Sean Demers was behind the register wearing DIESEL jeans and a black t-shirt when I applied for my first job in retail. He smiled when he looked at my resume. I had zero experience.
It showed from my inability to navigate the stockroom to my disorientation on the sales floor. I had to ask Sean what KPIs were. He never once lost his patience.
His management style shaped the way I would lead my own team years later. It starts by creating a genuine atmosphere.
Sean Demers taught me to put in the effort, not overlook things, be straight with people and be kind.
As a store manager, what are the biggest outlet store challenges?
I worked for DIESEL as a manager at their outlet store in Upstate New York after working in DIESEL retail, which was more clientele driven.
Outlet store challenges are a whole different planet.
It was an adjustment, but I feel like it sharpened my tools because I was able to deal with hundreds and hundreds of people a day that I would absolutely never see again. There was no return clientele. No one was our specific client. They were clearly coming to the outlet store for the deals and the labels. So my whole thing―especially coming back from DIESEL retail―was I really wanted to see if I could provide high level customer service in an outlet store environment. Which was kind of fun because I was able to shape and mold the team with that intention. That’s an 8 million dollar store. It’s a huge business. Huge.
What was different about your staff at the outlet store?
The DIESEL outlet was a very different situation compared to when we had the whole team together in DIESEL retail. Everyone had their own stuff going on and they were a little bit more mature―even if they weren’t necessarily older, they were definitely mature in the sense that they understood the way the world worked. Or they had the idea that they wanted to learn how the world worked.
At the DIESEL outlet store challenges stemmed from having a staff of 18 – 19 year olds that didn’t care. They didn’t care about anything. They especially didn’t care about customer service. Or having any type of care for a client. All they wanted to do was get their paycheck and get out.
Is this a millennial thing?
I’m 29, so I’m a millennial. But there’s definitely a strange atmosphere that’s floating around in fashion retail of: Oh, I’m going to make it. Not necessarily that I have a plan, but: I’m going to make it so I don’t need to do this. And you’re laughing because you know.
I have this conversation all the time and am like: Dude, how are you going to make it if you don’t put the work in?
So how did you shape and motivate your millennial team?
That was really my big thing, was to help them push through. I’d say: Hey, instead of feeling that way, why don’t we have a good time and invest in this because you could make money.
The thing about these particular outlets is they’re near a city with predominantly lower income families. It’s a very rough place. I think it’s one of the top ten violent cities in America. It’s insane. So my big thing with those kids was talking to them and being like: Guys—if you do this right, you can make a decent living.
Outlet store challenges include teaching associates that the small efforts really do work. Whether it’s the please or the thank you or even just simple eye contact. It’s about developing those basic skills. And it’s kind of silly saying it, because you’ve obviously worked in the industry. But it’s interesting when you meet a group of people that don’t necessarily have that, and you see the light bulb go off in their minds and they’re like: Oh, yea! Of course I should be doing that! Where in the past, no one even invested in them. Or allowed them to learn.
How did operations differ across the various stores you’ve worked at?
The different companies I’ve worked for― it’s been a mix between American brands and European brands within different parts of Europe that all have different work mentalities. Different bedrocks. At 7 for All Mankind―they were very lax with their operations. I have noticed that in general, the operations role has diminished a little bit, with IT being able to go right into your computer if you needed them to. The late night paperwork disappeared.
The retail systems that I’ve been using recently have been much more archaic. I haven’t had the experience that it’s been revolutionary.
The focus on operations has been replaced with the customer service aspect: the creation of the experience within the shop. The brand ambassador experience. Most shops really want that face-to-face connection.
You still have to do operations, but it’s kind of on the back burner a little bit.
Are KPIs reflective of what’s happening at the store level?
Yes, I’ve definitely seen it because the store that I operate right now is kind of dying out unfortunately, and it’s clear through the KPIs. I keep the books. I print out everything and I can see that the traffic trends are down.
KPIs are how I can directly speak to my higher ups and speak to everyone within the market. This is how we communicate about what’s going on in my store and demonstrate we are still doing a good job of maintaining through a steady conversion and steady UPTs.
Because honestly, that’s really the only way that you can really see if you are still doing a good job. Beyond that, you can just say: Oh, it’s the weather. Oh, it’s the traffic. It’s the this, it’s the that. But if you can literally see the numbers and the customer counter go down, but you see your KPIs are still steady and working―then you know you and your team are still pushing forward and understanding the market the best that they can.
How have you increased customer loyalty?
Whether it’s leather or denim, the incentive has to have a culture behind it. Like DIESEL, for example, used to do a True Blue program. So however many pairs of denim you bought, you got a little card. It was a frequent buyers club. And then after that, you would end up getting a free pair of denim. They did away with the program for whatever reason, but we still had people talking about it. People that clearly wanted to have the experience again. It felt exclusive for them. And they loved to flash the cool card.
I think that customer service is the real big thing. It’s what brings you back. With my experience working in the New York City market, in two different shops― I was a big supporter of the neighborhood discount. It’s not even a lot. It was only 10% off your purchase. However, doing something like that makes somebody feel like we know them. That it really matters to us. So much that we are willing to offer them 10% off their purchase every single time.
Is a neighborhood discount realistic at scale?
I feel like it would work in just about any city. In New York City, it especially works because everyone is so proud to be where they’re from. Everybody wants to feel pride in their neighborhood, and they want to be able to share that.
The local discount is less an incentive, but more of a nod. It’s respect. You’re here. I see you. Thank you for shopping with us. Thank you for your business.
It’s that small, simple gesture at the end of the interaction saying: Just to let you know, I threw the neighborhood discount in. I really appreciate your patronage.
That goes the distance.
At the end of the day, people are people. No matter where you are. People want to feel that―that understanding that I could spend my money somewhere else, but I’m doing it with you. It should be reciprocated.
Any last words for the future of retail?
What retailers should take to heart is that giving your employees autonomy and allowing them to actually build your business, really empowers people. It makes them want to work for you. People want that.
I feel like that’s really important because what’s going to start happening with this e-commerce shift, is that you’re going to see these brands start flopping simply because they haven’t invested into their people. They haven’t invested in the people that helped shape the company in physical markets. And that’s unfortunate.
Brands should understand that people work for them. And that people care to work for them. When you give your employees autonomy to run that business, certain nuances develop that only you, as the store manager can create.
Every neighborhood is so diverse, that not everything works everywhere. Sometimes you have to change.
You have to adapt to get a smile these days.
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About the Interviewee: Sean Demers is a retail professional who has worked in various markets including New York and California, for 7 years. Working in both high volume and low volume client driven environments, he has been able to shape businesses by focusing on patience and confidence in his teams. He currently resides in the Upper West Side of Manhattan and works for a luxury legacy brand in the SOHO shopping district of New York City.