Invest in the retail experience across every channel. Every moment your customer interacts with you — whether that’s walking into your store, sending you a message on Instagram, calling your customer service team, seeing your commercial during their favorite TV show — will create an overall perception of your brand. One bad experience on any of those channels can change the way they feel about you — and once they’ve been hit with a bad experience — or a “brand repellent” as I referred to it before — it will be difficult to convince them to come back.
As part of my series about the “How To Create A Fantastic Retail Experience That Keeps Bringing Customers Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alejandro Alvarez Correa, chief marketing officer, American Signature, Inc.
Alejandro leads the marketing, advertising, and ecommerce functions as chief marketing officer of American Signature, Inc., the leading furniture brand offering Designer Looks — designer furniture without designer prices offered at Value City Furniture and American Signature Furniture stores nationwide. He has over 20 years of marketing experience — leading world-class, omni-channel marketing strategies for major brands, including Banana Republic, Victoria’s Secret, and Levi’s. Alejandro holds a B.S. in Industrial and Systems Engineering from Monterrey Tech and a M.B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley. He has lived and/or worked in a few countries like Mexico, Canada and Japan, is ridiculously obsessed with chips and salsa and does not like ice cream.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started my career as a consultant with the Boston Consulting Group, which was an incredible first platform because early on, it helped me build a deep analytical mindset, taught me how to organize my thoughts and pushed my limits with presentation skills at high executive levels. During my time at BCG, I worked on a few more marketing-focused projects like a SKU profitability and rationalization analysis for an international juice manufacturer. I ended up loving the marketing world and branding in particular. I knew that I had to leave consulting after business school and do something in marketing. After that, it’s been all about new experiences and pushing myself to learn as much as I can in the marketing space — how to market credit cards, apparel, accessories and, now, furniture … and everything from doing size stickers to sending denim to editors and leading the marketing function. I have worked with major national brands, including Banana Republic, Levi’s and Victoria’s Secret, and am now helping to lead American Signature, Inc., into this new era of retail as its chief marketing officer.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
When we opened the Victoria’s Secret flagship store in Michigan Avenue, I was in charge of putting together the integrated marketing plan — probably one of the largest budgets I’d ever had for a single store opening. We went wild — sending flowers to every customer named Victoria and even arranging street teams to write messages in lipstick on mall mirrors. When our then-CEO showed up for the store walk-through, she yelled out my name from a distance and extended her arms wide open. Being Latino, I interpreted this to mean she wanted a hug. I went for it. Turns out she did NOT want a hug. What resulted was a very awkward one-armed pat.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Not to be corny, but I would have to first thank my immediate family: my mom and dad who worked their butts off to make sure we went to college and graduated — something they didn’t have the luxury of doing. My siblings too, for always being there for me. On a more professional note, I’m most grateful to Michael Perman, my manager at Levi’s, for seeing the potential in me (and others like me from abroad). He also helped me become a permanent resident of this country.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The Untethered Soul (book). It was a gift from my brother a few years ago. I don’t normally gravitate toward “self-help” books so I was very skeptical at first. I have to confess; this is probably the most useful book I have ever read. It addresses a behavior I believe many of us actually exhibit: how to listen to — and make sense of — the internal voice that is constantly there with us. That “second us” that comments every time we are thinking or saying something. It is a must-read for people whose passion for work may sometimes manifest itself as frustration.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
American Signature is uniquely able to balance the drive, determination and hunger of a public company with the personal, family-oriented and strategic outlook of a privately held organization. We are able to focus on the long-term goals and are not pressured to make short-sighted, quick-profit actions that oftentimes Wall-Street investors push for. At the same time, we have a personal, collaborative and very close work environment; we are like family members that are able to hold each other accountable. Together with a leader that is committed to the well-being of all team members, who allows us to test, fail and learn quickly, we are well-positioned to win in the marketplace.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Prioritize. Execute. Then prioritize again.
Opportunities and ideas abound; at least in organizations that allow those to actually bubble-up. It is up to leaders to welcome all ideas and discuss them thoroughly but, after that, it is also up to them to make a decision on which ones to focus on. From my experience at Boston Consulting Group, I remember a very useful framework: focus on all ideas that have the biggest impact and are easiest to implement. Do those first. Then, after completion, make a new list and rank them all over again. Laser-like focus has been what has made Designer Looks at Value City Furniture and American Signature Furniture successful companies that break through.
Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. The Pandemic only made things much worse for retailers in general. 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?
The way I see it, these are almost two different things altogether. The “Retail Apocalypse” was not a wide-spread phenomenon. It only applied to some brands, in some channels, in some industries. One can’t just say all retail was collapsing; that would be completely false. Retailers that were giving customers real value (not to mean price) and experiences were not suffering — they were winning.
That said, the pandemic has basically shifted customer’s spending habits, as well as investment focus, making some areas or industries more profitable than others. These are environmental, consumer-driven behaviors. Industries around home, groceries, loungewear or athleticwear got a boost because people were spending more time at their homes. On top of that, some companies within were better positioned to capitalize on change more than others. Not ALL athletic brands, home furnishing brands or discount clubs benefitted the same. I personally think that companies that are benefitting from this trend — like our Designer Looks brand focus with American Signature Furniture and Value City Furniture — focused their efforts on the right components that allowed them to thrive. Many of these components could now be considered fundamentals: omni-channel shopping, seamless customer service, product value (defined as great quality and style at the right price), eCommerce experience, vendor relationships, etc. These are all efforts we had been focusing on with our new Designer Looks products pre-pandemic. Alas, it’s natural that we were able to make the most out of this dramatic behavioral change.
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 retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
The exact same thing I would advise them now, facing existing competition. You need to differentiate. If you are offering the exact same things Amazon can offer (but even more conveniently) then it will be difficult to compete. You need to give customers something they can’t get with Amazon or DTC companies from China; whether it’s product, service, experience or all of the above.
We understand what makes us unique; our ability to offer designer furniture without the designer prices. We either produce it ourselves in our North Carolina factory with discernible quality standards or we search the world for the prefect balance of style, quality and price. We bring customers what they really aspire to have at a price that won’t break their banks and most of our styles are simply not found at any other store in our markets.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a retail business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Lack of conviction and strength to stand their ground. I have seen many great ideas, brands, products or companies close shop simply because their leaders decide to pull the plug prematurely in the face of adversity. Oftentimes they don’t even give the idea a fair chance to succeed with the right investment or resource levels. Other times, companies experience failure with a test and are unable to leave it in the past. They are unable to learn from their past experiences, effectively signaling that failure is bad. I am not the first (or last) person to say this; failure is part of success.
This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business in general and for retail in particular?
It’s simple. People don’t go back to businesses they don’t like. Unless, which is pretty rare these days, you are the only game in town and they don’t have another option. That or you are a government agency — like the Department of Motor Vehicles — and you have no other option but to be their customer. You are stuck with them and you will use them regardless of how they treat you.
At American Signature Furniture and Value City Furniture we know we are not the DMV; we have to win our customer’s hard-earned dollars every single day. We believe the way you treat customers is a reflection of how you treat our own people and it should come from the very top. This is where our family-owned business shines and has a competitive advantage versus other major national retailers. Our fourth-generation owner used to be a store manager himself. He connects with people. Knows them by name. Spends time with them. It’s truly inspirational to see how he greets every single person by name.
We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?
Bottom line: because it’s expensive. Take the Ritz Carlton, for example. They will make sure you have the best customer experience every single time. Why? Because they can invest in enough customer-service associates to keep their calls under 5 minutes, they can invest in associate hiring and training, they reward associates for exhibiting the right behaviors and worst-case scenario, they can apologize with bottles of wine or free stays. Many things can be accomplished when you are running a high-margin service.
That said — it is always a choice. Organizations need to make sure they allocate enough funds (for processes, training, tools, talent, etc.) to generate that positive experience taking funds from other, less crucial, areas.
At American Signature Furniture and Value City Furniture we understand how critical customer experience is and this is why we are proud to have the best Home Furnishing Consultants in our stores interacting with customers.
Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?
There are many stories to share but I have to confess am most proud of the experiences that did not actually include “traditional customers”. Throughout the pandemic, we were able to support health institutions with furniture donations for respite rooms in their facilities. Healthcare workers are working — even today — around the clock, trying their best to keep us safe. We wanted to (and still do) do our part, even if small in comparison, by giving them recliners to rest in. We believe that great moments deserve great furniture, and in this particular case, great people also deserve great recognition.
Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?
While we hope this small contribution made an impact for healthcare workers, the main “ripple effects” were felt inside our organization. We are humbled by their selfless actions and dedication to keeping us safe, and we felt incredibly honored to be able to help.
A fantastic retail experience isn’t just one specific thing. It can be a composite of many different subtle elements fused together. Can you help us break down and identify the different ingredients that come together to create a “fantastic retail experience”?
This is a tough one. I don’t think listing them all would actually help; simply because I am bound to forget some in the process.
An experience ultimately becomes a perception. A good experience will shed a favorable light of your brand and people will want to come back at some point; a bad experience will work as a brand “repellent”. The challenge is that an “experience” can be anything from the very first time a customer hears about your brand all the way to when they decide to make (or not make) a purchase. Every single element: human interactions, copy, images, locations, channels, products… everything is an experience. Everything matters. Everything will create a perception. It’s up to great brands to acknowledge that experiences are a responsibility of all functions and every single function needs to have ownership of what they can control.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a fantastic retail experience that keeps bringing customers back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Differentiate. Again, unless you are the Department of Motor Vehicles and customers have no choice but to work with you, you need to give customers something they can’t get anywhere else. That could be a product — but, more likely, it’s going to be the experience customers have with your brand.
- Invest in the retail experience across every channel. Every moment your customer interacts with you — whether that’s walking into your store, sending you a message on Instagram, calling your customer service team, seeing your commercial during their favorite TV show — will create an overall perception of your brand. One bad experience on any of those channels can change the way they feel about you — and once they’ve been hit with a bad experience — or a “brand repellent” as I referred to it before — it will be difficult to convince them to come back.
- Do the right thing. When the pandemic hit, we started working with local hospitals to create comfortable spaces for COVID-19 respite rooms so that healthcare workers had a place to rest. This November, we also heard of a local man in Detroit — a firefighter who had been badly burned while fighting a fire in the midst of his wife’s battle with cancer. We didn’t know if he’d ever shopped with us — but, he was an important member of our own community. We surprised his family with a tailgate-at-home experience, 8,000 dollars to help with medical bills, and gave the family gift cards to pick out new furniture for their home. These are the things that matter to us — I’ll repeat myself in saying that we believe that great moments deserve great furniture but great people deserve even greater recognition. This to us wasn’t about selling a couch to a local customer — it was so much bigger than that. But, in a way, when brands like ours do these acts of good, they become a part of their customer experience. We hope in doing these types of things for the communities in which we operate, that people will see that we are invested in them and deeply rooted in what matters most. We will never stop trying to make an impact — even when the pandemic is over — because this is a value that’s forever engrained in our brand.
- Understand your customer. Invest in research on who your customer is and what they value most. Truly understand what makes them tick — and what turns them off. Then create an experience around that persona. That experience could be something like a temporary retail pop-up that allows customers to interact with your product without pushing a sale — that’s something we’ve done for Designer Looks with success. It could be in the way you produce your ads or how you approach your social media strategy. You can’t create a fantastic retail experience for your customer if you don’t know who they are.
- Listen to your customer. Don’t just “understand” your customers based on the research you conduct — truly listen. This year, we spent a lot of time listening and learning about what our customers felt was missing from our brand experience. We dedicated a lot of resources into making sure that our ads were diverse and inclusive, especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movements and social unrest in our country. We sought out new partnerships with influencers who would be able to authentically tell their followers about us and diverse actors for our commercials. We created new ways to shop in light of COVID-19, offering private video shopping appointments and launching a digital showroom to help customers “walk” through our store from the safety of their home. Remember that the customer experience isn’t for you — it is for your customer. So, the only way to give them what they want, is to listen to them.
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Without a doubt it would have to be something to humanize us all, as inhabitants of the same industry, to share our wealth. It’s striking to me how we live in the land of “bounty” when there are people in our very own country, let alone other countries, struggling to find clean drinking water. In the US we use gallons of water at waterparks for “entertainment.” Or, we barely finish our restaurant meals and they end up going to waste. We waste and waste, yet don’t think twice about the impoverished and their lack of basic needs or its impact on the environment. If I could generate influence, it would be to inspire the sharing of personal wealth.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Find us at DesignerLooks.com!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!