and it even has images of the women who started these brands. Showing, you know, yes, we support the black community.

We want you to shop here. So, we have products for you. Specifically. And no, I don't think that every single brand needs to be that literal. I think that they just want to see that we are supported and we're represented because we spend a lot of money with all of these brands. We want to see ourselves represented in the products that they sell.

Bob: Yeah, I think it's, I'm really dating myself. I'm much older than you, but, in the eighties, when I worked with South Coast Plaza and Sears was the flagship there in Costa Mesa, California, and their Beauty section had been redone and they must have had a dozen pictures over the counters of a wide variety of women.

All beautiful, you know, like glamour, I wouldn't say glamour shots, like in a cheesy way, but I mean, professionally done and the press release was, it was all women who worked there at Sears and that's great. Except it was a marketing campaign. You know what I mean? It didn't connect. And that's what we're struggling with right now is saying, and how do we take that to the next level, that it's not a marketing campaign, it's actually on the shelf and it makes sense to us. So, I really appreciate you calling out Target. Oddly enough, I don't go into the women's hair products at Target, but now I may have to do that.

DeAnna: Check it out.

Bob: Just to see what they're doing, because it's got to be subtle, but it's got to be meaningful that you get it right. That you can go, That's for me.

DeAnna: Yes. And Target is one of the people that this 15% pledge is going after. And from my perspective, I think there are much bigger fish to fry than Target, because like I said, they have an entire section and I live in Atlanta, which can be called the black Hollywood and every single thing that Essence magazine does - and Essence is the magazine devoted to women of color - black women, actually.

And when Essence has an event, it is sponsored by Target. Target is there, they're supporting the brands. They did a holiday market here in Atlanta with Essence again, and it was just beautiful, so well curated. And so, from my perspective, I'm like Target is the leader in what they're talking about.

Bob: Yeah. And, I would always say, you know, people always think like, Oh, it'd be great if we got into Target.

No, it wouldn't because simply, you know, when they hand you an order of here's a bazillion, we need by tomorrow, you go and have to make them, you're suddenly on a moonwalk. You're not even in the same league. Right. And while you can boast your way through it, it really would be better that you could just call on five local retailers, get them involved in your story, see how your product works.

And then you've got some legs to be able to go to the next. It’s no different than me. I mean, my first speeches were probably for 20 or 30 people. I didn't say, Oh, I'm going to be in front of 5,000 people first. I was like, dude, you don't want to do that because you'll embarrass yourself. You won't work again.

DeAnna: Yeah.

Bob: What would be some ways that you think that retailers could open up a dialog between their employees cause it's in a lot of ways, we're also just talking about systemic power, right. That there's a man or woman at the top. And then everybody else kind of, you know, either is included in the game or they're all playing a little tiny part of it.

So, any ideas, DeAnna?

DeAnna: Yes, I think having regular discussions with your team is so important and not just about the business, but about personal things like mental health, work / life balance, culture. What does that mean? A prime example is someone I know said they worked at a multi-billion-dollar retailer and they had a diversity and inclusion team full of all white people.

I was like, well, then of course it didn't work.

Bob: You hear that and you're just like, did anyone not see that?

DeAnna: Right. That's not the answer. But I think, like I said, you know, being open to having hard conversations, like the one that we're having right now, which I greatly appreciate, you know, it's a hard conversation to have.

It's not comfortable. But when you think about life, now that people are exposed a bit more to the black experience in America nothing's ever comfortable for us.

Bob: Our path to equal inclusion of everybody is filled with blood and horrible, horrible things from people not wanting to change.

DeAnna: It is. It's so true. And that's why through all of this, I have a website and it's called diversify And because with the 15% pledge, again, it's a great thought. It's a great movement – 15% of their assortment should be black-owned business.

But when we take a couple steps back from this there are other communities of color who also need representation. So, you know, like you said, the Asian communities. Latin communities. So maybe that's not that it’s a great start, but maybe it's instead of 15% is going to black owned businesses, maybe it's 35% of your assortment is going to be from brands of color.

Bob: Well, and also checking their mission statement. Are you working for the same things? I think the day we make stuff and we try to make money from it are probably over, I mean, you're going to have to have something other than, you know, we exist to make a profit.

I think certainly Millennials and Gen Z, I think that's the other thing is that, you know, younger people are protesting because they're like, why haven't you done this? You know, my nephew got his PhD at UC Irvine and the valedictorian, this young man, stood up and he said, you know, your generation pollution was just like, Well, you know it happens.

We just dumped stuff in the environment. He goes, my generation is like you didn't finish the equation. Why did you, why was that permissible? And I think that's why at this time in history, I think enough people are saying, why has this been permissible? And I'm committed to change something. And I appreciate you being on with me, DeAnna.

I know it's not the easiest conversation to have, but quite simply, this is the conversation I want everybody to be having. We've got a lot of work to do.

DeAnna: I want people to see people of color in my Instagram feed, for example, you know, because when I walk into a space and I see no one that looks like me, I'm turning around. So is that your intention? No, change it. Right? Cause that's not welcoming. So, this website is just an initiative on my part, so I can give people ideas on how to change, but also to work with me for actionable strategies.

So even as a boutique, a local boutique, if you want to carry brands made by people of color, come to me. And I have brands that I can match with your aesthetic and the price point that you're looking for. Right. I have that corporate experience so I understand what you need, whether you're a local boutique or a corporation.

I think there's things we do in the middle. Target has an incubator program. Other retailers, that's a first step - start an incubator program so that when you find these great brands that have potential, you're now helping them to get there. That's the bridge. And that's what my website is, it's trying to be a bridge between where we want to be and where we are now.

Bob: Fabulous. Well, that gives us a great place to pause. At the end, you'll be able to find all the links to Deana and so that you can follow up more. It's been a pleasure chatting with you today, Deanna. Thank you so much for joining us.

DeAnna: Thank you so much for having me.


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