A Conversation with Sue Kronick
June 16, 2010,
"When I started at Bloomingdale's I knew that the customer in Brooklyn didn't buy patterns with birds."
By Warren Shoulberg
Sue Kronick has never been bashful about speaking her mind. Whether she was detailing to a vendor why a certain decision had been made about that company's products or telling a cub reporter why the story he had written was off-base, you always knew where you stood with her.
That quality alone is enough to make Kronick unusual in the world of retailing. But combine it with 37 years at the same company, a family heritage for the business and a gender that hasn't always been most advantageous in her line of work and you come up with something even rarer.
Earlier this spring Kronick retired as vice chair of Macy's Inc. following a life-long career at the retailer that touched upon all its iterations: Trainee at Bloomingdale's who rose to run the home side of the store; president of the Burdines division and ultimately the number two person for the entire corporation behind Chief Executive Officer Terry Lundgren.
Kronick accomplished all of this while retaining much of what set her apart throughout her entire career: her honesty, integrity, competence and, at the risk of someone taking this the wrong way, her stylish good looks.
Over those nearly four decades, she watched department store retailing evolve, consolidate, suffer and, more recently, adapt a new model that combines economies of scale with an acute attention to localization.
It is that last point, what her former company calls My Macy's, that she is most excited about in projecting the future of the department store.
"When I started at Bloomingdale's it had seven stores and I was the bedspread buyer. I knew that the customer in Brooklyn didn't buy patterns with birds," she told HFN recently over lunch a few weeks after her official retirement. Her hair is shorter now than when she worked--the better, she says, to drive in her convertible where she lives in Florida--but her sense of style and energy level are largely unchanged.
"That ability to tailor local assortments got lost in the mergers and acquisitions that characterized the department store category over much of the past 20 years. The My Macy's program, which can develop assortments for as few as ten stores, gives the store that ability back.
"The biggest thing is the respect for different customers locally," said Kronick, "That's the lifeblood for retail.
"Perfect for me is to know that men on the West Coast wear shorts two inches shorter than on the East Coast."
She makes the argument that My Macy's is not just a return to the localized merchandising individual divisions had before the move to a national Macy's operation. "The old nameplates had grown to 100 units but now we're down to the 10-store level."
But having that national umbrella is the key to making it work, she said. The ability to do national marketing, branding and personalities is what gives Macy's the foundation.
As does having home. To the skeptics who say department stores should--or eventually will--get out of home furnishings, she says not so fast. "Home gives you a tremendous advantage, it's a great convenience for the customer."
But it also serves another purpose. "Home is a great teacher in that you learn the value of relationships because you do business with home vendors for a long time," unlike fashion where suppliers come and go.
Respect for vendors--and the ability to discuss business with them in a non-confrontational manner--has been a Kronick signature almost since the beginning and it's one she has tried to impart to others throughout her career.
"I learned the value of explaining decisions to vendors when Bloomingdale's made the decision to get out of 180 (thread-count) sheets. We had done a lot of business in 180s but we decided we should be in 200s."
Rather than just arbitrarily drop programs, Kronick said she worked hard to explain it to her suppliers and the result was not the usual bitterness that accompanies such a big merchandising change. "You have to take the time to tell vendors why you are doing what you are doing. Home teaches you the value of relationships."
Improving relationships with vendors has been a priority at Macy's more recently, she said. "Macy's has worked very hard on this. The challenge for the Macy's organization is to work holistically with vendors, not just on price. Price is incredibly important but it's not the only thing."
Kronick, who spent much of the past decade traveling to store locations around the country, said her decision to retire, while not necessarily an easy one, was clear to her.
"I had spent nine amazing years working with Terry, but I had been with the company for 37 years."
She said she first decided five years ago that it was time and that it was not any realization that she wasn't going to get the top Macy's spot that was a deciding factor in leaving. "If that had been the reason, I would have left nine years ago. My decision was not based on that."
Kronick says she leaves with warm memories and strong feelings about the people she worked with. "My proudest accomplishment was all the people I helped."
And next? There's travel for her and her husband in the immediate future, but the twinkle in her eye as lunch is being finished says there's another act to follow in her life. "Remember the movie Charlie Wilson's War?" she asks. "You know what they said: 'We'll see.'"