Retail Influencers Share the Best Piece of Business Advice They’ve Ever Been Given

By Abby Heugel

As retailers, you know that it takes a lot to start a business and grow it to be a profitable enterprise. You learn as you go, but if you’re lucky, you have the opportunity to learn from experts who have been there, done that, and are willing to share just how they made it happen.

We went to some of the most influential people in retail and asked them a simple question: “What’s the best piece of retail/business advice that you’ve ever been given?” Their answers are insightful, thoughtful, and worth their weight in gold — all based on what’s worked for them when it comes to learning how to start and run a business.

1. Own your place and potential

Carol Spieckerman

Retail Speaker & Strategist to Brands, Spieckerman Retail

Early in my retail career, the CEO of a then-flourishing West Coast department store chain told me, ‘Carol, there’s business out there. Someone is going to get it, and it might as well be you.’

I had just booked my first multi-million-dollar season as a key account salesperson, so his comment validated what I knew in my gut, yet it also represented some pretty contrarian coaching considering that retail was in the early stages of a years-long consolidation period that would wreak havoc on retailers and suppliers.

This principle continued to serve me well as my career trajectory defied prevailing winds (and trends). Now, as positioning and business development advisor to retail-focused companies, a simplified version, “why not you?” is a question I pose to my clients and mentees. Pondering it has a way of unmasking excuses, challenging assumptions and, once we do the work, instilling confidence and triggering opportunities.

It’s so easy to buy into the negative hype and doomsday predictions that have become so pervasive across all of retail. Now more than ever, owning your place and potential is powerful.

2. Don’t take your strengths too far or for granted

Greg Buzek

President, IHL Group

Your greatest weakness is not a weakness you obviously realize, but rather an unprotected strength. It’s your strength that you take too far or take for granted. The reason this is such a weakness is because of your giftedness in this area, you cannot only do great good, but great harm.

3. Retail is entertainment

Brian Kilcourse

Managing Partner, RSR Research LLC

The single best piece of advice I ever got (when I was a retail executive) was, “Retail is entertainment”.  I remember when my boss (one of the company co-founders) gave that admonition very clearly, and I have to confess that at first, I was skeptical. But over time, I have learned the wisdom of it, and have shared it with our clients.

People want to enjoy their shopping experiences, but how people are entertained has changed a lot in recent years, and to be an enjoyable experience, retailers need to understand what those changes mean to them and their Brands.

4. Make the first impression count

Bob Phibbs

The Retail Doctor

You only get one chance to make a good impression. That goes from your display windows to your store maintenance to your bathroom, fitting rooms, counters, lights and most importantly – who you let on your floor as your brand ambassador.

5. Know who you are, and let that be your North Star

Melissa Gonzalez

#RetailwithMelissa, The Lionesque Group

Take the time to know who you are and create a filter from day one, and use it to guide your decisions. Let it guide your decisions on design, partnerships, and collaborations.

6. Age is just a number

Nicole Leinbach Reyhle

Founder, Retail Minded

Very early on in my career, I was told by a senior executive at the company I worked for at the time to never lose sight of the customer because it’s too easy behind the scenes to forget who the end user is of any retail experience. I think that advice holds true for all categories of retail and is particularly important to keep in mind in our increasingly digital world.

This same leader also told me age is just a number… something we have all heard time and time again…and stressed that no matter what, don’t let your age or lack of experience hold you back from working hard and trying your best to get to where you want to be. That’s a great lesson that crosses into all aspects of life, but certainly business.

7. Value every relationship

Cathy Hotka

Cathy Hotka & Associates, LLC, Connecting Insiders in Retail

Treasure every relationship. My focus is creating better networking at senior levels in retail. This industry is based on trust and personal relationships, in a way that isn’t true of other industries I’ve worked in.

8. Put your customers first

Andrew Busby

Founder & CEO, Retail Reflections

The best piece of retail advice I’ve ever been given was to “walk a mile in my customer’s shoes”. It’s amazing to me how many retail businesses profess to put the customer first, when in reality neither their organizational structure nor their staff empowerment are geared to achieve this.

9. Strive to design the best future for yourself

Tony D’Onofrio

Motivational Speaker, CEO, CCO

Personal  – Be endlessly curious to design the future you always imagined. If you dream it, with hard work, you will achieve it. Retail – The disruptive epicenter of retail was and always will be the consumer. Shopper focused leadership branding and immersive customer experiences are the future of retail.

10. Be smart about leveraging tech

Joseph Skorupa

Editorial Director, RIS News

Every business decision triggers a technology response. It doesn’t matter if your mission is to deliver outstanding customer service or amazing retail experiences or breakthrough concepts and designs. If you want to do it efficiently, consistently, and cost-effectively you have to be smart about leveraging technology.  

