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How retail is changing, from the women leading the charge

Women drive the majority of consumer spending in the United States. It sounds empowering, and, perhaps to many of my fellow women, it is.

But as a woman and rampant retail consumer, it often feels like a backhanded compliment. The message seems to be: We get that you’re exhausted fighting for a level playing field, but you could really show them who’s boss by buying more things like this, this, and this for your home or your closet. Headlines like, “20 Facts and Figures to Know When Marketing to Women” haven’t helped to change the fact that messages targeted at women tend to be more condescending than they are clear, concise, and honest.

Though I digest women-targeted messages with many grains of salt, I nonetheless came away from this year’s National Retail Federation’s Big Show feeling good about where the industry was going. I proclaimed that it was a good time to be a woman in retail, on both the employee and customer side. Retailers seemed to be listening to a diverse set of consumers, including women and gender-nonconforming individuals, and coming through with customer-centric solutions to meet a range of needs. Leaders spoke frankly about long-overdue organizational shifts on the back end required to execute it all.

[Related read: 5 trends from retail’s 2020 Big Show]

Of course, since I attended the Big Show in January 2020, the industry, the economy, and the world was forced to dramatically recalibrate—and there is, no doubt, more change coming. Yet, as Women’s History Month comes to a close, there is still cause to celebrate retail’s forward-thinking moves, as promised by its female leaders.

Personas of women are out; actual people are in

Broadening our concepts of who women are, as leaders, consumers, and human beings, is having an impact on how the business of retail is conducted.

“There’s no such thing as a single demographic,” says Jessica Laurea, VP of Brand at S’well. “We make a premium water bottle, but that doesn’t mean the customer doesn’t also want a coupon or to derive value. She could be in Neiman Marcus, Target, and Whole Foods on the same day.”

And when this shopping all happens online, it can become even more difficult to tell what “type” of customer a brand is selling to.

Retailers seemed to be listening to a diverse set of consumers, including women and gender-nonconforming individuals, and coming through with customer-centric solutions to meet a range of needs.

This is where direct-to-consumer businesses are stepping up to answer the call. Sabeen Mian, EVP of Merchandising at IPSY, a cosmetics subscription service, described how those challenges manifest in the beauty industry. The company is moving away from loaded terms such as “anti-aging,” for example, which implies that only one kind of person is the goal, while everyone else is fighting the clock trying to catch up. Rather, Mian says the company embraces concepts like “ageless” or “gender-free” beauty. To that end, the word “women” is notably absent from the website or its help center, demonstrating a focus on all customers, whoever they are.

Words matter; they have the power to exclude some at the expense of others, even unintentionally. Some companies, it seems, are choosing to pay closer attention.

[Related read: From shopkeeper to “customer keeper”—how retail is shifting its focus]

Mentorship is great, but what we need is sponsorship

Shannon Schuyler, Chief Purpose and Inclusion Officer at PwC who also runs CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion, says the retail industry, “is looking to do even more around diversity and inclusion, and that’s an incredible commitment.” Moderating a panel at the Big Show, Schuyler brought female retail leaders together to dig into how that is showing up in their companies, and where more work needs to be done.

One notable arena was the idea of mentorship versus sponsorship. “Men get sponsorship and women get mentorship,” says Rent the Runway’s Chief People Officer Tammy Sheffer. “And that is very different for our careers.”

Words matter; they have the power to exclude some at the expense of others, even unintentionally. Some companies, it seems, are choosing to pay closer attention.

Mentorship is about skill-building and providing coaching on how to present yourself or communicate better, Sheffer explained. Important, but not necessarily career-changing. By contrast, a sponsor, male or female, has the ability to influence the course of someone’s career by being willing to advocate for someone they believe in. Cartier North America President and CEO Mercedes Abramo agreed, noting that a sponsor often spends some of their own political capital in order to sponsor someone.

“We, as women, have an opportunity to bring each other along,” says Shawn Outler, Chief Diversity Officer at Macy’s, who was also on the panel. “There are some negative and inaccurate perceptions about women leaders, and we have an opportunity to change that by telling our stories and sharing.”

The sentiments were echoed in another panel, “The power of the pack: How women founders lift each other up.” Christina Carbonell, Co-CEO and Co-Founder of Primary, a kids and baby clothing brand, encouraged women to boldly help other women without fear of them “moving ahead of you.” Lend a hand to push them forward.

[Related read: Want to provide great retail CX? Start with your employees]

Find problems to solve, everywhere and always

If all you can think about is your idea, then it’s the time to go for it, advises Nicole Gibbons, founder and CEO of Clare, a direct-to-consumer paint company. While this is true for everyone with leadership aspirations, being immersed in a problem as a would-be consumer looking for a solution is a helpful way for women to carve their own niches.

Creating a company or product based on personal experience is what drove Ariane Goldman through the “no’s” when VC funding didn’t come through. As Founder and CEO of Hatch, which provides before-, during-, and after-pregnancy clothing, services, and community, Goldman was driven by her passion to create a support structure—without being forced to wear clothes she didn’t feel good in during her pregnancy. Even if this isn’t a problem that everyone experiences firsthand, the best allies can empathize and help build and grow an entire business around these female-specific needs.

Even if this isn’t a problem that everyone experiences firsthand, the best allies can empathize and help build and grow an entire business around these female-specific needs.

That’s what goop does, according to Founder and CEO Gwyneth Paltrow, speaking at the conference’s closing keynote. As a “contextual commerce company,” Paltrow says goop provides the content women want, and then products stem from that content.

“I would like to help dispel this idea that women should be kept down or can’t talk about what they want or what they desire,” she says.

[Related read: Why some retailers aren’t affected by the Amazon Effect]

Step over the pothole

Intentionally “stepping over the pothole,” as one leader puts it, can be a strategy for success. Jill Standish, Global Industry Managing Director at Accenture, explained the metaphor during a panel that dug into diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Standish was in a restaurant waiting for an important meeting to start when a man approached her and asked for a drink, assuming she was on staff. She says she “could have done the bitch thing” and called him out for making the assumption. Instead, she got him the drink, and he only embarrassedly realized his error when they both sat at the table for their meeting.

A pothole presented itself, Standish says, and she could have stepped into it or stepped over it. It’s another way of saying “pick your battles.” While many would argue that that’s a good strategy for anyone to use at work (and in life), women are more likely to have these experiences, as they typically have to provide more evidence of competence, or have their judgement questioned more often than their male counterparts, according to a study by McKinsey and LeanIn.Org. This is systemic, so hardly a pothole limited to retail.

A pothole presented itself, Standish says, and she could have stepped into it or stepped over it.

Time will tell

The results of all of these actions paints a pretty picture for consumers: Retailers striving for a diverse range of leaders, opinions, and ideas paired with marketing and products that speak to a wider range of consumers. Though it might sound counter-intuitive, this is likely to result in products and services that actually mirror what consumers need and want. If anyone had to guess who’s going to succeed at tapping into women's vast spending power, it’s probably the female leaders of today and tomorrow’s retail using empathy and firsthand experience to drive their businesses forward.

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