An Interview With Tony Spring, CEO, Bloomingdale’s
Robin Lewis: Tony, tell our readers a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? What got you interested in the retail business, and how did your career path lead you to your current role as CEO of Bloomingdale’s?
Tony Spring: I grew up in the New York area. My father was a lawyer and my mother worked at CBS as a secretary. There was a mix of passions in our family. The message in the house was always: find something that you love to do and do it well. I was always doing something, some kind of job, whether working in my father’s law office, delivering papers, or working in a fast food restaurant. I went to the Cornell School of Hotel and Restaurant Management. I had a passion for the customer, and what hospitality meant, and how to take care of the customer. I graduated from college in 1987 and had opportunities to work for a couple of hotel chains, including Marriott, but then Bloomingdale’s came to campus to recruit. One thing that really made me want to work at Bloomingdale’s was the people, and to this day they are a key part of my love of the business. They were very competitive, but cared about you as a person. In my belly I felt \”wow,\” these people want to do something very special.\” Campeau bought Federated one year after I joined, then there was an LBO, then cost cutting. A year and a half later I came into Central in the home goods area as a buyer of cookware and cutlery. I was at the housewares show in Chicago when we declared bankruptcy. I was only a few years out of school, and figured hey, that’s part of the business, you ride it out. I bought cookware for a year and a half, then decorative housewares, and then nine months later became the Divisional of housewares. At that point Marvin [Traub] was leaving, and Michael [Gould] was coming in. I saw Mike’s passion coming into the company, his desire to not lose the incredible history and reputation that Bloomingdale’s had, but not to get tripped up trying to walk in Marvin’s shoes. Mike was determined to make Bloomingdale’s even better. We went from being a regional brand to being a national brand with an international reputation. I was promoted to SVP of home within a few years, then a couple of years later to head of marketing, where I spent eight and a half years, building Bloomingdale’s By Mail, Bloomingdales.com, restaurants, and other areas. In 2005 I became Director of Stores for three years, then President for five years. So I ended up having a career that was eight years in merch, nine years in marketing, then eight years in stores and operations. I was as well rounded as anyone can hope to be and I’m an advocate for diversity of experience. Having that exposure, experience, and background makes me a more capable leader today.
RL: What is your vision of what Bloomingdale’s should look like in the future and how do you plan to get there? Can you kind of paint that big picture for us?
TS: I think we have an opportunity to combine the incredible heritage and reputation Bloomingdale’s has with the efficiency of the upscale department store model to become an even more relevant, meaningful, clever and distinctive experience for the time-starved, fashion-conscious upscale customer. Our goal is to be a lifestyle store, to be a fashion retailer with an element of discovery. Discovery speaks to why we’re so committed to visual presentation, animation, and in-store events, and why we want to build a more experiential website. The immersive experience at Bloomingdale’s requires the omnichannel component.
All your senses are touched, and where you choose to buy depends on what works best for you as the customer. When you come to the store, you’re going to buy some things you planned to buy but also some things impulsively because you traversed the store, interacted with people, saw the mannequins, smelled something you loved. It’s a people business, a social business, not just a commerce business. There is incredible opportunity for a brand like Bloomingdale’s to take social media and turn it into social business. We don’t want to be stuck in what we do well today. I want to always be of the moment, to challenge ourselves to be in the business of what people care about, which means there will be an ebb and flow to how we assort the store and what we emphasize. One of the biggest advantages of the department store is that we can be in whatever business we want to be in a very short time. We have the opportunity and the permission from the customer, provided we have an authentic point of view, to be in any category we want. So we’re selling Beats headphones; we’re selling great fashion outerwear because that’s what people want now; we’re selling athleisure. We can be powerful in the denim business when it’s hot just as easily as we can be in electronics if there’s a fashion component to it.
RL: You described your recently reopened 125,000 square-foot store in Palo Alto as \”the store of the future,\” in which you are introducing a number of new technologies that engage the consumer in kind of a “high-tech, yet higher-touch” experience. Can you describe these, and do you intend to expand them into all stores?
TS: I like the new Stanford store in Palo Alto because it contains a lot of things that represent the future of retail. The old store was 230K square feet on two levels. Now it is a 125K square foot store, still a full-line store, with 100 new brands. We went from having more space to having more assortment. By scaling down, we actually augmented the appeal of the store. The store also has a new service model. Before there were sales associates and personal shoppers; now we have service associates, sales associates and style advisors. We have people taking care of the customers, providing coverage of the store, and style advisors working the whole store, not just in an exclusive area for personal shopping. The third component is technology. I leave it for third because I don’t believe the future of stores is turning them into the websites. Stores have a reason for being. We talk about the importance of discovery. It’s the combination of merchandise, people, visuals, events, and a store experience that is very important. Technology, combined with humanity, gives you consistency. The customer expects that. I don’t like having a great experience in shoes and a lousy one in women’s sportswear. We have a new fitting room service tool with an iPad in every fitting room that lets the customer communicate with the associate to get additional items, sizes or colors.
