When Jessica Simpson shows up at Macy’s to promote her latest wares, chances are Bernice Clark Bonnett ’85, senior vice president of marketing, helped make that appearance happen. Of course, there’s more to retail than glamorous celebrities. Clark talked with Barnard about being an executive at one of the country’s most popular, and one of the world’s most famous, department stores, and how she lures shoppers into this retail behemoth, even in a tough economy.
The job market in retail may be tight, as it is in many other industries today, but whether the stock market is up or down, Clark says, many young women fresh out of college are still starting successful retail careers. In fact, the industry needs their input to make sense of the latest trends playing out on fashion blogs and Web sites.
“One of the cool things about retail is that it’s a constantly evolving business,” Clark says. “How you reach people and draw them into the stores is constantly changing.”
Clark never envisioned herself as a top marketing executive when she graduated from Barnard. A double-major in sociology and piano performance, she did have an interest in business and decided to find a job in an advertising agency where she could learn about many different fields at the same time. She wanted to keep her future options wide open. “I didn’t want to get locked into any industry right away,” Clark says. She worked for a wide range of clients during her 15-year career at top-tier agencies such as Leo Burnett in Chicago, and Young & Rubicam and Saatchi & Saatchi in Manhattan. Her accounts included Colgate-Palmolive (International), DuPont, AT&T, and Kellogg’s cereals. “I still know way more about cereal than I should talk about at a cocktail party,” Clark admits with a laugh.
She doesn’t like playing favorites, but she always had a particular fondness for her retail clients, such as Sears and KitchenAid. Clark enjoyed walking into stores to see what people were buying and tried to figure out why.
She could see the fruits of her efforts firsthand, and didn’t have to wait for sales numbers to figure out whether a marketing strategy was working.
When she moved to Minneapolis in 2003, she started looking specifically for a job in retail and found one at Marshall Field & Co., where she served as a vice president of marketing. Four months later, her job changed when her boss left the company. Clark took on a bigger leadership role, reporting directly to the company’s president. She had to learn very quickly how to work with the retailer’s many different divisions, as well as with outside merchants and vendors.
“The marketing department of a retailer is like its own mini ad agency,” Clark explains. “The merchandising and marketing groups work very closely with the merchants, and then you also have a creative department and a production department.”
Clark learned how to manage multiple teams of people. She had been overseeing one team of 45; now four teams with about 150 people answered to her. The circumstances were difficult since the company was undergoing a lot of changes. Employees felt uneasy and were nervous about their jobs, she explains. “Would I want to go through it again?” she asks, then says, “No, but it was a very big experience for me, a growing experience for me.”
Clark didn’t have to wait long for big changes again at Marshall Field’s. Macy’s (then as Federated Department Stores) officially acquired Marshall Field’s, whose Chicago flagship store had a history in the Windy City stretching back more than a century. In 2006, all the Marshall Field’s stores were renamed Macy’s. Clark began developing and carrying out marketing strategies for Macy’s north division. Then the 2008 recession hit, and consumer spending came to a screeching halt. At the same time, Macy’s began consolidating some of its operations in New York City; Clark’s job title changed several times, and ultimately she was transferred to Manhattan. In her current position she leads Macy’s nationwide merchandise marketing efforts, planning seasonal promotion campaigns, and weekly promotional events for the Internet, television, radio, magazines, and newspapers.
Like all department stores, Macy’s has definitely felt the pains of the recent recession. But no matter what the economic climate, Clark says, people will always need new clothes and appliances. They just won’t shop for them as often. That means department stores like Macy’s have to compete harder than ever for their share of that business. “People are not going to stop shopping,” Clark avers. “It’s how often they shop and what they buy that are all variable.”
In any economy, it’s a mixture of products and promotions that draws people into stores. And it’s Clark’s job to figure out the right mix for each targeted shopper. Americans love celebrities, and an appearance by Jennifer Lopez or Martha Stewart is a surefire way to increase foot traffic. But celebrities are just one piece of the retail giant’s marketing strategy. Clark says creating lasting, long-term relationships with shoppers is also key, and holiday events like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, now part of American culture, are critical to that effort.
Without a doubt, the Internet is changing Americans’ shopping habits, Clark says, and it has changed the way her marketing team works, too. She now has young staffers who spend their days checking blogs, updating Facebook statuses, and tweeting about various store promotions on Twitter. But the Internet hasn’t stopped people from wanting to shop in actual bricks-and-mortar stores, where they can touch and see what they may have already looked at online. “People love the physical experience of shopping,” Clark asserts. “And the best stores create a sense of discovery.... That little discovery is an emotional win for people that’s hard to quantify.”
Creating that sense of discovery takes vision and a lot of planning. Clark is always thinking months or even a year ahead, figuring out which product lines Macy’s should promote and lining up events at various stores across the country. On the same day, she may work on a Christmas promotion and meet with designers about a spring or summer clothing line. “The calendar is emblazoned on my brain,” Clark says.
“I’m always thinking a few months or even a year ahead.”
