Two Decades in Retail, and NRF Remained a Mystery. But Now, I’m Heading to the Conference.

Join me on my journey

January 11, 2024

Maybe you’re like me – I love retail. 

As a kid, I’d cut out pictures from fashion magazines and glue them on poster boards. I loved watching fashion and makeup trends. My poster boards were the ’80s version of Pinterest

Every day after school, I’d grab the mail and read fashion catalogs cover to cover. 

My mom nicknamed me the “Catalog Queen.”

Later, as a teenager, I’d shop at my favorite stores in the mall. I observed how the sales associates put their outfits together. I’d take mental notes of the jewelry I liked. I wanted to work in a retail store so badly, but it wasn’t in the cards for me as a teen. I interviewed but never got the job. 

In college, I studied merchandising (of course) and went straight to work at a department store full-time after graduation. Twenty years later, I ran high-volume stores with large teams of people. I loved it – leading teams, being at the forefront of fashion, customer service – all of it. But I was getting bored. What else was out there for me?

A few years ago, I began writing about leadership and retail. I got obsessed. I liked it so much that I quit my retail job to write full-time. Much of what I wrote gained traction within the LinkedIn retail communities. 

Eighteen months ago, the DMs began rolling in:

“Hey Kit, will you be at NRF this year?”

NR — what?

I had no idea what they were talking about. So, I looked it up. 

The National Retail Federation (NRF) is the world’s largest retail trade association. Wait, here, I’ll let them tell you:

NRF “passionately advocates for the people, policies and ideas that help retail thrive. For over a century, NRF has been a voice for every retailer and every retail job, educating, inspiring and communicating the powerful impact retail has on local communities and global economies.”

Wow! Amazing! What’s even more amazing is that I worked in retail stores for over two decades and didn’t even know this federation existed. 

When I ran retail stores, I was hungry for information. That hunger is ultimately why I left the business. I was bored. I felt like there was nothing left to learn. So, I turned to writing. Writing led me back to retail. 

Funny how life works out.

If I would’ve known about NRF, I would’ve devoured their content. However, running retail stores means being pretty isolated. When you work for a company, you only hear from your company. You attend your meetings, listen to your leaders, and mingle with other leaders from your brand. Then, you go back and run your store. 

That’s it.

You rarely hear about what’s going on in the world of retail at large. If you want to know, you must seek that information on your own (and not get paid for it). You probably don’t have time to do that when you’re a store leader. 

Store leaders are juggling one million tasks every day and putting out fires on the regular. They don’t have time to read about the retail industry. Any research like that is done on your own time and your own dime. If you have a family, forget it. When do you fit that in? What’s the incentive?  

A few years ago, I walked the mall with one of my leaders. As we walked into an Urban Outfitters store, she confessed she’d never been in one of their stores. I was astonished, but I did my best to hide my surprise. 

How do you get promoted to a district management level position when you’ve never shopped the competition? I don’t know, but I’ll go out on a limb here and guess it happens often. 

Companies spend too much time looking at their own reflection. The worst part is that they pass that on to their store leaders. No effort is made to enter other stores or learn about the industry. Then you get this chain of leaders that only know the brand in which they work.

This way of thinking creates leaders who are slightly lopsided. They only know one way. Then, they get promoted and develop more leaders that only look inward. 

Retail companies must begin teaching their store leaders about the retail industry, not only their company. And Look – NRF is here to help!

I was a kick-ass store leader partly because I’d worked for several companies. I’d moved around just enough to see different processes and understand alternative payroll methods, so when I stepped into my last store, I really understood what worked. 

The store leaders who hadn’t hopped around a bit didn’t understand these alternative concepts. It was obvious. 

More often than not, retail leaders fall into their positions. A college degree isn’t required to do the work, so great sales associates often get promoted into leadership positions. There’s something super cool about that, and retail companies need to continue training their leaders about the industry as a whole. 

Retail has always been a tough business, but the last few years have been brutal. The industry has been hemorrhaging talent because leaders are underpaid and underappreciated. It’s disheartening. Retail is a fantastic career. It teaches you how to help others, how to merchandise product, and how to run a business.

NRF is the gold standard of the industry. I wish more retail leaders knew they existed. 

Follow me on my journey to the NRF conference. I cannot wait to see it! I’ll be sharing insights along the way, as well as my favorite new things in retail. 

My mom can soon give me a new nickname: “Retail Convention Queen!”

Join me!

Based in Southern California, Kit Campoy is a former retail leader turned freelance writer. She covers Retail, Leadership, and Business. 

Join her weekly newsletter, The Voice of the Frontline.

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