Sarah Engel of January Digital: “Physical retail will continue to exist, but the purpose will shift to better serve customers’ needs”

Physical retail will continue to exist, but the purpose will shift to better serve customers’ needs. The vast majority of ecommerce websites that are driving the retail economy are those with physical store locations supporting their infrastructure. Even those companies that began as pure play ecommerce brands have opened physical stores. The harsh reality is, […]

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Physical retail will continue to exist, but the purpose will shift to better serve customers’ needs. The vast majority of ecommerce websites that are driving the retail economy are those with physical store locations supporting their infrastructure. Even those companies that began as pure play ecommerce brands have opened physical stores. The harsh reality is, there are too many stores now, and too much retail real estate. So, yes, stores will continue to close in the year ahead. However, physical stores will still exist and they will serve unique purposes for retailers — including acting as mini-distribution centers to fulfill from anywhere and act as return centers for purchases made in any channel.

As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Engel, Chief Marketing Officer and Chief People Officer of January Digital, a strategic consultancy and media agency that solves business challenges for the world’s leading brands and digital disruptors, including The Honest Company, Peapod Digital Labs and TUMI. The company is leading the revolution in holistic workplace wellness, having been named a Best Workplace by Ad Age, Inc. and Fortune.

Most recently, Sarah served as the VP of Marketing and Communications for Lilly Pulitzer, the iconic women’s fashion brand. Throughout her two decade career, Sarah has provided strategic marketing, HR and business leadership to leading global consumer and B2B brands, including Travelocity, Chevrolet, and She is deeply dedicated to supporting and empowering women and children, and mentoring the next generation of women business builders.

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 have done it all! I have worked the cash register and stocked shelves in the mall every day after school, and I have cared for people’s children at a daycare. I have been a writer, a speaker, a strategist, a marketer, a human resource professional, and when needed, the one cleaning the dirty coffee pot or carrying the boxes. I have been a full-time student, fulfilling my scholarship requirements, while working a full-time job. I have been a single working woman, one half of a young married couple pursuing their dreams, a business owner, an executive interacting with boards of directors, a mentor, a mentee, and an ally. I have proudly fulfilled the roles of a full time at-home mom, a part time working mom and a working mom who travels and works full time “plus.” In my current role as Chief People Officer and Chief Marketing Officer at January Digital I am able to combine my wide-ranging experience and my belief system to continue to build a company that improves the lives of our people, our clients, and the world around us.

As I look at this path to personal and professional fulfillment, maybe the best way to explain my path is with a quote from the poet Rilke that I have always embraced. “Live the questions.” To me this has meant to lean in to my intellectual curiosity, realize that every person I interact with has something to teach or offer me, and embrace that I have something to offer in return. Experience everything. Seek new opportunities. Don’t back down from a challenge. Lead with your whole heart, with authenticity and grace. Don’t think you need to have every problem solved… live the questions, enjoy the journey. You will learn that finding your way to the answers is more fulfilling than you even thought possible!

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

I have to laugh at the number of interesting stories throughout my career: from touring the Southern states in a small plane, trying to keep racecar drivers and a famous daredevil on schedule for press conferences, to being a chaperone on a cruise ship full of singles a little too ready to mingle. There have been confetti cannons and board meetings gone rogue — which had fireworks of their own. But one of the experiences I cherish most was a trip to Paris and London, where I had the chance to speak to an audience about the use of artificial intelligence and data in retail at the Alan Turing Institute. Not only was I honored and humbled to get to know an audience in that incredible place, but I was able to experience it all with my young son. He was 8 at the time and had been asking to come with me to Europe for a few years. About 2 weeks before the trip, I had a moment of clarity that there was nothing more important than showing my son first-hand what I did for a living, to teach him how to navigate the airport and the Tube, and to have my little best friend by my side. We explored Paris and London, hand-in-hand, met diplomats and mathematicians, street musicians and poets, and made memories that will last a lifetime. He also got to experience my office, my colleagues, and see for himself the impact his working mother has.

