Engaging Associates: Best Practice Retail Operations at Polo Ralph Lauren

Your KPIs, dashboard and performance management are in place, but your retail operations are missing that final touch? This best practice story shows how new technologies can help you win at associate engagement too.

Put yourself in the shoes of a senior vice president of outlet retail for a lifestyle brand in Europe who runs a few stores across several countries. Your stores are commercially successful, and your brand is an anchor tenant for many landlords. But you observe that you could do even better by becoming more engaged in retail operations. Are you tempted to push that old KPI and performance management button to reach your full- and part-time store associates? And, how well has that worked out for you in the past?

Time to finally wake up to the new millennium, as it offers much more promising ways to engage in retail operations. Starbucks and Polo Ralph Lauren show how.

Ralph Lauren’s Factory Outlet in Neumünster (Photo: fsp)

Managing European Outlets ‘by Helicopter’

Financials about Polo Ralph Lauren’s outlet retail aren’t readily available. But from their annual report we might deduce that their outlet business is doing rather well. And a quick look at their store locator will confirm that, like for many other brands, Polo Ralph Lauren’s European outlet retail network is scattered across the continent.

Managing European outlets comes with diverging legal requirements, diverse local consumers and different needs in terms of reaching local store personnel. Unlike the US or China, no single European country offers an outlet market potential large enough to justify the full set of retail operations functions on its own. In other words, managing European outlets means managing complexity.

Be it visual merchandising, retail marketing or Human Resources – retail operations will require some compromises. You will need to consider building ‘shared services’, be that across borders or with your full-price retail operations. And that’s less than ideal in terms of getting the most out of your organisation and providing the best consumer experiences you can.

As a consequence, many retail operations functions spend 30% or more of their working hours ‘helicoptering’ from location to location. That’s a considerable amount of time not spent engaging with and offering guidance to store personnel. Experienced outlet brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Levi’s or Polo Ralph Lauren have learned to make the best of this situation. They have built dedicated and highly professional European outlet organisations that are separate from full-price business and operate profitably.

Polo Ralph Lauren like we know them – perfectly merchandised (Photo: Brand Pilots)

Old & New Ways to Engage Associates in Retail Operations

This is the setting, I imagine, that Massimo Manenti encountered when he was appointed SVP of European outlet stores at Polo Ralph Lauren in February 2016. He came with experience of growing retail in Italy, Spain and France. In fact, we first met in Barcelona, where he held a global role at Desigual, and collaborated on advancing retail performance management. As was customary at the time, we focused on KPIs to professionalise the brand’s retail operations in ‘the old way’.

The situation at Polo Ralph Lauren in 2016 was a rather different one. The brand looks back on a long professional outlet tradition, and an average store has likely ten times the personnel of a Desigual store. An important challenge was finding ways to reach all staff of all stores across all countries, while not standing a chance of meeting everyone in person. How to communicate effectively, through layers of hierarchy and across borders, to engage with each and every part-timer without falling victim to the ‘Chinese whispers’ or ‘telephone game’ effect?

Polo Ralph Lauren’s Outlet in Cheshire Oaks Designer Outlet (Photo: Dream Property Solutions)

Here’s how it was done ‘the old way’: tons of e-mail, PowerPoint or pdf attachments, guides to the new season, new management priorities and so on. A plethora of information that staff is expected to absorb on arrival at their workplace. Do all those part-timers have access to company e-mail? And if so, do they access it? Are you confident that they are able to absorb such an overload of rather dull information at the beginning of each shift? Or might more of your communications than you’d like fall victim to a cycle of skim, ignore, and delete?

Massimo and his team at Polo Ralph Lauren wanted to change this and were looking for a ‘new-millennium way’ to reach their store personnel. The timing was perfect because their efforts coincided with the launch of Workplace by Facebook, a corporate in-house version of Facebook’s popular social media platform.

Retail operations professionals at Starbucks were among the first to understand how excellent this tool is in reaching store personnel. Starbuck’s new CEO Kevin Johnson even shared their successful experience at the annual shareholder meeting:

An Engaging Experience at Polo Ralph Lauren

Polo Ralph Lauren’s retail operations embarked on a similar success story. It was Q4 last year when the outlet team launched Workplace by Facebook after a period of careful consideration and planning. And for good reasons, as we’ve certainly all been part of corporate communication initiatives that seemed great at launch but soon after resembled a dead drop.

The Polo Ralph Lauren team wanted to turn communications into a two-way habit, where management not only sends messages to staff but gets feedback too. They wanted to learn from store personnel and for communications to become visible to all who participate. The goal was personnel engagement with and about the brand, as well as about retail operations. Communications should become vivid, lively, colourful and entertaining – much like peoples’ personal use of Facebook for communication with friends and family.

Above all, they wanted to make sure that everybody became engaged with the brand as well as the routine tasks in outlet retail, whether they were marketing managers, visual merchandisers, full-time store associates or part-timers coming in for weekend shifts. With that ambition, the launch was planned, professionally supported by Sei Mani, an agency specialised in bringing new technologies to work.

Engaging Visual Merchandise Management made by Ralph Lauren (Photo: Brand Pilots)

Polo Ralph Lauren’s Workplace by Facebook has now been live for several weeks and is highly engaging and entertaining in many ways. I regret that I can’t share access with you here. But, allow me to share this one story, the ‘mesh bay story’:

A sales associate in one of Polo Ralph Lauren’s outlets shares a selfie of how he prepared the mesh wall bay for the weekend crowds. He challenged his peers in other stores by claiming that they couldn’t possibly do better than him. His post started a deluge of mesh bay selfies from all across Europe. Retail operations liked it and decided to reward this initiative by donating a certificate and bottle of champagne.

This is but one of many creative ideas that have emerged on Workplace. Over 95% of staff associates have joined Workplace to follow what’s going on in their organisation. No e-mail marketing or executive speech could ever hope to achieve this level of staff engagement.

retail operations

A T-Shirt bay that wins customers and possibly another RL Workplace competition (Photo: Brand Pilots)

Mesh bay and many other great stories came to life in just a few weeks and demonstrate the value of engaging staff in new ways. The outlet team in Europe became a role model for Polo Ralph Lauren worldwide, where other parts of the organisation follow suit by developing their own initiatives to engage staff. And Facebook is so excited about Ralph Lauren’s engagement that Ralph Lauren won annual  FB Workplace awards in the categories “Most Impressive Business Results” and “Best Cross-Functional Collaboration”.

Make Sure You Keep Going

Is Workplace by Facebook at risk of becoming a dead drop too one day? Not if management continues to engage like it does at Polo Ralph Lauren. All communication channels, including those that appear like easy choices and operate at best practice, only become successful by the means of continuous hard work. And, if I may say so, Polo Ralph Lauren’s retail operations team has it well planned out for the months to come! It is highly likely we will hear more about this success story and experience store staff highly engaged.

About the Author:

Guido is a brand and retail manager with 25+ years of industry experience and is currently collecting best practice stories for his book on brand management. Read more of his work or get in touch with Guido via e-mail to share your very own best practice story.

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