Business Tips

Top Four Retail Strategy Tips: Lessons from Female Leaders During a Pandemic

Last updated January 2022

The pandemic has dramatically changed the retail world.  This upheaval extends to all aspects of retail — everything from managing the supplier network to marketing and selling merchandise to leading your team.  Many of these changes will be permanent even as the vaccines continue to roll out and people begin to return to some semblance of normalcy. To be successful, retailers will need to remain connected to their customers and employees as they navigate the post-pandemic world together. 

In celebration of International Women’s Day, Splitit invited a panel of women executives in the retail industry to discuss these changes in a recent webinar, moderated by Melanie Vala, Chief Commercial Officer. The webinar featured valuable perspectives and advice from three female retail leaders: Jennifer DiPasquale, President & Co-Founder of Women in Retail/Total Retail; Dawn Robertson, CEO of On Campus Marketing; and Vanessa LeFebvre, SVP of Commercial, adidas. 

Here are the trends our panelists believe will affect the industry for some time to come.

1. When people return to the workplace, it’s going to be hybrid.

The days of everyone in the organization going into the office full time are likely gone for the near-term future. The new model is likely to be a hybrid model. Productivity, engagement, and customer satisfaction will drive where and when work gets done. The model might include flowing back and forth from remote solo work, small team meetings, and larger gatherings at a corporate office.

The U.S.-based retailer Target, for example, has given up its 1-million square foot corporate headquarters building in the city center of Minneapolis in favor of four other nearby offices and remote work. Target’s leadership says the change will result in a new hybrid model of on-site and remote work that allows for greater collaboration and flexibility. About 3,500 people worked in the headquarters office before the pandemic, with 9,000 scattered throughout other buildings in the metropolitan area.  While Target is retaining all those employees, the retailer will need less office space because of the hybrid model.

The hybrid model will likely look different with each retailer, optimized for what works best for customers and employees. Retail leaders and team members will share decision-making about the model. The trend will allow retailers to increase the talent pool available to them because hiring decisions are no longer bound by geography.

“This Hybrid world is here to stay […] You can hire someone in a virtual world that is not in your area. It is going to help retailers to increase their talent pool, which they were not able to do before.” – Jennifer DiPasquale, President & Co-Founder of Women in Retail/Total Retail

Hybrid models also will drive agility and lower costs of office space and recruiting. A challenge some retailers may face is how to develop and strengthen the brand remotely. Historically, teams have taken part in the brand culture through being together physically. Brainstorming among teams often leads to creativity. However, culture and creativity can thrive within the right hybrid model. The pandemic has already given retailers a head start in learning to be creative and develop and sustain the brand remotely through effectively using technology. 

2. The pandemic has taught people to be more authentic and vulnerable, and that’s a good thing.

COVID -19 turned “normal” upside down. The crisis has taken a toll on everyone — both retail leaders and team members. Working from home while also having children staying home from school has been challenging. Most team members and leaders alike have experienced anxiety about the future.

Before the pandemic, leaders were accustomed to being confident, knowing all the answers, and always projecting positivity and optimism. However, in this crisis, that’s been impossible. The retail leaders on our panel spoke about the importance of admitting when they didn’t know the answers and asking the team to help figure out the answer.

“Acknowledge your fears and that you don’t have all the answers. This is okay and the new normal. This has been a big learning year. How will we acknowledge it and move forward from here?” – Dawn Robertson, CEO of On Campus Marketing

In fact, leaders admitting vulnerability created space for team members to admit their own vulnerability. People who admit vulnerability and ask for help early also avoid mental health and burnout issues.  Creating space also encourages team members to listen to each other to understand how they can support each other. When team members are honest about their needs and team members listen, the team functions better. Team members cover for one another and have each other’s back.  

The pandemic has underscored the principle that retail leaders should focus on progress toward goals rather than perfection. Expecting perfection slows down progress because we become self-critical and spend too much energy on managing details. As a result, we miss the opportunity to make meaningful change. Focusing on improvement encourages a mindset of learning and is sustainable. It also provides opportunities to celebrate each milestone along the journey.

“Perfection is this illusion that we all aspire towards, but progress is action. Progress is your strategy manifesting.”  – Vanessa LeFebrve, SVP of Commercial of Adidas

Vulnerability, authenticity, and the focus on progress are effective ways to lead retail teams.  They will continue to be critical leadership traits as we return to some semblance of in-person work. Keeping a space open for vulnerability within the team is vital to team relationships and productivity. A standup meeting every day, whether in person, digitally, or hybrid, is one way to do this.

“We’re all vulnerable and its important to embrace it.” – Jennifer DiPasquale, President & Co-Founder of Women in Retail/Total Retail

Going forward, acknowledging and celebrating all accomplishments will continue to motivate team members toward their goals. Our panel spoke about one way to achieve this goal. Because people are reluctant to toot their own horns, leaders can ensure that people get credit for achieving milestones by pairing each team member up with “visibility buddies” who help make sure everyone knows about the other’s accomplishments.

