Dealerscope 2018 Hall of Fame Inductee: Sandy Conrad
The decided appeal of shopping from the comfort of an armchair wasn’t suddenly discovered and tapped into by Amazon. Long before Jeff Bezos ever sold a book online (and that was all he sold in the beginning), there was HSN, which provided armchair shoppers who only needed two “devices” – a TV and a telephone – with the joy of sales-pressure-free, information-rich demonstrations and the convenience of round-the-clock accessibility.
Sandy Conrad, as senior vice president at HSN, has for years been one of the linchpins in making sure that a pleasing customer experience is delivered seamlessly throughout the sales process at this pioneering interactive entertainment and lifestyle retailer, which reaches about 90 million homes with live TV programming 364 days a year and (via HSN.com) with more than 50,000 product videos.
“I knew from an early age that I wanted to get into retailing,” Conrad said. “I always found it fascinating how product trends took hold – new waves in colors and fashions. That always intrigued me.”
She studied marketing in college and arrived at this model of retailing after starting at a traditional brick-and-mortar store – Wanamaker’s (now Macy’s) in Philadelphia in the ’80s, where she worked for four years. “At that point, in 1988, many of the regional department stores were going through acquisitions, and they were going to move the buying offices down to D.C. – but I really enjoyed living in Philadelphia, and wanted to find an opportunity there so I could stay,” she explained. A friend who’d joined a locally based startup encouraged her to interview there – and that startup was QVC. “I had no idea what it was. She said, ‘Well, we sell products on TV.’ So I gave myself a quick little education, not sure it was really for me, but when you have an opportunity to interview, it’s always a good experience to sharpen your skills. I went in a little uncertain, and after the interview I thought, I hope I get this job because I think anyone who loves retailing has to fall in love with the immediacy of this medium.” It was there that she learned the ropes of on-air retailing, later honing her skills in a career path that ultimately brought her in 2006 to her current home at HSN.
Fast-Feedback Retail’s Rewards
What energizes Conrad about this sales method, she said, is that “you get to see in real time, as one of your on-air experts talks about the features and benefits of the products, how many customers are responding – how many people pick up the phone, how many are in the ordering process. As you see the phone calls climb, you see the inventory drop. And that’s the thing that really hooked me.
“In most other forms of retail you don’t have the ability to be that close to the customer on a large scale. In brick and mortar, you deal with customers one at a time, and at the end of the day you get to see the total. But here, you know in 10 minutes. We always say, in this environment, you learn very quickly if you’re the hero or the goat.”
In her management position, Conrad is responsible for teams working both in the Electronics and the Kitchen and Food categories, and as such, she makes a point of interacting with staff but also “sitting back and listening. I don’t see myself as a micromanager. My grandmother told me a long time ago, you have two ears and one mouth, and you should use them in that proportion.” Conrad said she enjoys mentoring, encouraging an atmosphere where people aren’t fearful of missteps. “It’s really important to empower the team and my role is to eliminate roadblocks that might be in their path and ensure they’re pointed in the right direction – and to jump in, when there’s a need. At the end of the day, it’s maximizing the sale, minimizing the risk, but making sure they’re learning and growing in their own careers. That’s what I enjoy most.”
One fan of her management style is Fred Towns, New Age Electronics’ president, who is a business associate but who also knows Conrad through their association with the Anti-Defamation League’s Consumer Technology Division. “The thing I love about Sandy is she’s extremely professional and a relationship person – she never wears her title on her epaulets,” he said. “She comes to you, always, with the mind of a merchant, talking about what will be mutually beneficial for both companies as partners. It’s always a thought of, what are we trying to do here, what are we trying to message, how will we all get what we’re looking for – a solid partnership. And that trait is not always in the minds of all merchants. She always tries to be fair in her asks and bring the most unique offerings to her customer base, but also tries to make it fair where the distributor, in our case, or the manufacturer feels they’re getting good representation. It’s about looking at the whole picture. She has a good, cool, level mind and is a good listener.”
Towns also points to Conrad’s success in focusing on clearly communicating state-of-the-art technologies to the female shopper. “It’s a matter of completely looking at all aspects,” he said – meaning picking the right products and making sure customers are well-educated on benefits – and being big on customer support. While Towns said most retailers today do a good job in that area, “in this case, they’re catering more to a female customer and telling it in a way that provides more visual representation of how things work, while giving the technology brand story.”
On Retail’s Changing Challenges
Over the years of her career, Conrad has witnessed technology’s churnings with the products themselves, but also the alarmingly quick shift toward online buying – a trend that HSN has kept pace with in the sophistication of its website videos. “What’s changed most is how folks transact today,” she observed. “When I first started at QVC it was just pick up the phone, call, talk to an operator – and that certainly has evolved. It’s often surprising to folks who aren’t as close to this industry as we are who work in it, but today, more customers place orders through our digital platforms than by phone. That’s been one area where we’ve had to stretch our skills and knowledge a bit. To be able to put together in your mind a good on-air television presentation – and [figure out] how does that translate to the digital world. Obviously, it started on desktops, but then screens got smaller and you talk about tablets and then now, it’s mobile phones. You don’t have the real estate on a mobile phone that you do on a desktop – so you have to be a lot more succinct and more thoughtful about how it is you want to talk features and benefits... On TV, you may have 20 minutes to tell the story but in a digital world, viewing links of a video clip, folks don’t have the patience for 20 minutes, so you have to distill those down to a very impactful 60 to 120 seconds.”
If technology and buying behaviors are the moving targets in retailing, then the one immutable constant, Conrad said, is “customers’ expectations on quality. If they’re going to trust you with a credit card and wait that couple of days to get a package, their expectation of what you’re portraying the product to be, the quality of it, how it functions – they expect you’re going to deliver what you said, and even more. And that hasn’t changed over time.”
Conrad said she looks forward to the closing of the deal brokered in 2017 that, when finalized, will unite HSN with QVC. “In general, it will be beneficial around the table to QVC and HSN, because we can leverage best practices. I think it will be beneficial to our manufacturing partners because they’ll have access to an even broader portfolio, and most importantly it’s beneficial to customers. We’ll have more feet on the ground as a combined company. We’ll have access to more opportunities and should be able to bring customers even more terrific products and ideas, going forward.”