WTP Podcast
The Future of Work: Retail Style

The Future of Work: Retail Style

My conversation with Kit Campoy. We covered burnout, better work, the ridiculousness of self-checkout, and when the math isn't mathing.

Hello and welcome to this installment of the WTP interview series. Today I'm speaking with

. She’s the retail leader who writes . If you want to learn more, visit (and subscribe to!) her Substack or connect with her on LinkedIn.

The transcript below is intended to reflect the actual conversation, so it has all the marks of spoken word. It will likely get clipped in email so if you want to read the whole thing interrupted, open this one in your browser or in the Substack app. Here we go…


Katie Burkhart: So, welcome! I'm so excited to be talking with you today. So, I'd love to start with kind of the backstory. I know you've been in retail. You've been in it for 20 years or more. How did you get into it in the first place?

Kit Campoy: By accident, which I think is most people's answer. When I went to college, I didn't know what I was doing. Like most people, I just went to college. I thought, “I don't know what I want to study, but I like fashion, so I'll study that.” So, I wound up getting a Bachelor of Science in merchandising, and I minored in PR. And after I graduated college, I did not want anything to do with management. I thought management was stupid, and I really envisioned myself as a stylist on photo shoots. I thought, “this is going to be so great. I’ll get to style people, and I can travel the world, and all this stuff.” And then the summer after I graduated, I got a full-time job at a department store because I thought, “well, this will be good experience. I just want to learn how stores work. I just want to learn the operational aspect of how retail stores work.”

And then I just couldn't learn enough. I just kept wanting to learn more and more and more about the operational side and the business side. And then later the people development. Just building teams and--building leadership teams, building sales teams, all that stuff. It's such a dynamic career. There's just so much involved, and so I just wanted to learn it all. So I just kept going and kept learning about it.

Katie: Very cool. And would you say that you--Listening to you, it sounds like you have enjoyed your career in this field. Would you say that that's still true now that you're, I would say…still in the field, but in a different sort of way?

Kit: Yes. I loved working in retail, and just making the decision to leave was so difficult. A lot of people are like, “oh, I cannot wait to get out of retail. I can't wait to be done with it.” And my experience? Yeah, of course I had challenging companies I worked for. I had terrible bosses. I had all those terrible experiences, but I ended up landing somewhere really great. And the last store that I ran, I ran for nine years. And a lot of the people that worked with me worked with me for six or seven years out of those nine years. So, we had a really seasoned, very strong team, and everybody that was there was there because of me. So, it was so difficult to leave. And I think I cried for two weeks, because I just didn't want to leave those people. But I also was just at the point where I was really bored and I needed a challenge and I was kind of just done. I didn't want to be a district manager. I didn't want to be a regional manager. I didn't want to go that way. That career path, it really didn't feel any different to me. It just felt like the same job just with more stores.

So--And I had started writing probably two years before I left, and I just was like, “I don't know where this writing thing is going to lead, but I’ve got to take the leap.” So I did.

Katie: Congratulations on finding that next step. Would you say that it's--Listening to you, the thing that sort of stood out there--And even reading some of your--I've been following your substack now for a while—it’s the people. I have a colleague who says it's ultimately all about the people. But it sounds like that's where some of the real enjoyment of the work came from, and ultimately what made it hard to step away. Is that accurate? Am I hearing you correctly?

Kit: Yeah, 100%. And I think it's true no matter where you work, right? If your coworkers—If you click with them, you're going to have more fun at work. But in retail, it's just, you have to have each other's backs kind of immediately, in the moment. You could get a super angry customer, and you would have to help your coworker and diffuse that situation.

Burnout comes really quickly. Also, in retail, you think, “I'm going to work a 10 day stretch and I'll be fine.” And you get to day seven and you're like, “I'm going to die.” And you really have to lean on your coworkers to help you out.

So, I think that that's why retail teams bond so strongly, is because wild stuff happens every single day. Really wild stuff happens. Customers, corporate direction, IT issues, registers crashing, people stealing from you, just wild stuff all the time. So, you have to really have each other's backs so you can get to the other side of whatever's happening.

Katie: That's very cool. And it makes me think of--As you're talking about burnout, that's a thing that floats around LinkedIn and all manner of consultant messaging. “Help People Avoid Burnout,” et cetera. But I was checking out your book, The Retail Leader’s Field Guide: How to Run a Kick-Ass Store Where Everyone Wants to Work. (What a wonderful tagline.) It sounds like something that a future-of-work advocate would want to talk about.

However, I have taken notice--and it's a big reason why I reached out to you to learn a little bit more--that most of the people who are identifying as future-of-work folks are pretty much exclusively part of the laptop class. And a lot of what they're advocating for, and what they kind of see, in my mind doesn't align with necessarily the experience of the retail industry, particularly not the frontline. So, I'm just sort of curious, where do you see overlap in the big splashy, trendy--or what I think is trendy as a member of the laptop class, myself—future-of-work themes, burnout, four day work week, whatever? And then, what do you see as not lining up? And what is retail really looking for moving forward, as far as “this is what the future of work should look like from our perspective?”

Kit: Yeah. I mean, I think burnout happens in every industry. And so, it's really up to the people doing the work to design their work, their week, their typical day, however they need to take time off so that it doesn't happen. And in retail, it's--For me to be able to avoid burnout and to help my teams be able to avoid burnout. Part of it, as a store leader, was--let me see, let me get the term really quickly--Actionable empathy was something that I came across a couple years ago. And I sort of freaked out when I learned about actionable empathy, because it's like, I knew my team so well that I knew kind of what they could handle and what was too much. So I would kind of step in for them and say like, “Hey, you have this coming up on your schedule. Do you want an extra day off? Is this going to be too much for you? How can I help you navigate what you have coming up?”

