Rachel Feingold is the VP of Home for New York City’s iconic off-price retailer, Century 21 Department store. She's an omni-channel guru whose experience spans Merchandising, Planning, Sales, Marketing and Finance for some of retail's best known names including Amazon, Calvin Klein, and J&J.
StyleSage: Tell us a little about how you got your start in retailing. What is it about the industry the drew you to it initially, and what keeps you excited and engaged?
Rachel: I always loved fashion and interior design, so the idea of being paid to be surrounded by amazing products was fun, not work! Summer jobs after age 16 were all in women’s fashion boutiques. During my junior year in college, I took an internship with the designer Cynthia Rowley. This led to an offer to manage her East Hampton store. That summer experience setting up the store for the busy season, hiring and training the team and buying the inventory, convinced me to pursue a career in retail. The same influences that attracted me to this industry still excite and engage me – I love the challenges of driving a business forward, the thrill of identifying superior products, and the creativity needed to present them in a compelling way to the consumer.
StyleSage: Tell us a little about your work in the Home Category. How is it similar or different from other retail categories like Fashion?
Rachel: I spent the first 10 years of my career in apparel and now I am enjoying Home. The fundamental principles of success in every retail business are exactly the same – maximize sales and ROI. The biggest difference between Home and other categories is the extensive array of product types that fall into the home space – from cookware to sheet sets, and luggage to pet clothes – the list is unbelievably expansive. Each product classification has its unique set of product attributes, size scales, and dramatically different size variations. This presents challenges at every step – from logistics, space planning and store allocations, to maintaining the appropriate balance of inventory across the product hierarchy.
StyleSage: Off-price retail has been a shining star in retail in recent years. What is it about off-price in general, and Century 21 specifically, that continues to drive traffic and customer loyalty?
Rachel: The appeal for the customer is the value, the rapidly changing assortment, and the thrill of the hunt. The customer’s perception of scarcity within the off-price space spurs quicker buying decisions and increases conversion. C21 has developed a cult following because we often sell the exact same product found in full price stores, but at a fraction of the price. Compared to our competitors, we are more trend-driven and offer a more elevated shopping experience. Celebrities and fashion designers often shop incognito at C21. Although these people can certainly afford to buy full price, they choose to shop C21. It shows that the thrill of scoring a Missoni Dinnerware Set or Pratesi Duvet for 80% off is universal, and transcends income levels.
StyleSage: Thinking of e-commerce specifically for off-price, how do you go about recreating that thrill of discovery in an online context?
Rachel: To maintain a surprise factor, we often buy merchandise specifically for our ecommerce channel that is not sold in our brick and mortar stores. Out of respect for our vendor relationships we do not advertise certain brands, so customers are surprised and delighted when they discover a favorite brand on our site they did not know we carried. Finally, our website creative truly raises the bar in off-price ecommerce, featuring artful and elevated editorial photography, trend-focused curated product stories and spotlights on new and emerging designers.
StyleSage: We’ve seen no small amount of change underway in the retail industry these days, the result of shifts in consumer preferences, behaviors, and also shifts in technology that enable the retail experience in previously inconceivable ways. How do you and your team keep up with the pace of change?
Rachel: Technological innovation in the retail space is moving so fast that all of my team members must pool their expertise, constantly benchmark against our competitors, and be well-versed readers of the housewares and home textiles trade publications. To understand broader trends, I read the New York Times daily as well as general retail publications like NRF Smartbrief and WWD. We have an internal Transformation team at C21 that focuses on developing and implementing new systems. We monitor changes in consumer preferences by conducting internal focus groups, monitoring social media and shopping our direct competitors as well as full-price retailers.
StyleSage: Which technologies as you look towards the next few years, excite you the most and will transform both your internal processes and the customer experience? How do you distinguish between what’s noise and what’s truly transformative?
Rachel: To me, the most exciting technologies eliminate common shopping aggravations and barriers that brick and mortar retail presents, such as check-out lines, missing sizes, limited assortments, or getting bulky products home. For example, with the right technology to track both the product and the shopper, there is no need for register-based payment transactions, and therefore no need to wait in lines. Since your payment information is part of your application, there is no need for security tags – just walk out, and you’ll be charged automatically. Need help finding something? Ask the application and it will show you where to go. Can’t find your size? Just scan the item to see where in the store it is or to have it sent to your home from another location. It’s possible that some stores may forego sales people or even backstock inventory altogether if the customer’s needs can be addressed via the technology.
Slightly less exciting, but perhaps even more important, are technological innovations that drive logistical and back office efficiencies, such as improving factory to store transit. Finally, technologies that enable targeted marketing strategies and improved consumer engagement can transform a customer’s perception of your brand while improving your return on marketing spend.
Truly transformative technologies clearly improve profitability, or create an overwhelmingly positive emotional, even evangelical, connection with your brand that lead to persistent customer loyalty.
“Noisy” technologies do neither but are often vanity projects that that do not achieve either of these objectives. An example of choosing noisy technology over transformative technology is adding internet connectivity to subway stations instead of repairing or upgrading the antiquated signal system.
StyleSage: With the pace that e-commerce moves, analytics are obviously a central part of C21's business. What types of insights, driven by analytics, have helped you in your day to day and to make critical business decisions. And how do you think some of these lessons can translate for a retailer that is, say, more traditional?
Rachel: As Merchants, my team and I glean insights into customer preferences by analyzing product sales performance and by paying attention to what’s trendy, new and exciting in the marketplace. We are given a limited budget with which to invest in inventory, so buying decisions are based on our conclusion of which items will produce the most gross margin dollars in the shortest time period.
Traditional e-commerce analytics can, and ultimately will, be incorporated into brick and mortar stores. With the right application of technology in the proximity of a physical store, shopping behavior in the store can produce the same metrics as e-commerce. Promotions can be catered specifically to customers and delivered to their mobile device based on real-time analytics. Information about customer’s traffic pattern within the store, what they pick up, what they put in their cart, what they put back on the shelf can be seamlessly tracked and aggregated.
Customers are now a walking data point for a sales person, who can prioritize (or de-prioritze) helping them, and can do so in a much more knowledgeable way than ever before. It sounds a little dystopian, but in reality, it is no different than what happens when you shop online.
StyleSage: Cross team collaboration is obviously the foundation to executing a successful business strategy, no matter how big or small your business is. How do you work with other teams at C21, and what kinds of insights do you think are most critical to share between teams? How do you avoid information silos?
Rachel: Our most important collaborators within the company are the Planning and the Stores Team. We communicate our buying strategies and opportunities to our Planning team to ensure that we have the proper funding at the right time with which to achieve our financial goals. To help enhance the shopping experience, we communicate information to our Stores Team that allows for better product execution on the sales floor. We avoid information silos by building proper communication expectations and processes and by encouraging iterations, revisions, and changes to those processes when they break down.
StyleSage: Lastly, and most importantly, what was your last Century 21 purchase?
Rachel: A lightweight down comforter by Downright, a Frette bath mat, and two Marquis by Waterford sleeping pillows. Total savings: $170 bucks! ☺