Trust also is an essential trait of high-performing teams. The pandemic has taught us that retail leaders who are honest about their own struggles and doubts inspire trust. Inviting team members to help solve problems keeps team members engaged and encourages ownership of the solution. 

3. Flexibility has been key in everything from the customer to digital to leadership.

The customer has always been the king or queen of the retail world, but especially during the pandemic. Retail sales of most goods have moved digital, and retailers have been able to go back to one-on-one commerce. Retailers communicate with customers via social media and apps. Data analytics can tell retailers precisely what customers want, and products, including groceries, can be delivered directly to consumer’s doorsteps. Customers want to buy whenever and wherever they like. While many of these changes were already in the works, the pandemic has accelerated them. Many of these trends also create new advantages for innovative e-commerce merchants.

The pandemic doesn’t mean the physical store will go away; many shoppers will return to stores post-pandemic as retailers communicate the steps taken toward safety and cleanliness. But customer expectations will be different. They will expect digital interactivity in brick-and-mortar stores and the seamless integration of physical and digital commerce. 

The North American retailer Best Buy is already testing some changes to its physical stores. The test stores are smaller, displaying the most popular products but with an inventory of others. The stores also serve as primary e-commerce and online fulfillment sites and hubs for the company’s Geek Squads, which install and do repairs. 

Customers also will expect a personalized approach; one way may be through scheduling personal shopping appointments in stores through the website. When the customer turns up for the appointment, a salesperson greets them, listens to them, and even tries to anticipate their needs based on previous online activity. Those merchants who find ways to personalize across channels will stay ahead of the game. 

Customers also are becoming increasingly interested in supporting socially conscious brands, and most brands, in turn, are becoming more purposeful and sustainable. 

“Consumers are expecting retailers to take a stand and be more vocal about social issues […] This is one of the silver linings that has come from last year.”  – Jennifer DiPasquale, President & Co-Founder of Women in Retail/Total Retail

More than 2 million working moms left the workforce in 2020 because they had trouble juggling child care and education responsibilities with their jobs. Their exodus brought with it a new awakening in companies that value diversity and inclusion. These companies learned that flexible work arrangements, which allow better balancing of personal and work life, are critical to retaining top talent.

Because we don’t know what the future will look like, smart retailers will seek ways to remain nimble. They’ll find creative ways to improve operating profit while winning market share, such as further expanding into digital marketplaces. They will find ways to stay connected with their target audience to be sure they understand what these customers want.

As circumstances continually change, our panelists pointed out that retailers will also reprioritize how they spend their time and money, eliminating former habits that no longer contribute. They will rethink inventory practices. Finally, as soon as retailers reach one goal, they’ll ask what else they should be doing.

“Learning to give up things that are not the highest priorities […] Eliminating the things that don’t matter even though we have always done them.”  – Dawn Robertson, CEO of On Campus Marketing

4. More change is coming. 

The changes won’t end just because the threat from the pandemic lessens.

For example, the trend toward inclusive leadership will continue to evolve. Inclusive leadership begins with empathy. The crisis of the pandemic has helped leaders to develop this empathy. Retail leaders who have developed this empathy, which includes asking questions and truly listening to the answers, will be highly valued.  Because they do so, they’ll encourage other employees to speak up when they need help. Particularly important will be the leader’s ability to include both those in the physical office and those working remotely equally in decision-making. The flexibility of leaders to discover and advocate ways for employees to balance the demands of home and work is critical to hiring and retaining the best talent.

“The change is here. The way that people are working and operating is going to be more inclusive. It’s going to be more empathetic. It’s going to be more humanized. I believe that is the mechanism driving exceptional results.” – Vanessa LeFebrve, SVP of Commercial of Adidas

In the pandemic, diverse social networks have enabled everyone to perform at their best and helped teams to hear from different perspectives and reach better decisions. This trend will continue. Leaders also will continue to courageously position themselves in areas where they feel weak, encouraging the team to work together to solve problems.

Retailers also will continue to look for ways to meet ever-changing customer expectations. Often this will involve making changes in the supply chain to ensure customers can quickly receive what they’ve ordered but at the lowest cost to the retailer’s bottom line. They’ll engage with suppliers to improve sustainability. They’ll keep changing as necessary to balance price, quality, and sustainability. 


The pandemic has altered the retail industry forever. Now that they’ve been launched, these changes will continue to evolve. Retailers who understand that the new normal will look very different from the old one will create the capacity to stay agile.

Agility and flexibility are the keys to meeting customers’ and employees’ needs while also improving profitability. Leading with compassion and inclusivity will help retailers find the best solution for each challenge in the ever-changing landscape. 

For more insights and to watch the full webinar, click here!