View Slideshow

Editor’s Note: Think Tank is a periodic column written by industry leaders and other critical thinkers. Today’s column is written by Karen Harvey, chief executive officer of Karen Harvey Consulting Group.

This story first appeared in the October 11, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Have a comment? Offer your point of view below.

Why is change so hard to see until it is right in front of us? In searching for the next generation of ceo’s, we must recognize we are in a new omnichannel reality and embrace change. Instead of bemoaning the loss of an era when talent fit into a neat box — i.e., merchant, operator, financial — and grieving the death of merchant training programs, we must respond to this new reality in which the Merchant King dynasty is giving way to a new reign of the Marketing King.

In today’s omnichannel world, e-commerce represents high-double-digit percentages for many businesses’ volume, and the consumer defines the brand. Because merchants typically do not run e-commerce or digital, the traditional merchant role does not translate, lessening the merchant’s position and carving an opening for the Marketing King. My question is: How can we cultivate a generation of leaders where marketers are merchants and merchants are marketers?

First, let’s take three of retail’s most brilliant leaders today: Net-a-porter’s Natalie Massenet, Burberry’s Angela Ahrendts and Amazon Fashion’s Catherine Beaudoin. What do they have in common? They are evidence of a changed world, where breakthrough leaders hail from a variety of backgrounds. Angela was a merchant, Natalie came from journalism and Catherine started in marketing. What they do share is the “X factor” and an intimacy with the consumer that has made each a marketer.

This marketing is not what our industry thinks marketing is — it’s beyond public relations and communications. What I am speaking of is a laserlike focus on the consumer, integration of comprehensive data, storytelling, and a holistic perspective that cohesively connects across all channels. By being closest to the consumer and deeply understanding media, marketers are the new merchants.

Consumer intimacy was the role of merchants before they became number-crunching analysts. The best merchants are still those who are closest to the consumer. The problem is, they are often paying attention to the wrong data, and they’re not trained to read and analyze the most important information coming through the pipeline today.

The seamless approach required across e-commerce, mobile, social and brick and mortar has changed the game. Delivering the right product and consumer experience simultaneously changes both what our industry must do and what we need in leaders:

• Holistic — Companies must break down silos, and leaders must think in terms of holistic brand leadership rather than functional silos.

• Data-Driven — The next generation of leaders must understand data and use information to drive business, going beyond the right product in the right place at the right time, to the right offer for the right consumers in the right channel with the right voice.


• Consumer-Centric — Bring the consumer into the center of the conversation. Merchants must become consumer-centric, not myopically product-centric.

• Storytelling — This next generation of leaders must be great storytellers with a holistic view as brand managers to merge the analytics with compelling storytelling.

I know very few merchants today who have been groomed to understand how to harness these four critical aspects. This is not due to the lack of department store training — at this point, who cares? The bigger issue is our industry’s silos, which do not train merchants as general managers fully owning their P&L. If we want to save the relevancy of the merchant role, companies of scale must break down silos and think in terms of creating brand leaders with broad scope, rather than functional doers.

Traditionally, the merchant leader was the one with that 50/50 right-brain/left-brain balance platformed on great taste. Interestingly, this is true of marketers in other industries. If marketers don’t have good “eyes” and vision coupled with big ideas, they can’t be the next leader of Pepsi or L’Oréal. So merchants should become marketers — with the superior general management training, holistic brand view, storytelling ability, consumer closeness and data comprehension — and marketers should become merchants.

But how do we make this transition to a new paradigm without banking our stale hopes on the old merchant emerging as the new leader? There are two paths: 

• Partnership — It’s important we don’t swing the pendulum too far and abandon the merchant. Although the role of the marketer must grow, the role of the merchant is still key to the equation. The new reality requires a new close partnership between the marketer and merchant replacing the traditional union of merchant and operator.

• Recruiting and Grooming —   Consider marketers from business schools, social media and e-commerce. Look for the innate qualities traditionally screened for in hiring merchants — then teach them the industry as marketers. Take lessons from the beauty industry and others, where brand management is trained early on, encompassing marketing, merchandising, consumer data and product innovation.

These are not new concepts, just new to our industry. The image-driven consumer packaged goods companies and many international luxury brands have recruited talent from outside their industries for years. They search for inherent taste and balance of right-left brain thinking — qualities that make merchants great, but that merchants don’t have the market cornered on. These companies then train these potential leaders in product, fashion and brand codes — skills better suited to run brands than current merchandising skills.

We must figure this out. If not, the discipline most critical to building our brands up to now will be rendered irrelevant, and our industry as a whole will be left behind.

Karen Harvey founded Karen Harvey Consulting Group in 2001, where she is chief executive. The group specializes in executive search, professional development and brand incubation.

Click Here for the Latest ‘Think Tank’ Column >>

load comments
blog comments powered by Disqus