Retail Podcast 605: Ron Thurston Changing The Way We Talk About Retail

Ron Thurston Changing The Way We Talk About Retail

Bob Phibbs interviewed Ron Thurston, he's led the retail teams for some of America's most prominent brands, including Gap, Apple, and Intermix. From a part-time sales associate to a vice president of stores, Ron has put in the hard work that a retail career requires and wrote his book, "Retail Pride," to share what he learned along the way. Learn more on this episode of Tell Me Something Good About Retail. 

RON (1)

Tell me something good about retail

Ron Thurston: Changing The Way We Talk About Retail

Bob: Today, I get the opportunity to talk with Ron Thurston. In 2021, he was named one of the world's top 100 most influential people in retail and as a featured keynote speaker podcast guest at in-demand industry expert, and I've wanted to speak to him forever. He most recently led the retail organization for Intermix, sits on the board of directors for Goodwill, New York, New Jersey, and is an advisory board member and mentor for several retail technology brands. Welcome, Ron.

Ron: Thank you, Bob. 

Bob: Did I get that all out?

Ron: You got it all in. I feel like this is long overdue, this conversation.

Bob: It is, my friend.

Ron: Because I love everything you do and I'm anxious to talk about it.

Bob: Oh, well keep saying those things. So you graduated from FIDM in Los Angeles, is that correct?

Ron: That's correct. And I actually just joined their advisory board decades later.

Bob: Wow. Now that's not the same as being a VP of stores. So can you tell us a little bit about your journey?

Ron: I would love to. So I'm from Northern California, I'm from Lake Tahoe. And I grew up in a family of construction. And the idea of working construction was not exactly my path forward, but FIDM was really the idea of being relatively close to home. I started in San Francisco and moved to LA, and it was really that place where I could deep dive into this industry that I knew I wanted to be in. I didn't know if I wanted to be a fashion designer, a buyer, planning, retail leader. I had no idea what I wanted to do. But all I knew is that I wanted to be in this industry. And FIDM was a good place to at least understand how it all works and what the potential career paths were. And schools like that, the professors and teachers are people from the industry. And that was very inspiring to me. I want to be that, I'd like to grow my career this way. It was a good place for me to start.

Bob: And then you go and become part of the main company. I'm from Los Angeles. So I started at the Broadway Department Store because those stores had amazing training. They looked at a path, they gave you a path in retail. Wouldn't you agree?

Ron: I would 100% agree. And that's why I joined them. So I did have a several-year career on the design side, but Broadway was the place. Broadway would say, "We're going to let you work in the buying office. We're going to have you lead stores. We're going to have you work in planning. We're going to teach you what running retail is." And I loved every bit of it and very quickly gravitated to the floor. And I remember clearly, I was the department manager of a Levi's shop & shop, and this was in Century City in LA. And I had worked part-time at the Gap when I was growing up. So folding jeans I think is just in my DNA. So here's 50 feet of denim wall where I can practice my expertise of denim folding. And then it's like, "Well, it looks like you have pretty good visual merchandising. We're going to give you juniors," which was the next department over. "And then we're going to give you the whole men's floor because you seem to know what you're doing." And it was a great training ground for me.

Bob: Well, I love that. In your book, "Retail Pride," you tell people to celebrate your accidental retail career. That's what most of us did. Most of us, our part-time job became a career.

Ron: Yes. And that really was, it resonated with me because of all the conversations I've had through in decades of store visits, and interviews, and store openings. Very often someone will say, "I've studied this. I studied psychology, pharmacy," the list goes on, "and I love working in retail." And it was very accidental. And that seems to be the most common response to this industry. And I think for a long time, I found it just humorous of like, "Oh yes, we all think about this as accidental." But as I got further into my career, excuse me, I realized that accidental career requires more intention, and thought, and planning of what you want to do and how you're going to get there.

And I think as we talk about sales teams and we talk about growing your career, because you may have done this by accident, you have to be more thoughtful about what's next. And the brands that you work for and the companies that have great training, like the Broadway where we started, those brands are, they still exist, but you have to be more planful. And to the intention behind saying, "We're going to celebrate your accidental career," but let's stop calling it something funny. And let's actually put some intention behind it and say, "Yes, it might even been accidental, but I love it. And here's what I'm going to do about it." I think it is a new paradigm shift for our industry that is what's going to create the future.