Or if my bosses wanted to pull my merchandiser to another location and he had already told me “I don't want to go, I don't want to travel, I don't want to do this stuff,” I would just say no for him. I'm not going to put him in the position to answer “No, we're not going to do that.” So that's part of it. And then also, people in retail--which I think people in the laptop class as well--they make themselves--we have this similarity that we make ourselves available all the time. So, you're able to check emails, you're on Slack, you're checking your phone, whatever is available all the time. And in retail, we do that too to our--We do that too. We tell our teams, call me if you need anything. Text me if you need anything.

And that's great. I think, as a leader, you should be available to answer questions for people if they need help. However, you also need to train them to be resourceful. And I talk about this in the book. I talk about--which is kind of funny because we used to explain to our teams the difference between--and people don’t know what 411 is anymore, but—We would tell them, is this 411 or is this 911?

So, young people now, they don't have the pleasure of knowing what 411 is, but before we had cell phones, we had to call Information. And 411 was just the line to Information. So instead of digging out the phone book, you would dial 411. So, I would teach that to my teams, and I would say, “ask yourself before you're texting me, before you're calling me, is this 411 or is this 911? Do you just need information? Can you not find the trash bags? Or are you in the store by yourself and you need help?”

You know what I'm saying?

Katie: Yeah.

Kit: This is how you determine what this is. And I hear from retail leaders all the time, still, to this day, that they are so burnt out because they are “on” on their days off. They are answering phone calls, they're answering texts all throughout the day. They're just available all the time. So that's got to stop.

And I really--Through a lot of the stuff that I do with leadership training and development, I try to teach people how to set those boundaries. Because that's--and I think it's the same for the laptop class--that's going to accelerate burnout. Nothing else. You just can't be—It's just wild. You just can't be available all the time. It makes no sense.

And I think for the future of work, I think we really need to think about “is a four-day work week better?” And retail can do that too. You could work four 10-hour days and have three days off. Why not? I know people that do that, and I've had so many people say, “oh my gosh, I would kill for that schedule.” Try it.

And I think the retail industry is very stuck where they were 20 years ago. And so, it's really, really hard to get them to make any kind of movement as far as “let's explore what a different work week looks like, or let's maybe get, I don't know, an extra week off during the year,” whatever that is. It's just, we need to start to think differently about these things. If you want people to continue to work in the industry, you have to think about it in new ways. I don't know if I answered your questions, but--

Katie: Yeah, you did. And there's a couple things that came to me here. One of them being, why do you think they're so stuck? Is it blinders? Is it “I'm comfortable here?” Is it something like, “I have no choice but to be here. I'm afraid to do something different,” or some combination therein? I'm just sort of curious as to what you saw in your different positions.

Kit: I think a lot of the executives in retail have been there for a very long time, and they are kind of stuck in these ways of, “well, this worked before. This worked in 2004, why is it not working now?” That's part of it. And then also the industry. Whenever they decided that they wanted to save money, they cut from the frontline, they cut from stores, they cut payroll, they cut raises. A lot of companies--I watched this happen. A lot of companies, major companies like Nordstrom and others, they cut their training programs back for leaders. So they kept cutting and cutting and cutting to save money. And now, there's a lot of retail companies that cannot find CEOs because they didn't train anyone to do the job for the last 20 years.

As someone who--I never made--I could live on what I made in retail, but I never had extra money. I was never like, “oh, I'm going to take this lavish vacation with my bonus check.” That never happened. And I never made a lot of money. And not making a lot of money and getting 3% raises every year on a small salary is pretty much nothing. The only way you're going to get any kind of bigger raise is to go to--switch to another company or threaten to quit or something like that. If you play by the rule book and you do everything you're told, you're getting 3% every year, which is nothing. And towards the end, I didn't get raises because of COVID and stuff like that, which I mean that, I get that that's a unique situation.

I'll give a pass. I'm gonna pass on that one. But yeah. So, it's just like, “where's the incentive,” right? If I am barely paying my bills every month, and then you're doing the bare minimum of leadership training, why would anyone stick around? So that's also a problem.

Katie: So, I'm sort of--One of the things that struck me in what you just said--there was a number of things--is that this sense of--this awareness that you have. That if we're not doing things the right way, if we're not creating a place to the tagline of your book, Where People Actually Want to Work, we are not going to have the people we need for the company to run, let alone be successful. And I'm sort of curious. You've stepped out for a little while, but you're still very much in the space. Is retail being impacted by the same C-challenges that I see with some of my clients in other spaces? As far as, “it is tough to find really terrific people. The competition is fierce. They always have a better option somewhere else. So, if we're not really putting something out there, we're in trouble.” Or do you find that retail has a different tact where they're like, “no, it's okay. We'll just have one person manage the whole store.” I'm just sort of curious, what is the perception--Is that a reality? And what's the response and sort of perception of it?

Kit: Yeah, it is a reality. I mean, I think I said people kept cutting back and cutting back and cutting back so that you're working with a skeleton crew on your sales floor. It's you and one other person, maybe you and two other people. And my last building was 10,000 square feet. So in 10,000 square feet, three people, if you're lucky. And I just was sweating all day. I was sprinting. I was sprinting to the shoe room, to the cash wrap, to the phone. I mean sprinting. So that's part of it. They cut back.

