NEW YORK — Marc Schneider, chief executive officer of Kenneth Cole Productions, shared his thoughts about retail leadership to a packed classroom of graduate and undergraduate students Wednesday night at LIM College here.
The ceo, whose experience includes high-level posts at PVH Corp., Timberland Co., Macy’s and Melville Corp., said the most important thing when it comes to retail leadership is connecting with consumers. “I don’t have a job if I’m not respectful to my consumers or don’t connect with them,” he said.
He recalled when he was eight or nine and worked Saturdays in his father’s shoe store. His father put him in the stockroom, and told him that if they didn’t have a clean stockroom, they couldn’t sell anything. His father would take him to lunch at Friendly’s for a hamburger and when he’d ask him what time he closed the store, his father would say: “When the last consumer leaves.” His father told him that it was their customers who were paying for his house, his schooling and his clothing, which was a good lesson to learn early on.
In the old days, one’s choices were fashion or function. Today, there’s no more “or.”
“You guys can get everything, it’s and, and, and, and. You want a great sweater, you want great value, you want it delivered tonight, you don’t want to pay for delivery and you want to return it by tomorrow if you don’t like it and get your money back,” he said. He said these days there are no such things as time zones, borders or boundaries, “just opportunities.”
“You can complain or start to see opportunities,” he said.
Throughout his career, Schneider developed a knack as a merchant. He had no design talent and said if you left him in a room with a white wall, it would stay a white wall. Good merchants are critically important, he said. “They are business people who are looking to create opportunities with solutions,” he said. “I’m a merchant but a strategist at heart.”
The ceo said it’s important to have a focused strategy that encompasses e-commerce, the retail experience, marketing, advertising, merchandising, social media, production, and design. “Over time if you develop a focused strategy, you can prevent a lot of problems,” he said.
Interestingly, he told the students that people will hire them if they have a unique perspective that they no longer have. “Forty percent of our population at work [Kenneth Cole] are Millennials,” he said, noting that the company has set up wellness programs, yoga instruction and has even had ice cream trucks at the office.
Schneider told the students about Kenneth Cole’s start in business in 1982, and his renting of a truck to park outside the shoe show because he couldn’t afford a place to show. Cole found out that if he was doing a movie, he could park the truck by the shoe show. That was why Cole decided to name the company Kenneth Cole Productions. “They said they were going to make a movie about the making of a shoe company and got a license and truck. They didn’t have film in the camera,” said Schneider. “They sold 40,000 shoes out of that truck in one day.”
Schneider went through the company’s history, talking about Cole’s social activism and amfAR involvement, the launch of men’s and women’s apparel, going public and launching e-commerce in 2000. “We didn’t do much with e-commerce, we still haven’t done much with it,” he admitted.
He said in 2015, the company generated more than a $1 billion in sales. Schneider said one of his complaints is that the company doesn’t have enough global reach. When he asked the students whether they’ve seen Cole’s Courageous Class advertising campaign, few hands went up. “That’s bumming me out,” he said.
Schneider spoke about the company’s new store on Bond & Bowery that’s open 24/7. “We’ll open the store for you. Send us a text,” he said.
During the Q&A, a student asked Schneider what he thought about the movement to show fashion in-season, and how does it impact the Kenneth Cole brand? “I’m happy to see the change,” said Schneider. “It was an exclusive club for fashion week. I always thought there was a disconnect with couture, fashion runway and the average consumer. Fashion Week is geared to buyers and not the ultimate consumer. The idea of creating Fashion Week for the average consumer is very attractive to me.”
He said he was a fan of shortened lead times to get product from the factory to the consumer. He noted that Cole has been out of Fashion Week for three years. “We chose not to show,” he said, because the return on investment wasn’t there. “Now we’re looking to figure out ways to present ourselves.”
He said the company was “this close” to hiring a truck and taking it around the country to cities like Austin, Tex., and sell from the truck. “If you get a good response in Detroit, you can open a store in Detroit.”
Another student asked how they stay ahead of trends, and what strategy they use without losing their heritage. “You have to be in tune with lifestyle changes,” said Schneider, pointing to products like slip-on shoes for airports and outerwear fabrics that are lighter, thinner and warmer. “You can’t live off heritage.”