Bob: Well, I think the future is going to be less retail stores, but they're going to elevate the retail associate to being someone who really is capable of engaging a human being, which that's where the money goes. It always has been. And I've said frequently I know many people in retail making over 100 grand a year and they're thrilled with it. But someone touched them along the way, in a good way, that didn't come off well, to inspire them to say, "Hey, you're good at this." And then to bring them those opportunities. Because I think brick and mortar is under siege right now. Let's be honest, the digital natives have ongoing campaigns to say it's dead. The department store is dead. No one's buying anything. And yet you go to shopping malls and they're busy. And it seems that a lot of people suddenly woke up to the idea that people are important. Would you agree?

Ron: I would absolutely agree. And that's where you'd think about those of us that have been doing this a long time. What are the next generations of retail leaders? Because the industry actually, excuse me, is one that will require the best version of what we have always done. You're right. Because if the industry is smaller, it's more intentional, it's more experiential, however the buzzwords you want to use, requires exceptional talent. And that exceptional talent doesn't just show up at your front door. That talent is...

Bob: They just put out the "Now hiring" sign and instantly they're trained and everything. No?

Ron: Yes. It's a miracle, but that's not actually true. Yes. And the idea of what do we need to do as companies, as brands, as an industry to say, "We know that this is an exceptional path, but it needs to be paid, compensated correctly. Training and development needs to happen at all levels. Leaders do need to identify that talent." I referenced it myself of like, I was tapped on the shoulder numerous times to say, "It looks like you could do more. Let's give you the stretch assignment. Let's give you something that you've never done before." So I spent about 10 years at the Gap, which was right after the Broadway. And I was same, store manager to general manager to district manager. And I had a visual merchandising skill, I think because I had been a designer, and I became a regional visual. And within months, I had 450 stores and I had no idea what to do, zero. But they're like, "You could figure it out, Ron, just go." And I'm like, "Okay."

Bob: Let's just unpack that for a second because that's an awful lot of trust that you earned. That wasn't kismet. You were rewarded because they absolutely saw something, even though they didn't prepare you for it. Right?

Ron: They didn't prepare me. But then it helped me become a better larger-scale multi-store leader. And visual merchandising was not where I wanted to spend my career because I love leading teams, and that's a different career path. And so, yes, they trusted in me. But I think that trust is very empowering to people growing up in this industry that would say, "Your success is deemed based on the work that you put into it and not because of a specific degree that you have or the companies you work for." And that is a new way to think about it. I was like, it's actually our responsibility. Anyone that has a leadership role in a retail organization, it becomes your responsibility to bring people along. It's not just part of the competencies or part of check off or I have a succession plan. We owe that back to the industry to do that for people that did it for us.

And I believe very strongly in that. And I believe strongly that to exactly what you speak about every day, if you're not being trained and not being invested in, you're working for the wrong company. And so stand up for yourself and say, "I love what I do. I love this industry, but I'm going to find a place that's going to celebrate me and the work that I do and invest in me." And that is also not a message that's really ever been said of stop putting up with this nonsense and being underpaid, and go work for a brand that does the right thing. And that's the place we're in today as an industry.

Bob: I think that's the quickest way to get a great employee to quit is by not treating people fairly and not recognizing talent and letting people get away with stuff. And a long time ago, I wrote a blog about basically is it a will or a skill issue in retail when employees don't do what you've trained. And it was basically saying, bring the best of you to a store. Well, I got on this website, which I would love to put out here, but it's about retail not being good, let's just put it that way. Where people go and talk about how it sucks to work in retail. And they flamed me and they went on and on.

And I just found myself thinking like, "So all that time you're here sharing how awful it is to be you, could be spent doing, I don't know, anything else, but that culture is allowed to grow." So you must have had experience with that, Ron. You took over a store, or area, or region, whatever, and let's be honest, there are a few characters that have power over others that don't use it responsibly. So what would be some advice that you would have, or a time that you could share with us, what it looked like, and then take us into how you got on the other side.

Ron: Yes, thank you. I'd love to. I'll give you a couple of different examples. Even most recently at Intermix, one thing that I am particularly proud of as I left there this summer after three and a half years, is that I had this exact same field leadership team, district managers, the same visual merchandising team, the same corporate team, Store Ops, LP, HR, everything that supported our success as a retail organization from the minute I walked in, it was the exact same team. And that's an unusual path to take forward. And my point was, and their business had been very tough. They had numerous heads of stores. There was a lot of dysfunction, and chaos, and a lot of, I'd say, an unhealthy entrepreneurial spirit of like, "Well, this is my store. This is how we're going to do it here."

