No piece on women retail executives is complete without a major qualifying note: There are simply not many, and probably not enough. This is especially peculiar in an industry with a large female customer base in most categories.
We've entered an era of price-savvy customers that hold high expectations for their shopping experiences, whether in stores, online, or on their phones. In an effort to address these challenges, many retail companies have found that women make formidable executives who can help with anything from growth to financial turnaround and product lines. Just in time for Women's History Month, below are six women who are veterans in the retail sector, with varying amounts of time spent as executives. This experience will no doubt help them in their current or upcoming retail positions as they deal with a variety of challenges this year.
Angela Ahrendts — chief of retail, Apple Inc.
As CEO of Burberry Group plc, Ahrendts is credited with performing something of a magic trick: Promoting the brand’s chic and trendy profile while maintaining its image as a longstanding classic. Ahrendts will bring a sense of global chic and retail smarts to Apple as its new chief of retail, a position that has gone unfilled for months. Some say she holds a Steve Jobs-like sense of what a customer wants, a skill that will help her when she starts the job mid-year to expand Apple stores' sleek presentation and excellent customer service into China and online. These two markets are especially important, as Apple lags in the Chinese market and its e-commerce has a comparatively lackluster approach to connecting with customers and making sales.
Rosalind Brewer — CEO, Sam’s Club unit of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
Like Wal-Mart’s CEO, C. Douglas Mcmillon, Brewer has a history with the retail company, working her way up to become the first woman and African-American CEO of a Wal-Mart business unit. In her tenure, Brewer has been savvy about the differences between Sam’s Club and Walmart stores: While Sam’s Club members join to buy their favorite products in bulk, they don’t always have the same low incomes as many who frequent Walmart stores. To meet Sam's Club customers’ expectations, Brewer has facilitated mobile commerce and added premium products. Still, like many retailers, the discount club has encountered choppy waters, resulting in recent worker lay offs. It now falls to Brewer to turn the tide.
Christiane Lemieux — executive creative director, Wayfair LLC
Lemieux founded DwellStudio, the chic-but-simple home decor retailer bought by Wayfair last year. In a smart move, Wayfair kept her on to oversee the creative teams at all of its brands, which also include wayfair.com, AllModern, and Joss & Main. Lemieux founded her company in 2000, and since then, her eclectic, vaguely European sensibilities have jived perfectly with the eclectic, vaguely modern sensibilities of the American consumer. Her influences, like Billy Baldwin, David Hicks, and Dorothy Draper, were similarly classic, but also modern and daring in their time. Some day, we may look at Lemieux as one of those style icons, but in the meantime she will continue to help boost Wayfair's design influence.
Sharon McCollam — chief financial and administrative officer & principal accounting officer, Best Buy
All eyes are on Best Buy these days. The electronics retailer spearheaded a push for heavy retail discounts this past holiday season, only to suffer deep damage to its margins afterward. But it is facing additional challenges beyond its pricing woes: It also needs to re-scale its brick-and-mortar stores in relation to its e-commerce strategy. Under McCollam, the company has already adapted an interesting brick-and-mortar approach, designing its spaces to accommodate smaller outlets within its store. A former accountant, McCollam has used her previous experience to aid in principal accounting duties performed for Best Buy this year. The cost trimming and financial revamping essential to Best Buy’s recovery have fallen under McCollam’s supervision, and the company is receiving solid reviews on its efforts. In the cost-cutting game, though, the well eventually runs dry. The question for McCollam and her company is now, "What comes next?"
LuAnn Via, CEO, Christopher and Banks
LuAnn Via was tapped in 2012 as chief executive officer of specialty women’s apparel retailer Christopher and Banks, which through its eponymous stores and C.J. Banks stores offers misses, petites, and plus sizes. She came into the picture after several rapid changes in leadership that occurred while the company was in the midst of a turnaround effort, and is credited with making a big difference in a matter of months. Before that she served as president and CEO at Payless ShoeSource Inc. and held various executive positions at several other specialty clothing retailers, gaining a reputation for merchandising and operations savvy, especially in women’s retail. Under Via, Christopher and Banks has been rebalancing its styles and products, lowering prices and smoothing out its wide variety of price points, and revamping its promotional strategies to be more targeted and personalized. Now Christopher and Banks needs to stay on track, and pay special attention to its e-commerce performance, which has gained added importance since the retailer closed several brick-and-mortar stores.
Sheree Waterson — president & chief product officer, Nasty Gal
There are many interesting things about Waterson's appointment as chief product officer of Nasty Gal this year, the first being that she was in charge of Lululemon Athletica’s product line during its devastating and expensive quality issues last year. Secondly, Nasty Gal Founder and CEO Sophia Amoruso began her retail experience at home selling clothes on eBay — ironic, seeing as this is a practice Lululemon has been grappling with in the last few weeks. Waterson once told Bloomberg TV that the secret to Lululemon was that it attracted “athletes that are doing things with their lives.” Is that a clue? That doesn't sound like Nasty Gal, which is a very young, very edgy brand. But maybe, in its quest for growth, Nasty Gal has tapped Waterson to, among other things, add oh-so-trendy activewear to its stable of crop tops and short shorts.