Combine a great interviewer/retail expert with the most important department store exec in the country and you’ve got an interview that’s informative and provocative. I was fortunate last week to be part of a limited audience at the taping of Mark Weber’s latest Always in Fashion radio program for WABC (the actual podcast is available on your iPhone). Here, a few highlights from the interview.
Jeff Gennette chose retailing as a career for its instant gratification: you buy something you believe in, the customer votes, and you find out immediately if your instinct was right or wrong. Gennette started his career in the towel department at Macy’s in Stamford Ct., spent several years at Macy’s San Francisco, and now loves being based in NYC, the epicenter of popular culture, the vendor community, and the energy of America’s fashion center.
Responding to Weber’s question on whether a sales associate at Macy’s could possibly become store president, Gennette maintains that this is even more possible today than it used to be. “In the past, you had to go through merchandising to become a top exec. Today, the world has changed and we seek out people with different perspectives.” He also maintains that Macy’s executive training program remains one of its enduring strengths.
Asked about corporate dress codes at Macy’s, Gennette confides that they’re flexible. He points out that while he wears a suit and tie for appointments out of the store, his in-store dress code is jeans with a sport coat and no tie (which is exactly what he was wearing for this taping.) He calls it Polished Casual, which is how most Macy’s execs dress these days. “That said, our men’s suit business today is actually at a peak; suit sales are stronger than they’ve ever been.”
Weber asked a few tough questions on the relevancy of brick & mortar in an internet era; Gennette responded without hesitation that physical stores are more important than ever (once you get down to the right number, which for Macy’s is now 650 full-line stores). “But we don’t separate our in-store sales figures from our online selling because most of our customers do both. And then there’s all kinds of factors that cloud the issue: online sales that are vendor-direct; in-store sales that are leased. It’s all very much intertwined…”
There was much banter between the two execs on the Magic of Macy’s and the meaning of the word magic. For Gennette, it’s largely about connecting to customers throughout their various life stages and life celebrations. “But major national events like the Thanksgiving Day parade (with our entire company involved), the July 4th fireworks and the Annual Spring Flower Show contribute greatly to the magic of Macy’s.” (Editor’s note: Weber asked to be part of this year’s Thanksgiving Day parade; Gennette said no…)
Macy’s everyday mission? “We’re a promotional department store based on offering great brands at a great value; we don’t stray far from that mission, as well as our mission to astonish our customers every day. Bottom line: the customer is always our number one priority.”
Why add an off-price division when you’re already a promotional department store? “We launched Backstage three and a half years ago because our research showed that a full two thirds of our customers were also shopping off-price. We started by including Backstage at Herald Square; we now have six freestanding Backstage stores.”
Gennette points out, emphatically, that his customer base ranges from moderate to luxury. “We now carry Vuitton in Herald Square (a largely Asian clientele) and Roosevelt Field (largely European), as well as numerous other luxury brands. We’re hoping to get more upscale Bloomingdales’ brands into Macy’s, especially some of the more contemporary labels.”
Asked about his favorite business, Gennette confides that it used to be radios and stereos, a business Macy’s is no longer in. On a more personal note, Gennette is most excited about his daughter’s college journey (she’s a fine arts major). His favorite items of clothing: certain jeans and sneakers. His preferred travel destinations: Barcelona, London, Toyko, Shanghai. (On his bucket list: Africa and South America.) Favorite recent movies: If Beale Street Could Talk and Green Book. And the best perk of being CEO of Macy’s: “I can sometimes get family members into inaccessible places. For example, my two sisters-in-law are coming into town for the weekend and I managed to get them into Saturday Night Live…”