And I take the point of view of we're going to discover the best way to do it, and then we're all going to do this. And we're going to do this together. And we're going to move forward and we're going to celebrate success. And we are going to find the best people that are doing work in stores and celebrate them. And what I'm most proud of is that that didn't require changing people. That required changing the attitude and the leadership and say, "We're going to create something great here. I want you to join me." And that is a different point of view than I think someone that may come in and say, "The store has been underperforming. There's a lot of bad attitude. Let's bring in some new talent and try to refresh this."

Bob: Yes, that was my MO for many years, but I'm not that type of guy that I used to be. But it takes a while to convince people, doesn't it? And people who are essentially giving you the finger, when you walk out the door, it's hard to be yourself without feeling like in some ways you're begging them to follow you. Take us into that. That's a tall order by any stretch of the imagination.

Ron: It is. But it was also my choice. No one told me that I needed to do that, but I knew that the way that you maintain momentum and change the trajectory is by motivating an existing group of people who are talented and maybe not well led in the past. And I actually found it a personal challenge of saying, "We're going to do this, but we're going to do this together. And all of you are going to join me." And that means I spend a lot of time in stores. I spent half my time traveling the country and having conversations with people in stores and talking about training and developing the best-in-class tools and product assortments. You create culture.

But I've also been on the flip side where my first 90 days of brands and probably rather not say, but I recognize that there actually were the wrong people. That they were hired with the wrong intent for different reasons. And I did have to change the people. And that that can also be successful but I think it's sometimes painful to say, "I recognize that you were hired for this job, but you're unskilled and you can't do it. And I need to find someone that can." You run a multi-million dollar business, every retail business, whether it's a million dollars or $50 million, it's a multimillion-dollar business led by...

Bob: Can you pause that just for one second and just repeat that from the top? I got to mute myself. I got some distraction here. So whether you start with a multi-million.

Ron: Yes. So any retail business, whether it's a million-dollar store or a $50 million store, the responsibility sits squarely on store manager, general manager, store director, whatever title that is, and you run a multimillion-dollar business. And you need to be able to come into it with the skill that would say, "I have the experience, and the willingness, and the energy, and the drive, and the passion to run a multi-million dollar business." And sometimes that doesn't always exist, but I love this, the journey.

Bob: Well, let's face it. There was a time that retail employees needed a job. So they got out of high school, they wanted to get a job, they're part-time in college. I know when I turned 18, I was getting the hell out of my house and I've lived with leftover furniture. And I knew it was a bad neighborhood when I woke up one morning and they were filming "Hill Street Blues" in my neighborhood because it was just like, "Oh, we got to look like a really urban gritty scene in Long Beach actually." But that's not necessarily the case now because a lot of employees could be living at home right up until in their 30s.

So that drive of saying, "If you make more, if you do better, I'll reward you with money," it doesn't seem to be holding, especially as we notice how... Notice how everyone stopped talking about the minimum wage, we got to raise the minimum wage. It's effectively been raised kids. It's $15 to $16 an hour just for entry stakes. So what else is it? Because I think retail has always been a game of being brilliant on the basics. And I don't think people have changed, but I think what we use to motivate them may have changed. What do you think of that?

Ron: I agree with you because the idea of the career trajectory then, if I'm a fantastic store manager, it requires a great district manager, regional manager to recognize that talent. And I think every kind of journey of the roles that people play, great district managers do think it to be their responsibility to bring their team along and to grow everyone around them and motivate them. And I don't think it's inherently a skill that everyone in that role has, but those that are most successful at it, do it. And I guess to answer your question, I think it's always're right, it's always been part of this industry. But I think today you can't ignore it as a nice to do and to say it is absolutely your responsibility to grow the infrastructure and the talent on your team at every level because the future is very much what's happening from stores.

Bob: No, I agree. And authenticity is a big part of your book. How can you have honest conversations in person when so much of our lives is done via text or social media?

Ron: Yeah. So I was on stage last week at a conference and with its sea of C-suite executives. And one of the things I said is, "Every one of you in this room need to spend more time in stores." And because the idea that all of the best ideas come from the store is 100% true. And that they will give you all the feedback you need to know about product, about culture, about training, about everything you need to know comes from the largest population, probably 80% of your workforce on average is your field workforce. And that they have all the answers to the test, but they want to see you. And it's great to do a town hall on Zoom, and I've done many of them, but there's nothing more powerful than an executive team who visits several locations on a tour, but more importantly, sits and listens authentically, doesn't speak, lets the team share what they need to know, goes back to the office, has a quick huddle and says, "This is what we need to fix and we need to fix it tomorrow."

