First Movers: Kathy Aronson
KATHY ARONSON is the Principal of Digital Luminary, a digital commerce strategy consultancy. Previously, Kathy had roles at ThreeSixty Group (SVP of E-Commerce) known for brands such as FAO Schwarz, Sharper Image, and Vornado.
Kathy led a complete digital transformation at Dorel Home (VP of E-Commerce), known for many brands, including Cosco, Signature Sleep, and DHP Furniture. She also had leadership roles at DTC retailers, including Eve.com and Mertado.com.
Kathy began her career working for many national retailers, including Macy’s, Pottery Barn, and The Gap. She spent more than fifteen years in various leadership roles including, merchandise buying, launching new categories, and growing the latest brands.
Why did you choose to pursue eCommerce in your career? I lived in San Francisco, CA, when ‘dotcoms’ became the new technology buzzword. As the Home Accessories Senior Buyer at Pottery Barn, I had just launched the Home Office category in stores. I thought, ‘I bet this would sell great in a digital catalog (in addition to our print catalog).’ When I asked my manager if I could put my business online, she told me that Pottery Barn already had consultants lined up for that, so that was not an option. I was disappointed and decided to go out to dinner with a friend to discuss other ways to break into e-commerce. Coincidentally, I ran into my neighbor at the restaurant as we waited for our tables to be ready. She shared with me that she was founding the first prestige cosmetic and fragrance retailer online. With all my recent vendor relationships with the largest beauty brands as a Fragrance Buyer at Macy’s, she asked me to talk to her co-founder. The founders were looking for someone to head up building out their online merchandising team for Fragrances and getting brands to be willing to sell their products online. I jumped at the opportunity. We worked day and night, and I loved it. I fell in love with reinventing commerce and delivering new experiences for customers powered by technology innovation. After this experience, I never looked back.
What is your biggest strength, and how have you used it for your success in eCommerce? My biggest strength is creating a strategy for how a business can accomplish its goals. I can break down the plan into actionable steps and place the resources and processes necessary to reach the goal. Above it all, I enjoy defining the talent required, hiring the players, and coaching them along the way. I have built many successful teams. I find it most rewarding to see my team members grow and flourish while working with me and their career progress. It’s a win-win!
What is the weirdest skill or talent to come in handy in your eCommerce experience? A sense of humor! Sometimes you have to laugh to keep pushing forward in this industry. E-Commerce is a wild ride with how fast technology changes and all the new terminology. Consumers are keeping us on our toes.
How have you most successfully influenced change within your organization (or with your clients)? I lead change with revenue growth. Get those quick wins of revenue growth while working on your longer-term transformation. This revenue growth will motivate your leaders to continue to invest in the digital capabilities needed to transform, grow, and continue to be relevant.
What was your most “valuable” career failure, and why? I think Kenny Rogers said it best in his song, ‘The Gambler”: “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, Know when to fold ’em, Know when to walk away And know when to run”
The situation was one in which I kept trying to convince my Executive Team peers to pivot the business towards digital, data, and automation. I knew firsthand from a previous company how this led to massive sales and profit growth.
However, I did not know when to walk away.
The experience taught me that sometimes the needed change is unattainable due to corporate culture. To be a change leader in an industry where the goalposts keep moving, I recommend you spend time making sure that the company you choose to give your talents to is at a place where your vision and expertise are valued and appreciated.
In the last five years, what new belief, behavior or habit has most improved your life? I love exercising, meditating, and doing some yoga first thing in the morning. I feel better and don’t spend all day wondering if I will have the energy workout after work. Daily exercise has helped me with my work/life balance during this pandemic.
What are you learning right now? I am learning Spanish using the Babbel app.
By doing yoga more, I now understand why it is called a ‘yoga practice.’
Does Zoom count?
What are the 1-3 songs that would make up your career soundtrack today?
- Movin’ on Up (The Jefferson’s intro theme song): Early in my career, I went through the Macy’s Executive Training program and stayed there for many years. Over my six-plus years there, promotions came quickly to different positions around the organization. I felt very fortunate for the formal training and opportunities provided to me by Macy’s.
- Revolution by The Beatles: As the Department Store channel started to consolidate, the rise of Specialty Retailers and E-Commerce were proliferating across San Francisco. I could not resist the opportunity to be a pioneer of the Digital Revolution and joined Eve.com, the first prestige cosmetic, and fragrance retailer online.
- Family Business by Kanye West: I went back to my hometown to help with my family’s real estate business during the last recession. Being an entrepreneur, I had my hand in all areas of the Company. I learned how to be creative and solve a wide range of problems.
What are the 1-3 books you’ve gifted the most or that have greatly influenced your life, and why?
- Think Like Amazon by John Rossman: I have worked with Amazon as a partner for almost ten years. I have built a B2B (AMZ 1p) business from scratch to over $125M+ and a DTC business (AMZ 3p) to over $25M+. Despite having worked so closely with Amazon and observing their way of working, I found myself fascinated with the author’s revelations about Amazon.
If you could have a gigantic billboard for the world to see with anything on it, what would it say, and why? “BE -> DO -> HAVE.”
“Be who you want to be, then you will do what people do that are being that, and you will have what people have who do that.” – Author unknown
What are the worst recommendations or advice you have heard related to eCommerce? Slow down.
I have witnessed many management teams convince themselves that slowing down their digital transformation approach will be a good strategy. I believe it only delays the inevitable. I recommend all leaders in an organization to be equally committed to the organization’s digital presence.
What advice would you give to a future leader of change about to enter business, or specifically the eCommerce field? Go for it! It is so fun to be on the cutting edge of changing shopping behaviors in our connected world. As long as you are energetic, upbeat, and data-driven, you will make a positive impact. Build your network and support each other. You can start with me. I am happy to help.
What specific, industry-related change do you believe will happen that few others seem to see? I believe that Brands must continue to build out the capabilities that once were traditionally the retailers’ responsibility. Key capabilities have shifted towards brands such as inventory demand planning, drop-ship fulfillment, and on-site search marketing. By brands taking on these responsibilities, retailers today can focus on driving in-store and online traffic, expand their assortment offering, and building brand loyalty.
What is the last thing you bought online, and why? I bought a ‘VOTE’ t-shirt with 100% of net proceeds benefitingthe“I am a Voter”campaign.
First Movers is a change leader interview series featuring select industry pioneers who are boldly driving the evolution of digital commerce, the consumer and everything in between.