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EPISODE 078 : 09/08/2022

Ron Thurston

Ron Thurston is a highly accomplished retail leadership Executive, Board Advisor, and Amazon Bestselling Author with extensive experience leading retail operations for America’s most prominent brands. He sits on the board of GOODWILL NY/NJ as well as several emerging retail technology brands, and he has been named a Top 100 Retail Global Influencer by RETHINK Retail. In 2022, he launched his audio and video platforms for a year-long tour called “Retail In America.” We can’t wait to hear more about this adventure.

Host: Ned Hayes and Ashley Coates
Guest: Ron Thurston

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Topics discussed in this episode

  • Detailed small business insights from Olympia, Washington
  • Small business resiliency and adaptation during COVID
  • Doubling community outreach during the pandemic
  • Opportunities for small business loyalty programs

Watch Spark Loyalty’s Small Business Success Channel

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Audio Transcript

Ned Hayes [00:00:01] Welcome to Spark Plug, where we talk to smart people working at the intersection of business and technology brought to you by Snowshoe. Your smarter loyalty leader Sparkplug is excited to welcome Ron Thurston to today’s podcast. Ron is a highly accomplished retail leadership executive. He’s a board advisor, he’s an Amazon bestselling author. He has extensive experience leading retail operations for some of America’s most prominent brands, currently sits on the board of Goodwill, New York, New Jersey, as well as several emerging retail technology brands. He’s also been named a top 100 retail global influencer. And in 2022, he launched an audio and video platform for a year tour called Retail in America. In fact, he’s calling us from on the road. So thanks so much for letting us joining you on your adventure. Ron, welcome.


Ron Thurston [00:00:58] Thank you. No, thanks. Hi, Ashley. Yeah, I’m coming to you live from my Airstream, parked right at the base of Park City, Utah, which is absolutely stunning. In the summer, I had only ever come here to ski, and I already discovered how absolutely beautiful this is in the summer.


Ashley Coates [00:01:16] Oh, it looks beautiful. Just the background behind you. Well, Ron, we’re so happy to be chatting with you today. Let’s start off actually kind of at the beginning or we’ll call it the beginning. You actually went to school for retail management and fashion design at FIDM Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandizing. So clearly the world of retail was calling to you at an early age. What first drew you to this sector? 


Ron Thurston [00:01:43] It’s funny because I think I’m one of the few people who actually studied retail. And although, you know, I often say as the subtitle of my book is The Guide to Celebrating Your Accidental Career, it is accidental for most people. But I knew I wanted to be in this industry. I just didn’t know what I wanted to do. Answer your question. I grew up and small town South Lake Tahoe on the California side, and my grandfather owned a large construction company that built the first schools and the first grocery store and custom homes and just really was a founding member of South Lake Tahoe. And as his business grew, he started building actually all of the Safeway stores on the West Coast. And so then, you know, he employed everyone in my family and hundreds more people, but I knew that construction was not my future. I watched him lead and I give such great honor to him. My book is in honor of him. I watched him arrive at construction sites and engage with the team and ask questions and he knew their names and he knew things about their family. And he was a leader who could balance that idea of leading large teams, but in a very like human, empathetic and curious way. So I started traveling with him around the country to these job sites that like 14, 15, 16 years old and watched him. And I’m like, I don’t love construction, but I love leadership and I love fashion. And I didn’t know if I wanted to be a designer, a retailer, a buyer. So I went to school for both and had some success as a as a designer early on. But I really fell in love with retail and started my career at The Gap. And this was actually it was Gap Kids before. It was a separate company. Gap Kids was very much a start up and the small part of Gap Inc actually was just Gap. There was no INC at the time because it was just one brand. And you know what I fell in love with was this idea of this entrepreneurial spirit that happens in retail, the idea of hiring people. I’m engaging, I’m training, I’m creating customer connections, I’m learning how to run a business. You know, I’m late twenties and the revenue kept growing and I kept being offered bigger responsibility and it became a district manager and it never stopped. The next 30 years was about I love leading retail teams because this is such a dynamic business. It’s so exciting, it’s so full of it. Every day is different and the evolution of the industry is so fast and I love that about it. And I had the chance to work for some great brands, many of whom were part of my early cap career went on to help found was down with some former gap people. I worked at Apple with many former Gap people. I ran Tory Burch from the West Coast. Then I moved to New York City and helped launch Bonobos the retail concept, and ran Saint Laurent for North and South America and spent the last three and a half years as the vice president of stores for Intermix, which at the time was owned by Gap. So my career was very full circle and I feel incredibly lucky to work for the brands that I did. 