I’m passionate about this because the fitting room leads to conversion. If she’s getting undressed and trying clothes on, she’s engaged. We added community tables around the fitting room, and charging stations, trying to think about what the future of shopping will be. We added large touch screens in shoes, handbags and the home store to try to expand the assortment. This way, the customer in one of the smaller stores has the opportunity to see the rest of the assortment. However, it’s assisted selling, not self-service. It’s the way many generations like to shop now.
The third piece of technology that we embedded in the store is mobile POS. Every selling associate has it, and it allows the customer not to have to go to a tethered register to check out. It gives our human capital a chance to be more flexible by operating beyond just the department they’re working in. The POS can complete anything other than a cash transaction. Each of our stores is getting at least one of these new technologies, and we’re testing constantly to see what the benefits are.
RL: Also, give us some idea of what your smaller store strategy is going forward. If you’re able to do a smaller store with 100 new brands, you can do more breadth but not as much depth. It must be a much more intimate experience, right?
TS: I continue to believe that Bloomingdale’s has the opportunity for in-store and online growth, outlet growth, international growth, and comp store sales growth. We’re not limited to one channel or one idea. It’s a great time to lead this brand. In terms of store growth – we have stores in 12 of the top 50 DMAs in the country, and fewer stores than Saks, Nordstrom and Neiman’s. If we’re selective, we have the opportunity to have a bigger footprint in this country. That doesn’t mean we have one prototype. If it’s an entry into a new market, maybe it should be bigger, more of a flagship. We need to present Bloomingdale’s in its entirety. If we are talking about a 2nd or 3rd store in the market, we are talking about a smaller store. Downtown San Francisco is a flagship store in an important city. Stanford is an incredible younger sister to a beautiful downtown store. The people in that community can be very proud that they have such a great community store.
RL: What do you feel are some of the best aspects of the retail industry today, and what not-so-great features you would like to see changed?
TS: The transformation of the business via technology has been very exhilarating and disruptive. The opportunity to use technology and information to be able to create a more personal relevant powerful Bloomingdale’s experience is exciting. It’s like a roller coaster. Sometimes it doesn’t feel too good but it’s a thrilling ride. With online, you can put something up for sale instantaneously and get immediate feedback and connect with the customer. We just did an online survey and got amazing feedback right away.
Regarding what concerns me: We as an industry have to be careful about the balance between art and science. We’ve gone through cycles in which art has commanded the business and other times when science has commanded it. Data has become so easy to access; maybe the dreamers won’t have the parachutes they need if the people with data can prove them wrong. We don’t want to become too risk averse.
Competing on attributes other than price requires a level of discipline. We have to want measured growth with good resources. If you pick the right partners, you can have a very good business. For retailers, it’s having the ability to sell that product, and create the environment for that product that gives your resource the reason to partner with you. Stores cannot become ubiquitous or be boring. The fact that we have too many stores in the industry can’t become an excuse for too much price promotion. You have to believe in fashion, and in the upscale customer’s interest in having what’s new and exciting. That has never changed. The newest embellishment to the product is what still causes them to buy something they already have in their closet.
RL: Terry Lundgren (CEO of Macy’s Inc., the parent company of Bloomingdale’s) said of you: “Spring has a customer-centric, intellectual approach.” That was a very big compliment, and for what it’s worth, I would add that you’re a great strategist. Can you give us an understanding of what makes Bloomingdale’s unique, and what differentiates the brand from its competition? And what is it about the products, the shopping environment and experience that you believe indelibly connects with your customers?
TS: Somebody once said the difference between ordinary and extraordinary is that little “extra.” For us, it’s about everything in the company being unique in a way that the customer doesn’t expect. It’s also about the relentless pursuit of what’s next, taking both a long-term and short-term approach. How do you make sure you execute exceptionally well while remembering that what you’re doing now is not going to be enough for long; that what you’re doing now she will grow tired of?
We’re constantly looking for the next thing – in the streets, when we travel, at the fashion shows, at the resources. I want us to be curious, hungry, feeling a sense of pressure and determination. We are not entitled to the position we have, we have to earn it. In merchandising, we need more exclusivity. I wouldn’t have been such a big proponent of that five years ago, but the Internet has made it necessary. It has put more pressure on us to respond to the question: “Why Bloomingdale’s”? with the answer, “Because we have this exclusive product from Theory, from Vince.” Exclusivity is an important part, but it doesn’t replace fashion authority. Hopefully, through better negotiations with resources, we can find things that the customer is really interested in, that they can get only at Bloomingdale’s.
RL: At the end of the day, what image and thoughts would you wish to come to consumers’ minds at the mention of the name Bloomingdale’s?
TS: Dynamic, contemporary, of the moment, relationship-oriented. Like No Other Store in the World.