Updated: Jul 29
A new paradigm will inspire and motivate the next generation of retail designers
Retail designers are in the business of fashion, and by definition, fashion is change. While most discussions concerning the fashion industry begin on the runways of Paris, New York, and Milan, it should be noted that there is fashion in everything, from designer handbags and couture evening gowns to stovetops, refrigerators, and cell phones. Retail, whether brick and mortar or digital, is the showplace for the latest fashions; it’s the theater for new products, new concepts, and new ideas. As such, retail designers are the choreographers, presenting the fashion of the day on retail’s grand selling stages.
Over the course of time, retail has demonstrated an unwavering ability to adapt to the latest styles, trends, and technologies. It has also responded to the events of the day, being a reflection and in some cases a bellwether of our culture. With change being the one constant in the retail equation, it’s curious that the approach to leadership hasn’t advanced at all.
The events that roiled the early years of the 21st-century, from the attacks on 911 and the financial crises in 2008, to catastrophic storms and political and social upheaval, have restructured society in long-lasting, in some cases, permanent ways. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic created challenges that we never faced before. The world as we knew it, from travel protocols and the way we shop to real estate transactions, banking, and workplace dynamics, is forever changed.
Adapting to change can be empirical, particularly in the face of new technologies and existential provocation such as the vice-like grip of a worldwide pandemic. To move forward in challenging and changing times, successful retail leaders must have their hand on the pulse of our society and the heartbeat of our culture. They must recognize and understand societal shifts and current events, not only in their local communities but across the world as well.
The hallmark of successful retail design has always been a quick and effective response to change; offering progressive new ideas, directions, and strategies. It’s disappointing, however, that retailers seeking the latest in environmental design remain stagnant in their approach to leadership. While attempting to move forward, they continue to employ theories that are relics of the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. As we advance deeper into the 21st-century, we are still suffering from outdated leadership models that are harmful to people, which in turn is antithetical to the creative spirit.
While the pandemic exacerbated these antiquated approaches, it left a silver lining in its wake. COVID-19 brought to life what is truly important to those connected to fashion and retail: sustainability of the industry, stewardship of the planet, and the desire to make the world a better place.
As the industry evolves, there is a new paradigm for effective leadership. Before and during the pandemic, “empathy” was the buzzword bandied about by executives across the retail sector. “We have to care about our customers,” was the rallying cry. While this may be true, most retail leaders never directly interact with customers. Rather, their appointed associates provide the vital connection to the shopping public. Although the concept of empathy is heartfelt, it’s almost universally misunderstood and largely misdirected. To be effective, leaders must have empathy for the dedicated team members, whether frontline associates or back-of-the-house designers, who offer direction and comfort to their customers in these challenging times.
Retail strategies and leadership roles must be reshaped as tools for facilitating social justice, environmental sustainability, and emerging ethical workplace standards. A new level of awareness is inspiring a social revolution within the retail industry. Those in positions of leadership must understand that the next generation of industry professionals, including designers, will seek, and in fact demand, a sense of purpose and personal value in their careers. Going forward, responsible leadership must listen to and disseminate the voice of a new generation with initiatives that are meaningful to them, such as diversity, equity, and inclusion policies, to create a more welcoming environment for all.
Albert Einstein reportedly said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” In a post-pandemic pivot, it’s vital that all retail leaders, including store designers and visual merchandisers, know and understand the priorities of their employees, team members, suppliers, and investors as well as the priorities of their customers. Responsible leaders will define new benchmarks and standards for the workplace. They will explore a more humanistic approach to leadership in these challenging and rapidly changing times and seek alternatives to those that have long been considered tried and true.
