I’ve seen a lot of changes and disruptions in retail over the years, moving from a very curated to a very “just sell” consumer-centric world. But the core of service experience — which disruption is once again finally getting us back to — is communities supporting one another. Retail is about connectivity. It’s not just about buying stuff; you can go anywhere to buy stuff. True retail is about connecting people to a product, empowering consumers to make a choice, and creating a valuable experience that shoppers can get excited about feeling ownership of.
As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing MJ Munsell.
An award-winning strategist, MJ Munsell has spent over three decades studying consumer behaviors and mentoring the next generation of designers. In her role as Chief Creative Officer, she champions human-centered design across MG2’s diverse markets to craft meaningful solutions for our clients. Throughout her career, she’s collaborated with brands like Nordstrom, Anthropologie, and Hyatt to create unforgettable experiences. When she’s not dreaming up novel spaces, MJ can be found enjoying music festivals or exploring urban landscapes in search of inspiration and the perfect cappuccino.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I’ve always been involved and fascinated with the world of retail from an early age. As a kid, I used to visit my grandmother in Illinois and spend hours watching her talk to customers, interact with salesmen, and run her store. I can still vividly remember all the sights, sounds, and smells of that little shop. She was a pro at making women in her community feel special and building relationships with everyone who walked through the door. When I got older, she used to let me help her decorate the windows.
I had jobs in retail all through high school and college as well, working in everything from specialty shops up through designer department stores. It was during those years, particularly while working for The Limited, where I really started to think about how design played into the consumer experience, with my perspective gradually changing from a shopper to a designer. Even then, I was learning a lot about lighting, store traffic, and visual merchandising.
In college, I started out as a marketing and business major, but eventually changed to design, with the first few years of my career focusing on commercial design, healthcare, and corporate work. Eventually I was recruited by The Limited to run design for Victoria’s Secret when they were just getting started, helping evolve the stores from their original Victorian heritage into the brand everyone knows today.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
I’ve seen a lot of changes and disruptions in retail over the years, moving from a very curated to a very “just sell” consumer-centric world. But the core of service experience — which disruption is once again finally getting us back to — is communities supporting one another. Retail is about connectivity. It’s not just about buying stuff; you can go anywhere to buy stuff. True retail is about connecting people to a product, empowering consumers to make a choice, and creating a valuable experience that shoppers can get excited about feeling ownership of. In the age of COVID, we’re finding this especially important and relevant: creating valuable interaction moments between shop owners and consumers, with the end goal of simply embracing and cherishing human connections.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Back when I was starting off my career with The Limited and designing for Victoria’s Secret, we were sourcing a lot of antiques, upholstery, vintage wall covering, and trim, to meld with their English heritage. One time, while making gimp and tassels for a piece, I’d done all the work, designed and spec’d everything out for an order, but somewhere along the line I mistakenly added an extra zero, placing an order for 3,000 ft of something instead of 300! It was a mistake that, while it cost us quite a bit of money, taught me early on the very real lesson that all designers learn at some point in their careers: measure twice, cut once.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
I’ve been fortunate to have numerous mentors in my career, ones who have believed in me, and challenged me with situations that helped me become the designer I am today. I worked alongside old-school craftsmen, many from Chicago who worked with different types of stains, and who granted me my appreciation for true authenticity in craftsmanship and design. This gave way to my love of sourcing unique pieces from all over the world; ones that elicit emotion and instantly infuse history and a story into an environment.
Another mentor I was lucky to have in my life was Dale Crichton, the former VP of Beauty for Nordstrom.. She had the concept of connecting customers to on-site beauty advisors, and that was a program we were able to create together. She was highly respected, had amazing relationships with all the brands, and was san innovative, thoughtful executive who treated her team with respect, always. She was an inspiration and role model… There are dozens more; I simply couldn’t name them all!
