Vice President of Visual Merchandising at OfficeMax on a career in retail: “Time flies when your having fun”

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Chuck Luckenbill, Vice President of Visual Merchandising at OfficeMax, has had a rich career in retail. Luckenbill has held senior leadership positions in visual merchandising and store design with Kohl’s, Carson Pirie Scott & Co. and Dayton-Hudson Department Stores, before joining OfficeMax in 2007. In our joint NRF STORES interview, he shares a lot of incredible insights about how his early career experience shaped him (“learning and believing in the value of the people you work with and work for”), the mentors who influenced him, and advice for those (including his kids!) interested in making connections with retail companies.

Did you aspire to a retail career from the beginning? Was visual merchandising a focus of your college studies?

Chuck Luckenbill, VP of Visual Merchandising at OfficeMax

I studied fine arts in college and loved every minute of it. I was taking courses in sculpture, painting and photography. I did not aspire to a career in retail, but I joined Dayton’s [Minneapolis] for a two-week stay and got bitten by the retail bug. And wow, time flies when you’re having fun.

Your first retail job, at Dayton-Hudson, lasted 16 years — that’s a long time by today’s standards. How did that experience shape the rest of your career? What do you like most about working in retail?

My first job there was in windows, but I had the opportunity to be promoted every two to three years. So each time I was learning more and gaining more responsibility. That coming-up experience taught me to continually look around me for ideas and influences, to surround myself with talented individuals and share my knowledge. I also learned you should do what’s good for the soul once in a while.

At Dayton’s, I recognized the foundation for success. It’s learning and believing in the value of the people you work with and work for. If you don’t believe in their value, I don’t know how you’re going to be successful.

What characteristics do you think are important in the retail industry, and visual merchandising in particular? What advice would you offer others who are interested in a visual merchandising career?

I’ve found it’s important to have people skills, flexibility and commitment, but most important is being able to interpret an idea and turn it into a tangible thing. My advice is to seek out a mentor early on, keep an open mind and trust your instincts. But most of all, exercise your passion.

Did you have mentors early on who guided you in the right direction?

I did. At Dayton’s it was Andrew Markopoulos [former senior vice president of visual merchandising and design for the department store division of Dayton Hudson Corp.], who taught me good taste vs. bad taste. He was a very demanding boss. He really influenced my career and I learned a lot from Andy, but he wasn’t the only one. [In 2001, Luckenbill, then vice president of visual merchandising for Kohl’s Corp., was named as the seventh recipient of the highly coveted Markopoulos Award, an industry honor named for the late visual merchandising vice president.]

Another big influence was Sam Chernoff, a vendor who took an interest in my career and gave me advice. He wouldn’t let me throw caution to the wind, even though sometimes I did. Another mentor, Wayne Sullivan, who represented a number of mannequin companies, became a friend of mine early in my career. He was not only an industry friend, but a personal friend who was able to give me both personal and career advice. You need to understand [at that time] I had two fantastic parents who didn’t understand what I did for a living.

With more than 500 connections, your LinkedIn profile is pretty impressive. Do you have any tips for retail job seekers trying to connect with people and/or companies on social media websites? How can they use this connection to their advantage?

I wasn’t looking for that to happen, but over time those connections were made … there are lots of people out there with 500 connects. Personally, I like to read the blogs associated with LinkedIn, so I use it more as a learning tool to see what the retail world is up to. It offers how and what people are thinking.

I’m not sure social media sites are a great job source. I think you need to look at it from the company’s perspective: How do they wade through thousands of resumes and get the cream to come to the top? Think about the multiplier effect — there could be millions of people on that site and thousands of people looking for that job.

Once you’ve identified the job or company, the next step is to do whatever it takes to get an introduction and a foot in the door. Use LinkedIn as well as the company’s website. Send an e-mail, mail a letter and try to connect with a real person. Be the squeaky wheel, but be courteous. Call the company early in the morning — before 9 a.m. Most retail executives, including HR, are in their offices between 8:00 a.m. and 8:30 a.m., and sometimes they’ll pick up their own phones. I got the job at Carson’s using that strategy. I got the lead from a vendor and the next morning I called. This was before the Internet, but I think my advice still applies. I also believe word-of-mouth networking remains as powerful as the Internet.

I have more personal experience in this area as a dad. When I’m helping my kids, who are adults now, I keep reminding them it’s about the relationship. About a year and a half ago, my daughter was online every night applying for jobs. And I said, “Okay, think about it. How many people are on that site looking at that job and applying for that job?”

My son Evan is now manager of operations at Nike’s Beaverton, Ore., employee store. He started out there in visual as a department manager and I’m really proud of what he’s accomplished. Of course, I’m proud of all three of my kids. Evan and I talk regularly about the challenges and opportunities retailing offers. As everyone knows, it’s a hard business to be in, because like anything it requires a commitment and the idea that you should do whatever it takes to get the job done and to do your best work. But if you like what you’re doing, it’s a great business. If you don’t like what you’re doing, get out and find something else.

Read more about Chuck Luckenbill, including more about his thoughts on visual merchandising, in the full NRF STORES interview.

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