And every day, she and her staff carefully track which promotions worked and which ones didn’t. Clark admits that building a 50-person team based in New York to manage Macy’s national marketing campaigns hasn’t always been easy. Some of her new employees had their lives turned upside down after being relocated to New York City. She’s empathetic and, having moved between the Midwest and East Coast, knows personally how stressful moving can be, whether it’s finding a local grocery store or a new doctor.
Clark’s goal is to keep everyone focused on the big picture and what they’re all trying to accomplish every day as a team.
“You have to cheerlead a little bit, and have a little fun with it, so people don’t get caught up in what’s hard about it.” Clark declares, “You have to get past the frustrations that come with change.”
Optimistic about job prospects in retail, she says there are opportunities available for the persistent and dedicated, and internships are a great place to start. Macy’s, for example, has an eight- to 10-weeks summer internship program; the company also offers 12- week executive-development programs in various divisions. The programs are highly competitive; the work may be at times tedious. “I would never sugarcoat this for anyone,” Clark confesses. “Any time you start out in a career, there are some things you love doing, and some things you don’t. But anything you’re asked to do has some importance even if it seems small. It’s relevant in some way.”
The retail industry is changing every day, and the input of young people is critical to department stores such as Macy’s. Fresh out of college, they know firsthand the latest consumer trends so crucial to marketers as they try to reach potential customers via their computers, mobile phones, and iPads.
“This is an idea business,” Clark explains. “And ideas are not driven by age or experience. If you have insight, you have [the] ability to contribute.”
Gale Epstein just wanted to give Lida Orzeck a birthday present, an underwear set she sewed from hand-embroidered handkerchiefs. But Orzeck had bigger plans as she admired Epstein’s handwork back in 1977. “A light bulb went off,” affirms Orzeck.
People would buy them, she decided then and there, and they could make them. It seemed improbable. Epstein was working for a sweater company, while Orzeck was working as a social psychologist for the City of New York. But Epstein sewed some samples, and Orzeck took them from store to store, “not knowing what I was doing,” she admits. Stores liked what they saw, and she didn’t have any trouble selling the handmade panties. “We were in business just like that,” says Orzeck. “Stores were eager to discover new brands. That was the late ’70s; it was a very exciting time.”
Today, Hanky Panky is a multi-million dollar company; its thongs and T-shirts are essentials for fashion- and comfort- conscious women. Orzeck is CEO, and Epstein is president and creative director. And they are still good friends. “That doesn’t happen [too] often,” she notes.
Hanky Panky hasn’t done much traditional advertising. People have learned about the brand through friends or store clerks. “Hanky Panky has had the good fortune of growing through buzz,” Orzeck says. The company had generated so much buzz among its well- heeled celebrity clients that The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story about it. Without hesitating, she can recall the date her life changed forever: June 18, 2004.
It was everything they had every hoped for, but their small company wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of demand for their lingerie. The pair had been handling almost all aspects of the business, and now they had to work 24/7 just to keep up with orders. “Our dream turned into a nightmare temporarily,” reveals Orzeck. “We were bombarded with requests for goods, and we ran out of our entire inventory in two months. Literally. It definitely took a few years off my life.”
Six years later, Hanky Panky has a staff of about 150 employees, and Orzeck has learned how to delegate, if for no other reason than to keep her sanity. Now she’s truly a chief executive with a staff that can pretty much run the company. “I have my life back,” she says. She hasn’t stopped taking on challenges though. The company recently launched its own Web site, something they had hesitated to do for several years. Stores were anxious about brands selling directly to customers a few years ago. They saw it as competition, not an opportunity for partnerships. All that’s changed now, and stores realize the Internet isn’t a threat.
“It took a while for that understanding to develop,” Orzeck says.
Hanky Panky may be late to the Internet, but the company is having fun with its new venture. Customers even can log on and personalize their own pair of undies. Questionable phrases are run by Orzeck, and so far, only three inquiries have been made. “All of them passed muster,” she notes.
Needless to say, Orzeck is always looking for young talent. Hanky Panky hires between six to 10 interns in the fall and summer; several interns have even been hired after their graduation. The company is still relatively small, plus since the products are made in the New York metro area, employees get a good sense of what goes on with all aspects of the company. “When someone is working here they get a pretty good understanding of how the business runs,” Orzeck says, and she offers sound advice for young people interested in a career in fashion. If you want to work for a company, do your homework. Really learn about it, and let the hiring manager know it in a well- written cover letter. “And there better not be typos,” Orzeck says. “I won’t consider any applicant with a bad cover letter.”
Most young retail executives start their careers by interning or graduating from in- store training programs. Others work their way up the administrative ranks. Morgan Seidler began her career in fashion retail a little differently. After graduation, she went to Brooklyn Law School. In the summer of 2006, she was a law student working as a summer associate at the Warnaco Group, which owns and licenses brands like Calvin Klein. That’s when she realized she wanted to work in fashion, not in a law office. “I wanted to work more with the actual product than the legal issues,” Seidler says.
“I told myself that if I can find a job at the end of the summer, I’m not going back to law school.”
