I don’t think I realized it then, but when I first began to manage a store, I became the most important person in the company. Prior to assuming such lofty responsibility, I worked my way through the retail ranks. I started as a sales associate during my high school years and continued as I moved on to post-secondary studies. I acquired all of the Retail 101 skills you would expect to see in an engaged sales associate. I had a good handle on basic sales techniques, I could accurately handle various point of sale transactions (including traveler’s checks of all things!), and I understood the basics of merchandising and maintaining an accurate store inventory. Once I finished my studies, I was—on paper—a good candidate for an entry-level retail manager.
So, why was I the most important person in the company? Bluntly, it was all the little things that went into making a retail operation run day in and day out, keeping the ship on course. The tools of the day pale in comparison to the powerful technology retailers use to manage operations today. Twenty years ago, it required constant supervision of business processes, deep working knowledge of the administrative and systemic requirements that supported the process, and the ability to hire, train and work with a team of people to keep all of the balls in the air. An organization could be cutting edge by 1990s standards and still be dependent on the store manager to keep the individual store viable. Poorly managed stores bled profit from the back room, from the sales floor and from the cash register.
Visionary retailers started seeing more value in the things store managers weren’t doing as much of two decades ago. As retailers became more aware of the value of their brands, they started to recognize what it took to create experiences and build relationships with customers. The most important person in the company became much more important. Managers needed to be able to understand the brand and what it meant, and communicate that in words, in actions and in behavior to the world. As the brand experience took center, stage managers needed to understand more than the collection of tasks that went into managing a store. They needed to understand corporate goals and the vision for the brand experience to be effective.
I was pretty good at managing stores and progressed through the leadership ranks. I struggled to balance the work I needed to do behind the scenes, out of sight of the customer, with the valuable time I needed to spend with my retail team and, most importantly, the customer. As new technology came on line, many of the traditional tasks I understood changed radically. The time and tribal knowledge required to maintain an accurate inventory, to process customer transactions and to effectively schedule employees was reduced exponentially. The pursuit of efficiency through technology transformed retail in a much more profound way than simply cutting costs. It began to transform the customer experience.
Smart retailers continue to use technology to strip tasks away from the store manager to allow them to focus on the brand experience. As retailers compete in an increasingly dynamic marketplace the store level execution of major campaigns and customer service initiatives has become a crucial point of differentiation. Store managers still look after all of the little things, but increasingly, it’s the little things that add value to an exceptional retail experience. Powerful, portable technology is breaking down the walls of the manager’s office, putting actionable intelligence in the hands of managers, while they stand shoulder to shoulder with their associates serving customers and adding to the experience. The store manager is truly the “Most Important Person in the Company”.