And then, now, it is really tough to find people who want to do these jobs, because--I wrote about this a couple years ago. The people that have been in retail for a long time, who are tenured like I was, who really, really knew the business really well and knew how to build teams and who knew how to train people to come up in leadership behind them. I call those people legacy leaders, because they have been in the industry for a long time and they really know it. And these legacy leaders are fleeing retail because the raises are terrible. There's no one on the floor. The company won't give them payroll to staff the floor. And then they're burnt out, and customers are pissed off because there’s no one to help them. Rightfully.

And nobody wants to go to work and do a bad job. Nobody wakes up in the morning and is like, “oh, I can't wait to go to work and do a terrible job today.” And so, when you're not given the resources to do your job well--and legacy leaders know what those resources are because we had them in the past. We used to have them, and you don't anymore--it's really frustrating. And then when your bosses don't listen to you when you're like, “Hey, I need inventory. Hey, my store is hot.” Because in a lot of stores you can't control your own thermostat. The corporate does it. Yeah, it's wild.

So, it's just like, “we need inventory. Our store's hot, our customers are complaining. There's not enough people on the floor.” You're bringing--I was loud. I was like, “Hey, we need these things.” And often, I was just told, “Yeah, we can't do that. Yeah, that's not an option.” And I'm like, “okay,” when you know what? My store went through a remodel. A full remodel after I first started. And when I took that store, I had four registers. And during the remodel I was like, “I want a fifth register.” And they were kind of hemming and hawing, “we’ll get you that.” And I was like, “if you get me five registers, I will make more money. Bottom line, I will make you more money if I have five registers.”

And so, I got it, but it wasn't easy. And that gets old. Just…that gets old. Advocating for your business and your position and your team day in and day out. It gets old.

Katie: Yeah, I'm sure that it does. And you started to touch on something that I think is really interesting. That people don't think about. That laptop class are like, “it's not remote, it's distributed. We've now distributed ways of working.” And I'm like, “folks, construction and retail have been doing this for forever.” You did not create a new idea in the sense that, if you have multiple stores, your entire team is not in the same room working in the same place at the same time altogether. You have to coordinate the fact that people are working in different places and at different times. And somehow, we all have to move the company in the same direction, and at some level collaborate with each other.

And I'm sort of curious. You started to touch on this, but I'd love to dig a little deeper into: How has retail navigated that, and do you find that they've done a good job? And I imagine that it may be like “some of the companies I work for did and some didn't.”

But I'm sort of curious, how does that even work? How important is it for one store to know what another store is doing? Is talking to corporate pretty much listening to corporate? I'm just sort of curious about your perception and your experience of what did—A distributed team, what does that mean in retail, and how is it doing?

Kit: So, I think it is really important that stores know how other stores are doing. So, in my last role, the store that I ran for nine years, we had a really great district manager. She was really tenured. All the store managers were also very tenured. We had been in the industry a long time. We were pretty close with one another.

So, we would pick up the phone and call each other a lot, and sort of compare notes, and stuff like that. So I think it is really important. And I think that--So, every Monday, we would just have a conference call with the whole district to get together and talk about business, and talk about any corporate directives, and that kind of stuff. And then we would get together two or three times a year for meetings.

Honestly, it wasn't enough. We wish we could have gotten together more, because being a store leader is kind of a lonely job because nobody really knows what you do. You're the only person in the building who does what you do. And so it's just really motivating and inspiring to go spend time with people who do your job.

But I think it's sort of up to the district managers. And it just kind of depends on the company, how well they do this. And there's a lot of SaaS retail tech companies who are doing some great work to sort of streamline the communication from corporate to stores, because that has typically in the past been pretty dismal. For whatever reason, corporate just cannot figure out how to communicate with their stores. It's like you're getting emails from every department, you can't figure out what the priority is. But there's a lot of companies that are making that a lot better and kind of solving those problems.

But yeah, you do--To your point, you do have construction teams. You do have retail teams that are in all these different places, and we're all working towards a common goal. And so, I think definitely once a week, being on a conference call is helpful. I think having those relationships where you can just pick up the phone to another store manager and say, “are you understanding this? Is this clear? This seems weird to me. What are you seeing at your store?”

And also making the business results visible. I mean, the first thing I would do every morning was check the sales. Not only for my store, but every store in the district. I want to know “how's everybody doing?” Because maybe I'm knocking it out of the park, but other stores aren't. So what's happening over there? Why are they not right? So yeah, I think the communication of it all is super important. And to just think that every store operates in independently in its own little world is not—It doesn't. We're all part of a bigger team.

Katie: Which--I think it’s really cool, how you're doing that and sort of thinking about it. Because it just fascinates me that you'll hear or read about people going through, “we're closing so many stores, et cetera.” And I imagine a lot of that is based on sales numbers. But what that does to the ecosystem as far as how people talk to each other, what it means for the people who went to those stores, et cetera? So many more moving parts in some ways--knowledge, worker, capacity--where we're trying to coordinate with each other, but there just seems to be so much less complexity than actually exists in retail. Which is fascinating to me.

One of the things that you just mentioned here is communication from corporate. And I sort of think of corporate with a capital C, probably in concrete.

One of the things that you talk about is that customer service is the invisible workforce is, and I quote, “more about your customers than anyone else,” but your bosses don't stop to listen to you. I'd love for you to just tell me more about that. What do you mean that they don't listen to you? Listen to you about what?

Kit: About what's working in your store, what's not working in your store, and what you need. So, like, what I said before is, you say, “I need this inventory, I need this, I need that.” And well, we can't get that to you. We didn't buy enough. So many times, I heard “it is what it is.” My whole career, that's what I was told. It is what it is. And I'm sitting here, and I think that's what people don't stop to think about, is as a retail store leader, you operate as a business owner. You take so much pride in that store and every little single detail about it. My last building was--I could tell you, we were so maxed out, the way our electricity was set up. We were so maxed out on power. You could not plug in one more light, or the whole thing would blow.