She didn’t have any family or professional connections in retail, but Seidler didn’t go back to law school. She landed a job that fall at Tommy Hilfiger, working in an entry-level position in the store-planning department. A year later, Phillips-Van Heusen hired her as an analyst, promoting her to senior analyst a few months later. Now she’s director of merchandising, planning, and analysis. She’s working on both the financial and merchandising side of the business, and playing a key role in getting the clothing maker’s wares into stores. “So many aspects start and end with us,” Seidler says. “We’re the first division to do the research and development work. We do the postmortem. We really hit on every aspect of the process.”
On the financial side, she handles budget planning, analyzes sales figures, and comes up with revenue projections. She also works with merchandising to design the clothes, and then figures out the best stores to try sell them in. Should a shirt be short- or long-sleeved? Should it be sold in a big chain or a regional department store or a small boutique? How much should they stock? Those are the questions she grapples with daily. She’s always thinking about the future, and the next line.
It’s no surprise the recession made her job a lot harder. The spring 2008 was rough in terms of sales, but it wasn’t just because people were broke and out of work; they didn’t like what stores were selling either. “In retail, if you can offer exceptional products, people are going to buy them,” Seidler says. “When we have done poorly it’s because [shoppers] just didn’t like what we were making.”
Seidler admits she’s taken an unconventional career path in fashion retail. “And certainly not one I would recommend,” she says. She’s trying to help future Barnard graduates find their way more easily. By creating a social and professional network for fellow alumnae who work in retail. Barnard’s Web site lists such alumnae, but it doesn’t provide many details, she explains. “Retail can mean a lot of different things,” Seidler says. “I think it would be nice to organize a little bit.”
So far, she’s spoken on a couple of panels, and she’s taught a retail math class. She’s anxious to do more. For now, though, her advice to young Barnard graduates anxious to become employed in the world of fashion is simple: “Keep your head up and be resourceful.” Sometimes all it takes to kick start a retail career is a friendly smile and a willingness to work, no matter how menial the task. “As a receptionist, you work hard and smile and people are grateful,” Seidler asserts. “I’ve seen several of our receptionists get promoted very quickly.”
Even in a tough economy, jobs can be found. “I would be mindful of the companies that are most likely to hire, and keep at it,” she says. “Eventually you’ll get a break.”
Laura Kenkel wanted to do something in fashion even before she graduated from Barnard. But she had a hard time meeting potential employers. “Why would they want to hire someone who is a psychology major?” she asks.
For a while, she thought about becoming a fashion journalist. Then during her junior year, she won a scholarship from the YMA Fashion Scholarship Fund. The program helps place students in summer internship programs at fashion companies. Kenkel landed at Macy’s Merchandising Group, in the product development department. She forgot about becoming a journalist. “I liked that I could affect the product,” she says. “I wasn’t just writing about it. I got to have a hand in making it, too.”
Kenkel is now a product assistant and a trainee in Macy’s highly competitive, 18-month executive development program. Trainees are full-time employees, but they also give a full presentation about their goals and objectives while they’re in the program. Typically, trainees don’t get to choose where they work. But her former bosses in product development liked her work as an intern so much, they requested that she work with them again. Now she’s working on Macy’s in-store clothing brands for its trendiest department—juniors. “That’s why it’s fun,” enthuses Kenkel. “Juniors are the easiest fashions to translate from the runways. You can just play more.”
Basically, she functions as a liaison between designers and buyers at Macy’s. It’s not exactly as glamorous as it might sound. She spends her days answering e-mails and making sure orders arrive on time. She’s busy getting samples to advertisers, or dealing with vendors and buyers to make sure everyone is happy. There are plenty of chances to be creative, too. “I really like that I get to do a variety of things,” says Kenkel. “I’m not always just sitting at my computer.”
Some days, she works with designers to help figure out what clothes young girls will like. Would a skirt be cuter with a shorter hem or does a shirt need an updated look with new buttons? Other days, she’s pulling together outfits for photo shoots in magazines like Teen Vogue or Seventeen. “I feel close to the product,” Kenkel affirms. “I’m not too far away from being the customer. I feel like I can give valuable feedback.”
One of the best ways to find out what young women are wearing is to scour the Internet. Not because young girls are shopping more online. Plenty of customers still want to try clothes on in stores, just for the adventure of finding that perfect item. But the Internet is changing the way customers and retailers communicate. Sites like Polyvore.com let people mix and match clothes from different stores and then share their ideas. Retailers can see what people are sharing, and whether or not their clothes are popular.
Social media sites like Facebook are good for both research and advertising. Meanwhile, more young women are creating their own Web sites and fashion blogs, too. Product developers like Kenkel read them religiously to see what looks trendsetters are creating. In fact, she feels so close to her customers, her biggest challenge may be separating her own likes and dislikes from theirs. Sometimes items that she never imagined would sell well fly off the store shelves.
“You have to get over your own biases, and do what’s best for the business,” Kenkel insists. “I may not like it, but will it work? That can be tricky.”
-by Amy Miller, photographs by Dorothy Hong