The way Carol Baiocchi sees it, the retail industry looks quite different from when she got her start.
Baiocchi, who most recently served as the VP and DMM of footwear for Kohl’s Inc., retired from professional shoe-buying in June, after a 40-year career that included stints in Chicago, San Francisco and Milwaukee.
When she first landed on the shoe scene in the 1970s, department stores still had separate discount shops in their basements, and Nine West was the new label on the block.
After graduating from Loyola University in her hometown of Chicago, Baiocchi got her first job as a shoe buyer in 1975, at Capwell’s Basement Store. The discount shop was underneath H.C. Capwell, a department store in Oakland, Calif. The role was just a start, but Baiocchi said the shoe business was infectious.
“I was hooked very early on. The business itself and the people got me going,” she said. “People were so open and inviting and just willing to help you and work with you.”
It also didn’t hurt that Baiocchi had the ultimate shoe dog as her mentor. Upstairs at H.C. Capwell, shoe buyer Tom Winter helped educate her on all things shoes, including sourcing, construction and fit.
“He took me under his wing, and from there I just absorbed as much as I could. I was a willing student of his,” she said. “He taught me a lot of the rudimentary parts of the shoe business. As a result, I had a very good rounding, even though I was buying budget-store shoes you would tie up and put on a table or rack.”
A year into her role, Baiocchi moved up the escalator to the main floor of the department store, where she worked as a women’s footwear buyer, and eventually joined sister store Emporium in San Francisco as a buyer. In 1986, she was recruited to the Macy’s West buying team. A few years later, she was named the DMM for the entire Macy’s West footwear operation.
It was a rocky time in retail, recalled Baiocchi, now 65, similar to today’s unsettled market.
While cutthroat competition from Amazon, the rise of mobile e-commerce and on-demand shopping have dramatically shifted the playing field, retailers in the 1980s and ’90s were living through the consolidation of dozens of regional department stores. The shift altered relationships and buying power immensely.
“The whole dynamic changed,” Baiocchi said. “As more [deals] happened … the bigger you got, the more important you were. That intimacy [between us and the brands] became even greater because of the shared responsibility for the business and the need for people to understand the nuances of your territory.”
For a young shoe buyer, introducing loyal customers of one regional store to new brands was a tall task. Baiocchi also had to understand tastes and buying preferences of shoppers in a territory that encompassed the entire U.S. west of the Mississippi River, as well as Hawaii and Alaska.
But as challenging as that era was, it was also a thrilling one, according to Baiocchi, who witnessed the birth of iconic brands such as Steve Madden and Nine West. She recalled trying out Madden at Macy’s with 36 pairs in two stores. The brand was an instant hit with shoppers.
“Those are the things that you want people to understand and remember,” she said. “There is always something that is around the corner, something new that can be the next Steve Madden or next Michael Kors or the next Nine West or Vince Camuto.”
Steve Madden, whose company is still a big partner for Macy’s, said his relationship with Baiocchi was one of his most memorable in the industry. “Carol is the finest merchant I’ve ever worked with,” he said.
Joe Ouaknine, CEO of Titan Industries, said that in the 30 years he’s known Baiocchi, he has always admired her ability to try new things on a shoe floor.
“She was able to always run her own show,” he said. “She made decisions on the spot and always found a way to run a profitable business, as long as I have known her. Carol was willing to take risks and was successful at it. She loves high fashion. Her shoe floors always looked good. She always went after designer brands and was a real merchant.”
After 23 years at Macy’s, Baiocchi embraced the biggest challenge yet in her career, moving back to the Midwest to take on the most senior footwear role at Milwaukee-based Kohl’s.
Notably, she began at Kohl’s in 2009 in the midst of the Great Recession.
Still, her new role presented a welcome chance to expand her experience in buying, private label and product creation for multiple categories: men’s, women’s, athletic and children’s.
“Kohl’s is honored to have had Carol as a part of our team for the past seven years. Carol was instrumental in building our strong portfolio of footwear brands,” said Chris Candee, EVP and GMM of home and footwear for the retailer. “Carol’s team valued her industry expertise, tenacity and determination, and her support and encouragement. We are thrilled Carol is being recognized and couldn’t think of anyone more deserving as she embarks on the next chapter of her life.”
Beyond her sharp business acumen, Baiocchi has made a significant impact through her work with Two Ten, the industry’s biggest footwear nonprofit.
In 2002, Baiocchi was named to the board of directors. She became the chairman of the board in 2010, after serving as vice chair, alongside Wolverine World Wide leader at the time, Tim O’Donovan. She’s also served on committees for scholarship and social services, and Baiocchi’s experience with the West Coast footwear industry helped her to expand the reach of the organization.
Baiocchi, along with Caleres CEO, president and chairman Diane Sullivan, kicked off one of Two Ten’s ambitious programs: Women in Footwear Industry, or WIFI, in 2010. (Baiocchi now heads the group with Libby Edelman.)
“The constant thread of her involvement has been about community-building — and not just in WIFI, but in every aspect of her work with us,” said Neal Newman, president of Two Ten. “It’s always about strengthening the community and making it more than just about an industry, but something larger.”
“I’ve been lucky enough to work closely with Carol for more than 20 years. She is a great friend who tackles everything with passion and dedication,” said Sullivan. “One of my favorite memories with Carol was when Peggy [Kim Meill, Two Ten’s then-president] asked us to start WIFI. It is rewarding to know that something that began so small has grown into something so important for the women in our industry.”
For Baiocchi, co-founding WIFI was a major milestone, and she immediately understood the power of a great networking idea. At the first meeting in New York, held at the offices of Caleres (then known as Brown Shoe), more than 50 women attended.
“I have been in the business for so very long. During my early experience in retail and the business, it was very male-dominated,” recalled Baiocchi. “I remember going to my first show at the convention center, which was at the time in Columbus Circle [in New York].”
Joined by another women’s buyer, Baiocchi was surprised when most of the men at the show assumed they were both assistants. “It struck me as odd that we weren’t perceived as being buyers but as the assistants,” she said. “Over the years, I have always reminded myself of it. It helped me along the way in terms of my strength and stamina.”
The moment also propelled Baiocchi’s interest in supporting emerging female talent in the industry. In recognition of her passion for the cause, Two Ten will present the first Carol Baiocchi Scholarship for Women this year to a select woman who wants to expand her leadership skills and education in the industry.
“I’m humbled by the idea,” said Baiocchi. “It is exciting to have the opportunity to represent this scholarship as a token of the progress that’s been made with WIFI and the opportunity it gives women.”
Baiocchi said she hoped the scholarship could be used to help further the education and development for women in the industry who put school on hold for financial or family reasons.
As she reflects on her career, Baiocchi is also looking forward to fully embracing a new full-time title: grandmother. Her two grandchildren, Enzo, 5, and Isla, 2, live in the San Francisco area, and Baiocchi is in the process of returning there.
“For right now, I’m just going to be the best grandmother I can be to my two grandkids,” she said. “I don’t think I’m ever not going to be part of the shoe business. I’ll always be connected.”