It's those little things. I knew where the roof leaked. Our windows leaked every time it rained, and I would send pictures like, “Hey, I had to move fixtures out of the way because my floor is flooding from this rainstorm.”

And then, “oh, really?”

“Yes. Can we get the windows sealed? Can you send someone to look at this?”

And then nothing. I would follow up two or three times and then nothing. I would get nothing. Nothing would get fixed. And so it's very frustrating, obviously. But store leaders--I was just saying, we take so much pride in our building, and we operate as business owners, and we know everything about our businesses. And we know our regular customers, and we know the inventory that we need, and we know that that sweater that you just sent me is not going to sell. I know when I see it, I used to walk my shipment every single morning and I would pull out the stuff that I knew was going to sell and I would say, “get this on the floor first. Get this out first. Put this out. This has to be on for the weekend.”

We know all of these things, and we rarely see our bosses. I saw my district manager maybe once a month. Maybe. Maybe--It was probably every other month I saw her. So think about that. I'm largely just running this multimillion dollar building by myself. Yes, I get emails from corporate. Sure, yes, I get emails from my district manager. Yes, they want pictures of the window change. Fine, I'm complying. Here's all my stuff. Here's what I'm doing. But that's pretty much it, right? I am on my own. We are largely on our own, just running businesses, with very little oversight because our bosses are almost never in our buildings. And if you have a district manager with 10 plus stores, then you're going to see her even less.

Katie: Yeah.

Kit: Yeah.

Katie: That's kind of mind blowing. And I'm sort of curious--and then I have a separate track--Here is typically the complaint in other businesses, is that “my boss is down my throat and they're micromanaging everything I have to do.” It seems like retail is almost fertile ground to give people additional autonomy, but only if you are allowed to call the guy to fix the windows. If you're waiting for them forever to come and fix your windows, this kind of doesn't work. Do you see? There seems to be an interesting gap here where it's like, we're so set up for autonomy, and yet we're kind of not totally. You're getting it by default, but it's almost like abandonment rather than autonomy.

Kit: Yes. I used to joke that I was actually in charge of nothing. I have no power. One of my--I really don't make decisions. I hire people, I train people, I fix register, all that kind of stuff. But I don't--can't--fix the windows. I don't know who the guy is to fix the windows. I can't do that. But it's very weird because you have to be super resourceful. You have to have a lot of autonomy to succeed in retail, but yet we do get that they micromanage in a very strange way. If you say you don't…Say you don't meet your sales goals for the week. And we used to have this thing where, if you were in the bottom five stores in the region or whatever, you had to send a recap, tell us what happened, and tell us about your business. Okay, that's fine. I could see that. You want to know if someone understands their business or what happened or where they went wrong. 

I get that. But sometimes--and I feel like this happens a lot, probably too often, since I hear about it from other leaders--is district managers don't know what to do. And so, they're like, “well, send me a recap every hour of where your sales are and what you're doing.” It's absurd. And so, that's how they micromanage. And that doesn't work.

First of all, you're pulling me off the floor. You're pulling me away from selling, away from training and development, to send you this BS sales recap. And if you were really so worried about my sales, then you should show up. Then you should walk through the front doors and see what's going on. A lot of times in retail, that's how they micromanage and that's how they tell themselves they are getting control of what they don't understand. But if they would shut their laptop for the day and walk through the door and work on the sales floor with us and listen to what we're saying, they will probably get a better idea of why our sales are down or why they're up or what our customers are actually looking for. So it's weird. It's a weird dynamic.

You have to have a lot of autonomy, and then you also have to navigate all that sort of micromanage ridiculous bullshit that people are like, sending me an email every hour. Give me a break.

Katie: And I think you frame it really beautifully, which is that this is not about solving the problem. This is making them feel like they're in control of the problem. And it's a lie. You feel better, but it's a lie. So--I love that. And I've seen that in other places and I'm like, “who told you this was a good--how do we help you help yourself and others?” But you also brought up and just made the statement of “they would also know what their customers wanted.” And I'm sort of curious what your understanding is as far as, are these companies just relying on sales data to be like, “people bought more blue shirts in Plymouth, so everybody in Plymouth wants blue shirts,” or do they actually talk to customers and get input from them? Does that even happen at all? And if it does, is there a difference between what the frontline knows and does, what corporate knows and does, and whatever gap may exist between those two realities?

Kit: Yeah, I mean, I think it just depends on the company, but they all do that to some extent. I think the buyers and allocators are really great at looking all the spreadsheets of data and telling you what's selling at your store and what's not selling. And then they do a lot of transfers in between stores. So, say I got a blue sweater and it wasn't selling at my store, really, but it was selling at your store. So, we're going to transfer them all to you. That sounds good.

But the way they went about it was very inefficient. So instead of just sending you my whole stack of blue sweaters, I'm going to send you two of them, and then I'm going to send another store, three of them, and then another store like four. Yeah.

It's like, “what are we doing?” We are running around transferring this merchandise in between stores. And whenever I used to receive transfers, it would literally make me so mad, I would open the box and be like, “great, we needed this product three weeks ago. Now nobody wants it, but thanks for the transfer in.” So, a lot of these processes in retail are just very inefficient.

And as far as what the customers want, I mean, the response time in retail is slow because they're buying many seasons ahead. That's why you see swimwear hit the stores in January, February. They've bought all this stuff way ahead of time. So it's just like, it's very slow to respond. But there would be certain things. Like, my store’s in Carlsbad, California, and it's 70 degrees most of the year, and we sold adult sizes, but we had a run of a very small department of kids sizes as well.