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

Early in my career, I left a voicemail for my boss on our work phone system. He had asked me for an analysis of why a project had failed, and I gave him my honest perspective, including some choice words about what I perceived (at a ripe age of 25) to be questionable decision making of someone in management. This was a landline phone system, where you pushed one number to reply or a different number to forward. Well, he accidentally forwarded that message to about 100 people.

I learned a few things from this situation:

Take the high road. Choose your words carefully. Execute to your ethics. Every time. No exceptions.

If you make a mistake, own it. Apologize clearly, and then proceed with your head held high. In this case, I actually did just that. I apologized directly to the subject of the voicemail. And then I walked into meetings the next day with humility and grace, but without any shame. I owned my words, and it was respected.

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

These past few years have shone a spotlight on some of humanity’s rawest moments, not just the ugly underbelly of ignorance, but also the fortitude and generosity of the human spirit. It has brought about an awareness that inclusivity, compassion and whole health should be a baseline expectation. Something that was so important to me when I joined the January Digital team was that we foster a culture that holistically assesses an employee’s personal growth, not only in their function, but through the lens of individual well-being.

There are so many projects I am excited about, but what I believe deeply will help January Digital live up to our mission to improve the lives of our people, our clients and the world is the launch of Well Works. Well Works is our holistic employee wellness program that removes all barriers (money, time, and know-how) to mental, physical, and whole health care. Through Well Works every January Digital team member receives:

Monthly events that provide wellness education and prioritize personal growth

Unlimited confidential online therapy and access to a mental health coach 24/7 via Slack & video

An annual stipend to cover individual mental, physical, emotional and spiritual support

Complete health, dental, and vision healthcare coverage available for FREE to all employees

Generous parental leave and return-to-work policies

And we won’t stop here. Our goal is to forever transform workplace dynamics to prioritize wellness, because we believe wellness works to grow strong individuals and strong organizations, and because we are unified in the fact that it is the right thing to do. I am even more excited to be bringing this to life in partnership with one of the most phenomenal female leaders I know, Megan Leedy Jones, who is a deeply caring and strategic leader, committed to the success of this program.

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

My advice to colleagues is that it is not only ok to establish boundaries, it is vital. Setting boundaries and communicating them clearly makes you more effective and a more trusted leader. Not only is boundary setting necessary for personal well-being, the clarity, authenticity, strength and personal resolve it takes to communicate these boundaries is key to establishing respect with your colleagues, your boss, your board of directors, and is vital to driving personal and professional success.

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?

I would say that the most influential person in my career is my husband, Dustin Engel. Although we do not currently work at the same company, he has been my most trusted coworker for 17 years. We actually have, quite intentionally, worked together three times — including starting a business together. While most people say they couldn’t imagine working with their spouse, I feel just the opposite. He helps me view situations more clearly and pragmatically. He is able to partner with me to turn my dreams into action, because he knows my strengths and can uniquely envision the steps to make them a reality. He is compassionate, clear and principled as a leader. And his work ethic is like nobody I’ve ever encountered. Whether it is an aggressive work goal, completing a Harvard course during quarantine or a 100 mile bike ride in 100 degree heat… he absolutely does not give up. He breaks seemingly insurmountable challenges into smaller pieces, makes a plan for each step, and does not let up until he works his way to success.

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

I care deeply about, and therefore have spent a lot of time and energy focusing on, supporting and uplifting women and girls, and mentoring our next generation of leaders. Empowering women is not just a passion, it is something I work quite hard at in order to make the biggest impact. It is driving to West Philadelphia with my kids to deliver January Digital’s Christmas presents to a frontline nurse and single mom who had to cut back her work hours to manage virtual school for her young girls. It has been mentoring teenage girls from underserved communities to get them prepared to apply to college, and be successful in their aspirations, through the amazing organization Step Up Women’s Network. It is one-to-one mentoring young women in the industry, reviewing resumes, coaching them on aspects that women in business just often are not exposed to. My career, and gracious mentors along the way, have afforded me knowledge that I will gladly share. Topics like salary negotiation, executive communication, seeking board seats and positioning of strengths to achieve results. Above all, it is being an ally and an advocate…. all of those micro-moments of amplifying the voices of women in meetings, suggesting a fellow female leader to a reporter looking for a source or a board looking for a new CEO.

