Joe Zalta of Riverbend Consulting: “Communicate your brand story”

Communicate your brand story. Make an investment in everything from your brand look/feel and packaging design, to any marketing and promotions you run through your website or online. Also have a strong social media presence so consumers can easily learn about and interact with your brand. As part of my series about the “How To Create […]

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Communicate your brand story. Make an investment in everything from your brand look/feel and packaging design, to any marketing and promotions you run through your website or online. Also have a strong social media presence so consumers can easily learn about and interact with your brand.

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 Joe Zalta.

Joe Zalta is co-founder of Riverbend Consulting, where he manages the sales and advertising teams. Joe also heads up the brand partnership and referral divisions. He has founded and run successful businesses in multiple industries including e-commerce and wholesale/manufacturing.

Joe was in the wholesale and manufacturing space for 15 years before founding Riverbend. He focused on in apparel lines, which he represented to major department stores, mass retailers, and off-price chains across the country. This included designing successful private-label programs for Macy’s, Kohl’s, JCPenney and other large chain stores. He was also responsible for driving the direct-to-consumer business for multiple men’s and kids fashion brands.

Joe then shifted his attention to Amazon and e-commerce, where he continues to specialize in apparel as well as beauty. He is skilled in design concept, trends, merchandising and licensing, and he has leveraged these abilities to create brands and successful seller accounts on

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 worked in a big umbrella apparel company for 11 years in different departments and divisions, and I was trained in different areas. I started in sales and was then taught merchandising by one of the best merchandisers in the entire industry. He was my mentor for 3 years. When I was ready to run my own division, I worked with the CFO who taught me the finance side of the business.

In the end, I was doing deals with the likes of Macy’s, Dillard’s, TJ Maxx and others, building merchandising groups for Men’s, Big and Tall and Kids clothing lines that I represented. During that time, I worked with many different brands including the NBA, Lee, True Religion, among others.

I also worked with niche brands, helping them get placed with retailers, and would build out how their products, primarily clothing and accessories, would look on store displays. We also sold our goods online and became entrenched in the ecommerce side of business.

That experience led me to building Riverbend Consulting with my partner, Lesley Hensell, where we help sellers on Amazon and other online marketplaces solve urgent issues and grow. Last year, we doubled our revenue as the number of companies selling online continues to grow rapidly.

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?

I made a big mistake one year when I was placing a production order, adding one too many 0’s to an order of clothing. Instead of ordering 10,000, I ordered 100,000, and I had to spend the next few months peddling them away just to get the inventory out the door.

Another time, about 6 years ago, Kanye West wore a certain velour hoodie, so we jumped on the trend and told our design team to create a line that would give us the monopoly on velour from China. The trend bombed, and I had a huge inventory that never moved.

Moral of the story: being too aggressive on a trend can hurt you. Also, don’t make the gamble on something too trendy or too seasonal, especially for consumer goods such as clothing. Instead, look to invest in items that can be a repeatable purchase or that are based on a flow of demand — that way you can better protect your investment.

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?

Evan Davis. He taught me a lot about dealing with not only factories but retailers as well. He emphasized that every deal must be a win-win. You can’t just make it work for you while leaving the other side miserable. That’s not how you build a long-term business relationship. He also taught me to be more detailed because the secret sauce to success lies in the details. Finally, he instilled in me the passion to never accept sub-par work — not from myself, or the teams and vendors I work with. If excellence is expected at every level of the organization, you will produce an excellent product or service for the end customer every time.

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?

There are two books that have resonated with me. The first is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. I’ve read this book more than 20 times and it has taught me how to listen, absorb, process and react to people versus trying to impress everyone all the time.

Another book is Ride of a Lifetime by Robert Iger. I love mergers and acquisitions and this story detailed how he brought the Pixar, Star Wars and Marvel franchises into Disney. The part I found most interesting was how he learned to work with each entity in a complementary way without changing the teams and their core competencies.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

At Riverbend, we are relentless on the service end, and we genuinely care about our customers. We follow up and make sure that each client — and each prospect — gets what they need, whether it’s from us or from another resource.

We’re obsessed with our mission and take joy in our work, happily taking calls from sellers at random hours of the night. We want to resolve their issues and help them grow, even if it takes months at a time. We stick with our clients until their issue is resolved, and we are the only company that consistently will take difficult cases.

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

You must have a relentless pursuit of perfection, and always look for ways to improve. We are re-examining our organization and its processes constantly, looking for ways we can deliver better value, performance and outcomes. You must also love what you do and try to find your niche — as well as meaning in what you do — or you won’t truly be good at it. Sometimes for me this may mean working until 11:00 at night, but it’s not because it’s just a job; it’s something that I love to do.

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?

You have to tell a story, and consumers must have a reason to buy your product. You can’t just have a storefront and expect a great reaction. Lululemon has built a fantastic culture and brand, and this reputation has resulted in a loyal following. People will buy their products whether they are 1 dollar or 100 dollars, because the company has made such an impact on how they make customers look and feel. They made taking care of yourself and working out cool, and their brand reflects that.