Ashley Coates [00:04:52] Thank you for sharing those career highlights. I was actually going to ask you to share some of the highlights leading up to where you are today. 


Ron Thurston [00:04:58] Thank you. And. I think what’s important often in our retail and I speak about this to teams today are people who are starting out as my career was very much not linear and a particular product category. I sold baby clothes to start and I sold men’s suits, I sold home furnishings, I sold computers. I sold the highest end of luxury handbags to celebrities. There’s no part of the industry other than beauty that I haven’t worked in. I think we have to often encourage people to say, you know, I want to use my skills in the best possible way for a company that’s doing great work and sometimes remove the product and think more about the company and the culture and the people. The product is secondary and that’s how I approached this. When I joined St Laurent’s a good example. I’d never worked in luxury. I’m a guy who grew up in contemporary brands, American brands, and to then go in and lead multiple countries for one of the most important and prestigious luxury brands in the world. And to travel to Paris and the size and scale of that business. Initially I thought I wasn’t qualified to do. But you realize when you get in that it’s actually not that different than anything else because leadership at its core is about human connection and how you lead others. And I think we have to always think about what is any particular company doing at this time that adds relevance and importance to the world. And that is a new way to think about a retail career. 


Ned Hayes [00:06:31] Well, your retail career right now is in an Airstream on the road, right? 


Ron Thurston [00:06:36] It is. 


Ned Hayes [00:06:36] So tell us about your your grand journey across the country to find untold retail success stories. 


Ron Thurston [00:06:43] So my book came out in the end of 2020. I wrote it and published it through incredible company called Scribe. And as this idea grew, I knew that I wanted to write something and celebrate people who work in this industry that is often, I think, under-recognised under celebrated for the hard work that goes into it. It’s perceived as sometimes less than or secondary, and that you think about retail as a temporary stop to doing something else. And I wanted to say that this is such important work. Any role in retail is about recognizing the power of the impact that you have, whether it’s in stock sales, store leadership, multi store leadership buying, planning, you know, the list goes on. Your work is really important in how it impacts others and impacts people. And that, you know, it’s the largest private sector employer in this country yet is not always thought about in terms of your front line. You are there all the time. You are doing really hard work. And I just wanted to write something and say something to just to say thank you. And that has turned into something much larger. That is about kind of a global conversation about taking pride in retail. And as the book got bigger in that long answer to your question, I was running Intermix and in June of 2021, as they were sold to a private equity firm, I took the opportunity to say, You know what, I’m going to take this on the road. I’m going to take this idea and go and meet people where they are. Because I think the credibility you have being out doing work with them versus doing it from New York City, there was a lot of power in that. And so my husband and I said, you know what? Could we travel for a year? Sure, I could. That turn into a book tour? Could we actually then have some support and some other brands to support, bringing the message even bigger platforms. So some companies like Spotify advertising our support of the Written America tour, ubik, which is a platform that delivers communication and micro trainings to field organizations with 300 companies and 80 countries, which is a specialty brand that provides full service, omni integration, post solutions to hundreds of brands. So to be able to take the power of these sponsors in conjunction with the tour and go out on the road is for me a dream come true and to speak to retailers all over the country. 


Ned Hayes [00:09:16] It does sound like fun. What kind of content are you producing while you’re on the road? How can people follow. 


