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Managing through a pandemic is only one challenge female retail executives face


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When ecommerce professionals get together, let’s just say they have a lot to talk about.

There’s marketing, merchandising, fulfillment, customer support, building customer loyalty, brand value, getting a place at the table with the brick-and-mortar execs and building market share in the Amazon era.

In fact, there is so much to talk about in the fast-evolving field that sometimes one thing gets lost: The people doing the talking and the planning and the struggling and succeeding are human beings. Human beings first, in fact, and they bring that to work every day. Thank god.

At Signifyd’s recent FLOW Meet-Up, featuring Brianna Burwell — vice president, finance at Build.com and Dana Schwartz, vice president global direct to consumer & digital at Keen — it all came together. Two powerful retail leaders sat down with a virtual audience of 130 ecommerce professionals to talk about all of it: taking chances, rallying the troops amid COVID-19, pricing strategy, marketing pivots, being a mother, being new in town, being underestimated, being one of two women in the room — or company, living apart from a loving partner.

The pair’s wide-ranging virtual fireside with Signifyd Director, Customer Marketing Kalina Bryant provided a chance to learn — a chance to learn that also felt like a chance to breathe again.

COVID-19 has turned home into offices, schools and — well — home

“I didn’t specifically sign up for this,” Burwell, a mother of a two-year-old and a five-year-old, said of her COVID-19 work-life routine. “I signed up to work full time and to be a mom when I come home from work — and having those be separate. Right now they’re blended and so, while I didn’t necessarily sign up for it, it is my real life and my reality right now. So, it just means taking it one day at a time.”

What you need to know

When retail leaders Brianna Burwell, of Build.com, and Dana Schwartz, of Keen, sat down at Signifyd’s FLOW Meet-Up to talk about being female executives running significant parts of two venerable retail enterprises, they were generous with the advice for others aspiring to do the same. Among the valuable gems:

  • Be willing to take a leap. Take the opportunity in front of you, even if you don’t have the entire picture figured out.
  • Identify mentors and soak up very bit of knowledge and wisdom that you can.
  • Stay strong and listen. Information and ideas are all around. People will open up to you if you show that you care about what they have to say.

Burwell’s comment no doubt resonated with many adjusting to life with COVID. It was also one of several acknowledgements during the hour and a half event that we have work to do in building equitable and inclusive workplaces. Even the FLOW event itself, which featured all women in presenting and moderating roles, underscored the work that needs to be done. Think about it: The event was notable for its all-female panel, moderator and presenters, but should that still be notable in 2020?

Burwell and Schwartz both traced their paths to becoming retail executives. The common themes: a willingness to take a leap, an unrelenting curiosity and mentors along the way. Oh, and one more thing.

“When you took the leap you just didn’t give up,” Bryant said of Burwell’s and Schwartz’s stories. “You just put your head down and said, ‘I’m going to roll with this,’ which I think is phenomenal — and what you need to be to be successful as a woman leader. And when you think about that and driving change, No. 1, you have to have a company that respects you, has creativity and gives you the chance to keep going, to keep being innovative.”

Burwell, who’s been at Build.com for 10 years, started out working at smaller ecommerce concerns, before working her way up through various marketing and finance roles at Build.com.

“It’s been kind of fast and crazy,” she said. “I love the people that I work with. I love learning something new every day and I still get the opportunity to do that. So that’s what keeps me going right now.”

Which is not to say the decision to move into the VP role was an easy one. Burwell’s son was 8 months old when the position opened up. She could aggressively pursue the job she wanted or sit back and accept the possibility that an outsider might come in and reshape the department she’d dedicated her work life to.

“As a new mom, or any mom, that decision weighs heavily on you. I knew there would be a lot of work involved in taking that leap. How was it going to impact my family and my life at home? Ultimately, I decided it was something I wanted. I needed to take the opportunity that was in front of me.”

For her part, Schwartz seized a series of opportunities that were hardly without risk. Right out of college she passed on a marketing job with a bicycle company, despite its perfect fit with her “crunchy, outdoor” lifestyle aspirations. Instead she took a job in finance, because she realized while interviewing that she had found a mentor.

Finding the right mentor was a key to Schwartz success

“She was a very strong woman, who was the VP of marketing at the time. And I knew that she was going to teach me the ropes,” Schwartz said.

And she did, finding opportunities for Schwartz to push herself, to “do things that I never thought I could do.”

Schwartz’s leaps didn’t stop there. Years later, while working for an ad agency, she was approached by principles at a tech company who liked one of her presentations. They wanted to hire her as vice president of sales.