I will often ask my two young boys what “our job” is on this earth. And I am so proud of them that the answer is always some variation of: “To leave people better than we found them. To fight for those who can’t fight for themselves. To lift up people around us, and to make situations and the world around us kinder and more beautiful.”

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 past year has created unprecedented change for retailers, and it has also offered new opportunities for those who are agile and able to diversify their processes and offerings. The new reality is, customers are shopping online and they expect curbside pickup/ buy online & pick up in store/ home delivery. These expectations are not returning to a pre-pandemic retail reality.

Companies that kept a close ear to their customers’ voices and leveraged their unique structure as assets and not liabilities adapted quickly and found success. Those retailers who were successful and will be successful going forward are those who are nimble and agile, driving their evolution through the lens of customer needs. A few examples of this are:

The bar for alternative fulfillment has been raised, including home delivery, curbside pickup, return anywhere, buy online pick up in store. Brands that were agile and customer driven include:

Best Buy very quickly put in place the ability to buy online and pick up in store, with curbside pickup, or with text to have your purchase placed in your trunk with no contact

Target put their app to work quickly to allow online shopping and curbside pickup. The app allows a customer to select “drive up” at check out, sends an alert when the order is ready to pick up, and requires check in when they arrive at the store’s designated “drive up” parking spot. No physical contact or physical signature is needed when pickup occurs and purchases are placed directly in the customer’s trunk.

– Although 51% of customers said back in 2019 that they would want to use augmented reality to assist with their purchases, until 2020, it had not become commonplace. This will be a year that augmented reality and virtual reality aren’t just futuristic concepts but genuinely allow customers to show how they want, when they want. From utilizing VR for virtual dressing rooms and makeup try-ons from home, to helping customers more easily and safely navigate in-store purchases through AR offerings like extended product information, the line between online and offline is forever blurred. This is an exciting evolution, as brands have long sought to make the online experience more tactile, rich and “real” and have sought to make in-store purchases more seamless and more measurable.

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?

Physical retail will continue to exist, but the purpose will shift to better serve customers’ needs. The vast majority of ecommerce websites that are driving the retail economy are those with physical store locations supporting their infrastructure. Even those companies that began as pure play ecommerce brands have opened physical stores. The harsh reality is, there are too many stores now, and too much retail real estate. So, yes, stores will continue to close in the year ahead. However, physical stores will still exist and they will serve unique purposes for retailers — including acting as mini-distribution centers to fulfill from anywhere and act as return centers for purchases made in any channel.

How stores are utilized to connect with and serve customers is what will be the largest and most continual shift. Will customers still shop in stores? Will they want to try on clothes in person when the COVID concerns pass? Touch and feel merchandise when it is safe to do so? Yes, yes and yes. Will they do it as frequently or in the same way? No. Customers will continue to expect home delivery, curbside pickup, virtual dressing rooms, and websites that allow them to understand all product attributes through augmented reality, customer reviews, diversity of model body types, etc. Customers will rely on stores for personalized services, consultative guidance from real human beings, and a feeling of warmth and true benefits from visiting in exchange for their loyalty.

As my wise friend Steve Dennis, the author of the book Remarkable Retail, has stated, “The essence of harmonized retail is accepting the truth that all the talk about different channels is not particularly helpful. The customer is the channel.” In our work, we see that the most successful retailers and brands are those who operate seamlessly and as true partners between ecommerce, stores, merchandising, operations and through the C-suite. That level of deep integration, along with a solitary focus on the customer, ensures that both the strategic mindset and the execution align to create remarkable experiences for customers at every touchpoint.

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?

There are two key concepts that come to mind that every retailer should learn from the profitable and successful retail peers: Agility and customer understanding.