And then you go back, same, maybe it's the Zoom town hall again of like, "Thank you so much for all that feedback. This is what we're going to do differently now as a company, based on what we heard." And what I would tell you is there isn't a retail team who wouldn't then dig in and say, "This is the best place to work. The CEO of our company came and visited, fixed something that we said." That translates into retention beyond belief, more than the dollar that they got on their annual review. And the more that all of us that sit in those seats can do that and be in stores, for sure, there's a lot of texting and there's a lot of Zoom calls and there's a lot, but we have to be in stores. And there's no reason now why we can't.

Bob: Well, and I think so many times people do a walkthrough of the store and it's like, "Everything's fine. Right? Everything is fine." "Yes, everything's fine." And so they spent maybe five minutes talking to the manager, whereas the assistant or the associate doesn't really get that time. And without that two-way street, it can certainly feel like you're more of a cog than a partner in success. Right?

Ron: Agreed very much. And I've heard your point of view about Gap and where they sit today. And I have a controversy because I worked for...the largest amount of my adult career has been spent at Gap Inc. in multiple brands from Intermix, to Banana, to Outlet, to Gap. But when it was good, it was really good. But I would say on the flip side, I've been the receiver of a visit like that of an entourage from a private jet that where we spent a week of overnights folding denim and merchandising the store, and they came in, took the store manager out to lunch, which was not me, and came back and waved and left. And it felt horrible. And I never wanted to... I knew then of when I have that job, that is not how I'm going to lead because this is how I feel right now. It feels pretty terrible.

Bob: That is excellent. Well, we're going to continue in just a minute, but I want to talk about our sponsor CoreLogic. And we're back talking retail pride with Ron Thurston. So how can a manager help a part-timer have retail pride? Because part-timers, to me, are the Trojan horse many times. People don't realize if I'm only working two days a week for four hours, I can certainly be a lot more to your detriment than to your assets. So what tips do you have for a manager listening to us today, Ron?

Ron: I think everyone on the team adds value in unique ways. You have to discover what that value is. So have devote time. You say maybe they work two days a week four hours each, spend at least 15 minutes of that eight hours, maybe even 30 having one-on-one conversations. Because those part-time workers that come in and they end up being the closing shift, the tasks, you get to clean up the fitting rooms, you name it, that's their job. No wonder that they don't stay. Instead, it's like, "I'm so glad you're here tonight. We've had a really busy day, but first, I want to just check in and see how you are and see how you feel about working here. And what are your goals? What are you studying? What do you want to do? And let me help you get there."

Because I do think you're right, we've treated that as a disposable role, that there's multiple. And what we're facing today is the consequence of that. So all of a sudden, what you thought was disposable is actually critical because now you can't open your store more than a single shift, which we're already seeing malls, most of them not even back to full operating hours because they can't. And that disposable employee base that kept the doors open from 7:00 to 9:00 when that person came after their full-time job is now missing and you can't open the store. And so now we have to go back and say, "What are we going to do to make sure that they feel important and relevant?" And that starts with a conversation.

Bob: It does start with a conversation. I've seen so many flyers taped to windows, "We're hiring and we'll help you meet your career goals." And then I go in the store and it's like untrained employees who are looking into their phones. I'm like, "Why would you work here?" It's not a body issue. You can get more. I remembered I've worked at Santa Monica Place mall, you're probably familiar with that.

Ron: Sure.

Bob: And I took over the store and I ended up getting rid of half the crew and we had the best month ever. We only had four. I did that once, one month and you can do that one month. But when you're doing that, you're backfilling and realizing, "Okay, I still need it." I was talking to a luxury brand, they're telling me, "Oh, our stores are supposed to work on 15, they're working on 5." And I said, "Do you realize that it's not going to suddenly get easier in January?" The issues that are fundamentally reshaping America are the local who don't want to work that late in their careers. The boomers have left and the younger people are not backfilling it with hustle and wanting to come into retail. They're going to buy a white-labeled brand online and try to resell it for some money and be entrepreneurs. But that's a real shame because all of the things that you could teach somebody about business, to your history, you can learn through retail, right?