Schwartz took a leap and joined a nearly all-male company. Schwartz had no tech experience. The company consisted of 40 male engineers and one other woman.

“I was scared as hell,” she said. “And I just said, ‘I’m going to do this.’ And I did it and that gave me my background in ecommerce and tech, to do the things I do today. I’m happy to have my dream job and I don’t regret that bold move.”

What she’s doing today is running digital and direct-to-consumer at Keen, which required another leap. She moved cross-country just over a year ago, leaving the east coast and her partner behind.

“It was my dream job,” Schwartz said. “And sitting right now in COVID and what we’re going through, I know I was the one who was supposed to take this job. Nothing throws me. Resilience is my superpower. I enjoy pivoting and change more than anything. So give me a blank slate any day of the week. I would rather have a white board with nothing on it and go in and build or fix something.”

Let’s just say that when it came to managing through a global pandemic, the white board was pretty much blank.

“When this all went down, everything changed overnight,” Schwartz said. “I literally felt this need to save my company. We were pivoting to a whole new strategy.”

Keen consolidated its internal communication and went all digital to make sure interactions remained smooth as employees worked from home. It surveyed its customers to determine their needs. That helped the company discover that Keen’s fans didn’t have a huge appetite for curbside pickup.

So, Schwartz said, Keen went to work building up its partner retailer’s omnichannel capabilities. It helped them with curbside pickup and showed their inventory on the Keen site. Keen put together a playbook on reopening physical stores for its partners and created a course on digital selling. It gave them more flexibility than usual on discounting. It helped them set up Shopify sites.

“My key takeaway is stay strong,” Schwartz said. “That’s my No. 1. My No. 2 is listen. I have never listened more than I am today. My listening ears are bigger than they’ve ever been.”

Things changed dramatically at Build.com, too, as the pandemic rolled across the globe.

“We saw some initial category response with freezers and bidets, where we saw sales really take off,” Burwell said.

The world had shifted. Consumers were planning to stay home and stock up for the long haul and toilet paper was in extremely short supply.

Tracking changes in consumer behavior has helped the best retailers succeed

But a more significant change had to do with a shift in who was doing the buying. Historically, Build.com had relied on a fairly balanced mix between professional contractors and do-it-yourselfers. But with the pandemic, property owners were hesitant to invite contractors and trades people into their homes and buildings to do work.

“We saw that business really slow down,” Burwell said. “And then we saw the consumer business really spike up.”

So suddenly the mix was out of whack. The professionals were more expensive to acquire as customers, Burwell explained. But once acquired, they shopped more often, had higher average order values and essentially didn’t need to be marketed to.

Burwell needed to track a COVID-19-shift in customer mix

Consumers on the other hand, were cheaper to acquire, but their basket sizes were smaller and because they were buying a few specific items, they often wouldn’t enjoy the entire Build.com experience. They wouldn’t know all the products the brand offered and so they required marketing outreach to re-engage as customers. Do-it-yourselfers were high margin. Contractors, buying on volume, were lower margin.

The effect of the new shopper mix on Build.com’s financials had to be carefully tracked and accommodated. Burwell said Build.com was up for the task, having moved aggressively into relying on automated business intelligence tracking and away from more manual processes.

Now Build.com’s numbers are “continually updated, so we can see how the trend is looking, not just on a monthly basis, but weekly and daily and sometimes hourly,” she said.

That will come as a big advantage as the company continues making its way through the pandemic and eventually when it emerges into the post-pandemic world.

Like everyone, Burwell and Schwartz look forward to that day. For now, they are invigorated by the challenges managing through a pandemic brings. And they are energized by the opportunity to continue the work of making the world more equitable for women.

Schwartz talked about the day she was introduced to her Keen co-workers at a companywide meet-and-greet. Woman after woman came up to her, to welcome her and tell her how important it was to have someone in her role that they could relate to.

“I really felt a responsibility to be someone that really listens and provokes action,” she said. “I feel a higher sense of responsibility than I have ever before.”

Burwell celebrates the progress that has been made, but it’s her nature to constantly be looking ahead.

“It’s not just good enough to be a company that has women on our leadership team,” she said. “We need to be one that promotes women’s leadership, advocates for it, and thrives on it.”


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Mike Cassidy

Mike is lead storyteller at Signifyd. A former journalist and a retail geek, he covers ecommerce and the way technology is transforming digital commerce. Contact him at mike.cassidy@signifyd.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.