And every back-to-school season, my kids' department would be empty. I'm like,
“okay, how long has this store been open?” 15 years at this point. You have the data. How much I'm going to sell in back to school. Can you just preemptively buy more? And they wouldn't do it. And then, every back-to-school season, we wouldn't have enough khaki shorts for the boys to go back to school because school uniforms and all this stuff. And I had to have that same conversation with parents every single day.

“These are all the shorts you have?”


“Why don't you have more shorts? We live in California. My kids wear shorts every single day?”

And I'm like, “I don't know.”

I would tell them, “I don't know. I've run this store for eight years and I tell corporate this every single year.” And every time I tell them, they're like, “well, this is all we buy for back-to-school, so it is what it is.” And I'm sitting here pulling my hair out. You are losing money. Our customers want this. And you're just like, “we don't do that.”

And the shorts that they would want were private labels. That means the company made them. So, just make more. That's what I'm saying.

When I finally left to be in a store manager, the first couple weeks that I did not run a store anymore, I was shocked at--I realized how angry I had been and frustrated I had been every single day. And I didn't realize that until I left. But I love it. I love retail, but it is kind of a maddening, frustrating--Like I said, you just want to do a good job. You want your store to make money. You want your customers to have what they want.

Our store was like a neighborhood store. We saw the same customers every single week. We knew them by name. And it's just like I would have to tell them, “Yeah, man, Stephanie, I'm sorry. I don't know. I asked for your shorts. I don't think we're going to get them.” They knew we were trying, but we don't have the authority to do anything about it.

Katie: And the bad position that you--Not only have you put your team in a bad position, because you have to have that awkward conversation, which seems ridiculous. If you have people standing here asking to buy shorts, why is your response “Well, we don't really do that?” I guess if you're like, I don't know, a cutlery store, I would understand why you don't sell shorts. But in this case, that's not the issue. You make shorts. They're your shorts, you make money when you sell them. Why have you arbitrarily decided that you're only making 10 this year? You weren't one of the “shorts special people.” You're just screwed. That's absolutely fascinating. But this brings me to the--in your Substack, you talk about how “I could write about what I wanted to write about without people looking over my shoulder.” I'm assuming you meant your boss, but I'm not actually sure. I'd love to understand that feeling and sort of where it came from in the culture, because I'm just curious.

Kit: Everything I write about was things that I talked to my leadership team about. So, if you would ask anyone on my leadership teams that they read my writing, they would be like, “oh yeah, that's how Kit talks.” And that's what we talked about on a daily basis. So, I would come in and I would read these emails, and then me and my store leadership team would all kind of look at each other, “why are they doing this? Why are they doing that? Why can't we do this? Why can't we do--This is stupid.” And I would diplomatically give this information up to my bosses in the best way that I could. But also, there's a lot of things I didn't feel like I had the freedom to say because I wanted to be seen as a professional. And when you tell people you're running the company wrong, probably not going to like that.

Katie: No, people don't like that.

Kit: Yeah. And even on LinkedIn, my LinkedIn posts are always very motivational and sort of thoughtful and like, “this job is really hard, but you can do it.” “Take care of your team, take care of each other,” that kind of stuff. And when I started The Voice of the Frontline, I was just like, “this is it. I'm going to say whatever I want to say, and this is the platform for it because this is what I really think is happening. This is what people are telling me is happening and my experience that this is what does not work.”

And the retail industry, if they don't get it together and get some newbie--I don't know if they need new executives. I don't know. I mean, they definitely need to pay everybody more and staff their stores. Let's just start there. But if they don't do it, they're going to continue to struggle. And I think what drives me so bonkers is that they're so shortsighted. They're like, we have to save money now. We have to save money this month. We have to cut. We're not getting anyone raises because—Like, Rue 21 people. The last three years, nobody got raises at Rue 21.

It's just like, “Oh, we got to save money. We can't give people in stores any money.” And, like, okay, but did you want to have a business in five years? Because if you keep doing this, you will not have a business in five years. People do not want to go shopping and go into a store to order something online. They don't want to do that. I've never understood that. They want to go into a store and leave with their shorts for their kids. They don't want to have you say, “oh no, I'm out of stock, but I can order them for you. Ship them to your house for free.” Nobody wants to do that.

You put us in these situations because you don't give us inventory. You don't stock the store. You don't. They're so shortsighted. And I have always taken a global view, and I'm like, “how do you not see? Did you not see 20 years ago that when you cut your training programs, you weren't going to have CEOs in 20 years? How did you not think about the future?” It just seems very like a basic--To me, it is. I don't understand. It makes me very frustrated.

Katie: It's how HR got started, was a recognition that like, “oh, holy crap. We built businesses, and now these guys are dropping dead of heart attacks, and we have nobody here to take over the company.” And it's like, those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Apparently, that's where retail is.

But you pointed to the--You said two things I thought were fascinating. One was that nobody wants to go to a store and order it. And I'm like, “folks, unless your goal is to be Amazon (i.e., I'm doing it all online), don't be Amazon.” The whole reason I'm coming is I want to see it. I want to smell it. I want to touch it, and I want to carry it home with me. That's why I'm here. That is your differentiating factor. Why are you muddling? That just kind of blows my mind also.

But you mentioned Rue 21, and for anybody listening to this interview, I'm going to make sure I put a link in the transcript. It was a terrific piece that's gotten a lot of eyeballs, and I loved it for two reasons. Number one, that Kit really has taken the time--and kudos to Kit--to talk to real people, to understand what really happened. Which seems incredibly basic, but so often does not happen. So, many thanks for doing that.