Ron Thurston [00:09:22] Along at retail? you can subscribe and that gives you everything right to your inbox. Whether it’s I have a podcast called Retail in America that all the episodes are filmed and recorded right here in the Airstream. They’re all in-person, which I think is so much fun. And I love this virtual, but in-person conversations are always great, and to do it in front of the Airstream, in the Airstream adds a lot of just context to it. So I have a podcast that emails that do go out from there and then post a lot on Instagram at Retail Pride. I’m pretty hard to miss depending on if you’re on LinkedIn or Insta. Graham or any podcast platform. But Spotify advertising is the specific sponsor of the podcast. 


Ashley Coates [00:10:06] Very cool. Well, so, Ron, have you found any great stories yet that you can share with us? 


Ron Thurston [00:10:11] Oh, my gosh. So there are endless stories already for months. And so I’ve had really incredible guests and some podcasts, but just some time in stories. I had the opportunity to interview Sarah Jessica Parker on the podcast. We recorded it live in her store in New York City and they are a client of KW. Why? It was a really nice merging of worlds of what technology to use her own launch of her own retail business with SJP collection. 


Ashley Coates [00:10:40] I watched that interview. It was a great one. 


Ron Thurston [00:10:41] Oh, you did? Oh, thank you. Thank you. You know, and her generosity around her time and her energy was really powerful from Sarah Jessica Parker to incredible salespeople and store managers. And again, I think the store manager group and there are hundreds of thousands of people who do this job are often under-recognised for the power that they have. And so even just most recently here in Denver, I interviewed a woman named April Babich, who you will hear soon from Eddie Bauer. And, you know, she spent many years at the Children’s Place and at Victoria’s Secret. But Eddie Bauer is a brand rooted in history, rooted in an outdoor life living in Denver. I’m running this really large business that has all kinds of different components to it and all kinds of different team members and at the same time supported her as a mom, as she had her two kids, as she grew her family. To be able to say, you know what, Rita gave me the opportunity to do this and my career and retail and these companies gave me the chance to have everything that I had dreamed up. And to hear these stories is incredible. I interviewed franchise owners for a brand called Bluff City Soap that is primarily rooted in the South. We filmed an episode about an hour outside of Memphis with two franchise owners and five cities. So if you’re not familiar with it, they create all of their soap in the store with cake mixers and loaf pans and everything that they sell they make in the store. And so there’s zero waste. It’s 100% vegan, it’s 100% natural. And they create things that their customers want on demand in the store. And so if there’s a particular scent or there’s a particular bar or laundry soap that their customer loves, they make more of that. They don’t wait for the company to send them or for the company to say, you know what, we have a supply chain problem. We’re sold out. We make it in the store. I was able to watch that and I made soap myself and listened to these teams who are rooted in community, who are engaged and creating something that their customer needs and wants and to do it in a very natural, organic way. Every opportunity is this chance to hear more stories that are about the power of retail. Again, this is a retail business, not an e-commerce business. You have to go in and see it being done. And they have 250 locations I think now and growing very quickly. There’s so many different versions of that. I met the family of James Avery, the jewelry brand, and toured their manufacturing plants which are in the hill country of Texas. And this brand started by Mr. James Avery 68 years ago, and that so much of the jewelry is inspired by him. He created it and 100% of it is made in Texas right at the office. And they have 110 locations. They have a huge wholesale business with Dillard’s, but it’s family owned. Still, all the decisions they make are based on what the family wants and what the customer needs. You know, again, sometimes it’s different. Voices from the store give you perspective that your listeners may not always hear. 


Ned Hayes [00:14:05] Right. It’s really fascinating to go from interviewing someone who is to help design, you know, Macy’s come back or help save Nordstrom, that type of thing. And then the next week, go talk to someone who started her store three years ago and has a vision for Juliano and her hometown. You know, it’s so, so different and yet so similar because they have the same passion for serving people, for creating a product that people really enjoy for for creating a viable business. It’s the same passion. It’s just at a different scale, correct? 


