The retail industry employs millions. Yet most people don’t end up there by design, that’s why Ron Thurston wrote Retail Pride. An indispensable guide for every retail employee, manager, and multi-store leader looking to accelerate their potential and grow their career. It’s filled with straightforward, practical tips for developing your talents, connecting with customers, and building your relationship skills.
Based on more than 25 years of Ron’s retail leadership experience, you’ll discover a sense of belonging in the words of someone who has been a champion for the industry and who shares your journey.
Drew Applebaum: Hey listeners, my name is Drew Applebaum, I’m excited to be here today with Ron Thurston, author of Retail Pride. Ron, I’m excited you’re here, welcome to the Author Hour podcast.
Ron Thurston: Thank you, Drew, I appreciate that.
Drew Applebaum: Tell us a little bit about your professional background?
Ron Thurston: Thank you, I’ve been in retail leadership roles for some of the most incredible, well known American brands for over 25 years. For many people that work in the industry, similar to me, it was an accident. And you often discover, through retail leadership, that this is something that you thoroughly enjoy. You dig in hard, you find great companies to work for, and your career continues to blossom.
For me, that actually started early on as a department store trainee and moved into working for 10 years for The Gap. This was in the early 90s which, at the time, was really part of their hay day. They really dug deep into my personal development, which is something that I’ve worked hard to instill in others around me, “What training opportunities do you need? Where do you want to invest time? How can we get you to your next step? Where can we support you?”
That continued my growth from sales, into assistant managers, to store managers, and then district manager. I worked in corporate visual merchandising. I had a really incredible career that then grew into some of the other brands in the industry like Tory Burch, Saint Laurent, and Apple.
Today I’m the Vice President of Storage for Intermix, which is a division within The Gap. I’m happy to be back here.
Drew Applebaum: What was your inspiration for the book and what happened that you decided now is the time I want to write it?
Ron Thurston: I started a blog called Retail Fitness, about five years ago, because the messaging in the industry was really about the retail apocalypse. I took, kind of, personal offense to that terminology and said, this is not an apocalypse. Things are changing but this industry is incredibly powerful and larger than most people believe it is and it needs to be celebrated.
I started this blog to understand how other people were thinking and feeling about what was happening. The response was incredibly positive. I took a lot of that content that I wrote on the blog and said, “You know, I’m going to hold this, I’m running a large company today.” Writing a blog every week was more than I could handle. The summer of last year, a few things happened.
I was nominated to the board of directors for Goodwill in New York and New Jersey. At that point, I really said to myself, I actually have a skillset now that translates across, really any industry within retail. I have a message that resonates, I have a kind of celebratory idea that works really well, whether it’s in Goodwill, whether it’s in luxury, whether it’s in pharmacy, grocery, it’s all retail.
I settled into that idea. Then I did some other personal men’s group work last summer and I discovered that I had a couple of health issues. I said, “You know what? Right now, is the time to take all of this knowledge, all of the unique messaging that I have, and put it into a book.” I contacted Scribe and last October, I went through the guided author workshop, and here we are, a year later.
Drew Applebaum: Awesome. Now, let’s get into the book and let’s rewind all the way to the beginning. You’re coming out of high school and you have the opportunity to go work for a successful family company and you chose to pivot and go your own way. A lot due to the influence of your grandfather in your life. Can you talk about that early decision and a little bit about your grandfather?
Ron Thurston: Yeah, I’d love to. The book is dedicated to him because he was someone who built a large organization, a large construction company that built most of the Safeway stores on the west coast. The idea of watching him lead an organization in a way that, to me, felt very much about human connection and about pride and your work and about building culture within a company.
In high school, I traveled with him, often to construction sites, and watched him in action as a CEO and how he greeted the team, what he spoke about, how he celebrated their work. How he was eternally grateful, and he always had a positive attitude. Those were really leadership qualities that I admired so greatly in him, but construction just was not my passion.
I dreamed of spending every day with him, but working in construction, he and I had this conversation that this is not my love. My love is probably in fashion and design and something at the time and I didn’t actually know what it was, but I knew it was going to be retail.
