Young retail professionals reflect on success and stumbles

Scholarship participants returned for a panel discussion at the NRF Foundation Student Program
By Lottie Watts

Young professionals who participated in NRF Foundation scholarships in recent years returned for a panel discussion during the NRF Foundation Student Program 2020 to share how they’re thriving in retail – and how they’re handling mistakes along the way.  

The conversation was moderated by Garrett Ledbetter, a 2015 NRF Foundation Next Generation Scholarship finalist and Indiana University graduate who is now a general manager and district loyalty expert for Old Navy in South Bend, Ind. The panel included:

  • Elizabeth Heibertshausen, the 2014 NRF Foundation Next Generation Scholarship runner-up and a graduate of Kent State University. She started with Kohl’s as a product development intern and has worked her way up to associate product manager for women’s sleepwear
  • Jessie Karagosian, a 2019 NRF Foundation Next Generation Scholarship semifinalist and LIM College graduate. She’s now an allocation manager for Sam’s Club in Bentonville, Ark.
  • Christian Sopoco, a 2016 NRF Foundation Next Generation Scholarship finalist and Texas Woman’s University graduate. He’s now a merchandise analyst at Nordstrom in Seattle

Some takeaways from the discussion (edited for length and clarity):

Retail offers a range of opportunities
Jessie Karagosian:
My first job ever was at Hollister. I would look at the store managers and I liked that they had more responsibility. They had directions from corporate, and I realized that there must be a million other positions and that retail is a lot more than just working in a store and being a store associate.

I went to school for fashion merchandising. My parents and my friends thought that merchandising meant design, so you tell them, "Nope, there's a whole other side to retail. This is what it is." And then when I told them I was going to work for Sam's Club as an allocation manager, they automatically thought I was working as a club manager.

There's nothing wrong with that, but I had to explain to them once again: I’m in the office, I'm on a computer all day, I'm doing a lot of math, talking to a lot of people. I'm not going to be at your local Sam's Club. When you try to explain the retail industry to someone, you have to frame it as the behind-the-scenes of a store, and then they start to understand a little bit more.

Elizabeth Heibertshausen: I'm from a super small town. I took chickens to the fair, but I was always interested in fashion and living this fashion dream. I thought the only thing that you could ever do in retail is be a designer or a buyer. I feel like a lot of you – and the people around you – probably have that same thought process.

When I started doing my research and finding out that fashion merchandising was going to be a possible career for me, that allowed me to learn so much more about what retail has to offer. When I got into my major, and my internship with Kohl’s, I learned about how many opportunities there are within retail, and that's how I landed in product development.

It combines my passion of being creative and the business side of things. Within product development, I'm in charge of bringing the ideas from our design team – from the initial idea all the way through the product – by working with our vendors overseas, our designers and our buyers and teams across the company to bring the products to the customer.

Be open to relocating
Elizabeth Heibertshausen:
I'm from a small town in Ohio that has one stoplight and a thousand people, and I now work in a building that is five times the size of my hometown. I think that I knew when I was going into a fashion career that I was going to have to move to the big city or move somewhere, but until I actually moved, I had no idea what I would like or what I could become.

I still talk to my mom every day on the phone. I moved to Wisconsin, a place where I had no friends and no family. I had to move completely away and start over. But I took a chance and I haven't looked back.

Jessie Karagosian: A lot of people do think of New York City as the retail hub. But when you look, you find that the big retailers – all the big retailers we here on this panel work for – they’re not located in New York.

You have to open your eyes. The amount of times I have Google searched “retail headquarters in Texas” or “retail headquarters in California” – go ahead and familiarize yourself with those because you'll realize there are more opportunities.

There will be math
Christian Sopoco:
When I say, "I am on the buying team for Nordstrom” people think, "oh, is it like ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ movie?" And I can tell you right now it's not. There's cool aspects that play into that whole dream of it, but what I do – it’s a lot of planning and it's a lot of math.

Who knew that buying clothes would involve a lot of math? I thought, "Oh, okay, cool Nordstrom, cool product. Let me just go pick it out." Nope, you have to plan it, you have to know where it's going. So it's a lot of planning and if you aren't great with Excel, get great with it now.

Jessie Karagosian: I had no idea what the allocation manager position was before I became one. It's an entire branch of the merchandising team that is crucial to the success of a category. It's a lot of Excel but you’re the liaison between so many different teams.

For just one item, I talk to my merchant, I communicate with my planner, the rest of my allocation team, probably my manager. And then outside of the company I talk to my suppliers about the item, and then I also have to talk to the distribution centers when they're receiving the item. And then if there's a problem at the store or we as we say, club level, I have to talk to the club associates. It's a lot of talking and a lot of emails, but that's okay. It's really fun.

Picking mentors is different than it is in college
Christian Sopoco:
I know some of you are sensitive about getting your feelings hurt. Forget that. You need someone who's going to challenge you, who's going to say, "Hey, you're wrong. Just sit down and listen to what your managers are saying because that's important." You have to have confidence, but you also have the aspect of you don't know it all and you need help. Mentorship is a route that you can take to get you where you need to be.

Elizabeth Heibertshausen: I got a new boss and within nine days, she sat me down and gave me feedback on how I was doing. And it was positive. There were a lot of great things that she had said, because I have built a really great reputation in my role at Kohl's. But she also gave me some negative feedback and that was hard to hear for somebody who tends to want to be an overachiever and wants to be the best.

I feel like I disagreed with her at first and I was a little bit resistant, not wanting to be vulnerable. But we need to be open to hearing the feedback, and I've now taken this advice and this person is a mentor to me because she can see the things that nobody else is seeing or maybe the things that nobody else is telling me. Obviously, you want to make sure they are people who are respected by their peers. That's why I really trusted what she had to say to me and now I'm that much better.

When you go into a career, people might tell you that you have some opportunities, or you have some strengths. Listen to those opportunities because they might be seeing something that you've never really thought about or a part of yourself that you've never really considered.

You’re not alone when you make mistakes
Jessie Karagosian
: In my position, it's really easy to go to place an order for 400 units and then you place an order for 40,000. That happens more often than I like to admit. But luckily there's always an undo button – almost always actually.

You just need to admit what happened. It's not good to just silently panic to yourself and try to fix it yourself. Tell your manager. Tell your coworker. They've probably done the same thing, so together you can figure out how to fix it and do it immediately.

Take notes when you learn how to fix it, so you can refer to it when you make the mistake again in a couple of weeks. And then just always double-check your work before you press submit.

Christian Sopoco: The big mistake that I still recall today and will always talk about – because it's funny now but it wasn't then – is right when I first started my job. One of the things that I do is I help allocate price in US and Canada. I was like, "Let me show them what I can do because I got this, right?"

So I marked stuff wrong – and it was for the whole country of Canada.

I thought, "I better start packing my stuff now because, well, I'm on my way out." And it's funny because I'm obviously still here talking about it.

You're allowed to make mistakes, so make them but don't make them. But what I've learned is when you first start, take it slow. Learn every detail about what you're doing and be the expert of that craft, because if I would just have slowed down and asked for help, it wouldn't have been a whole debacle and I wouldn't have been crying and shaking in my boots about where would I be going next. When you are given a task, it's OK if you ask for help a hundred times on your way to becoming an expert.

All the participants in the panel competed in the NRF Foundation Next Generation Scholarship, gaining valuable experience that helped them launch their careers. Applications for the 2021 Next Generation Scholarship are open now to undergraduates of all majors at NRF University Member Schools who will be juniors or seniors at the time the scholarship is awarded in January 2021. The deadline to apply is May 15 at 11:59 p.m. EST.

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