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
There was a period where everyone wanted to hear or implement the latest technology into retail environments. I’ve seen many experimental executions, from AI-enhanced dressing rooms to high-tech touchpoints and interactive LED screens throughout the store. But, while entertaining, what we’ve found is that most of the time, consumers just want to go into a high- touch environment where they have the option of engaging an actual human to help them. Tech is expensive and requires constant investment and infrastructure for support. The hardware and software evolve quickly, so poor executions of its addition can render it bulky, unsightly, or downright useless in sometimes as little as a year or two.
There, of course, have been examples of technology implementation done well; one example that comes to mind is the Adidas flagship on the Champs Elysee that we walked through in February this year. Tech in that space was high impact, lending energy and interaction in spaces to create buzz and brand fantasy.
In my experience, unless you are a global brand that has the funds to invest in the most advanced tech, technology is best used as an invisible tool that connects channels for the customer, making the experience seamless and effortless.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
Speak up. Don’t be afraid to use your voice.
Be honest. Own up to what you don’t know and ask questions to remedy that.
Remain curious and open. It’s the only way you’ll continue to learn and be creative.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
The sustainability program that our Design Lab at MG2 is putting together is something that I’m particularly excited about. It’s important for every brand today to authentically address what they’re doing to help protect the future of our planet. Especially if social responsibility or sustainability are platforms you’re building your brand on, then ensuring that not only your merchandise is properly sourced, but that every aspect of your design — from materials and fixtures to cases and displays — are sustainably rated as well.
Consumers are paying attention, especially with COVID, our health, and heightened awareness of the spaces we spend our time inside. I’m excited for our team to continue to evolve how we help brands make the right choices for their communities.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
This is a hard one for me, because as my career has progressed, I’ve never really looked at myself through the lens of “woman” or “disruptor”. I’ve always just viewed myself as a passionate designer who’s owned my strengths and never been afraid to speak to them. I’ve had instances where, as a designer who recognizes that women make 80%+ of the household purchases, I’ve needed to defend that reality to certain clients and industry leaders, with the sheer goal of helping them better understand their consumer base.
I suppose one interesting challenge has been as I’ve transitioned from a “doer” to a leader, I’ve found times, especially as a rising leader, when I have had to remind myself to consciously embody what that means, execute on those actions, and let certain things go. You’re continually asking yourself, what does it mean to step up and be a leader? But at no point have I ever thought, “I need to step up and be a female leader.” It’s always simply been, “I need to be a leader.”
Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?
It’s not a book or podcast, but lately I’ve found myself diving more into documentaries, particularly about the absolute brilliance of fashion designers. One of my recent favorites has been “The Times of Bill Cunningham”, an interview with the New York Times legendary street and fashion photographer. Museums have also been a constant source of inspiration on my way of thinking throughout my career. Yves St Laurent, for example, has a handful of museums that I’ve loved. He was an intensely complex individual whose passion drove every aspect of his life. The inspiration I have drawn from these brilliant creatives is truly bottomless.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂
Right now, in the world, there’s a lot going on that’s changed people’s attitudes toward community and one another, and our culture has become very openly divided. We’re not spending as much time together, we can’t explore and immerse ourselves in new cultures or experiences as easily, we’re nervous about being in spaces — and possibly even communities — that are not familiar or our own. Our isolated lifestyles are adding to the divided attitudes of this country and will potentially have long term consequences on our culture.
If I could inspire a moment, it would be one of openness. We need to commit to break this chain of judgement, work together with openness, curiosity and compassion.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’ve never really been a big quote person! One of my favorites is from the late Bill Cunningham, “Fashion is the armor for everyday life”. It’s a true embodiment of who I am as a person, and perhaps expresses why I love being involved in the retail industry. Fashion, for me, is a way to cope with reality (sometimes escape), express my mood, and make the day just a bit more fun… But other than that, for a life lesson quote, it would probably just be “Do the right thing!”
How can our readers follow you online?
You’d probably get the most insight into my work by following me on LinkedIn.