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Retail Evolution

What it Takes to Be a Retail Visionary

Kate Silver

On January 14, the National Retail Federation presented Walmart President and CEO Doug McMillon with “The Visionary” award. The annual award recognizes a leader that spearheads change within the retail industry. As someone who’s moving the industry forward at a time when it’s under significant pressure, McMillon was a deserving choice.

“From risk-taking acquisitions like to investing in the future of the industry by prioritizing workforce solutions and spearheading initiatives that empower businesses to be a force for good, Doug McMillon’s leadership has kept Walmart at the forefront of innovation,” said Matthew Shay, NRF president and CEO.

The award ceremony got me thinking about the qualities that make someone a true mover and shaker in the realm of retail. Here are a few of those characteristics that, I believe, contribute to visionary status.

They’re innovators

Starbucks gave us one-pump, half-caff, non-fat lattes before we knew we needed them. This global powerhouse grew from a single Seattle location to more than 27,000 locations in 70-plus countries, with much of the growth under the leadership of Howard Schultz. The brand hasn’t just transformed coffee culture, it’s transformed the coffee experience, both in stores and on shelves, with bottled Frappuccinos, canned Doubleshots and powdered Via Instant. And it's done it all while treating employees with respect and offering affordable health care plans to full-time and part-time team members. Starbucks also reminded us of its flair for whimsy—and its remarkable marketing prowess—in 2017, with the brief Internet sensation known as the "Unicorn Frappuccino."

They’re dreamers

Fashionable frames no longer have to cost as much as rent. Thanks to Warby Parker, you can get a pair of glasses—including prescription lenses—starting at $95. Even better? Every time someone buys a new pair, an additional pair is donated to someone in need, with the “Buy a Pair, Give a Pair” program. Co-founded by Neil Blumenthal and three of his business school classmates in 2010, Warby Parker started as a strictly online business that provided chic, affordable specs to people via mail. Today, in addition to its online offerings (the company will send you five pairs to try at home for free), Warby Parker has dozens of brick-and-mortar stores across the US and Canada.

They’re disruptors

There was a time when, if you wanted to purchase a new lipstick, or a bottle of perfume, you visited a specialty store and waited at a counter, asking a salesperson to help with each individual item. That all changed in 1969, when Dominique Mandonnaud opened a perfumery where items were places on shelves customers could access, and they were invited to try what they liked. Today, Sephora, which is owned by the French luxury goods group LVMH and led by CEO Chris de Lapuente, has more than 2,000 stores around the world. It continues to evolve by offering the latest in technology, including a monthly subscription box (Play!), an app that uses augmented reality so users can try different colors and products (false lashes, anyone?) and create new looks; and an online community for beauty lovers to chat about the latest and greatest products. The brand has changed consumers’ expectations—and demands—when it comes to shopping for beauty products.

They’re givers

As Hurricane Harvey brought massive floods to Houston and surrounding areas in 2017, retailers came to the rescue. Jim McIngvale, aka “Mattress Mack,” sprung to action, throwing open the doors to multiple locations of his furniture store, Gallery Furniture, to flood victims in need of a place to sleep. Not only did he accommodate hundreds of storm-weary Houstonians, he also sent out a team of moving trucks to help rescue more than 200 people in flooded areas. His actions went viral, showing that the world is hungry for news of retailers doing good.