Best Buyers 2012: Shannon Stewart, Harry Rosen

Nothing to lose: At Harry Rosen, Shannon Stewart’s gamble paid off.

After growing up in small towns across Ontario, Shannon Stewart moved to Toronto to attend university. Looking for summer work in the fashion industry with no experience or contacts, she began making cold calls. “Harry Rosen was on my list,” says Stewart, “and they happened to have someone out on maternity leave. I offered my services for free because I so desperately wanted to get into the industry; I was young and had nothing to lose. I started part time in 1995 doing filing and odd jobs and I basically never left.” She now oversees a team of three responsible for sportswear at all 15 Harry Rosen doors.

Who is the Harry Rosen customer and how does he differ by region?
He’s an average age of 38, a client who can afford what we’re offering. A savvy guy who knows what’s going on in fashion, knows brands, is well traveled—all of which requires us to be in tune with what’s happening on a global basis and able to distill that down to figure out what he wants. He’s smart and we have to stay one step ahead of him.

The only significant difference between doors is from a sizing POV; in cities like Vancouver with a higher Asian population, we need to be conscious of having smaller sizes. But 80 to 90 percent of what works in one store works in the rest.

At such a large company, do you personally feel empowered to make changes to the business?
Given the demands of business today, our company expects us not just to be ‘pickers’ but to really wear the hat of a merchant. So while I’m responsible for the typical planning, selection, sizing, tracking goods, analyzing sales, etc., we’re meant to always keep the end consumer in mind. Not only ‘Do we like that sweater and are we going to buy it?’ but ‘How is it going to look in the store? What adjacencies is this brand going to have?’ We’re very empowered, and expected, to go out and find new things, as well as decide when it’s time to drop a line.

How’s business?
It’s been a rollercoaster. I can’t sit here and tell you that business has been fantastic, but there are segments presenting huge opportunity. The luxury segment of our sportswear business in particular is still on a growth trajectory, and we plan to expand more luxury product to more of our stores.

Right now outerwear is a tough category. We’ve come off a phenomenal few years but it’s tough to maintain. Interestingly, while cloth outerwear is a little off, leathers seem to be taking hold. People are looking for special items and leather is an investment made out of desire rather than need.

Which categories are you having the most success with?
One of our strongest categories is bottoms; our AG business is strong, along with Citizens. We don’t carry a huge selection of denim brands and keep it very focused. In tops, we’ve recently added John Smedley: It’s incredible quality that appeals to a broad range of customers. Brands like that, which can appeal to a more mature gentleman and a younger guy, are really where we hit our homeruns. For spring, we sold tons of color, everything from orange to purple. And for fall there’s a lot of interest in berry tones, and cobalt blue has been great. But most significant is what we’re not selling—black. It used to be hands-down number one in every category.

How do you ensure that your vision is correctly translated to sales associates, and finally to the end consumer?
We have a project called Moving Pictures: each spring and fall we come up with the top six or seven trends within our organization that we think are critical to communicate to the sales associates, and we create one minute segments for each made up of photographs and video, with a voiceover that captures the essence of the trend or theme. This goes out to all associates and then they do a series of activities around it. They’re challenged with creating outfits that represent the themes, and oftentimes they’ll photograph them and actually send them out to real customers. More often than not they’ll get a response, either ‘I love that, I’ll take it’ or ‘I’ll come in and see what’s new next week.’ We really try to link the product with the customer as soon as possible.

What have you learned since joining the business in 1995 that’s helped you become a successful buyer?
I’ve learned to be a good information gatherer. To be a great buyer you need to listen to what the sales associates are telling you, because they’re the direct link to our customers. You have to be observant of the trends on a worldwide basis. You have to look at the hard facts of what’s selling and what’s not. The minute you stop asking questions you get yourself into trouble.

You also have to be very open to new ideas; you can’t stay still. Sometimes trends can take us on a great ride and sales can be fantastic, but those trends always end. You have to know when to get off the train.

What are the best and worst parts of your job?
I love the time of year when goods start arriving in the stores. The boxes are opened, product gets out to the floor and our incredible visual team puts it all together. And then when customers come in and react in a positive way, it’s like Christmas!

I dislike markdowns the most. Competing with retailers who discount absolutely drives me crazy. It completely devalues the goods and shows a real lack of integrity. I’ve always believed that if we have fantastic merchandise and we offer incredible service, customers will pay for the goods.

What’s life like when you’re not working?
I’m married (Steven) and we have a four-year-old daughter (Ruby Jean) who just started junior kindergarten. As you can imagine she takes up a lot of our free time! Every weekend we head to the St. Lawrence market here in Toronto. My husband loves to cook and I love to shop for the groceries, so we make a good pair. We also just moved into a new place, which we’re busy renovating.

People might be surprised to learn that I’m an avid boxer. It’s good to get your frustrations out on the punching bag!

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