Costco and Sam’s Club adapted with the times and cornered the market on value buying. They found the formula for carrying top brands at a less-per-square-foot price, thus passing that value on to the end consumer. This is something department stores have failed to do.

In the end though, these successes didn’t happen overnight. It happened by creating a great brand / experience and putting a lot of marketing behind it. Success also requires that a brand continually works to improve, or else they’ll fall behind. Value sellers and brands that have built equity are the ones that are still around today.

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?

You have to create a better shopping experience. The Chinese are most likely not going to beat you at marketing, storytelling, the shopping experience and merchandising. That’s based on their geographical disadvantage and not being fully connected with the American culture.

People are going to shop for the assortment, the story and the brand. To that end, be sure you offer consumers great lifestyle imagery, so they can see themselves in the story. You can also get influencers involved who can be a third-party endorsement for your brand. Those are the things that will differentiate you from a Chinese company that opens an online store to beat you on price alone.

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?

They try to be too much, too soon. I think having a realistic timeline and expectations can help. For example, if someone is going to open a line on Amazon or in a store, they will do better if they understand success won’t happen overnight.

A common thread between successful entrepreneurs is that they love, live and breathe their products day in and day out. That kind of passion shines through. It’s also better to start small and build with time to see what resonates with your audience. A few hand-chosen products will serve you better in the beginning than casting a wider net with a wide assortment of products.

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?

Most of the best companies in the world right now have very loyal followings because the cost per customer acquisition is very expensive. In today’s retail world, if you’re not going to retain your customers, you’re never going to be profitable.

In today’s market, cost per customer acquisition is roughly 50% of a sale. That means a single sale is never going to be profitable because no one makes 50% margins. However, if you sell multiple products to that customer over time, the cost of that acquisition goes down.

The goal is to build a system where you know you can attract and please your customers. Once you have a customer, you want them to always be your customer so you can cross-sell and up-sell over a period of time. Building loyalty and gaining ongoing purchases from each customer make your cost per acquisition feasible.

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?

I think a lot of people underestimate what it takes to start a company. Before the start of a company, you need to build out the structure, organization and processes of your company, and ensure that all of the necessary tasks are covered from the start.

For example, many companies start out primarily with sales in mind, so they place their focus and resources in that area of the company. Then, as they begin receiving orders, they start getting a lot of questions from customers and realize they need to build or grow a customer service department. And while they’re back-building that component, they might have lost part or all of their customer base.

This is often a sign of an inexperienced entrepreneur.

Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?

We’ve had a lot of Amazon sellers come to us who do their Amazon appeals and letters by themselves, and that the process takes away from time they could otherwise spend growing their business.

In a recent case, a Top-50 seller on Amazon, who brings in 50 million dollars in revenue each year selling medical supplies, recently looked us up. His account had been suspended and had been trying to resolve the issue for five weeks, which totaled about 4–5 million dollars in lost revenue. He signed up with us on a Thursday, and by the following Monday morning, we had him up and running again in the marketplace.

Did that Wow! experience have any long-term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

This kind of experience had us implement a new service called Seller Account Protection where we proactively manage that process for sellers and monitor their Amazon accounts, so they don’t get suspended in the first place. That way, the seller can focus on growth and expansion.

In the case of the Top-50 seller, he signed up with us three days later on a monthly Seller Account Protection plan where we provide ongoing protection for his business. We currently have hundreds of sellers in the program and about 50 in the VIP program with us.

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”?

If it’s an online business, you have to have an easy checkout experience with credit cards built in. You also need great packaging, easy and fast shipping, and follow-up emails that alert customers to their order confirmation and shipment.

For brick-and-mortar retail businesses, the store must be clean, spotless and well merchandised, and the sale / returns process must be seamless. Also, the store employees need to be knowledgeable about the products being sold, so they can add value to the shopping experience.

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.

  1. Always being able to reach someone is key. Create an easy way for customers to communicate with you, whether its for product questions, orders or returns. This means having a way to reach a live person as well.
  2. Make the buying process seamless. For brick-and-mortar stores, you need to have enough staff to man checkout during peak times. For online stores, you need to have easy credit card or PayPal systems in place to make checkout a snap.
  3. Make customer service part of your DNA. From the first moment a consumer hits your store/storefront to their experience with returns or swap-outs, great service should be at the core of your business with them. If you make the experience easy, seamless and put the customer’s needs first, you can build a loyal customer who comes back for repeat business.
  4. Communicate your brand story. Make an investment in everything from your brand look/feel and packaging design, to any marketing and promotions you run through your website or online. Also have a strong social media presence so consumers can easily learn about and interact with your brand.
  5. Have the infrastructure to deliver. Whether it’s in-store or online, consumers today expect to get their products in a timely manner. Make sure you have the logistics processes in place to ensure customer satisfaction, and back-up process and partners should your “Plan-A” fail.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Joe Zalta — Co-Founder | President — Business Development — Riverbend Consulting | LinkedIn

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

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