a Conversation with Retail Genius Ron Thurston

You can design all the nice things you want, but without a vehicle, your work never reaches your audience. That vehicle is retail. And there’s a huge industry that forms that vehicle, led by experts. Mr. Ron Thurston is one of those leaders. Recently, Ron published his much-praised book, Retail Pride. In it, the industry veteran proves an important point: Celebrate your career in retail. 

We caught up with Ron for a wide-ranging conversation about retail, design and style. And, as usual, much stuff in between. We talk about perfection, about how Ron’s interior design and clothes influence his state of mind and life. We converse about his style and thoughts on store design, and Ron even shares advice for young fashion entrepreneurs. Plus, much more. 

Without further ado, here’s our conversation with Mr. Ron Thurston.

First of all, congrats on the successful launch of your new book. That must feel amazing, right?

Thank you; it does feel great to have published the first book written specifically for the millions of people who work in the retail industry; whether you are working in stock, sales, or managerial roles, this book is for you. I am also proud that it includes quotes from 30 different colleagues to support the message of retail pride. 

It’s clear you love retail with all your heart. When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in the industry? And was there a specific event that inspired you to choose this path?

I love it with my heart because, at its core, retail and retail leadership are about service and serving others. The experiences you can create, both for your customers and your team, are entirely up to you and the effort you want to put into it. Being great at service every day takes extraordinary effort, whether in the restaurant industry, luxury hotels, or retail and needs to be recognized and celebrated. 

I studied Fashion Design and the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in California, which would be my intended career path. And while I did have some initial success, I found it very isolating, and I craved being around other people and leading teams. Retail has given me the best of both of these loves.  

Today, you’re VP of Stores for a luxury retailer. Daily, what does your work entail?

My work leading 31 stores is entirely rooted in collaboration across all the company’s different functions. This includes working directly with the buying team to provide feedback on selecting the styles every season to sell in each location across the U.S., finance, planning, and allocation, human resources, design, store operations, and more.  

Most importantly, my work every day is dedicated to the store teams interacting with the customers and gathering their feedback.  I also spend about 50% of my time traveling and visiting the stores and look forward to doing that again soon.  

More young fashion and retail entrepreneurs emerge every day. And their most important tool seems to be the internet and social media. Naturally, it becomes a challenge to stand out from the crowd.
Aside from offering unique products, what helps a new brand stand out?

Today, there is an opportunity to have an important parallel message that can help a brand stand out, and that’s related to how the brand engages with its audience. Concepts like sustainability give back to the communities it serves, having a more meaningful message than just selling something. 

This can include where your product is made, where the materials are sourced, understanding what’s important to your target audience, or even donating time or a portion of the proceeds to a charity that is important to you. 

Obviously, there’s a vast difference between brands that handcraft products locally in small quantities and labels that produce in large quantities. New brands often start out formerly. 
What’s a key piece of advice on selling their product that you’d give a hand producing label?

I find it essential to build up the excitement about a new brand or product produced in small quantities even before being assembled via social media. I have a friend launching a small California-based fashion denim and apparel brand, and he has been posting and building excitement for it with images and ideas for months, and nothing has been produced yet.  When he launches, he will have a substantial built-in customer base ready to buy! 

From high performers, I hear that perfection sometimes hinders their work. Do you consider yourself a perfectionist? 

I am definitely a high performer and can balance multiple priorities personally and professionally, but I would not consider myself a perfectionist. As I was writing my book, I feared that it isn’t perfect because it lives forever, but I worked through it. Now that I am in my 50’s I understand that perfection is unattainable, but high quality in all we do is critical, so that’s my goal every day. 

 Some creatives say that a design or product is never finished. The artist or designer keeps tinkering to achieve “perfection.” You just published a book, which is basically making decisions. It’s not odd to ask questions like “Should I put this in the book… and is it clear this way?” during the process. And I can imagine that you run into similar stuff in your daily work.
How do you deal with “perfection,” and at what point do you consider a project finished?

