Dreaming of a career in fashion? It’s likely you’ll find yourself working in retail at some point or another.
With size on their side, department stores are a great place to work and they offer loads of opportunities for you to gain the skills and experience needed for a career in fashion. Working your way up can feel daunting when you’re one of over 200 employees. But with the right attitude and initiative, anyone can make great strides towards the career in fashion they’re after.
If you’re familiar with Style Nine to Five, it’s likely you’ve heard Founder Christie Lohr’s success story of working her way up in retail fashion. Today we’re featuring a similar story to show you another path for how to work your way up in your retail career.
Gena Ewens has had over five different roles in her five and half years at luxury department store giant, Nordstrom. We sat down with Gena to get her advice about how to stand out from the crowd when working for such a large company.
Style Nine to Five: Hi, Gena! Thank you so much for speaking with us. Let’s start from the beginning, how did you get started working for Nordstrom, what has your path been like, and what do you currently do?
Gena Ewens: I actually started as a seasonal hire during the holiday season. I was hired into the Accessories Department and I immediately fell in love with the company vibe. The first thing I remember thinking was, ‘oh my gosh, this is how you treat employees when you care about them!’ My team was great, my boss was great, the company genuinely seemed to care about their customers and their employees.
After the holidays, they offered me a full-time position and I accepted. Then about six months later I started expressing interest in leadership. I worked really closely with my manager and he helped me develop. Nordstrom used to have a leadership training program so I did that as well.
Then about a full year after I started, I got promoted into the Assistant Department Manager for Accessories and Handbags which was a combined position for two departments. I was in that role for about 18 months, then I moved into the Home Department Manager position.
I was in that role for six months and then I took over as the Accessories and Handbags Manager. I was in that role for about a year, and I’m now the Assistant Manager in Shoes.
SNTF: What was your experience like when you first expressed interest in a leadership position?
GE: That’s one thing that I think is really important whether you work for Nordstrom or any other company. You have to own your own development. One thing we do as leaders is sit everyone down and ask them what is it that you would like to get out of your career here. Are you happy being a salesperson? Do you want to be a top seller? Do you want to be a leader?
So when that conversation came up, I did say I was interested in leadership. So from there we built an action plan together. It is a lot of responsibility on the person that is interested in it, because as much as I can say “hey, I want to be a leader,” if I don’t do anything it’s not going to get me anywhere. So it was me expressing interest and then my manager helped guide me to get there, showed me what I needed to work on, what we were going to do, how they could help and then I just ran with it.
SNTF: What steps did you take to help yourself stand out as an employee?
GE: Something that I always try to tell people that are interested in leadership is just act like you’re in the role every day. The Accessories team is a relatively small team, but I would always make sure that I was one of the top in sales. For one thing that is a really important metric that we look at.
I was also making sure that if we had new hires, I would help teach them, train and develop them. I did everything I could to be an expert, so it got to the point where slightly before I was promoted, I was the go-to person on the team. I hadn’t been there the longest, but I became the person when we had new hires that I would help facilitate the training. The new hires would go to me with questions.
Then the other thing that I think was really helpful is that I made a point to get to know other leaders in the store. I think that is something that is really important, because if I’m a manager and you’re on my team and you express interest in leadership, when I have an open position, if I’m talking to other leaders and they ask who’s applying and I say your name, and they say, “who’s that?” That’s not good.
It’s not necessarily going to be the make or break factor, but I think it is important to have the recognition of your peers and they can say “I was chatting with her the other day. She really has a good understanding of the business.” It’s reassuring for me that you are both making a presence and impression in the store, because even though you’re managing your own department, you still need to be a leader in the store in general.
It’s the same with the store manager. As a department manager it’s going to be my choice who I hire, but obviously I’m going to be sitting down with my boss and saying who I support. It helps if they know who you are and you left a good impression.
SNTF: What skills or qualities do you think are important for someone aspiring to work in retail?
GE: Customer service I think is the most obvious one. It helps to be a people person. Whether you’re introverted or extroverted doesn’t really matter just as long as you enjoy dealing with people. You’re with customers all the time. That is the bulk of your job.
And just like being a friendly, easy going person. If you’re easy to talk to and can hold a conversation that’s the number one most important part. Sales skills can be developed. I personally don’t think that you need to go into retail with years of sales experience. I don’t think you need to know how to sell something, because a good leader should be able to teach you that. It’s something that you pick up on the job. Same with product knowledge. You can learn all that on the job, but you can’t teach personality. You can’t teach somebody to have a conversation.
I know when I’m building a team, I’m not looking for carbon copies of myself or of the same person. You really want to have a diverse team because not every customer is going to respond to somebody who’s super bubbly and not every customer is going to respond to somebody who’s super laid back. So having lots of personalities really makes a difference.
I think being curious is also a really good quality. If you’re curious and want to learn about the product, you’ll be more confident selling. The more curious you are about the customer, again the better you’ll be able to sell to them, and the better connection you’ll be able to make and overall the better you’re going to do and the more you’re going to enjoy your job.
SNTF: What advice would you give for someone who is looking to advance in their retail career?
GE: I would say a big one would be to have fun with it. This either gets said sarcastically or overlooked by a lot of people, but retail is fun. Not that you shouldn’t take it seriously, because it’s definitely a real career, but I think a lot of people forget that fun factor and as soon as you do that, it makes it really tough to do anything. My job is to play with pretty clothes and help people find pretty clothes. That’s just such a fun part of the job for me and I think always remembering that and keeping that at the front of my mind really, really helps.
Also, speak up for yourself. You need to raise your hand. I think this is true of pretty much any industry, but if you really want to go far in your career and you really want to develop a career in the retail industry, raise your hand and express what you’re interested in. And then once you do, start working on it. If you say, “ I want to be a leader” and someone says “Okay, work on a, b, and c,” then work on a, b, and c. I think that’s really the best way to be successful.
Style Nine to Five’s Founder, Christie Lohr is well known for working her way up in the retail sector. Book a Virtual Career Meeting and get personalized advice on how to take your career in retail to the next level.
By: Catherine Gautreau – Catherine is a communications and fundraising professional in Vancouver, BC with a passion for storytelling, the arts, and giving back to the community.
Feature Image: Adobe Stock