Macy’s CEO offers advice on building retail careers

By Lottie Watts
Published Nov 19, 2020

Throughout the fall, thousands of undergraduates nationwide participated in our inaugural NRF Foundation All Access program, taking the opportunity to learn more about how to build extraordinary careers with insights from the people who power retail.

The program wrapped up this week with a conversation with Macy's Chairman and CEO and NRF Foundation Board Chair Jeff Gennette. He joined NRF Foundation Executive Director and Retail Gets Real Host Bill Thorne for a wide-ranging discussion about the opportunities in the industry.

Here are some highlights from the conversation:

Where do you see the future of retail going?

I’d break it down into three words: convenience, value and experience.

Make something incredibly convenient for me. If you’re a brand that can give me time back, you’re going to be valuable to me. 

Value is different for different people. You may want to have something for the weekend, or you may want fast fashion because you expect to wear it once, or it may be something of endearing quality. The ability to look at all the data points of value is important.

What’s the experience in a store that’s going to be additive for me? That’s what we’re thinking about – the experience no matter where the customer is shopping. What is the experience online? It can’t just be price and access to product.

What kind of opportunities do you see for students?

The migration to online is here to stay. Think about what’s going to be required in terms of software engineers and what you need to do with creating experiences online. Anybody who is interested in supply chain, there is a future for you in retail. Every single brand right now is figuring out how to satisfy digital demand profitably. With the customer’s ability to search and compare, the retailer is on the hook to be profitable by the way that they operate that demand.

Where you start in retail doesn’t dictate where you end up. What was your path?

When I was going through college, I was an English major. I didn’t really have any skills outside of being a pretty good English student, so I wanted to get some quick management experience, so I started out at Macy’s Stamford in July of 1983.

I had this salty woman from Manchester, England in her mid 50s. She taught me all the rungs of how to be a manager. She kicked me up one side and off the other because she recognized that you might have talent, but you don’t know how to lead. You don’t know how to tell us what to do. You don’t know how to make this a better environment.

Over the course of a year, she taught me about retail, and is one of my greatest mentors ever. It was those formative years of learning how to sell and looking at how to match customers with products and benefits, and really listening to mentors and finding your passion.

How do you find people to learn from?

Sometimes you get lucky in that your mentors find you. In many cases, you have to find your own mentors. You have to find out what you need. What skillset am I missing? What perspective is missing? Who can I reach out to? Mentorship is a gift both ways, to be a mentor or be a mentee.

Think about your personal board of directors. Who are those people out there that have got your back that will give you unfiltered feedback? You need that in your career, no matter what you’re doing. Those people go with you, and you’re going to need them.

What advice do you have for people who are joining the industry?

I would offer advice to people today in the industry that’s different from my own career path. I’ve been with Macy’s for virtually all of my career. I don’t know that I would advise that today. There are opportunities to grow within a company, from one discipline or function to another. But there’s so much to be gained by looking at other types of retail and companies. What I’ve found about retail is that either you have passion for it, or you don’t.

There’s not enough great people for the great opportunities that we have. It still is an industry that doesn’t get its just desserts in terms of the right level and quantity of talent. We’ve got lots of jobs that remain open – even through a pandemic – for candidates that we’re developing now within our company, and candidates that we’re looking to recruit from outside the company. I’d say that if you’re good at retail, and you have a passion for it, and you’re ready to seize the day for the job that you’re in, you have got a bright future.

As we take the next couple of months to plan for spring virtual programming, we encourage you to check out the full-time job and internships featured on our job listings page. And If you missed any of the fall sessions, you can find them on our on-demand page.

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