Ron: You absolutely can. And that's what we...I think we have not given that significant group of the population language to use about how to describe their work. And so I've encouraged them to say, don't sit in front of me and tell me, "Well, I just sort of did this part-time while I did something else. Or I did this on the side." You worked in a multi-million dollar business, you learned how to sell. You learned about store operations, loss prevention. You learned about visual merchandising. You learned POS, cash management. You learned how to work on a team, how to navigate dysfunction on a team. I can give you 20 more. So don't just sit here and say, "This was a part-time gig."

Bob: I love that.

Ron: Let's be intentional with the words that we use and say, "I worked part-time retail, and this is what I gained from it. And because of those skills, now I'm ready to take on a corporate role," something that's maybe more related to their degree, but I don't think we've given them the language to use and the pride. So if you sit and pridefully say, "These are all the things I learned by working part-time at the Gap." I don't know a hiring manager that wouldn't be blown away by that conversation and be ready for...

Bob: They talk about the position too, right? It starts with the way that they talk about, "This is a part-time job. Checking in, checking out, whatever." Well, I don't want to lose a few more questions I have for you, Ron. So, can you give me a time you were scared by a change you had to make with your crew and how you overcame it?

Ron: Scared is an interesting word because I would say April 2020, I was probably the most scared as a leader I've ever been. And that's not unique to me, but I think everyone that led retail in 2020 had a scary moment of like, "I don't know what's going to happen." And I will never forget those calls, the Zoom call, where I had to put 400 people on furlough and say, "My only intention is to work as hard as I can to get every store back up and then get you back to work." And that was one of those moments. It was myself, a director of Store Ops, head of HR. A handful stayed and we had to put everyone else on furlough. And that was a Gap Inc. decision. Not all brands did that. A lot of brands figured out how to pay their people. We didn't.

And I couldn't change that decision because that was bigger than me. But what I could change is how did it make them feel and trust that their commitment to stay and wait for me to get the store back open was fully intact. And as states started to reopen and things happen, 100% of the stores reopened, 100% of people came back, some faster than others. But yes, I do remember that and I remember being scared of like, "I hope I can keep my promise." [crosstalk 00:28:48] my career.

Bob: That's a great story for us, Ron, because I think an awful lot of people got scared and then didn't have that communication and they're reaping the consequences because the employees felt disposable and they said, "I don't want to do that again." Regardless of their intentions, what they remember is the feeling. So, well, we're coming to the end of our time here. What do you have planned for 2022?

Ron: Oh, thanks, Bob. I'd love to talk about this because I think you and I are going to align on this really well. So I am leaving New York City in an Airstream trailer spring, probably February, March of 2022 to go on a tour that I'm calling Retail in America. That is about the stories of what is happening in stores all over this country, outside of the big American city. And that will be probably my own podcast and YouTube channel and a lot of other things, maybe some generous sponsors, and make this a really big deal about what's happening in retail and the people doing that work, which I know you love every day, that's what you do. And this will be a really great opportunity to showcase their stories. I'm calling it the journey to discover the unsung retail heroes and what's happening out there.

Bob: That's beautiful. I love that.

Ron: Thank you. It's going to be a lot of fun. I have never really done camping. I've really never driven an F-250 truck. Doesn't matter. I'm going to figure it out and make this happen and spend all of 2022 on the road.

Bob: Well, at least you're doing an Airstream, which is classic. So at least you'll look good.

Ron: If I'm going to be on camera that much, you got to have a good backdrop.

Bob: Well, that's fabulous. And to close our episode here, tell me something good about retail.

Ron: It's every single person who has made the choice to commit to a life of service is what's good about retail. And that is a powerful place to think is that I've chosen a life of service. And that sounds very dramatic, but it's true. You're in service to the customer. You're in service to each other, to the brands you work for. I find it so empowering to say that that is the choice that you've made. And that's what's great about retail. And people that do it, they may not use that word, but it's how they live their life.

Bob: I love that idea and then service to each other is the key that makes the team. And when you go into a store, you can feel it when they're doing it well. And I think, unfortunately too often, when we see people in their phones, it's just a red flag that says, "I don't feel that and I would love to be out of here." But I don't want to be out of here, but our time is up today, Ron. I really appreciate you joining us. And I'm expecting great videos from the Airstream in 2022.

Ron: You will see them. Yes, we should...there's a lot you and I can do together. So maybe more to come.

Bob: Excellent. Well, thanks so much, Ron.

Ron: Thank you, Bob.

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