Alejandro Alvarez: “Retail stores will survive if we give them a meaningful purpose”

Low or no-interaction shopping methods to make up for the lack of physical stores and the customer service that comes with them. Touchless pick-up (curbside, no contact, etc.) or delivery Payment options that allow you to get what you want without having to pay everything at once and deplete cash/savings Special considerations for people that can’t […]

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Low or no-interaction shopping methods to make up for the lack of physical stores and the customer service that comes with them. Touchless pick-up (curbside, no contact, etc.) or delivery

Payment options that allow you to get what you want without having to pay everything at once and deplete cash/savings

Special considerations for people that can’t work or shop remotely; special discounts, shopping hours, transportation alternatives (even housing)

As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alejandro Alvarez, chief marketing officer of 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 furniture without designer prices and parent company of Value City Furniture and American Signature Furniture. 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 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 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.

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

I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with incredible leaders that have allowed me to explore my creative side. So, I’ve been able to do more “fun” things throughout my career, like the world’s first in-flight fashion show (we unveiled Banana Republic’s Mad Men Collection on a plane!). Or a museum-worthy exhibit of Victoria’s Secret Angel wings in glass cases all along Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. Or even forcing Facebook to prohibit the use of the “like” button for voting purposes, thanks to us leveraging the “like” button for favorite panty votes for Victoria’s Secret.

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?

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.

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

There are a lot of exciting efforts happening at American Signature. This is when we need to innovate — while we’re in a position of strength. On the digital side, we’re working on a few efforts that aren’t only going to optimize our customers’ digital shopping experience, but — equally important — will also help our stores Home Furnishing Consultants to connect with customers more seamlessly and remotely. COVID has pushed us to re-evaluate the way we go to market across every single vehicle and we’re doing just that.

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

It’s simple. Let’s all just remember we’re people; with loved ones, emotions, ups and downs, stressful times, etc. We need to be there for each other and that has always been at the forefront for me — family and health first. Always.

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

Well of course at the risk of sounding corny I have to 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 have to say 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.

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

There’s one cause I’m very passionate about: HIV/AIDS in the gay and lesbian community. I’ve been supporting the AIDS Lifecycle organization in San Francisco, and it’s actually sort of random how I found out about them. I had promised my cousin, who had cancer, that I was going to run a marathon for her. I trained and everything but then tore my ACL a few days before the race. The doctor said I couldn’t really run much after that but I could bike instead. So I found an equally challenging task: to bike from San Francisco to Los Angeles, benefitting the San Francisco AIDS foundation. That trip basically changed me. It was one of the most moving things I’ve ever done. I’ve now biked it 7 times and have helped raise over 35K dollars to help people living with HIV/AIDS in my community.

Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. 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 way I see it, the pandemic has generated (or heightened) three main fears in consumers; The fear of getting themselves or someone they love sick. The fear of losing their source of income. And the fear of their communities and/or family interactions changing dramatically as a result of the other two.

Retailers are innovating to address these main concerns. The first four examples below are much more “tactical” and specific; the last one is what I think retailers will shift to in the near future:

  • Low or no-interaction shopping methods to make up for the lack of physical stores and the customer service that comes with them
  • Touchless pick-up (curbside, no contact, etc.) or delivery
  • Payment options that allow you to get what you want without having to pay everything at once and deplete cash/savings
  • Special considerations for people that can’t work or shop remotely; special discounts, shopping hours, transportation alternatives (even housing)
  • Fostering interaction and the sense of belonging. Remote workers are moving away from large cities, friends no longer spend time together and teachers no longer see all their students. Companies will soon need to shift to address the repercussions of isolation and quarantines. We’ll need to move from just “solving” current/ immediate issues to tackling deeper, more emotional and long-lasting societal ramifications.

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?

Retail stores will survive if we give them a meaningful purpose. And yes — that’s up to US, the retailers.

Brick and mortar stores likely won’t be able to compete in convenience.

We need to provide something…different. Something that essentially rewards people for showing up — like entertainment. Malls used to keep people (especially teens) entertained, thanks to parents who would drop off the kids for hours. Take Top Golf — that idea would’ve been ideal if attached to a mall. Malls need to think about how society is changing and what people are doing to find entertainment — and give shoppers more of that.

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 believe that COVID will generate a strong desire to connect more with one another. Brick and mortar stores that provide desirable experiences, opportunities to interact and chances to connect will likely still see visitors in the future. I say “desirable” because it’s no longer enough to just put in a coffee shop or sports bar and expect people to arrive. So I’m modifying the saying: “If you build something [desirable] they will come.”

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?

It goes back to the basics. What did your marketing/business teacher tell you all along? Focus on your competitive advantage. With the growth of Amazon and with direct channels to Chinese manufacturing, their price and convenience will be very tough to beat. So, what next? Focus on something unique — a special technology, a compelling background/story, a community involvement or responsibility angle, or proven quality. Ultimately, you need to focus on creating a brand. Many products on Amazon are hit or miss (even with reviews) but brands are brands regardless of the channel.

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 or connect on LinkedIn.

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

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