Long before COVID-19 flipped the world upside down in 2020, the retail sector was in the midst of a grand makeover — with retail companies pivoting and sometimes completely reinventing themselves to keep up with customers’ changing habits in how and where they shop. At the outset of the pandemic, mandated shutdowns fast-tracked those changes, and retail leadership had to shift again to manage evolving customer demand and the ever-changing dynamics of their organizations.
Over the past year, we spoke with several global retail leaders as part of the World Retail Congress virtual event program. These leaders shared their unique perspectives about how their companies have navigated the pandemic and how they will apply the lessons learned as the industry continues to transform.
Six Spencer Stuart consultants — Hong Kong-based Alice Au, Chicago-based Chris DeRose, Shanghai-based Sherry Ding, London-based Sally Elliott, New York-based Susan Hart and Santiago-based Juan Pablo Solar — led discussions via video with retail leaders from around the world:
John Boumphrey, UK country manager for Amazon, the global e-commerce giant
Joanne Crevoiserat, CEO of Tapestry, a New York-based house of modern luxury lifestyle brands, including Coach, Kate Spade New York and Stuart Weitzman
Michael Kliger, CEO and president of Mytheresa.com, an industry leader in the world of online luxury fashion
Ying Xu, president of Wumart, one of the oldest and largest retailers in China
Gaston Bottazzini, CEO of Falabella, one of the largest retail platforms in Latin America
Daniel Zhang, chair and CEO of Alibaba Group, the world’s largest retail platform
John Allan, chair of Tesco, the largest grocery retailer in the U.K., and one of the largest in the world.
Our discussions with these remarkable global retail leaders led us to see how critical it has been for organizations to have strong leadership fundamentals in place — to not only survive the pandemic’s fluctuations, but also thrive in the face of the industry’s uncertainty. During our sessions, four themes emerged:
a sense of clarity and purpose company-wide
alignment among teams to an organization’s strategy
fostering employee vitality and energy
providing consistency and reliability to customers
John Boumphrey, Amazon’s UK country manager, spoke about the steps his company, powered by its leadership principles, took to keep employees energized during the pandemic. One key step was to gain visibility by visiting with employees who were still working in-person at fulfillment centers, warehouses, corporate offices and other sites. Further, his organization took steps to establish priorities and ensure that their people were not being spread thin during a uniquely stressful period of time.
“I think as a leader, it's really easy to add in more and more priorities,” Boumphrey said. “But what's even more important I think is taking things off the table ... being really clear about those priorities was something I tried to focus on early on.”
Tapestry CEO Joanne Crevoiserat told us how important it has been for her teams to be able to rely on a constant cause and purpose. “To know why I'm getting up in the morning, what we're here to do when the world around us is changing and moving quickly,” she said. “Having real clarity as to what I'm doing in my role, in my work, has been really grounding for our teams, and it’s so important at a time when there's so much disruption in the world that there's a constant that people can feel is tangible.”
Falabella CEO Gaston Bottazzini emphasized the critical importance of communication for aligning an organization during a crisis. Throughout the past year, Bottazzini set up daily check-in meetings to ensure that his teams were informed and connected. “You just have to have that 20 minutes where you look at what we have learned in the last 24 hours,” he said. “We ask ourselves what’s new and if there is anything we need to change, which has really kept us very close as a team.”
Tesco Chair John Allan echoed these sentiments, adding that the old, hierarchical model of leadership no longer has a place in today’s modern workplace. “The key challenge for a leader nowadays is to create followers,” he said. “It’s no longer about issuing orders — I think it’s about inspiring people to follow you.”
Another key finding from our leadership discussions was the power of creating a sense of vitality, energy and inspiration for people, especially as they were disconnected from an office structure and met the demands of working from home during such a turbulent time.
Mytheresa.com CEO Michael Kliger explained how he made efforts to make emotional connections — with his teams and with customers. “Because our teams were working remotely, we were missing the human interactions and the brainstorming sessions that would bring us together in the same room,” he said. “But it was interesting to learn how we could use our circumstances to become innovative.”
Over the past year, Kliger and his teams held Zoom-enabled customer focus groups, where they were able to gather valuable feedback from a customer base that would not have time for such interaction in a pre-COVID world. “We had more customer focus groups than ever because everyone was at home — and our customers loved it,” he said.
Maintaining consistency, stability and reliability for customers is critical in any industry, but especially in retail — and our leaders expressed this as a key leadership fundamental for being a trusted, reliable brand, before, during and after the pandemic.
Wumart President Ying Xu told us she led her company to develop three customer-focused promises. “We guaranteed the supply, the retail price and the quality,” she said. “We know that we are reflecting our values — and this does matter when it comes to peoples’ lives and it helps to guide our business.”
This isn’t to say that there isn’t room for growth and change — even during a global pandemic, according to Alibaba Chair and CEO Daniel Zhang. “We give our business leaders the flexibility to try new things,” he said. “We always say that we work for now, we invest for tomorrow and we incubate for the future.”