He fully supported me in that journey to study something different and to completely walk away from a family business. At the same time, he continued to mentor me, he continued to ask questions, helped me figure out how I was leading, and he would give me feedback. I’m really grateful for that influence that I had from a family member that you can really see in action. It was an important influence even in how I lead today.
Drew Applebaum: Tell us about your start in the retail world and why you have so much passion for it, where does it come from?
Ron Thurston: The passion comes from having spent so many years in this industry, hiring hundreds of people, opening hundreds of stores over the last two decades, spending time sitting and listening to store teams in my travels. Watching, the evolution and particularly what’s happening today, which I’m sure we’ll touch on. But the passion comes from the fact that retail is an enormous industry, it’s one of the biggest employers in this country.
It is reported and you know, things this year have shaken this up a bit, but one in four people work in retail–42 million people work in retail. The size and scale of it is under-spoken about. Under-celebrated. The hard work that goes into being a great retail employee in general. There are an enormous number of components that go into great retail–stock sales, leadership, buying, planning, merchandising, loss prevention, human resources, store design.
My passion really came from the fact that I continued to meet people who had fallen into this by accident, often. Who loves what they do, and their own drive for this business keeps them going. That really drives my passion and I wrote the book to speak to them. I’m not writing a book about what the future of retail looks like. I didn’t write a book about how they can change their company culture.
I wrote a book for everyone that actually works in stores that doesn’t have a voice, that doesn’t have someone to celebrate them, thank them for their hard work, maybe give them some helpful insights and be that person that can drive the concept of celebratory career advancement. That, every day, excites me.
Drew Applebaum: Now, you mentioned in the book that early on, you would cringe a little bit when people asked what you did. And I think there’s an overall feeling that some retail workers are a little ashamed of what they’re doing or they don’t feel like it’s this great job that they want to talk about and tell their friends about.
Why do people feel this way, especially when so many people are involved in the retail sector?
Ron Thurston: I think part of it is driven by the fact that this is not an industry that requires one specific kind of educational path or degree. It’s something that you often learn along the way. That is versus the title of doctor, lawyer, where there is an accredited degree that goes behind that scale or that title. If I say, “I work in retail,” people say, “That’s nice, you work in the mall? Gosh, that must be really hard.”
That’s how I grew up, people saying that to me. My response was “No, actually I love it. I love running a store, I love running a multimillion-dollar business and the complexities that go into it.” I would just kind of brush it off and that they just don’t really get it because they’ve not worked in retail.
Here we are, 20 years later, from people asking me that question and it’s still the question I get when people ask, “What do you do?” Then I say, “I run stores.” And they respond, “Okay, well that’s nice.” Because there’s no path that says this is what success looks like, this is who you should follow, this is what you should do, it’s very much self-taught, it’s very much about creating your path.
For those reasons, some people are a bit ashamed of it. Because you’ve created it on your own, and maybe have not been as successful as you wanted it to be. But I take the opposite approach of, “You can own this; you can move from it being accidental to intentional. You can choose great companies to work for and great leaders to have around you.”
The message is, it’s time for it to stop, for us to stop saying that this is accidental. To say that you’ve chosen an intentional career. Now, let’s create the path that you want to take.
The Power of Leadership
Drew Applebaum: Now, for a lot of retail workers, you work long shifts, you work on your feet, and you’re dealing with people, and it’s not the easiest. How do retail workers remain positive during all of this?
Ron Thurston: At the end of the day, it’s really the leadership around you that creates that positivity. To give you an example, often the store manager, general manager, store director, whatever title you want to use, sets the tone for that particular store.
For me, that person is often the top of the pyramid because everything that happens from a customer experience, employee experience, often the business, starts with a great store manager. Where brands often fall down is, that you can have great multi-store leadership, district managers, regional managers, heads of stores.
But store managers drive that culture. That positivity and momentum and energy and drive often starts with great store managers who hire great people, and who build it from there. I see it every day on LinkedIn. That is part of the reason why I’m also so active on there because I see pictures every day of store teams, even today, wearing masks, smiling behind their mask, and having so much fun.
That drive really sets, I think, this industry apart in what they do every day, even when it’s really tough like it is right now.
Drew Applebaum: Now, you mentioned company culture and you go into that in the book. When you become a leader at a retail store, you can create your own culture. But how much is that actually your individual culture that you could bring, and what does the balance look like between that and the corporate culture that you have coming from above?
