Earned Ep. 70: Forever 21 CEO Winnie Park on the Resurgence and Evolution of Retail

Taylor Masket
Taylor Masket
Mar 7, 2023

Happy International Women’s Day! We’re thrilled to celebrate this day by sharing our 70th episode of Earned with an incredible woman in business: Winnie Park, CEO of Gen Z retailer Forever 21. Winnie has a proven track record of success, from earning her MBA at Northwestern, to holding executive roles at companies including Levi’s and DFS Group, before becoming CEO of Paper Source, and now sitting at the helm of Forever 21.  


We start the episode by discussing the resurgence of retail and in-store shopping, and how the industry has changed since the start of the pandemic. Winnie unpacks the evolution of Forever 21’s omnichannel strategy, and emphasizes the importance of meeting the customer where they’re at. We dive into the retailer’s approach to influencer marketing, and Winnie shares why Forever 21 prioritizes co-creation. Conor asks Winnie what it takes to run hundreds of physical retail locations, and Winnie explains why store associates are crucial because they’re closest to the boss—the customer. Next, we hear Winnie’s perspective on the “Glass Cliff” phenomenon, and she shares why she believes women make some of the best CEOs, particularly in tough times. To close the show, Winnie reveals her greatest learnings from her mentors, and why she now loves mentoring other professionals, before sharing the advantages of being part of the SPARC Group community.

We’ve included a couple of highlights from the episode below, but be sure to check out the full video above, or tune into the podcast on SpotifyApple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts!

The following interview has been lightly edited for concision. 

“It’s not about time, it’s about relevance”: Why Forever 21 Adapted its Omnichannel Strategy

Conor Begley: We used to have this balanced digital, physical retail model. Then with the pandemic, it was like, everything has to be digital. And now it's like, oh wait, let's get back to this more balanced model. How do those two channels interact in the best way possible? Because people are going into the store and using their phone to look up products while they're in the store, or they're watching a TikTok video at home that inspires them to go and shop, right? How do you think about that omnichannel experience in its most effective form?

Winnie Park: Well, I think that the old definition of omnichannel with simple things like buy online and pickup in store was, how can we make it super convenient [for the customer] to be competitive with customer-first organizations like Amazon that could deliver overnight, right?

I think the definition has really evolved, and for me, omnichannel has always been around the customer and meeting them where they are. So the brilliance of Amazon comes down to convenience. That's really what they offer: it's convenient to search, it's the convenience of getting the product quickly, et cetera, and time is one of those big enemies of any customer.

I would say that we have evolved from that point to where we are today from an omnichannel perspective, because it's not just about time, it's about relevance. 

Here is where I think we need to lean in to really meet customers where they are. Why is TikTok such an effective vehicle for getting people to engage with the brand or product? Because you are actually meeting them where they are. TikTok is a form of entertainment. There was a recent study that said that what we consume and what is actually created—not by big media companies, but by individuals—is more and more of our mind space, because it's a form of entertainment. So meeting a customer where they are is [a question of], how do you entertain them? How do you entertain them via social media and TikTok, how do you become part of the Metaverse? Our youngest customers are in Roblox, and Forever 21 made a conscious effort to actually be part of Roblox. We don't actually monetize our engagements there, but we get to be part of Shop City and engage with them where they are. Now, there’s that engagement and that form of entertainment via mobile, but then how do you connect the dots back to how they want to engage with you both online and in stores? How do you make that journey as seamless as possible? 

With Rihanna in the Super Bowl, I'm seeing red everywhere. And on TikTok, a lot of creators are talking about the color red. So how do you ensure that that's what shows up in app and online? How do you make sure that the experience in store prioritizes that? So that 360 experience and meeting customers where they are, that's how omnichannel has changed, I believe.

It's so interesting because in the old days it was inconvenient to drive to the store, and today we see it as a small luxury. So for me, I look at our stores and our footprints as, how do we engage? Not just how do we have a place where we just do commerce and I exchange these goods for your cash. I'd much rather they walk in and spend time and dwell. And for us, we are trying to evolve ourselves from being a pure retailer to an actual brand. And the brand lifestyle that we're about is for fashion fanatics, and they don't see fashion as just something you put on. It's actually a form of self-expression.

So [we think about] how to create that experience in store, in app, and online, so that we're really showing how people use fashion to self-express. I always call it the yellow thread because our color is yellow: how do you weave that yellow thread between social, app, online, all the way through to stores, and make it authentic and meet customers where they are instead of shoving content down their face?

“Know who’s boss, and be in service of the field and the fleet”: Winnie Park on the Keys to Effectively Running Hundreds of Retail Locations

Conor Begley: What does it take to run a hundred or a thousand retail stores? What do you think are the keys to doing that really, really well—assuming we're not in the middle of the pandemic?

Winnie Park: In every organization that I've been with, I would say I'm a firm believer in inverting the pyramid where the CEO is not at the top—the customer's at the top and the CEO's at the bottom. Anyone closest to the customer is closer to our boss, which is the customer. 

Conor Begley: There's that [Sam Walton] quote, where he says, “There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, [by spending his money somewhere else.]”

Winnie Park: Absolutely. That is the truest thing. And with that, if you invert the pyramid, your store and your fleet and your associates are closer to the boss than you are. And so I think the first principle of retail is, really listen to the associates. They are closer to what's happening. [We get] product feedback from the associates in terms of, what are customers looking at? What feedback are they giving you, even from fit to styling, et cetera. What do they need more of? Getting that feedback, and listening in a very concerted way as to how you can react is very important. 

The second piece of that is to make sure you make life easy for [the store associates]. I started my life in retail as a sales associate on the floor at Banana Republic, which was one of two retailers for apparel at Princeton. I was still in college and I was in there all the time because I'm a fashion nut, and the manager said to me, “Do you want to work here? I'll give you a discount.” I was scared to death on my first day of work. People are asking me for things, I have to know the product. I almost felt like an actor on the stage. I was representative of this brand, and they put me in the front as a greeter. I remember thinking, “How do I make my greeting compelling?” As an associate, you're asked to interact with the customer, serve the customer, make sure there's product on the floor, clean up dressing rooms, ring, do inventory in the back. There's a lot. So for me, the best retailers understand what the associates need and how to make life easy for them, because their most critical job is actually engaging with the customer. And if you can’t make that easy, you have failed. 

The other piece around retail that I think is critically important is connectivity at all levels. So for us, because we're a fashion trend brand, we need to deliver relevant fashion trends every two weeks, which means that we need to change our product and the way we look and feel every two weeks. Online, it’s easy. It's much more dynamic. Offline, you have to physically move product from place to place. You've got to dress mannequins, you've got to do all sorts of things, and so that communication up and down and really, really good guidance from corporate back to the stores is critical.

I always say retail is like playing a team sport. It is probably one of the biggest team sports, and I keep telling my teams, this is not a relay race where you get to pass off the baton. We're actually all in it together. Think of it like football. We are on the field together and every player on the field has a role. Communication with those players as they're running a play is critical. And so for me, that becomes the key to the kingdom in terms of really, really good execution. Know who's boss—the customer. Make sure the associates’ jobs are as easy as possible. Make sure that the communication flows up and down, and be in service of the field and the fleet.

Keep up with new episodes of Earned by following the podcast on SpotifyApple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts, or subscribing to our YouTube channel. To catch up on our previous episodes, featuring leaders from brands like Revolve, K18, Instagram, and Roblox, visit our Earned Podcast page.