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Tough Economic Times Make for Strange Retail Partnerships

By Kathy Gersch, kathy@kotterinternational.com

The stagnant economy, shifting consumer preferences, and a rapidly transforming marketplace have inspired drastic measures in retail leadership, creating some surprising partnerships that are transforming the face of retail in America. High-end fashion retailer Neiman Marcus and low-price retailer Target teamed up to develop a limited collection for the holiday season. Upscale department store Nordstrom plans to feature the mid-priced trend-of-the-moment styles of Topshop in a number of its stores this fall. And J.C. Penney stores, known for their exceptional conventionality will soon house miniature trendy Joe Fresh shops.

While their prospects for success have been met with cynicism, the brands involved should be applauded for their innovative spirit and their inclination to lead change in the industry, rather than allow themselves to be overtaken by it.

Now, however, the tough work of selling these strategies to the general public and winning support from potentially skeptical employees begins. I’ll leave the first challenge to the companies’ marketing teams, but for those leaders looking to convince their employees to embrace a new way forward, here are three tips they can use in the weeks and months ahead:

1.    Clarify your vision. Collaborations and new approaches like these are bound to generate some internal skepticism. Take the case of Neiman Marcus and Target, two companies with different consumer bases, different values, and different histories. To convince employees that such a partnership holds promise, leaders must put forth a compelling, unified vision that places the company at the forefront of a new retail paradigm, where variety, distribution, and brand recognition are paramount.

2.    Win buy-in for the new strategy. Big changes require broad support. Reams of data outlining industry trends and stacks of spreadsheets on consumer purchasing habits can only go so far in convincing employees that dramatic strategy shifts — like, say, selling a potential competitor’s products in your own store — make real business sense for the company and its future. But their buy-in is essential. To win it, leaders should communicate their vision, urgently and persistently, and play to employees’ hearts as well as their minds.

3.    Get everyone involved. More than just support, real change requires action from across the organization. Store managers, salespeople, executives, and everyone in between all have a role to play in carrying out the new strategy. Once leaders have won their backing, they must create opportunities for those individuals on the front lines to drive change forward. Cross-functional teams can bring together a wealth of important perspectives.  They can serve as “eyes and ears” on the ground, helping to keep the new strategy on track, warning of potential obstacles and nimbly charting new ways forward, and they allow employees at all levels of the organization to feel like they are helping to shape the company’s future. In due time, leaders may find their employees’ enthusiasm for the new strategy contagious.

There is no magic bullet to ensure that these partnerships will be successful, but the spirit and innovative drive behind them is certainly worth celebrating. Those that stand still in the face of change are sure to be left behind.

Kathy Gersch is an executive VP at Kotter International, a firm that helps leaders accelerate strategy implementation in their organizations. She can be reached at kathy@kotterinternational.com.


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