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Female Executives Weigh Digital's Impact

They gathered in New York last week to discuss ways in which the digital revolution has changed the way they run their businesses.

NEW YORK — A group of top female executives gathered here last week to discuss ways in which the digital revolution has changed the way they run their businesses, from hiring practices to dealing with clients to spotting global trends.

The executives, all clients of Berns Communications, were participants in The Women’s Leadership Roundtable, an ongoing series of discussions among leading executive women who are driving the business of retail. They were Laura Pomerantz, principal and founder of PBS Real Estate; Celeste Gudas, president and founder of 24/Seven, the executive recruiting firm; Wendy Liebmann, chief executive officer of WSL Strategic Retail, and Catherine Moellering, executive vice president of the Tobe Report.

“The digital space is one where most retailers are scrambling to find the right talent now,” said Gudas. “For years, maybe not at the merchant level, we had a good pool of solid talent, and that’s really shifted. We’re looking outside of retail, and we’re looking at other industries to pull people in,” she said.

The recruiting firm is looking at every channel and every school to uncover talent for its clients. She pointed out that it’s common to bring in younger people when it comes to digital. “That’s because of flexibility. Schools are catching up and bringing talent to the market that’s relevant. If you’re looking for an app designer, you’re more likely to find that coming out of school,” she said. “It’s a very dynamic, shifting marketplace. I think that talent is key, but you can see the divide in the skills gap that’s happening.”

Gudas believes that comfort with digital media needs to start at the top. “I think it starts with us as leaders in an organization. I find it frustrating when people say, ‘Oh, I don’t know technology. I leave it to my kid.’ It’s up to us. It’s like nails on a blackboard for me now...if we’re not using it and curating the information and pushing that effort in trend spotting for the organization...”

Tobe’s Moellering said the digital movement is having an enormous impact on the company’s trend spotting. “I suspected runway coverage would be most impacted. The expectation around runway coverage in a digital era is that it’s free. It really has forced us to look internally at what we’re offering to our clients and to decide what is of value.”

Moellering finds there’s so much available because of blogs and sources such as Style.com that are free. “What’s interesting to me was to hear how many top senior executives saying, ‘I get all of my runway coverage on Twitter.’”

Moellering said she’ll always argue that there’s tremendous value in Tobe and in its editorial and point of view about the runway. “But the timeliness about it starts to shift, and where along that timeline do we provide a viewpoint that’s of value?” One area that Tobe is not willing to abandon is the physical printed piece. “It’s not been something I’ve been willing to do...yet. Perhaps at a later date. I’m not there yet. Some of it is in respect to our clients. We deal with very senior decision makers, many of whom tell me they like to have a physical report. I hear over and over again, ‘I put it in my bag and read it on the plane.’”

WSL’s Liebmann said it’s important for a brand to figure out if they have the right people in place, who even know the right questions to ask. She said the consumer today wants to shop when she wants, where she wants and how she wants. “So you have to give me all the choices. Sometimes I’m in the store, sometimes I’m on my iPad, sometimes I’m on my phone and friends tweet me about something,” she said.  She predicts none of the channels will go away. “It’s all sliced and diced differently from the shoppers’ viewpoint,” said Liebmann.

As a commercial realtor, Pomerantz said the key question is, how does a luxury brand maintain the exclusivity when there are so many channels? “You’re seeing Louis Vuitton opening all these stores all over the place, and people are calling it ‘mass luxury.’ In the long run, how does that impact a luxury brand if they open multiple channels?” asked Pomerantz. She said it’s not just at the highest level malls, but B, C and D-level ones.

Liebmann added that the country already has too many of the same stores, and when digital comes into the picture, it feels like even more. “The issue that’s a challenge is the notion of the sameness, of no sense of specialness. It’s a huge issue. It just gets magnified. It’s like retailing on 4G. For high end, luxury, where it’s all about scarcity and more precious experience, it becomes a big issue.”

Turning to global business and recruitment needs, Gudas believes there’s a lack of talent in the fashion and retail industry, especially strong merchandising and creative talent. “We’re not incubating a lot of young talent in the right way. We’ve got to bring that talent up. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the market and a lack of a formalized training,” she said. She noted that she’s getting more searches in the BRIC countries, as well as the Middle East. “It’s forcing us to look at more multilingual skill sets. We’re also in the relocation business now. Talent has to be able to relocate.”

She said Fast Retailing for example, sends people to train in Japan for six months before placing them in another location.

Pomerantz currently has two clients from the Middle East who control multiple brands and have stores there. They have European brands too, and they want to open in the U.S. How did they get to Pomerantz? One found her on the Internet.  “They want to do 100 stores in the next three years. That’s huge. That’s something you can’t do one by one. Or you’ll still be sitting here three years from now,” she said.

As a forecaster, Moellering said globalization is very interesting, and technology has been a great motor and engine for it. “But I think the future is moving toward customization. I think we all have business models that will succeed when we trade with customization.”

“You hear words like curate, customize, bespoke. You need to use enabling technologies to be able to do that for the customer. That’s the challenge of retailers today,” said Gudas.

 

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