11. Just start, and let the process evolve as you go along

Anil Aggarwal

CEO, Shoptalk & Groceryshop

When I was 29 and thinking about starting my first company, my father told me to just get started, and that opportunity would find me. This has been my consistent experience over all the businesses I’ve started because it’s truly at the heart of how you build anything successfully — put something out there and evolve it through a process of iteration with your customers.

12. March to the beat of your own drum

Brian Walker

CEO & Founder, The Retail Doctor Group

Probably to play your own game, life is too short to be trying to be what others want you to be.
Find your passion and live that.

13. Never underestimate your customers

Miya Knights

Head of Industry Insight, Eagle Eye Solutions Limited

The best piece of retail advice I have ever been given is that the ways and means people use to buy stuff may change, but the art of retailing itself, that of merchandising and curation, is as important as always. Never underestimate your customer.

14. See things from your the customer’s perspective

Neil Saunders

Managing Director, Retail, GlobalData

The best piece advice I have been given was early on in my career when a store manager at John Lewis told me to always put myself in the customer’s shoes and think about things from their perspective. Today, it is obvious that many failing retailers have failed to observe this maxim.

15. Don’t underestimate the power of proper planning

Cathy Donovan Wagner

CEO, Retail Mavens

Not one, but two because they tie together and they’re both from my dad. “Know what you are shooting for and make plans to hit it.” Otherwise as Benjamin Franklin says, “If you’re failing to plan, you are planning to fail.” SO DANG TRUE!! Every time. For every event, every meeting, every social media post, every day in your life!  Take the time to determine what you want and then go for it!

“Doing the best you can is a stupid plan. You must have a strategy.” I found this so true after we opened our second store. The economy had changed and the store was doing horrible – we were nearing bankruptcy. I drove into work every day filling my mind with all sorts of positive thoughts to counter my feelings of depression. I’d walk into the store thinking, “Today is going to be a great day! I am going to do my best today in every way.”  It didn’t work — until I got a strategy to increase sales and profits! The strategy is what made the difference.

16. Know thyself

Paul Greenberg

Director, National Retail Association

Over the years, many pearls have come my way. I started my career in the field of psychological services, and still maintain registration as a psychologist. So the most resonant reminder I have taken into retail and commerce is from William Shakespeare – ‘Above all, know thyself ‘ – a succinct reminder that self-awareness is a key catalyst for the many aspects of success in commerce.

17. Constant vigilance and creative are essential

Daphne Howland

Reporter, Retail Dive

The retail business demands constant vigilance and creativity — and my sources are clear that, while it’s not for the faint of heart, it also represents an opportunity to make connections with people shopping for the clothes they wear, the homes they live in, and the lives they lead in ways that few sectors of the economy do.

18. Know that customers don’t recognize “channels”

Chris H Petersen

Consultant, Keynote Speaker, Blogger,

The best advice I’ve been given for today’s retail environment is that customers don’t recognize ‘channels’. The best retail for them today is ‘seamless’.  

For today’s customers there is no ‘online’ versus physical retail. The best retailers provide an end-to-end experience that is relevant, convenient, and efficient. The challenge for today’s retailers is that customers keep moving the goalposts.  What was extraordinary service yesterday, is today’s minimum standard. It is critical to know your customers, how they shop, where they buy, and how they want to take delivery.

19. Stay curious and be open minded

Helen Dickinson

Chief Executive, British Retail Consortium

To be curious, to explore new ideas and be open minded. This is particularly important in the current retail environment where no one knows for certain how the future will pan out and therefore the need to try, test, think of new ways of doing things is even more vital than ever.

20. Work smart, not hard

Steve Dresser

Director, Grocery Insight

‘Work smart, not hard.’

I have had a somewhat unconventional path to the job I do now, utilising social media and blogs in the early days to sell our services alongside visiting lots of shops in the process. That mantra was drilled into me by the first real ‘boss’ I had, a department supervisor on Fruit/Veg at Sainsbury’s (a UK retailer).

It was about tidying cardboard up as I filled, rather than piling it high and chucking it everywhere to take advantage of the store being closed. There are so many areas where we can work smarter, without technology (which can be the sticking plaster these days for any challenge) thus allowing a focus to be on other areas of the store/service/experience.

It’s the same now; there are so many ways to work smarter and deliver a better result in many cases without necessarily needing to work 95 hours a week. It’s the same for many of the retailers – better processes (with/without tech) would make such a difference to the thousands of colleagues/associates around the various retail businesses.

About Francesca Nicasio

Francesca Nicasio is Vend's Retail Expert and Content Strategist. She writes about trends, tips, and other cool things that enable retailers to increase sales, serve customers better, and be more awesome overall. She's also the author of Retail Survival of the Fittest, a free eBook to help retailers future-proof their stores. Connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Google+.