Leadership is an art and a science. The science is collecting and analyzing data. The art is responding to the findings in creative ways. As the industry evolves, well-intended management is not enough to propel an organization forward. A distinction must be drawn between leaders and managers. Managers will tell subordinates how they did it, insisting their way is the right way. Leaders will cultivate an inquisitive culture within the organization. While a manager will detail the way it should be done, a leader will encourage experimentation and a search for ways that it could be done. Managers rely on their authority and positions of power, while leaders accept responsibility and promote individual growth, inquisitiveness, and experimentation. Leaders empower; managers merely direct.
To be an effective leader, one must create a sense of trust and an atmosphere of cooperation. It’s not about who sits at the head of the table, it’s about nurturing, inspiring, and letting one’s natural talents blossom. Leadership is empowering associates so they can respond to any challenge and perform at their inherent best. A company culture that promotes growth, inclusion, equity, and empathy will build trust and cooperation. Human resource development is a vital component and strategic imperative of an organizational culture. Relate to the people in your charge. Empathy is where true leadership begins and success follows.
This thought piece was originally shared in June 2022.
Revisiting This Thought
AN UPDATE FROM THE AUTHOR
As we move deeper into the 21st century, retail strategies and leadership roles must be reshaped as tools for facilitating social justice, environmental sustainability, and emerging ethical workplace standards.
Heightened levels of awareness are inspiring a social revolution within the retail community. Those in positions of leadership must recognize that the next generation of industry professionals will seek and demand a sense of purpose and personal value. In today’s climate of economic challenge, political unrest, and concerns about health, safety, and well-being, responsible leadership must listen to and disseminate the voice of a new generation with meaningful and positive initiatives to create a more welcoming and constructive environment for all.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ERIC FEIGENBAUM, MEDIA RDI
Eric Feigenbaum is a recognized leader in the visual merchandising and store design industries with both domestic and international design experience. His career includes working in four different sectors of the industry. As a retailer, he served as Corporate Director of Visual Merchandising for Stern’s Department Store, a Division of Federated Department Stores, for fourteen years. In that capacity, he played a key role in the design and development of seven new stores and ten major renovations. He also served as the chair of Federated’s Visual Directors’ Team.
On the design side, he was the Director of Visual Merchandising for WalkerGroup/CNI, an architectural design consultancy located in New York City, specializing in retail design worldwide. In that role, he helped bring visual merchandising to Asia and South America and was involved in the design of stores in South Korea, Japan, Chile, and Peru. He was also a key contributor in the application of WalkerGroup’s proprietary service Envirobranding®, which promotes the physical store environment as an integral component of a company’s projected brand image.
In the educational sector, he was the Chair of the Visual Merchandising Department at LIM College in New York City from 2000 to 2015, where he created the first four-year BBA degree program in visual merchandising, and the first masters degree program in visual merchandising. A pioneer in advocating an eco-friendly approach to visual merchandising and store design, Feigenbaum is responsible for conceiving and designing the state-of-the-art LIM College Green Lab – a sustainable materials lab and research center. Additionally, he was an adjunct professor of Store Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
Currently, he is the president and director of creative services for his own retail design company, Embrace Design. With many responsibilities, he also works in the editorial sector as the Editorial Advisor/New York Editor of VMSD Magazine, and the Director of Workshops for WindowsWear.
Feigenbaum has been the recipient of numerous prestigious industry awards. In 2012, he was awarded the industry’s highest honor, the coveted Markopoulos Award. Professor Feigenbaum has lectured all over the world on visual merchandising and store design including presentations at the World Retail Congress and the National Retail Federation as well as presentations in Seoul and Ulsan South Korea; Fukuoka, Japan; Santiago, Chile; Hong Kong; Sydney and Melbourne, Australia; Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Curitiba, Brazil; Dusseldorf, Germany; Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, Canada; Monterrey, Guadalajara, and Mexico City, Mexico; Madrid, Spain; Lima, Peru; Bogota and Medellin, Colombia; and Milan and Ancona, Italy.
Feigenbaum is also a founding member of PAVE Global (previously known as, A Partnership for Planning and Visual Education) and is regarded as one of the top experts and visionaries in the Visual Merchandising and store design industries.