NEW YORK — While the COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be a financial windfall for much of mass market retailing, it has also presented unanticipated challenges that have been surmounted only with extraordinary efforts and innovation, and it continues to pose unsettling questions about the future. Much of the discourse during the recent Industry Day virtual conference on the subject of “Creating the Future of Retail … Together” focused on how different companies have met those challenges and how they envision a post-COVID-19 future.
One session, however, struck a different note. A panel discussion led by Wendy Liebmann, chief executive officer and chief shopper of WSL Marketing Inc., explored, in her words, “the power of retail to connect and change lives and the joy that it can bring.”
The panelists included Lori Flees, senior vice president and chief operating officer of health and wellness at Walmart; Jocelyn Konrad, executive vice president and chief pharmacy officer at Rite Aid Corp.; and Colleen Lindholz, president of Kroger Health for Kroger Co. Latriece Watkins, executive vice president of consumables for Walmart, was unable to take part in the discussion but provided an eloquent and moving video presentation on what her retail career has meant to her.
Liebmann unlocked the discussion of “The Joy and Power of Retail” by asking the panelists to describe how they came to pursue successful careers in retailing. Two panelists, Konrad and Lindholz, started out as pharmacists, and both were drawn by the potential to make a positive difference in the lives of their patients and customers.
While still in high school and planning eventually to attend medical school, Lindholz was so impressed by the pharmacist for whom she worked and the respect he enjoyed in their community that she changed her goals and went to work as a pharmacist for Kroger in 1995.
“I was hugely impressed by him, and that started my journey,” she recalled. “And the opportunity we have every single day to make a difference in people’s lives is what keeps me going. And honestly, too, how we can help reshape the way health care is delivered in the United States.”
Konrad had worked part time in retail as a student before acquiring her pharmacy degree and had come to relish the constant change it entails. That drew her to retail pharmacy, initially with Thrift Drug and later with Eckerd Corp. before joining Rite Aid.
“Every minute of every day is not predicted; every minute of every day is something new,” she said. “Selfishly, I went into retail because retail fuels me, and the interaction you have with customers and the way you can make a difference in their lives — there is a power in that. Who would not want to do that every day of their life?”
Latriece Watkins’ path to a retail career began with a law degree from the University of Arkansas. She started out at Walmart in the real estate division at a time when the retailer was still opening hundreds of stores every year. Online shopping, she pointed out, existed but was still a novelty — a somewhat risky one — to many consumers.
For Watkins, serving the customer and driving innovation to meet her needs are the chief sources of joy in her work. In addition, Walmart’s growing commitment to sustainability is a major source of satisfaction and pride.
“Retail is a people business, and I find incredible joy in serving others, giving customers what they need and helping them discover new products and services that help them live better,” she concluded. “And if we do it right, we can have an impact far beyond our businesses that lasts beyond our lifetimes.”
Flees, on the other hand, came to retailing as a career change prompted by the desire to better balance work and family. Before joining Walmart, she had enjoyed a 17-year career as a consultant at Bain & Co. Interestingly, she had not consulted for mass market retailers, but was attracted to the fact that Walmart appeared to be at an inflection point when Doug McMillon took the reins as president and CEO.
“There wasn’t a better recipe for something that would be as exciting, as fast-paced and as intellectually challenging to move into from consulting,” she said. “I would say I got very lucky.”
Flees observed that one result of the pandemic has been that retail has proven itself to be critically important to the communities it serves, particularly in its ability to change and adapt with remarkable speed. When Lindholz praised Walmart for its immediate willingness to share its experience at drive-thru testing with Kroger — a major competitor — Flees stressed the need for just such collaboration to meet the demands of a world transformed by COVID-19.
“We can’t solve the entire need as just one company or two or three of us,” she said. “We are not staffed to have that much excess capacity that we can meet these additional needs. So as we think about what it’s going to take to get people confident and keep them healthy, it’s by working together as an industry, collaboratively, so we can go faster.”