Ron Thurston [00:14:35] Right. And sometimes that gelato owner doesn’t have a platform, right? So I’d like to give them and then someone hears that and I’m like, wow, that’s really interesting. You look at what that one store, that one location did for their community or like who they employ or the money they give back. That’s why I’m so obsessed with subsidies. So now that they come into a. They’re all in like strip centers. These are not fancy stores. Right? Yet they come into a market like three months in advance and start handing out free samples, sort of handing out soap to people. And they happily employ people’s families and happily teach you how to make soap. And I just love that. It’s not so corporate and it’s not overdone in its thought process. It’s like it’s natural for soap. I use the product now and I’m obsessed with it because it’s 100% natural and it’s homemade. And where I was like an ace up guy spending $90 on a bottle of hand wash. Like, I’ve stopped doing that. So I think that there’s so much that’s happening that we just have to keep talking about. You’re right that it’s different stories and different people. I mentioned the James Avery part because people are obsessed with that brand. I spent several weeks in Texas between Dallas and Austin. You mentioned James Avery. Every single person was like has a story about James Avery because their mom, their grandmother had something that they passed down to their mom. And every special occasion, every moment in their family is celebrated with James Avery and these small cities. And I just love those kinds of stories. 


Ashley Coates [00:16:13] Yeah, that comes through. You can tell how much you love them. That’s wonderful. Well, we’ve mentioned your book a couple of times, Ryan. It’s called Retail Pride. It came out in 2020. Will you share with us a little bit about your process for writing this book? 


Ron Thurston [00:16:27] So I think anyone that runs a retail business knows you don’t have a lot of downtime. So my process was, you know, at the only way I’m going to get this done is to every day at 5:36 a.m. sit and write, which is what I did, because then I may have to get on a plane. I was traveling stores. I’m running a business. And so I wrote every morning for several months. The content of it is me. It’s funny because people would read the book that have worked for me or know me, and particularly those that have worked for me and said like, this is like having a touch base with Ron, like reading this book. It’s very kind of energetic and inspiring in its own way. And my journey took about a year from idea to bookshelf, and it quickly, by its second day, became an Amazon number one bestseller. And the idea of creating something that was for the biggest part of retail, which is stores, is really inspiring to me. And to see it now grow kind of as this global conversation, I did a virtual speaking engagement last week in South Africa and they love my book in South Africa. And so here are, you know, a thousand people on Zoom who love retail pride. And so no matter where you are in the world, retail is the same. You might sell something different. You may speak a different language. You may engage in a different way. But the pride that you have in working in this industry is the same no matter where you are in the world. And I don’t think I fully understood that or appreciated it until I started getting messages from people or, you know, they want that in other languages, which hasn’t happened. I have not done an audio book because I love when people highlight it and write in it and I get a lot of pictures from people where it’s on the shelf in the stockroom or it’s in their living room and it’s given to people or it’s shared, and audio books don’t always have that power. So it’s been intentional on my part, and it’s just been so much fun. 


Ned Hayes [00:18:25] Well, personally, I would love to hear you do the audiobook. I would love to listen to your voice telling us these stories. So speaking of stories like, why is it important to share in these stories the retail experience? 


Ron Thurston [00:18:38] As I mentioned earlier, there’s this stigma often for working in the mall and that it is not perceived as a great job. And telling their stories really shines light on the power of this work and the power of careers. And I knew that often people that may have not had roles like I have had, they don’t have a platform to speak about it. They don’t have a way to share their stories on a bigger stage. And I knew that if my passion created this drive to help share their stories because their work is critical to the economic success of so many of this country and others and retailers everywhere. It’s everywhere in the world. It’s every small town. It’s funny because some of the campgrounds we been in, I’ll look, you know, coming from New York City where I have like five Starbucks all look like, well, where’s the near Starbucks? Like 80 miles away, really small towns, but full of retail still. And we just don’t give it enough credit because it’s accidental and because it’s so self taught and because you really learn it by doing the work, you have to just take a moment and say thank you for all. Particularly the last few years retail has been frontline grocery was still a. A lot of retail was still open in the worst part of the pandemic, and they still showed up every day. And we have to think about the power of showing up and what even when it’s hard. People in retail still show up. 


Ned Hayes [00:20:14] Right? Well, you’ve worked with a number of amazing brands and created amazing retail experiences, but it sounds to me like you’ve really enjoyed your road trip. So I’m curious, what kind of surprises have you found on your road trip or things in retail that you’ve learned just from being out there on the road? 