But the thing I walked away from was, I watch movies all the time and I'm like, why do we constantly have evil villains who are kind of dumb and cartoonish and whatever? And then the hero comes in and wins, and we're really excited. But at the same time, it's like, really? Do villains like this really exist? And after reading this story, I'm like, “holy crap. Maybe CEOs and leaders like this really do exist.: And I'm sort of curious. This is a long way of going to open floor to talk about how this story has developed, and anything else you want to weave into this conversation before I take us on a slightly different track.

Kit: I mean, evil villain CEOs really do exist. Absolutely. And that's why--I think that's part of the reason that I don't have imposter syndrome, is because I've seen these idiots and I've worked with them and I'm like, “really? You're an executive at this company, and I know more about what we should do than you do.” So yeah, I mean, people wind up in these positions--God knows how--for all kinds of reasons. It's basically just who--It's like, I mean really it is in any industry, but--I think if you're at the executive level--I mean, the CEO, Josh Burris, that ran Rue 21 into the ground, it's not like--He has a BS in business management. Whatever. Anyone can get that degree. And I don't know if he ever worked on a retail sales floor, but from the decisions he made, I would guess not. But these people really do exist, and it's just super frustrating and mind-numbing that they really do not understand how stores run. They really don't understand how to treat people or build teams or foster relationships or help anyone else in their careers.

I don't know what these people do all day. I'd be fascinated to learn what these people do all day. I really don’t know. But yeah. I mean, outside of that, I'll say about--The Rue 21 piece was just--And I've said it before but thank you so much to everybody that shared their stories, that reached out to me, that trusted me with their stories. I had a lot of people who were very nervous and did not--of course--they did not want their names in there. And I assured them I would not tell anybody who reached out to me or shared their stories, or share names, or anything like that. So, really brave of them to share their stories. And they absolutely had paragraphs. Someone sent me a document that was five pages long of their experience.

And I have to say that I'm really--I thank them, and I'm honored to be able to tell that story because I think it really gave a lot of people a lot of closure. Because so many people had no idea. If you're in a store, you don't know anything, you're not told anything. Like I said, you don't see your bosses, you just show up every day and you run your store and you open your boxes of shipment and you open your front doors and you talk to your customers. You don't know. People don't tell you what's going on. So these people just walked in one day and then they were told, “we're going bankrupt. You don't have a job anymore, plus you don't have severance, plus you no longer have healthcare.” Like, nothing. You have nothing, but you have to stay here and sell whatever we have left.

So, these people are just stunned, they're shocked, they're pissed. And then I was able to sort of put together the pieces of like, “this is what happened at GNC. This is what happened when Josh Burris first got into the corporate office at Rue 21. This is how we talked to people. This is how we treated people. This is how he led meetings. He didn't listen to the buyers. He nixed sales initiatives that were historically lucrative for the company. He squashed them.”

All of these terrible business decisions. It sort of gave people a fuller picture of what really happened. And I think it was really helpful for everyone involved, but especially for the people in stores. And the people that worked in the warehouse as well, because people in the warehouse get zero. They get nothing. So someone has to tell their stories too.

Katie: Yeah, absolutely. You don't get your stuff if they don't all show up, which is a thing we don't think about. Which dovetails nicely into my next sort of thought process here, which is, over 19 million people are employed in the retail industry in the US. Over the last five years, it grew 2.1% on average. So, much like the fact that we have been shouting “email is dying” for years and it is still very much here, I don't think retail is going anywhere either. But we've sort of talked a little bit about your more individual experience, and then the group and even corporate experience. I'd love to zoom out and think about “how does retail affect our culture?” And I know there's the obvious beating stick of consumption, and this is horrible, but I think there's a lot more to it than that, humbly. And I'd love to understand your perspective as to what role it plays and how it affects our greater culture.

Kit: It affects it a lot. I've actually thought about this a lot, because--Obviously right in the eighties you had the rise of the shopping mall. And so that's sort of what everybody did on the weekends, was they went to the shopping mall and met up, and it was a place for people too who are younger, who were under 21. You're not going out to bars yet, you're going shopping with friends. It's like an activity that you can do together. And interesting.

Now, shopping centers are emerging in a different way than they're no longer really. Malls used to be in the eighties. But shopping centers that are thriving, they have some stores, they have some restaurants, they've got yoga studios, they've got places for people to hang out. It's a meetup spot, typically like a safe place. You can kind of go with your kids but leave and meet up with them later, and they can meet friends, and this kind of stuff. But it's also retail stores.

It kind of teaches you how to move through society. So, working in a store where I had--A lot of my staff was teenagers, so a lot of our clients were teenagers and kids that were ten, eight, whatever, eight years old through whatever college aged. So you had a lot of people shopping with their parents. And what you see as a cashier day in and day out is parents teaching their kids how to pay for things, how to ask for things, how to interact with me, with the salesperson, with the cashier, how does the pin pad work. All these things that we don't really think about as adults because we just, whatever, we just go buy our coffee, tap our card, whatever. But kids have to learn that. And so, as a cashier, you see people moving through the culture, and learning about the culture, and learning how to interact with each other, and learning how to talk to strangers and make room for other people. And it's just really fascinating to watch from the other side of the counter how that all works.

But retail stores are really, I mean, they're integral to society. It's how we learn to interact with each other. It's—Our kids watch what we do, and they see how we treat people, and then they mirror that behavior. So yeah. I mean, I think that it's just so important. And retail stores will never--People are like, “oh, the death of the retail store,” and that's never going to happen. I mean, online shopping, of course, who doesn't want to sit in their pajamas on their couch and shop for stuff? Yeah, that's fun. And there's a place for that, of course. But nothing will replace going into a physical building and seeing something up close, touching the fabric, talking to someone that works there who can tell you more about it.

People in my store would bump into teachers and friends and neighbors, and it's just this communal space. And something that I wanted to add that kind of goes along with it--But more online people, companies that were online only, are opening doors now, are opening brick and mortar stores, which is great. But thinking about the retail industry as a whole, thinking about how they're shorting the sales floor, not giving people raises, not staffing the sales floor, it also kind of blows my mind that you would open a retail store with the intent of getting more customers, but then you wouldn't staff it or you wouldn't pay your people, or you wouldn't--It seems counterintuitive to me. Why, this store is like, “anybody can walk into your store any day of the week.” Why wouldn't you want to make that experience extraordinary? That's the other piece of this. It's really blows my mind. But yeah, retail's really important for culture.

Katie: I agree in what you're outlining, as far as it does seem to provide and has provided for a pretty long time an essential communal space where you're going to see people by virtue of the fact that you're participating in the economy and functioning as a person. Because whether you go to the market way back when, or you're going to the mall, or you're going to the new creation of Main Street, which is what I think people are trying to recreate--Sort of as a follow-up question, because you were talking about this very key concept of “the kids see how the adults interact with people and then mirror that behavior.” I think there's often a thing that people say, and you've highlighted it already, that we don't think much about as adults. Which is the, “you're going to college so that you don't have to do a job like this.” And I'm sort of curious as to how you understand, where does that come from? How do you understand that phenomenon as far as how we--Despite it being so integral, despite all of us being reliant on it, how has it become something you didn't even necessarily want to go into it on purpose? How has it become a thing that nobody wants to go do?

Kit: Yeah. Well, I think because still, to this day, you don't need a college degree to go work on a retail floor. Anybody can work in retail. So, if anybody can--put that in quotes. If “anyone can do this job,” it must be easy. If my teenage son can get a job selling, that must be an easy job. And I've had people say that in front of my face. “This is why you go to college. So you don't work here. You don't have to work here.” Okay, sir. And then you have to act like you didn't hear it and still be pleasant and still help them. So, I think that's why it's not really valued, is because people don't understand the job. And there are a lot of young people who work in retail, who work in customer facing jobs, and so people don't think there's a skill associated with that, but we all know there is, right?

You've had terrible customer service somewhere by someone who wasn't very good at their job, and you've also had fantastic customer service somewhere. So, you definitely know that there's a difference, and that some people are good at that job and some people are not. And it is a skill. It is a skill that you can learn. But I think so much value was placed on a four-year college degree for so long, and so people were just like, “oh, retail is entry level.” It's kind of like--I'm going to do this. How many people also said like, “oh, I can't wait to leave this job and get a real job.” People used to tell me that all the time. “Oh, I can't wait to get a real job.” And I'm like, “well, we're paying you here. I don't know what you think this is.” So yeah.

Katie: Pretty sure that's how a job works.

Kit: Yeah. So, I think that's why people just don't see value in it. They don't understand it. They think anyone can do it. They think they can do it. Many people walked in my store and would tell me, “You need this. You need that. You need—" And I'm like, “do what? Do you know? You just walked through the door.” And the other thing is, is that everybody in the world goes shopping. So everyone has been inside a store. So, because you've been inside a store and you purchase something, you think you know how that works, and you think that, “oh, well, that's easy. You're just standing there, pushing some buttons on a cash register.” Or people would walk through the door, and I would be folding the front table, and people would think that that was my whole job, that just folding stuff.

What do you mean? I wouldn't walk into your office and think all you do is type on a keyboard. “You're just typing” or “you're just on the phone. That's your whole job.” So it's just weird to me that people think that that's what the whole job is. But yeah, that's so much value.

Also, I mean, let's be honest, there's a corporate caste system in America, and if you work for a corporation, you have a certain title or whatever, you're going to get more respect than someone who walks through the door and is like, “I'm a store manager.” People are going to be like, “oh, well, you're an idiot. You couldn't get a degree.” Or “You're not smart enough to work in an executive office.” Which we know is not--It doesn't take brains to work in a corporate office. So yeah.

Katie: It's funny. Yeah. It's sort of funny how perception and reality don't always seem to meet, but perception so often becomes what we think reality is. One of the things that struck me about you is that your Substack is called The Voice of the Frontline. And I was like, on some levels, she's so much the voice for the frontline, because there's so much advocacy in your work and so much recognition of not only what companies could do to better treat their teams, but in addition, “Hey, team members, this is what you can do to do your job better.”

But there's also sort of a recognition of the role the customer plays. Specifically in a recent article, you said giant corporations make terrible policies that benefit them and line their pockets, but they're slow to the social media game. Really slow. They don't get it. And we get our power in numbers. We get power from sharing our stories and coming together. Don't think that we don't.

If nobody buys the Walmart+ membership then--And what you're recognizing is that the power of agency. As customers, that if we're not happy with how something's being done, actually, we have the most power to go about changing it.

Do you think customers recognize and appreciate the agency that they have? And either way, what do you wish--As a frontline person and somebody who wants to advocate for the frontline, what do you wish we'd do with it?

Kit: I just wish that--I see all these, that--In particular was a video that I watched on TikTok. And this woman that made the video was walking out of Walmart, and she was furious because the lines were so long, and they had closed the self-checkout, and she wandered around the whole store to try to find a cashier, so she didn't have to wait in line for 40 minutes. And Walmart is the biggest retailer in America that made 500 billion last year. So don't tell me you can't pay some cashiers, that you can't train people to make your lines move.

