Twenty-two years ago, Fiona de Barre started her first job in retail, aged 17. The self-proclaimed ‘lifer’ had a baby daughter to support and decided she didn’t want to become another teenage mother statistic. The answer was retail. rn
She enrolled in a national certificate of retail through the Open Polytechnic and turned her focus onto improving herself to create a future for her child. Six months into the course she secured her first part-time job in a sports shop.
From there she worked her way up the ranks. After becoming a sales assistant at Glassons, within a year she had progressed from assistant manager to manager of the Napier store. After nine years de Barre became central regional manager, responsible for all the stores in the North Island, excluding Auckland, with more than 200 people reporting to her.
Looking back, a career in retail was a no-brainer to de Barre – who was hungry for career progression from the start.
“I had always been really good with people so a career in retail made good sense to me. Even as a young adult I had a natural style for helping customers fulfil their needs.
“I love my [first] job and interacting with customers. It gave me loads of confidence and was an awesome opportunity to put what I was learning into practice.”
After 17 years with Glassons, de Barre moved to New Zealand-made women’s clothing company Kilt and became national regional manager.
Since she started out, a lot has changed in retail. The biggest change of all is the introduction of online shopping, which transformed the landscape of the industry overnight.
“It changed the way retailers operated. New strategies and promotions needed to be created to encourage customers to continue shopping in our bricks and mortar stores.
“We saw the climb in total revenue of our [Glassons’] online store often exceeding some of our biggest sales results.”
Putting in place the right foundations and systems in product sourcing, distribution and online sales and service delivery was key to surviving the disruption in the market, she says.
Social media has also played a big role in bringing the retail industry into the 21st century. Stores now engage with their customers online and have huge amounts of people at their fingertips – largely for free.
“When I started in retail you took out an ad in the local newspaper or invested in radio advertising if you were running a promotion. Now a marketing strategy is predominantly focused on social media and the post reach is far greater.”
Throughout her career, de Barre has had a number of highlights. A pivotal experience was project managing the retail aspect of the flagship Glassons store refit in Lambton Quay in 2013.
Her sales training programme for Kilt saw significant sales growth on the previous year. At the same time she also took home Top Shop awards for both in store and online at Kilt.
After 20 years of coaching team members to reach their full potential, she transferred her skills out of retail. Her new business, Empower Me Life Coaching is an accumulation of all she has learned throughout her career.
“Life coaching came naturally to me. It’s about supporting and guiding people to achieve whatever they want to work on.”
When she advises people on making a career out of retail, she emphasises the importance of developing good people skills.
“Retail isn’t about being robotic and trying to do the hard sell. People need a bigger reason to shop with you.
“Retail is about transforming people’s lives through the shopping experience you provide for them. It’s about having a genuine interest in fulfilling the needs of people. If you take care of the customer first, the result will follow naturally.”
But de Barre isn’t ready to leave the world of retail behind. She is now in the process of starting her own retail consulting business.