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Top Executives From Macy’s, Crocs, Birkenstock + More on Their Biggest Lessons Learned in 2021

No one could have predicted the amount of change that awaited the world at the start of this new decade. Now, two years in, 2021 brought new challenges. From high inflation, controversial mask and vaccine mandates, and supply chain nightmares, retailers and brands have put their businesses to the test.

With these challenges, comes new opportunities of growth and learning. Here, top retail and brand executives tell FN what lessons they’ve learned this year along the way.

Nata Dvir, chief merchandising officer, Macy’s

“One of my biggest learnings in 2021 has been that in order to win with the customer you have to prioritize agility and always be anticipating their next need. Consumer trends and preferences change very rapidly, and it’s important to be agile and flexible in order to remain relevant and successfully serve their diverse lifestyles and needs.”

Michelle Poole, president, Crocs

“That there’s never been a greater need for comfort. Despite all the collective challenges we’ve faced over the past two years, comfort, both physical and mental, took on a new meaning during the pandemic. At Crocs, we’ve been fortunate to connect authentically with our fans to deliver a message – and product – that’s more powerful today than ever before: everyone should be comfortable in their own shoes.”

Diane Sullivan, chairman and CEO, Caleres

“We were all a little surprised at the speed of the rebound. We knew it would come, but I don’t think anyone expected to see the recovery break records. Fortunately, Caleres was already well on the path of being a more agile company and that served us well. It reinforced how important it is to maintain that flexibility to best serve the customer when and where she wants to shop.”

David Kahan, CEO, Birkenstock Americas

“The importance and power of having a mission vs. just ‘selling shoes.’ Our team is driven by what we call our ‘moon shot’ – it is the path we are on to manifest our brand potential and it is based on the belief that we sell products that bring people happiness and satisfaction. During a time of social unrest and a global pandemic and so much uncertainty in many people’s lives – has there ever been a better time to carry out our mission? People quite frankly NEED what we bring into the universe.”

Oliver Mak, founding partner, Bodega

Practicing empathy is really important for leadership in these times. We need to be mindful of the toll of stress from these extreme times on each person in our organization and on the clients who do business with us. Be grateful, be thankful, and be present with your those who surround you. The energy you give others resonates past your interactions, bleeding into their personal lives.”

Ashley Petrie, SVP of merchandising, Fred Segal

“We learned there was a major shift in trend and overall purchasing behavior based on the new needs of our customers.  Comfort and functionality took precedent over our typical fashion categories.  We saw a need to really connect with our community in various ways, through charity, conversation and thoughtfulness about how we operate our stores and overall business both internally and externally.”

Bob Philion, president, Puma North America

“The past year has taught me just how important in-person collaboration is, especially for our industry. Because we operate in a fast-paced, product-focused market, it’s important we don’t lose that physical connection to the real, tangible products we make. For us, our newly-implemented hybrid approach really maximizes our employees’ time, allowing them to maintain a good work-life balance, while sparking creativity through what I like to call ’15-minute collisions’ in the office. These informal run-ins have been hugely instrumental to our business, and I’ve been reminded that the value of in-person collaboration cannot be understated. At the same time, flexibility has never been more important and has been infused into our culture like never before and in a way that I believe is here to stay.”

Kenneth Cole, founder and chief creative officer, Kenneth Cole

“To never underestimate our collective ability to come together, while apart, when our well-being is at stake.”

Bill Jordan, president, Designer Brands

“2021 turned out to be a tremendous year for Designer Brands, even though going into the year we were uncertain of what was going to happen. A huge lesson we learned is that we can make huge changes in our business in a short period of time.  The pandemic required us to do things we never thought we could or would do. Now that we have exercised that muscle, we need to continue to not be afraid to make major changes….in assortment, pricing, supply chain, etc. The retail world is different today than two years ago, and we need to make sure we continue to quickly change and adapt.”

Danny Ewoldsen, president, Johnston & Murphy

“The pandemic has been challenging for all of us, both professionally and in our personal lives. As is always the case, we learn through adversity the importance of relationships. Together we can get through just about anything. I consider myself an appreciative person but my gratitude for the ingenuity and optimism of my colleagues has hit a new high. I learned that we’re all stronger than we think. Loving your job has little to do with what you do and everything to do with who you do it with.”

Bianca Gates, co-founder, Birdies

“Some things are out of our control and it’s how you handle them that matter most.”

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