LAS VEGAS — When Marvin Ellison joined Lowe's about seven months ago, he didn't show up on his first day. Well, not to the corporate office that is. Ellison spent that first week at stores, having lunch with hourly employees and listening to what they had to say, he told attendees of the Shoptalk retail conference Tuesday.
"If I’m coming to a new company to solve problems, I may think I have all the answers, but really I don’t," he said. "You have to listen to the culture and true concerns of employees and [find the] root cause of some things not working."
When Ellison arrived at Lowe's, he found a retailer in a much different stage of its reinvention than his previous post at J.C Penney. Nevertheless, in a presentation to investors late last year, he acknowledged that the big-box home improvement retailer had lost its way and needed to get back to fundamentals. He further elaborated that point in January during a talk at the NRF Big Show telling attendees, "You can't put the icing before the cake."
That process led to a greater focus on customer segmentation, which is often thought of as marketing, Lowe’s CMO Jocelyn Wong said during a separate panel earlier in the day. "It cannot be thought of that way. This customer definitely has to guide what we do across our enterprise," she added. Now, Lowe's thinks of three separate customers: the Do It Yourself-er, the "Do It For Me" and the professional, Ellison said. Each of those types of shoppers should be catered to differently, and much of that comes down to the role that store associates play.
Under this new strategy, Lowe's has taken greater steps to acknowledge the work of store associates and boost their engagement with customers. "Better than any marketing campaign I can ever do are those 300,000 associates," Wong said, adding that they've begun featuring real employees in their marketing campaigns. It's not about parity with the industry, she says, but accelerating the competitive advantages Lowe's has.
"The most important thing you can have as a retailer is footsteps, physical or digital," Ellison said. Today, Lowe's does about $4 billion a year online and 70% of all those transactions are picked up in or fulfilled from the store, he said.
As service becomes more important at Lowe's and at brick-and-mortar retail in general, executives like Ellison are trying to make sure that associates feel like they're a part of the greater company mission. He does that by answering every employee email that comes through his inbox, he said. And on Fridays, he produces a five-minute video about his week, what's in the news and what message he wants to reinforce. "I want them to hear it directly from me," he said.
"The way you can reset culture is have clarity of mission, understanding of how to get there and measure — reward great work and make sure there is accountability," he said.
Ellison shared how, as a young executive early in his career, he painstakingly tried to fit in with those around him, and described just how exhausting that was. To all of the people who feel they're an "only" at their organization, Ellison said, "Just be the best you, be your most authentic self. Embrace it."
He added, "And whatever you do don’t blend in because you’ll always commoditize yourself, and no one wants a commodity because it’s low price and easily accessible."