Alexandra Dillard says retail has always been a part of her life. Her grandparents founded the Dillard's department store in 1938.
She remembers going to ribbon cutting ceremonies with her grandpa for new stores, gift wrapping during the holidays and attending meetings with vendors with her father when she was a teenager. Vendors probably thought “taking advice from a 13-year-old was a little questionable,” she laughs. But it was quite the insight into the family business.
Today, all of her grandparents' children and a number of their grandchildren (including Alexandra and both of her sisters) work for the company. Growing up next door to her grandparents with a number of other relatives in the neighborhood meant they spent many nights talking about the business as a family.
As the family has grown, so has the company. The business that started with one store opened by her grandfather in Arkansas, is now a publicly traded company with a chain of nearly 300 stores and 40,000 employees, with $6.75 billion in annual revenue.
Since 2009, Alexandra Dillard has served as corporate merchandise manager for the company, and under her leadership, the company's annual sales in the departments she covers have increased from $10 million to $200 million.
But Dillard didn't jump immediately into the family business when she graduated college. She talked about her career at a recent Emerge Tampa Bay's “Emerging with Influence” event. Highlights include:
• Be open minded. Dillard advises gaining experience from all of the different components that impact a business. This meant opening herself up to learning everything from stores to production, and design to distribution. After graduating college in 2005, Dillard worked for a number of the company's key partners, including living in China to work for an apparel manufacturer and learn the production line. After China, she worked for Connor Sourcing, a company that matches suppliers to meet retailers needs. Finally, she worked for BCBG Max Azria, on the merchandising team,. “After several years of experience, I felt ready” to take on a role at the family business, she says.
• Stay humble and hungry. When she started with Dillard's, the country had just entered the recession and e-commerce was threatening brick and mortar stores. Like others in the industry, there were layoffs and the stock plummeted. “Dillard's had to change,” she says. She took the women's line and instead of driving labels by price, she looked to merchandise “emotional products,” differentiating the store through exclusive labels that focused on fashion trends and retail innovation. This model has since been rolled out to almost all lines at the store, she adds. But being humble is also important, Dillard adds, “Acknowledge mistakes and turn them into opportunity.”
• Say the Serenity Prayer regularly. You have to know there are only so many things that you can control, “only so many issues you can fix,” Dillard advises. There are some issues she cannot control as a retailer — people are uncertain because it is an election year, and shifting weather patterns have impacted the times people buy. But other things she can control. Dillard believes the No. 1 reason retailers are “struggling to produce growth” is due to “lack of interesting merchandise.” It's why she's focused on bringing unique products to the store and making the shopping experience special and experiential again.
• Look for outside mentors. Dillard sought mentors from outside her family to learn different perspectives and working techniques. She also found mentorship from some of Dillard's vendors.