Retail – how women can get ahead – 5 lessons from Retail Week’s Be Inspired conference

Last week I attended Retail Week’s Be Inspired women’s conference in London along with a female colleague.  It was indeed an inspiring day with panel discussions from retail’s top power players: Marks & Spencer managing director of clothing Jill McDonald, Mars Foods global president Fiona Dawson, and Karen Millen chief executive Beth Butterwick to name a few.

As a woman with 26 years experience in the fashion and retail industry, it was interesting to hear their ideas. Here’s our five key lessons to get ahead in retail, inspired by the day:

  1. Have your ‘back of house’ in order
  2. Define your ‘all’
  3. Get a support buddy
  4. Never start a networking conversation with ‘what do you do?’
  5. Empower your shop floor staff

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

1.) Get your support network or ‘back of house’ in order

Just like in-store, having your ‘back of house’ in order is very important. To get to the top positions you need to have great support from your partner, family and friends. This is particularly true for working parents. Being Danish, I know there is still some way to go in the UK in terms of gender equality. Men do not have the same rights as woman when it comes to childcare so it falls to the woman as default. To break this, it is important for couples to have the conversation about what their working lives will look like before they embark on parenthood. This ensures the woman isn’t literally left holding the baby!

Perhaps the best quote of the conference came from Sue O’Brien OBE, managing partner, Ridgeway Partners. When asked: ‘What can men do to help women succeed at work?’, her answer was perhaps a surprising: ‘ask to go part-time.’ It’s only when flexitime or part-time working becomes normalised for men as well as women, will we get this balance.

2.) Get a mentor

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

You may know the quote from former US Secretary of State M Madeleine Albright: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women“. While this is true, having a mentor regardless of their gender is essential to career success. I have always been clear about how I wanted to progress within my career. Before starting a new role, I communicate my goals to someone in a position to help me achieve them. It doesn’t always have to be the CEO either. In my early career as I was rising through the ranks on the shop floor, I was lucky to have a friend who was moving the same way, but working for another business. We discussed everything from personal matters, shared ideas and general business goals for feedback. Two minds are better than one.

3.) Define what ‘having it all’ means to you

A recurring theme of the day was ‘is it possible to have it all?’ Thankfully, a recurring answer seemed to be that we have moved beyond this question and its rigid set of expectations for women in business. It was good to hear the speakers explain that, one woman’s version of ‘having it all’ is completely different to another. As long as you follow what’s right for you, you are on the right track…oh and missing sports day (another tired meme in the discussion about career women) does not scar your kids for life.

4.) Networking isn’t the answer, have a decent conversation instead

Women just love networking – yeah right! Comedian Deborah Frances-White brilliantly cut this myth to shreds in one of the morning sessions. A straw poll in the conference room revealed that pretty much most women hate networking – i.e. standing in front of a stranger with a glass of tepid white wine not knowing how to respond to the fact that they work in marketing (your fault you asked them a boring question). What women do love however is communicating, taking expert advice and, in turn, being an expert on a subject. Frances-White shared some great tips about moving beyond the classic ‘so what do you do?’ opening gambit (works for the Queen, not so much others). How about asking someone to tell you about the ‘best day you’ve ever had at work’, or confiding in them that you hate networking? Both of these suggestions move ‘networking’ into real conversations, which are the true building blocks of professional relationships.

5.) Empower your shop floor staff

Modern businesswoman. Where do you start? I recommend stores. There’s no better place to get to know your customer.

So what is HOLM doing to promote equality in the retail sector? Although we heard wonderful things from women at the top of the industry, real change starts at the bottom. Fashion retail in particular has a high proportion of female shop floor staff.  This unfortunately means women are more vulnerable to the increasing number of shop closures blighting the sector. In a previous blog I talked about empowering shop floor workers by elevating them above a simple sales role with digital tools such as HOLM’s in-store ‘express styling’ app. This both saves the stores themselves by providing a better customer experience and educates those in entry-level positions to gain their own experience to become the leaders of tomorrow. Stores may be changing in layout as digital technologies become ever present, however my shopper research clearly suggests the physical world will remain critical to successful fashion retailers of the future.

About HOLM

HOLM’s in-store ‘express personal styling’ technology matches clothes to customers depending on their body shape (one of more than 4,000 body shapes for women alone, calculated by clever algorithms). Their USP is accurate recommendation from the off. Following a two-minute measuring process by your sales staff (theatre – tick, customer service – tick), shoppers are presented with a ranking of garments guaranteed to make them look great, not simply fit.

The result? Delighted, loyal customers who promote their experience by word of mouth; a thriving bricks-and-mortar store and a customer profile (data set) that boosts sales across all channels. Happy and motivated staff too, with tools to help engage with customers, hitting their targets using an application that’s been carefully designed for simplicity and ease of use (where the lion share of training is no more than on how to use a tape measure!)

To find out how HOLM’s in-store personalisation technology will fit seamlessly into your retail infrastructure contact or visit the website for more details: