Q&A With Mindy Grossman

First the CEO engineered a massive overhaul at HSN. Now she's bringing the company to the forefront of interactive shopping.

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An HSN outdoor set.

Photo By Courtesy Photo

FN: How has that paid off?
MG: It’s one of the things we’re most proud of. Prior to 2008, we didn’t even show up on the American Express/National Retail Federation survey of best companies for customer service, and in 2008, we appeared at No. 16. In 2009, we were in the top 10. Our customer is not shy, whether she’s posting reviews on a product or going on the community boards [to vent] or calling customer service. We get great feedback, whether it’s good or bad, and it’s very helpful. We have a mechanism we use where if a product triggers on three different measures — returns, customer-service complaints and reviews — we immediately pull the item off the Website and stop selling it. And no one can override that, not even me.

FN: Were you worried about changing too much too soon?
MG: Our mantra is to be surprising, yet familiar. We never wanted a customer who has been with us for 20 years to feel that [we weren’t] a place for them anymore, but we wanted them to feel it was reenergized and we wanted to attract a new customer. So we’ve made [changes] in a series.

FN: Did the economic crisis force you to alter your plans?
MG: Regardless of headwinds coming at us, our strategy wasn’t changing. Granted, we had to be very cognizant of expense and inventory management and be very disciplined in terms of where we made strategic investments. But the strategy itself of bringing the right brands, personalities and products never changed. We run a very transparent, communicative company, and we have a unique business model that allows us to maneuver our business in real time.

FN: How does compare with the on-air business?
MG: The way we think about it is is our 365-day-a-year storefront with curated assortments and is a very experience-driven, content-rich environment. The relaunch of the Website in 2007 was a huge investment, and it went from being a very flat experience to a very content-rich experience. HSN TV is the marketing vehicle for our products, but also serves as the content creator, which can be dispersed on, your iPhone or YouTube. What we want is to create a multichannel experience because we know that our best customer — even if she chooses to make her purchase by calling — is on at least 18 times a month to see the home page and the new program guide. And we know our efforts are working because our unique users were up 30 percent during the month of November. And we had the biggest Thanksgiving weekend in the history of the company. On Black Friday alone, Internet sales were up 50 percent.

FN: Who is your core consumer today?
MG: That is always an interesting balancing act because it’s important to bring in new customers as we expand our knowledge and educate people on what HSN is, but we want to keep the loyal customer. At some point, though, you have to decide what you’re going to be and what you’re not and who you’re marketing to. So we have a universe of 25 [years and older], but the core is 30 to 50. We know if we market there, we’re going to serve the broadest audience.

FN: How do men factor into the HSN customer base?
MG: We have certain categories that penetrate higher, from a male-to-female ratio. The kitchen and cooking category is almost split male to female, and we have a very sophisticated high-end coin collection business among men. Her side of the equation is obviously heavier in jewelry, beauty and apparel.

FN: How big of an opportunity is footwear?
MG: Footwear and accessories is the fastest-growing category. We were very underpenetrated, so our opportunity within the entire fashion arena, as well as the [shoe] category itself, is huge. For instance, with Carlos Falchi, we see footwear as a category that can be not just a complement [to the bags] but a very distinct business. I think of us as an incredible shoe trunk show in 93 million homes, where you can get the product immediately. You have the designer passionately speaking about their product in detail, and because of what we do in our breadth, we carry a much more extensive range of sizes than most stores do, both in sizes and widths. So we offer more than can fit in a traditional store.

FN: Returns are a big issue with online footwear shopping. How does that impact you?
MG: Customers are already buying a huge amount of footwear online today. Of course there is a higher return rate than buying, for instance, a camcorder, but once a customer is familiar with a brand, you start to see over time that the return rates stabilize.

FN: What areas of the footwear market have the most potential?
MG: The different segments each present an opportunity. We want to be able to service different parts of a woman’s life in different ways. And we also want to tap into things that are unique. For instance, we have a jewelry designer, Joan Boyce, who makes very high-end jewelry and also does fashion jewelry for us. She did a line of boots that were adorable and incorporated her jewelry. It’s important for us to have creative concepts that don’t exist anywhere else in the world. I love putting things together [in a way] one wouldn’t think of. Or taking an interesting personality and looking at it differently. In that respect, our team is almost more of a product development partner than a retailer.

FN: How do you balance showing new and established designers?
MG: For our customer, it’s not about status. Many times we can be as successful with the smaller or unknown brands as we can with the known entity. It really starts with great product no matter who it is. What creates success on HSN is great product, a great story and a great storyteller. We absolutely invest in bringing the DNA of a brand to life, and the reason that is so important to me has to do with the world I grew up in — whether it be the DNA of Nike around athletes or the DNA of Ralph Lauren around heritage. When we partner with someone, it’s a very integrated experience at our whole company, so anyone who touches the brand understands the DNA. We invest heavily to be able to do that properly.

FN: Another way you’ve connected with consumers is through charitable partnerships. Why is that so important?
MG: We feel it’s very important to have a strategy around community giving that aligns with our customers’ values. For us, giving back to things that are important to women and their families is what we have focused on. Andrew Lessman, for instance, who has a big vitamin and supplement business with us, donates a bottle of prenatal vitamins for everything he sells. [In 2009], we had a significant partnership with Susan G. Komen for the Cure. We have a close and passionate partnership with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Through our relationship as a sponsor of Lucky Shops, seven contemporary designers, including Rebecca Taylor and Abbe Held of Kooba, designed exclusive collections for HSN this year, and we did a four-hour event on air where all the designers came on to sell and a portion of the proceeds went to Dress for Success.

FN: How have you redefined the culture at HSN?
MG: I have never gotten in front of the company — ever — and said, “I want to be bigger than anybody else and sell more.” No one has ever heard that from me. I’ve said I want this company to have the best customer experience we can and be about total quality of people, culture, process and product. In addition to that, we have the responsibility to all our shareholders to run a successful and profitable company. Every couple of months I do lunches with employees that have been with us for five, 10, 15 and 20-plus years, and I have everyone go around the room and tell their experience and why they stay with HSN. And when I leave the room, there is nothing in the world that can bother me.

FN: What is your outlook for the new year?
MG: In terms of the economy, we’re not going backward anymore. There is a better tone. Those who came out strong from the past year, who have positioned themselves properly and have stayed connected to their consumers will see that slow resurgence of consumer spending.


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