Ron Thurston [00:20:32] I’m surprised, but I would say I’m glad that I’m surprised is that the joy of working in this industry is even stronger in smaller towns in this country. And I would say secondarily, listening to their stories of these are strangers to me that there are always people attached to their career. So I’ll sit down and have a conversation of like, how did you end up in retail? Why did you choose this brand? Why did you choose this career? And always there are great people associated with their growth. Like someone saw them recognized something great, someone saw them do something incredible. They saw the way they engage with customers. There are always names attached to their success, and I don’t think I really realized the power of that until I was out on the road. And again, I’m surprised, but pleasantly so, that we have to recognize we, all of us and leadership hold the power to bring people along and to share what we know and to give all of the knowledge possible, because you don’t know what’s going to happen, how you’re going to inspire someone to choose this as a career. I think we’ve given the power to companies to do that often, and I think we have to give the power back to ourselves and say, I own this. We together change people’s lives and that’s why we do this. And I love to hear those stories also. 


Ashley Coates [00:21:58] We’d love to hear your perspectives. Ron On technology in retail, what you’re seeing today, how does the use of technology differ in retail by vertical, by size of business or even by geography? I feel like you’re getting a really great perspective on all of that. 


Ron Thurston [00:22:16] I think sometimes technology also doesn’t get the credit that it deserves in stores and that great retail experiences and great employee experiences are rooted in great retail today. So you think if you deliver an exceptional experience from start to finish the fitting room, that whatever it is you’re selling and then you get to the register and it fails or there’s no wi fi or all the other things that can go wrong. It completely destroys the experience you just created. But if it’s effortless and you’ve created the best version of the human experience and then layered on the ease of great technology through great follow up, and maybe it’s not just an email receipt and or it’s a handheld device or it’s a great follow up through client telling or, you know, of the in-store piece or knowing exactly where your inventory sits on any day. That’s the sales associates best tool is to say, you know what, I don’t have it here, but I see it’s in this store and I’m going to have it delivered for you tomorrow instead of saying, we don’t have it here, I’m sure it’s on our website. Why don’t you go home and check that out? So the more resources you give to the store teams, the better your business is going to be. And I fully believe that to be true. And the more tools and the more information they have, the better the experience they create, the more loyalty that comes from that experience. Every touchpoint becomes effortless, but often only through great technology. We don’t mention Uber again, you know, store teams, they just had a big survey of 1400 frontline retail teams and they almost 70% of them said they want to stay in retail for the next four years. They love working in retail and they’re going to stay. Yet a smaller half of them said, but I don’t have the tools they need to do my job and that comes through technology. So I think we have to look at it both like there’s a very human side of this business that I thrive on, but there’s a very important technology and resource side that we can’t forget and it takes both. 


Ashley Coates [00:24:29] Yeah, well, and you actually just mentioned how technology can help build more loyalty. So turning to customer loyalty and engagement, what kinds of retail loyalty programs do you find to be the most successful? 


Ron Thurston [00:24:43] So I’ll be honest, I haven’t worked with one specific one in my career. In the luxury brands, whether it’s Intermix Salon, I actually haven’t worked with a true loyalty program since like my Gap days, but I would say. I believe very strongly is that the best loyalty you can create is through human connection, that there are great programs. And, you know, sometimes I would say we would lose business in some of my brands to department stores that had loyalty programs because you can buy much of what I’ve sold in my career in other places. And so if you can buy it in another place, i.e., a department store that has the same handbag, sometimes you’re going to lose the sale no matter how good you are at it. And I think we also have to recognize that that there’s huge opportunity and loyalty to not just rely on the human experience, but maybe there’s something important. 


Ned Hayes [00:25:40] Do you think that retail loyalty is still important, especially in the days of, you know, one hour delivery and online price comparisons? Do you think shoppers are still loyal to to a brand or to a store? 


