Ruth Hartman is putting an exclamation point on the saying ‘what a difference a day makes.’
It’s been just seven days since San Francisco-based Le Tote completed its acquisition of Lord + Taylor and named Hartman as president of the century-old department store. And the new leader said she’s already waist deep in a series of transformative moves.
Last Friday, Lord + Taylor’s chief signed off on a new marketing campaign — set to roll out this weekend — that will lay to rest rumors of the retailer’s demise. Hartman recited the sentiment of the campaign during a chat with FN yesterday: “It’s official. The deal is done and we’re open. Come shop with us. We welcome you with open arms this holiday season, for 2020 and beyond.”
In her first week, the executive also helped steer the implementation of a new methodology for how Lord + Taylor will fulfill its digital demands — although she noted it’s too early to divulge the details. And, just five days ago, Hartman and her team laid the groundwork to test a new type of rental service that will integrate both Lord + Taylor and Le Tote’s core strengths.
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Needless to say: She has big plans and don’t expect her to waste any time in executing them.
But it’s with good reason: Lord + Taylor’s new president — who comes to the role after an extensive career in retail that includes high-level roles at Macy’s, DSW and Le Tote — is well aware of the challenge ahead as she aims to transform the recently beleaguered retailer.
“We do need to turn around Lord + Taylor — I’m just being candid,” Hartman said. “[Former owner] Hudson’s Bay Co. is a public company, the numbers are out there; things haven’t been fantastic.”
Before announcing its plans to sell Lord + Taylor to Le Tote for $75 million in late August, HBC had struggled for some time to revive the mid-tier department store chain amid declining comps. (Also part of the Le Tote-Lord + Taylor merger was a secured promissory note for $CA33.2 million, or $25 million, after two years.)
HBC memorably shuttered Lord + Taylor’s century-old flagship on New York’s Fifth Avenue in early January, shed another 10 of its 48 stores and dabbled in a number of omnichannel initiatives, including an unlikely digital partnership with Walmart last year.
“I don’t fault anyone at the organization or the decisions that were made, but [what we have to do now] is a turnaround and a transformation,” Hartman said. “Do I feel pressure to make that happen? I absolutely do, [but I also] feel tremendous excitement to allow it to be the crown jewel and heritage brand it has been in a new and innovative way. I don’t think we can go back to what it used to be in the 1920s. We need to do things differently.”
Hartman joined Le Tote in 2014 and most recently served as the chief merchandising officer at the pioneering subscription rental platform. She said her experience in both traditional retail and digital-native platforms uniquely positions her to orchestrate Lord + Taylor’s revival.
“The vision is to take some of the proprietary data, algorithms and systems we’ve built internally for Le Tote for rental and provide that to the Lord + Taylor customers and associates to have that more-personalized experience when the customer walks in the door and when she shops online,” Hartman said of part of her strategy.
Some of the new leader’s handprints — and her larger goal of integrating both businesses — have already shown up in Lord + Taylor’s stores: Le Tote last month opened its first rental studio within a Lord + Taylor location, in Yonkers, N.Y.
“Part of wanting to acquire this great heritage brand of Lord + Taylor is that from a brand standpoint, a lot more people know the Lord + Taylor name versus Le Tote,” Hartman explained. “We also want to allow the [Lord + Taylor] customer to see, touch and try the [Le Tote] rental inventory so they know the quality, condition and aesthetic.”
As Hartman and her team work toward building “one company and one culture,” customers can eventually expect to see Lord + Taylor and Le Tote collaborate by sharing inventory.
“In the rental space, we’re looking to hold on to the merchandise as long as it can live. In traditional retail — whether it be brick-and-mortar or online — companies ‘race to the death’ to [get rid] of inventory,” Hartman said. “Our goal is to allow the inventory to be in Lord + Taylor — whether in the store or on the website — and have it live its life to the fullest there. And before it has to be gotten rid of, we grab that and push it into the rental channel to give the customer a much broader assortment and breathe new life into it.”
Hartman also has plans to expand Lord + Taylor’s brick-and-mortar footprint, although she’ll take a different tack from the department store’s traditional model, unveiling smaller-format “boutique” stores in key markets like Texas and California. The executive is also mulling a new distribution center closer to the East Coast and will look to have Lord + Taylor partner with Le Tote when the latter expands beyond its subscription model.
“Right now, at Le Tote, we offer the monthly subscription service, but there’s no reason we wouldn’t get into the [special-occasion rental] business,” said Hartman. “This is where we would rent a cocktail dress to a customer for three days. What we think would be interesting is if the customer can do that and then go online and purchase a pair of shoes [from Lord + Taylor] to go with the dress or maybe some intimate apparel or beauty products.”
Into the foreseeable future, Hartman will likely spend a lot of her time focused on bringing new innovations to Lord + Taylor, but she said she’ll still lean on one old-school leadership mantra she learned early in her career: “My motto is — and this is especially important in retail, which is such a people-oriented industry — to be firm, fair and friendly.”