Ron Thurston: I personally believe that we all can influence the culture of the team, your store, your company, your industry–we all influence culture. It is about making the decision of not just following, but leading. Of not just sitting back and letting it happen to you, but to be that voice. Be active in what you want your culture to be in whatever capacity you are today in this industry. That can mean a variety of different things. It could be how we are recognized, how we are compensated, how we commit to the customer experience, what we need to do for merchandising. Culture can come from any direction.
Great company culture starts in the store in retail and again, I go back to the store managers. Great store managers can change the entire company culture by the decisions and the success that they have and then bring that forward. Companies can continue to evolve and thrive and learn about what’s working in the store from the voice in the store coming through the voice of the customer, but everyone plays a part in that.
I think where some of that lack of pride has come from is that when you are not intentionally owning your career, you are also more likely to just sit back and let the culture happen to you. Instead of saying, “You know what? I really love what I’m doing. I am going to step forward and say, ‘If we did this, this would be even better.’ I am going to play an active role in changing this company.” I speak about that often that culture doesn’t just start with those of us in senior leadership roles. It starts in the store.
Empathy, Curiosity, Focus
Drew Applebaum: Let’s say you want to further your career in retail, what are the areas that you should focus on and try to gain expertise in?
Ron Thurston: I write about three specific areas that, for me, translate across every role in the store. The first one is empathy, and we thought how important empathy is, and that being a great salesperson, being a great retailer is about putting yourself in the shoes of the customer, and asking, “Where can I add value?” I think today that conversation on empathy is bigger than ever and you hear it spoken about often now because everyone is in a really unique place in how they are experiencing retail. Number one empathy.
Number two, curiosity. Great retail starts with being curious. Asking great questions of each other, asking questions of the customer, asking questions of your company, and continuing to be curious. That curiosity feeds culture and so if I constantly think, “I am going to be very empathetic today. I am going to be highly curious so that everything that’s happening I am asking why is it happening? What are we doing? How can I serve you better?”
The third pillar is really focus. I say focus because the retail environment can feel like chaos. And great retail starts with the focus of this is what I want to accomplish today, “This is who I need to get that done.” It is usually the goals we set that then let us create the action around it. You can sense sometimes in retail when it is not executed well that they’re not focusing their time and energy where they need to be. I do put empathy, curiosity, and focus as the pillars. If you did those three things really well, in any role in this industry, that builds success.
Drew Applebaum: You mentioned building up to retail leadership and you also say your book differs from the traditional leadership book. How is it different?
Ron Thurston: So, it’s written in my voice, and that’s someone who has done the work, and understands the challenges, understands the pride that comes with this industry. Understands what the language is that’s commonly used. As I thought about the journey of this book and writing a book for retail, when I was really doing my research I thought, “What books did I go back and look at?”
Some of them come from some of the best leadership authors. Some of them like One Minute Manager have been around now for decades. They’re always a go-to, but I, even myself, have hosted conferences and tried to take some of these leadership books and recreate them for retail. So, my goal here was to say, “Let’s create.” I wanted to create something that was written in a way that anyone that works in the store would pick this up and see all of these quotes, see all of this kind of language, and know, “I get it, he gets it. I understand that, that makes sense to me.”
The layout of the book is chunky with quotes pulled out. It’s an easy read but that’s intentional. It is meant to not be so serious. It is meant to be something you could pick up, have a moment, say, “You know what, I appreciate that sentiment. I am going to take that to my team today.” I feel strongly that there isn’t anything out there today that speaks in a language that’s specifically for store teams.
Drew Applebaum: Now, if you jump into retail, you decide this is the career for you, what are some ways to get ahead? Let’s say you jump in and you decide it’s not the career for you but you’ll stay for a while. What kind of skills are you going to learn that could translate elsewhere?
Ron Thurston: God, I mean the list goes on. So, if I just use an example off the top of my head–I come in, I’m hired as a salesperson. We’ll just start there, a part-time salesperson. So immediately what you are going to learn is how to work with your team, how to engage with each other. So, starting from all the elements of the store environment, how do we engage with each other?