It's infuriating because it's like, I feel like the companies that have the most money are nickel-and-diming everybody the most, right? Buy our membership so you could check out. How about you hire cashiers? How about you do that? How about you pay them exceptionally well and make them really fast? That's not hard to do. I did it for 20 years. I hired fantastic people, and the people that could ring really fast and that liked it, they got to cashier all the time. Some people hate it, so they don't go there. It's fine. There's a place for everybody.

Katie: My grandfather did not do cashier. He was not a fan.

Kit: Some people hate it. I loved it. I was great at it, great at it. I could ring you up, take your sensors off, scan your stuff, answer the phone, give directions. I could do it all and I could do it fast and I liked it, but a lot of people don't like it. And so it's fine. They can go sell shoes, they could go run fitting rooms, they could go personal shop. You can do anything in a retail store. You can be good at any of it.

But what I really wish that people would do is--And with Walmart, it's hard. In a lot of small towns, there is only Walmart. There's not a lot of other options, not a lot of other places for people to go. But if you have the option to not shop there, stop shopping there. Don't pay for the membership. And if enough people would get together to say, “we're not going to buy your stupid membership, we're just not going to shop with you anymore until you can figure out your front end,” that would work. They would fix that in a hurry.

But there's not enough incentive to do it, enough people that are talking about it, right? It's like, this video has 500,000 views on TikTok or whatever. And people--And I'm sure a lot of people are like, “yeah, but then well, I still need toothpaste or whatever, so I'm going to run to Walmart.” There's just so much power. If customers would get together and say, “I'm not going to stand for this anymore.”

I see it at grocery stores, too. I see it at Whole Foods. They just cut and cut and cut back and they don't staff their front end. And then they make everyone go to self-checkout. And then not everybody wants to do that. And it's not efficient.

Katie: A lot of people aren't good at it.

Kit: Oh my gosh. To your point, do you know how hard it is to run? If you think about being in charge, okay, you're running self-checkout, great. So now you're in charge of six registers. And not only are you in charge of six registers, but you are now teaching random people how to use this technology all day long.

Katie: And it's usually bad technology, where you're scanning it, and you put it in the basket, and then it'll stop and be like, “you didn't put the object in the basket.” And I'm like, “I very much did put the object in the basket.” I don't--I just want to buy my food! And then you're yelling at the poor one guy who's trying to get you past the sensor, because the machine isn't being helpful, and it's not his fault. He didn't ask for this. He's just stuck trying to supervise all of us who should never have been promoted to cash register in the first place.

Kit: 100%.

Katie: Really good thoughts on that. And I'd love to see what would happen if we could actually--And it's one of the things I talk about in my work, is, if we exist to serve people, and you are the source of revenue, you have the most control to necessitate changes. If you stop shopping there, they have no choice but to reconsider. If nobody buys the membership, they're going to get rid of it, because it's not working for them.

So, take the time to ask--I think what you're advocating for is take the time to ask the questions, which this woman very clearly did. And I believe her phrase was something like, “that math don't work.” And she's a hundred percent correct. It doesn't work out for you at all. It works out for them. But so often we don't take the time to check and be like, “oh, this is not a thing.” Or “I'm paying for a thing that you should have already given me. Why are you charging me for this?” It’s sort of amazing.

So, listen, I loved everything about this conversation and could probably ask you questions for several more hours, but I'd like to just end on, is there anything else that you'd like to add to this discussion? Anything that percolated up in your brain as I was asking you questions, or going back and forth, or anything about retail in general that you'd like to share?

Kit: I don't think there's anything else. I think we covered a lot. And yes, what that girl said is the math is not mathing.

Katie: That's it.

Kit: The math is not wonderful. These companies, they try to cut, right? They cut from the front line. They said, “oh, we're going to put in these self-checkouts so we don't have to pay cashiers, so we're going to make customers do it.” And then they realized, “oh gosh. Well, people are stealing a lot now.” Well, yeah, of course they are. Of course they are. Whether it's intentional or not being an accurate cashier is actually--There's some complexity to that. It's not super easy. So of course, you're going to take loss if you do that.

So, then they realize, oh, that's not working well, we're just going to shut that down, and then make people pay for a membership so that they can get out of here faster. It's just bad. It's just bad for the consumer. And I just wish more people would change their shopping patterns based on what is not working.

And with inflation through the roof, food is super expensive. People are not--The salary increases have not kept up with rent and food and just the cost of living. And I think we're just at this inflection point. And people are starting to go, yeah, the math is not mathing. And I'm getting super pissed off if the biggest retailer in America can't just have 15 cashiers all day long.

Katie: So that we can just buy our stuff, which is presumably what you want us to do.

Kit: And also, coming from a customer service background, customer service to me was everything. I did absolutely everything I could to make sure that my customers had an awesome time in my store, that they got attention, they got what they needed, they got through the checkout fast. Once people hit the checkout, they're done. They want to go. I mean, I've had people throw their stuff down and leave because the line was too long. I've done it.

They're not going to wait. They're not going to wait. And so, to see these massive companies put customers in these situations that are bad for them, that are all completely avoidable, just very--It just makes me feel gross.

Katie: I like that. And on that note, I think that's it… Yeah, I think that's it. Thank you so much for this conversation. I really enjoyed it.

Kit: Alright. Thank you so much for having me.

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WTP Podcast
Asking, “What's the point?” to make the most of your time. Covering work, strategy, business, productivity, and culture in the value economy.
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Katie Burkhart