Retail math, product development, brand strategy: skill sets that are among the pillars of a merchandising or fashion design student’s education. The keynote speakers at the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture + Design's annual Retail + Detail Forum October 18 did not understate the importance of those perennials but shed light on the soft skills that are equally critical to success in the industry.
Be curious, invite new voices
“Be perpetually curious,” advised Laura Denk, most recently executive vice president and chief merchandising officer for The Michaels Organization. “Be childlike in your curiosity,” Denk reiterated. Addressing hundreds of students gathered in the Indiana Memorial Union’s Whittenberger Auditorium for the forum, the IU grad (B.S. ’94, Marketing) with 34 years in the retail industry emphasized fresh thinking and a willingness to get out of one’s comfort zone as tools crucial for success.
Denk, who had also held leadership positions at Macy’s and Claire’s, stated that especially in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the logic that “we’ve always done it this way” no longer provided justification for any particular approach. More than ever, Denk emphasized, success depends on inviting new voices and different perspectives into the decision-making process. Acknowledging that the pandemic tended to isolate colleagues from one another physically and may have prompted increased self-reliance, Denk countered that now is the time for teamwork — in the service of greater goals for equity and sustainability.
Work hard, work toward balance
In her own keynote, Suzanne Silverstein, president at JS Group, also emphasized relationship building — whether among peers, with one’s direct supervisor, or with customers. Even as work patterns change, the “proud IU alum” (B.A., ’93, English/Business) maintained the ongoing value of working in person at the office. “Nothing compares to in-person collaboration,” asserted Silverstein, who has also held executive positions at 7 For All Mankind and Saks Fifth Avenue. Citing her own long hours in the office as foundational to her growth, Silverstein acknowledged that she started her own consulting firm in the interest of greater work-life balance when her first child was born.
Be a good human at work
Existing in the corporate world as a person in full was also a theme of Brian Seewald’s talk. Senior Vice President of eCommerce at Express, Seewald acknowledged the humbling aspect of life in retail since early 2020, when he started his position. “We’ve gone from crisis to crisis since then,” he admitted. “The learning continues.” Seewald recounted a story from early in his career of having to face his supervisor after erroneously underpricing a line of dress shirts. Instead of admonishing him, the supervisor dispensed a simple bit of advice: “Make new mistakes next time.” The encouragement stuck, as did the humanity of the supervisor’s approach. “Be a good human being at work,” Seewald counseled students in the audience.
“The objective that we are striving to achieve with the forum is to give our students insight into the retail industry from key executives working in the industry,” said Deb Pearson, merchandising lecturer and co-director of the Center for Innovative Merchandising (CIM), which builds strategic partnerships between the Eskenazi School and the retail merchandising industry. Operating under the umbrella of CIM, the student-led Retail Studies Organization (RSO) mounts the annual forum, which also included break-out discussion sessions with the speakers. “The focus of this forum was for each speaker to shed light on hard and soft skill sets that our students need to be successful in the industry,” Pearson explained. “These executives help to validate what we are teaching.”
Getting a foothold in the industry
With around 320 members, RSO is among IU Bloomington’s largest student organizations. Joining RSO automatically conveys membership in the National Retail Federation – the world’s largest retail trade association – offering resources, networking opportunities and scholarship competitions in which Eskenazi students have excelled. Most recently, Sarah May (B.S. ’22, Merchandising) received a $10,000 tuition award as one of the country’s top five finalists for the 2022 NRF Foundation Next Generation Scholarship. (May’s story is available here.) The top five finalists for the 2023 scholarship will be announced next month.
Earlier this month, 44 RSO members participated in a field seminar to Columbus, Ohio, where they visited four retail companies headquartered there. Touring DSW, Victoria’s Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Bath & Body Works, students got to see abstract concepts such as product design, sourcing, distribution, and customer engagement in action.
“RSO aims to provide as many opportunities as possible to our members to network and gain professional development skills to build their careers in the retail industry,” said RSO Vice President of Programs Akshaya Singhal (B.A. ’23, Fashion Design). “It has helped me make connections with many industry professionals as well as further my knowledge about the industry.
Gearing up for fast-paced careers
“The fashion and retail industry is fast-paced and constantly changing,” Singhal said. “One thing that needs more development and focus is production of ethical and affordable plus-size clothing, which is an area I hope to develop personally as an industry professional one day.”
“The retail industry is known for its fast-paced nature and ability to adapt to the macro environment,” agreed RSO Vice President Kennedy Day (B.S. ’23, Merchandising). “Suzanne Silverstein spoke on this as a challenge as well as an opportunity for growth. Outside influences continue to allow innovation and excitement to the retail space.
“RSO has provided me with the necessary skills to grow in my own career,” concluded Day, who will be joining American Eagle Outfitters’ Merchandising Teammate program upon graduation. “The advisors and industry leaders we bring in each year have prepared me for success in the retail industry.”