Lululemon was able to be agile in their design and supply chain to innovate in their products in a way that best responded to how customers were truly dressing when living their lives primarily at home. They continued to invest in their ecommerce business in the face of uncertainty. In addition to focusing on innovating their core products, listening to their customers’ needs for home workout technology and options drove them to the strategic acquisition of MIRROR.

Kroger was able to offer alternative fulfillment to customers almost immediately, and they did so in a way that made the options easy to understand and removed concern and friction for their customers. They clearly offered customers the ability to use their mobile app to shop faster and more seamlessly in store without exchanging physical coupons for example, offered free pickup delivered right to customers’ cars, offered shipping of pantry staples, and ramped up home delivery at a fixed cost for customers.

If there is one thing that has become certain in retail in the past year, it is that your plan will not come to fruition in the original way you imagined it. At January Digital, our clients really thrived because of the strategy work and diversified plans that were in place, which allowed for quick pivots and adaptability. Success in this current climate is all about diversification — of channel, of thought and process, of fulfillment message and even of shipping providers — and agility to quickly respond to customers’ needs.

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?

Out Amazoning Amazon is not going to be successful. Fighting on price is a race to the bottom as well. For brands to be successful in the face of this intense price pressure, they must be incredibly clear about what they stand for and what their unique differentiators are, be true to those differentiators in every decision, and communicate them clearly and constantly to customers. Stay true to your North Star.

For example, if your North Star is that your products are sustainably sourced and produced, protect that aspect of your brand and get that message out to the consumers who care deeply about sustainably and are willing to spend to protect it. Communicate clearly and constantly, and make sure that you are living and breathing your core values from executive decisions, to hiring, right through to your marketing efforts.

A phenomenal example of a brand staying true to its North Star is Cariuma, a brand we work with and deeply respect. Cariuma makes “cool classic” sneakers that are both incredibly popular and sustainably produced. Their commitment to the environment is front and center in every aspect of their decision making and messaging. They truly live by their motto, “We believe in making things in a way that’s better for people & the planet.” When other brands relied on profit draining sales over the 2020 holiday season, Cariuma leaned into their mission and planted 10 trees for every pair of shoes sold.

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. 🙂

I hold a deep belief that one of the best ways to monumentally impact the world is to uplift and create meaningful improvement for mothers. As a mother myself, I know there is nothing I won’t do to support and protect my children. I also know that as I teach my children the value of hard work, kindness, philanthropy and equality, it has a multiplicative effect as they go into the world and positively impact those around them. Personally, I have focused much of my personal volunteer and pro bono work on supporting and creating positive change for mothers. At January Digital, we have long supported organizations that protect and uplift mothers, including the Genesis Women’s Shelter in Texas, which exists to give women and children in abusive situations a path to lead an independent and safe life.

The impacts of COVID are showing a detrimental and outsized negative impact on women. Mothers have been 3 times more likely to lose their jobs during the pandemic than fathers, with mothers of children 12 years old and younger losing nearly 2.2 million jobs between February and August. Among women, Latinas currently have the highest unemployment rate at 9.1%, followed by Black women at 8.4%.* The hit was even harder for low-wage single moms in hard hit employment areas: 83% percent working as waitresses lost their jobs by mid-April, along with 72% of those working as cleaners, 58% of cooks, a third of personal care aides and 14% of customer service representatives.**

That is in the US alone. Supporting Moms across the world would have a fundamental impact not just on their lives but on the future. What if we started a movement that would be solely focused on supporting and uplifting mothers? From continuing education opportunities to hiring assistance. From child care help to food and clothing support. Take that a step farther and it would mean assisting women with business plans and securing microloans for Moms to be their own bosses. It would mean health and safety support for mothers and protection of those moms and their kids who are most vulnerable. It may sound like a lofty goal, but at the basic level, safety, food, health, education, employment, and the support of someone who believes in her are fundamentals that we should come together and work to secure for every mother.

*Bureau of Labor Statistics

**Analysis from Stateline Census Data

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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