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Shayan Zadeh of Dressbarn: “Simple/effective customer service to make sure customers feel cared for”

The pandemic has certainly impacted online shopping behavior. I am seeing this firsthand with Pier1 and Dressbarn. Some of the things myself and the team are implementing are live shopping experiences to keep a human connection, large product catalogs to cater towards different customer needs, payment plans to help customers with larger purchases, competitive pricing/promotions […]

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The pandemic has certainly impacted online shopping behavior. I am seeing this firsthand with Pier1 and Dressbarn. Some of the things myself and the team are implementing are live shopping experiences to keep a human connection, large product catalogs to cater towards different customer needs, payment plans to help customers with larger purchases, competitive pricing/promotions to appeal to all, and simple/effective customer service to make sure customers feel cared for.


As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shayan Zadeh, a serial entrepreneur who has founded, built, managed multiple successful companies in different industries with the common theme of leveraging technology and power of data and artificial intelligence to deliver superior results for customers. Currently, Shayan is the CEO of Pier 1, and Dressbarn, retailer with a focus in home furnishings and decor, which Shayan helped purchase out of bankruptcy in July 2020 and re-launch as an e-commerce powerhouse. Using technology and digital marketing, Shayan is applying progressive strategies to a traditionally slow to move retail space.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I started my career as computer scientist focused on data mining and artificial intelligence and their applications to various industries. My entrepreneurial passion drove me to start a company and apply my artificial intelligence and analytics expertise to the online dating space. After building and growing my company, Zoosk to over 200m dollars in revenue, I sold the business to a publicly traded German competitor.

After this successful exit, me and the other co-founder at Zoosk, Alex Mehr, started looking for other industries that we could revolutionize. We felt retail, specially ecommerce, was fertile ground for this type of innovation. Myself and a group of investors saw massive potential to execute on this vision through the beloved brand of Pier1 which was struggling because of their inability to fully leverage the internet.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

The first company I founded was in the online dating space. As the CEO of a company who brings their customers love, there is no shortage of interesting and heartwarming stories. One of the most memorable for me was when I was invited to a wedding in Norway for a couple that met through my product.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

Early in my career, I was put in charge of coordinating travel for a group of colleagues. The trip happened to coincide with Super Bowl and I was very happy he had secured everything months in advance. When the team arrived at the hotel, nobody could find a reservation under the group’s name. After a few confusing minutes, it became clear that I had booked the hotel for those days, just on the wrong month. Needless to say this was a disaster and the team had to settle for terrible and overpriced accommodations. However, everybody was very nice about it and they didn’t make it a thing against me. I learned the value of attention to detail and having amazing coworkers for the times when silly mistakes happen.

Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

The acquisition of both Dressbarn and Pier1 are both extremely exciting projects that I am working on. These are both beloved brands with over 50 years of history each. The retail industry is primed for disruption and to me there are no better brands than these two to lead the charge. Both category leaders of past models, both have a great affinity to succeed online and we are seeing this first hand.

Also, to bring my technology expertise to this outdated landscape is an extremely rewarding process. The team has been able to bring back employees from the past ownership, support past vendors, and engage both new employees and vendors. I can’t think of a more rewarding thing to be a part of.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

The biggest tip I have is work with people you enjoy being around. Sometimes, it is hard to escape the workload; but one thing that makes everything brighter is the people you surround yourself with. Hire great people and build great teams. This will make every day truly enjoyable even when things are challenging.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

As an immigrant entrepreneur, I have been very fortuned to have come in contact with a long list of people and organizations that have supported me through my journey. The University of Maryland community collectively stands out specially among this group. From his PhD advisory to the administrators and other professors, they were instrumental in preparing me for the career I lead today.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

One thing I have really enjoyed is supporting young entrepreneurs. I enjoy being an advisor to young founders and helping them avoid pitfalls that I have experienced. Sometimes even the smallest tips and tricks go the longest way. I am grateful to have the opportunity to give back to young founders in way that I did not have access to.

The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share five examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?

The pandemic has certainly impacted online shopping behavior. I am seeing this firsthand with Pier1 and Dressbarn. Some of the things myself and the team are implementing are live shopping experiences to keep a human connection, large product catalogs to cater towards different customer needs, payment plans to help customers with larger purchases, competitive pricing/promotions to appeal to all, and simple/effective customer service to make sure customers feel cared for.

In your opinion, will retail stores or malls continue to exist? How would you articulate the role of physical retail spaces at a time when online commerce platforms like Amazon Prime or Instacart can deliver the same day or the next day?

Ithink there is certainly is a place for it. But one thing is for certain, it has to be the right retail experience at the right time. No longer will traditional retail thrive. But the right integrated experiences will continue. People still love integrated retail experiences with shopping, dining, and activities. As long as this continues, he believes there will be a place for it in some capacity.

The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?

I spend a lot of time analyzing successful retailers in today’s competitive and ever-changing environment. If we think about the names you just mentioned, one thing is a common thread: their customers love the retailer and their products. Obviously, this is not enough, but definitely is a cornerstone of a successful retain strategy in 2020 and beyond.

Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise to retail companies and e-commerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

The power of brand and trust is a powerful thing. That is why myself and my co-investors acquired and is bullish on our portfolio of brands. In order to be successful you need to have the right combo of trust, brand equity, product assortment, and value proposition. Without this, it will be hard to compete.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I believe in technology literacy as the most powerful capability that separates those who succeed or fail in the new economy, just like literacy a century ago was the gateway to a prosperous future. Younger generations are naturally picking up the tools necessary to succeed but I feel there is a significant amount of good that can come from getting the current workforce for comfortable with using technology in their day-to-day and it can create a significant amount of upward mobility in the society.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!


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