There was a point where I said, “this is the best expression of what I can do today” and let it go. While it can be challenging to admit that it wasn’t perfect in my eyes, I gave it my absolute best effort and submitted it to the publisher. Their feedback was essential and gave me some comfort that my words were well received. 

How would you define perfection?

I would define it as a myth, that perfection doesn’t exist.  

The effects of architecture (our surroundings: the interior of our homes/work environment) on our state of mind, work, and life are often either misunderstood or underrated. You seem like a person who is conscious of the effect of architecture. 
Could you tell us how your environment affects you?

My environment absolutely affects me, and simplicity is vital. Our home is quite stark, and we live in downtown Manhattan, so just outside the door, it’s a world of noise and chaos. I appreciate a simple, highly organized space that is functional and supports my multiple priorities and streams of work.  

Smaller square footage is also a way of life in New York City, and while I fully appreciate those highly decorated spaces with art and color, it’s not for me.  

You see brands standardizing their interiors to create a uniform look. Apple stores or Saint Laurent boutiques look more or less the same in Amsterdam and New York. And on the other side, some stores like to embrace the city’s vibe the store is located. 
That uniform look is very nice; it feels like it’s tried and tested to boost customers’ moods (just like outfits do with our mood). But the experimental idea of having a store unique to its environment is equally appealing. Each city has a different vibe; it’s cool to embrace that too. In your experience, what influences the direction an organization chooses?

Ultimately, a clean, simple, black and white store design like Apple or Saint Laurent is built exclusively to highlight the product design and minimize the eye’s distraction. In that environment, the only thing you see is the shoe or the computer; it’s like a massive blank wall with just one painting on it, you can’t help but notice it. 

On the flip side, an entire aspirational lifestyle can be executed as a beautiful store, too. Examples like Ralph Lauren or Tory Burch are designed to immerse yourself in the designer’s total lifestyle that may take inspiration from their own home. Both of these design styles and powerful and essential; they just have different goals.  

There are several philosophies out there when it comes to interior design. Think of Feng Shui, for instance. Is there a philosophy you have in designing a space? Or maybe a fusion of styles you’ve created yourself? 

The retail store spaces that I have personally designed tend to err on the side of feeling welcome, warm, and interactive. High seating capacity, a place to have a drink, charge your phone, enjoy a conversation with a highly engaged sales associate.  I want the customer to come in and relax as if I were inviting them into my own home.  

And the fitting room experience is critical in anything to do with apparel. Large spaces, ample mirrors, and lighting, a place to safely set your drink and your phone down. 

Similar to architecture, clothing and taking care of oneself has the same effect. The power of dressing for work and life is very real. When one feels comfortable in a particular outfit, he/she performs better; you even get better ideas. Simply put, dressing accordingly puts one in the mood to do great work. And not to throw around clichés, but you just feel like a better version of yourself.
How does clothing affect your mood, life, and work?

I agree entirely with you; I have always had pride in how I presented myself, showing up every day professionally but with an edge for conversation.  During our months of lock-down and working from home, I still took the opportunity to get dressed as if I were traveling because I can tell the difference in my productivity.  

How long did it take you to create your current uniform, and how did you find it? 

My uniform, particularly in New York City, revolves around the color black.  As someone who travels often, it’s the most effortless uniform to throw in a bag, just a mix of black pieces.  It’s incredible how many different looks you can create from 10 items. 

Broadly, what does your style/uniform look like?

Great cashmere crew neck sweaters and T-shirts, relaxed drawstring pants in lightweight wool, great black denim with boots, a mix of blazers and leather jackets.  

Do you change it often?

I only change it in the summer, which is the only time you will see me in a print or a bright color or a sandal! 

Finally, I’d like to conclude our wide-ranging conversation with this. We all want to be successful in life. But success is such a wide concept. 
How do you define success?

My definition of success has evolved a lot over the last few years.  One of my goals in writing RETAIL PRIDE was to give back some of my knowledge to the industry that has supported me for nearly three decades. Success looks like inspiring someone else to feel great about what they do, how proud they are to work in retail, and to pay the conversation forward.  

Using my knowledge and influence for good is what motivates me every day!