• Ron Thurston

Tips For Working in Retail and Loving it

The following is adapted from Retail Pride, The Guide to Celebrating Your Accidental Career by Ron Thurston

“So, what do you do?”

I used to dread answering this question, and as an executive who attends a lot of networking events, I had to answer it quite often.

Most times, I would respond, “I work in retail,” but that never felt quite right. I wanted to be true to myself, but I didn’t want to sound like my career was an accident or unimportant.

If you work in retail as well, perhaps you can relate. There are so many stigmas and misconceptions about the industry that it can be hard to find pride in your career, even if you love it.

In my case, the pride was always there. It was just hidden in my retail career journey—my motivations, my accomplishments, my highs and lows. By looking back at my story, I was able to find and communicate my pride in working retail.

It’s All About People

No matter how many different jobs or work experiences you’ve had, nor how disparate they may seem, there is one thread that usually ties them together. Whether you realize it or not, you have a consistent motivation for choosing the work you do. For me, that common thread has been service. I have always loved helping people.

Ultimately, the inspiration for my career came from my maternal grandfather, Oscar. He started a construction company that built Safeway grocery stores, and ultimately the business became quite large.

At the age of fifteen, I started spending summers with my grandfather, taking road trips to Safeway construction sites all across the West Coast and observing him in action. I remember arriving on the job site and watching him make an immediate positive impact, something I aspire to emulate to this day whenever I arrive on a store visit today.

I was fascinated by the way he interacted with everyone around him. He knew essential details about everyone on the job, not only their names but things about their family. He asked personal questions that were unique and relevant. A lot of handshakes, a lot of hugs. Sometimes tears.

These people were proud to work for him, and I will never forget how it made me feel seeing their reaction to Oscar. In every business, leadership is about people, and Oscar made connecting look effortless. I wanted to lead people just like he did.

Embracing My Creativity

I attended a public high school in the suburbs of Sacramento, California. Among my peers, the typical career paths were law, medicine, and getting a corporate job. I listened to other people's ideas about what they were going to do, but no one seemed to have the career I wanted. I knew I was going to create my own story; I just didn't know what it was.

As I contemplated my career path, my grandfather was a huge influence. At the same time, with the support of my grandmother, I was discovering my love of design, garment construction, and fashion history. She owned a fabric store in South Lake Tahoe and taught me how to sew.

The prospect of working for my grandfather in the family construction business—and possibly rising to an executive position—was intriguing. But I knew I had a purpose that somehow involved the fashion design and retail industry.

After graduating from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) twice with degrees in Retail Management and Fashion Design, a nod to both my grandparents, I understood both the business of retail and the art of design. I landed a job working as a patternmaker, which evolved into an Assistant Designer role, and ultimately, I became a decent fashion designer. I gained some industry recognition, and things were moving in the right direction.

Pivoting to Retail

But I knew I wanted more. In my late twenties, I took a 180-degree turn and used my second degree from FIDM to join the Macy's Department Store Management Training Program. I took a significant pay cut, but I was ready to start over. Spending that year in the exciting world of retail as a department manager helped me understand what I wanted more profoundly than I ever had before. I discovered a clear purpose. I found my passion. I found my tribe in retail.

I was hungry to make my mark, and for the last twenty-five years, I have been lucky enough to work with some of the most influential brands in retail history, including GAP, Apple, Tory Burch, Bonobos, Saint Laurent, and INTERMIX. In choosing which companies to work for, I’ve thought less about the products sold and more about each company’s importance to our culture.

I have held every position and grown through the ranks from part-time sales to Vice President of Stores. It has been a career of hard work, sweat, patience, determination, and love. I have had great success and significant failures. I have known emotional highs and lows, neither of which I will ever forget.

A Career You Can Be Proud Of

If someone tells you that retail is an accidental career unworthy of the recognition accorded to other professions, ignore them. We make a positive impact on the lives of millions. We bring people together in tightly knit communities all across the country. We teach emotional learning skills and meet some of the most fundamental human needs.

Looking back at everything I’ve built, I’m proud of my retail career. Now, I can’t wait for the next time someone asks me what I do. No longer do I say, “I work in retail.” I tell them, “I lead retail teams to discover their highest potential with my empathy, curiosity, and focus on winning. And I’m proud of it.”

Your story is of course different from mine, but I encourage you to look back at what has led you to where you are today. You just might find your own pride.

For more advice on setting retail goals, you can find Retail Pride on Amazon.

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