Ron Thurston [00:25:52] Oh, I very much think they are. I think they actually want to be loyal. I think we crave that idea that I’m going to go back to my local business. And continue to give them my money. And I see it again leaving New York City. You don’t get that sense because your money is maybe spent more freely. But when you’re in smaller cities in this country, you understand how important spending your money in a local way is, and that they’re very often family owned businesses, that they are generational businesses, that they rely on tourism or they rely on you spending your money in that store, the big, huge brands. And yes, the one hour delivery is important. That’s not the biggest part of this country. And I love being able to go into these local businesses and family owned businesses and realize it’s not e-commerce. It’s not anything other than we really want and appreciate your local business. And that, for me, is the ultimate expression of loyalty. 


Ned Hayes [00:26:58] Right? Well, since you’ve kind of been feet on the ground, literally, what emerging trends are you seeing in loyalty? What’s coming this year and beyond in there? 


Ron Thurston [00:27:08] Such an emphasis right now, and rightly so. Back on the store, you’ve seen some news reports lately of some downsizing and some brands that have relied very heavily on e-commerce who have gone back and said, actually, the store is really important and that the acquisition of customers and the loyalty that’s maybe more impactful by someone that comes in and then has a great experience. That’s the best version of this is that I love the news that says mall occupancy rates are back well above 19, in fact, so much now that there’s very little occupancy in major malls, again, that store openings are at a growth rate right now, that the highest they’ve ever been, that there’s a lot of emphasis put back in store and that is loyalty. So I would say, to answer your question, that the concept of we’re going to build something and create an experience that creates loyalty is versus a kind of a program is where I think the power really sits right now. That’s what I’m seeing on the road, at least. 


Ned Hayes [00:28:17] Right. Right. Well, if I could keep you on the road for the next 5 to 10 years, what do you think you’d see at that point in time? How do you think the pace of retail will change? 


Ron Thurston [00:28:28] I think the idea of channel list businesses are still important. You know, for many years we thought about, you know, I have this e-commerce business, I have a store business, I might have a life selling. We really have to think about the customer today and a channel as well as that. They may engage with you on Instagram and then might come into the store, spend some time, look at your product, hopefully have a good experience, but don’t purchase. They go home and purchase online. Maybe the size is not available and it’s this very fluid idea of channel, this business, and that we recognize that the customer may engage with you in different ways and to encourage that and it isn’t just this is what the store should do. This is what the store needs to do to be profitable. This is how much we should spend on a store. This how much we should spend in e-commerce. The customer plays with you however they want to, and that feels very much like the future. But the future is very much not about taking the human out of this experience. It’s very much the future of and I’ll go back to where we started. Like careers and retail are thriving. There’s classes much more. I’m in universities, on retail marketing, on retail leadership, on how to engage with this business, on buying, planning, everything that’s related to retail. I’m seeing a big divergence in universities. I know this because I’m being asked to speak and like this kind of engaged, getting like, let’s celebrate a career in retail again. For me, that’s ten years from now. I want to see it as the first choice, not the well. If nothing else happens, I’m going to stay working in retail. That’s what I don’t want to happen. I wanted to be the first choice because of all the opportunities that are available and the hundreds and thousands of companies to work for and the millions of jobs and the financial opportunities that are here for anyone that wants to do the hard work, this is the industry to work in. 


Ashley Coates [00:30:30] Lauren, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been such a pleasure to chat with you. Before you go, we do have one last question, which is what would you like your legacy to be? What would you like to be remembered for? 


Ron Thurston [00:30:42] If my legacy is that someone chose this industry to work in and had great success because of my book or something I said or a team that I led, that’s a great legacy to me. Is that changes potentially someone’s financial. Stability in their life by choosing retail as a career. And that is something that I’m really proud of. 


Ned Hayes [00:31:09] Thank you so much for your time around. I really appreciate the conversation. 


Ron Thurston [00:31:13] Thank you. Ned was great. Thank you. Keep doing what you’re doing because I know you celebrate retail at the same time. So let’s let’s do this together. 

Ned Hayes [00:31:21] Sparkplug is a wholly owned property of Snowshoe all content and copyright 2021 Sparkplug Media.