How do I create a team, what is the culture of this store, what’s my influence in that, and what does the general team dynamic look like? From there I am learning how to engage with the customer. I am developing skills around empathy. Learning how to be curious, learning how to be focused on the customer. I am learning these human interaction skills. I am likely to learn some business acumen, goals for the day, and how to set my own goals.
What are the store goals for the day? How do we achieve them? How do we work together as a team to achieve these goals? I am learning the metrics of the business. I am learning whatever the product is that I’m selling. You are learning product knowledge, whether you’re working in a drugstore, whether you are working in Whole Foods, whether you are working in luxury. Any of these brands, there’s a level of product knowledge.
It needs to happen so there is continuing education that happens from there. And then, visual merchandising is an important part of every retail business. So, you learn what great visual merchandising looks like. How do I do things that appeal to the customer? How do I replenish the floor? All these are the components of a great visual experience.
So, there are a variety of things, and those are just a handful. But even six months on a job in retail like that, you have already learned all of this human behavior, all of these customer interaction skills, and customer engagement, and a good part of how a multimillion-dollar business operates.
Shifting Retail Landscape
Drew Applebaum: Now you hinted at this before, you knew this question was coming. Talk to us about some of the changes to the industry that might come due to everything going on in 2020.
Ron Thurston: It’s a bit of an unknown but here’s what I feel confident about–we knew that e-commerce was going to continue to tick up in the overall percentage of total commerce in the world. We knew that this was going to continue to evolve this way. We knew that many brands overbuilt the number of retail malls and overbuilt physical locations. What COVID has done has really taken that idea of what was going to happen and put it on fast forward.
So, here we are today, there are brands that have too many retail locations that need to close a significant number of stores. There is an intensity on store performance, there is a level of customer experience that needs to be better than ever because we really are re-engaging with the audience.
Where I think, again, the news is pushing this in a direction that is a bit confusing to the general public, is that even as the growth and e-commerce continues to happen and this year it is estimated to grow at 30 to 40% rate. For example, 11% of total commerce in this company was done digitally. 89% of retail last year was done in brick and mortar stores. And so, this year that trended up, and that 30% growth has created about a 14.5% of total commerce done through digital, which still leaves 85% of the industry at brick and mortar.
So, e-commerce is growing, brick and mortar is on a slight decline but still generating 85% of the commerce in this country and it is estimated that it is going to continue. E-commerce will continue to tick up about one percentage point each year. So by 2024, it’s estimated to be about 18% done on e-commerce and 82% brick and mortar. What the news does push this in the direction of the retail apocalypse and I keep bringing this back and saying, “This is not an apocalypse. This is a shift in how we operate.”
This is a shift in the relevance of retail. This is reconnecting with brands. This is about our relevance to the everyday customer and getting them back in the door in a safe and healthy way, getting our teams back. It’s certainly not been easy for, I’ll just say, anyone outside of some Targets and Whole Foods. There have been some brands that did well. But the rest of us are on a climb back. But our importance in the world, our importance to how we connect in communities all over the country, for me, has never been more important.
Drew Applebaum: Ron, writing a book is no joke, it’s no small feat. So, first of all, congratulations on finishing and publishing your book.
Ron Thurston: Thank you.
Drew Applebaum: Now, if readers could take away one thing from your book, what would it be?
Ron Thurston: One of the biggest industries in this country is filled with millions of people who are really proud of what they do. Take the opportunity for those people that you know that work in retail, that have worked in retail, that have worked hard and on weekends and nights, and really thank them. Thank them for their hard work and their dedication and help them celebrate their career. Because they love their career and they don’t always get the recognition from everyone around them of what goes into running a multimillion-dollar business.
I want readers to take away one thing, which is, “This is an incredible choice that you’ve made and be really grateful for the contributions that you make in the world.”
Drew Applebaum: Awesome. Ron, this has been such a pleasure and I am excited for people to check out the book. Everyone, the book is called, Retail Pride, and you could find it on Amazon. Ron, besides checking out the book, where can people find you?
Ron Thurston: Go to retailpride.com or you can find me on LinkedIn. I am pretty active there.
Drew Applebaum: Awesome. Ron, thank you so much for coming on the show today.
Ron Thurston: Thanks, Drew.