Interview: Hudson’s Bay president Liz Rodbell on taking retail upscale

How a retail veteran is leading one of Canada’s most iconic brands through changing times for department stores

Hudson’s Bay president Liz Rodbell

Hudson’s Bay president Liz Rodbell. (Portrait by Nick Wong)

Liz Rodbell became president of Hudson’s Bay Co.’s department store group in February 2014, after spending the bulk of her career working at the U.S. chain Lord & Taylor. When private equity group NRDC Equity Partners acquired Hudson’s Bay Co. in 2008, Rodbell began collaborating with Bay stores in her role as executive vice-president of merchandising. Like her predecessor, Bonnie Brooks, who launched an ambitious repositioning of the languishing Canadian chain, Rodbell is focused on revitalizing the brand with fresh product lines, new categories and updated stores, and by kick-starting the chain’s e-commerce functions.

People might be surprised that the president of such an iconic Canadian brand is American. You were chief merchandiser at Lord & Taylor when its owners, NRDC Equity Partners, acquired Hudson’s Bay Co. What were your first impressions of the chain?

I came up to see it, and what I immediately connected with was the heritage of the brand and the people who worked here. The relationships started happening right away, and we saw opportunities for both brands: a footwear opportunity for Hudson’s Bay, for instance, and some fine jewelry opportunities for Lord & Taylor. So the collaborations began from the outset.

You took over as president of Hudson’s Bay last year at a challenging time for Canadian department stores. What priorities have you set to win customers from rivals like Nordstrom, Holt Renfrew or even your own sister company, Saks?

We’ve been on a mission to be the best department store in North America. That mission is clear, and what we’ve really been aiming to do is enhance the customer experience. We want to create an exciting environment—something we really think we’ve done through the renovations at our Toronto flagship store. We’ve got beautiful natural light in there now; we’ve got chefs baking cookies in fully installed kitchens. And we really want to move forward in the e-commerce and digital space. That’s been a journey we’re on. We’re growing and really excited about it.

Hudson’s Bay’s website and e-commerce functions in the past have been pretty horrific, to put it bluntly. What’s changed?

In the past 18 months we’ve incrementally grown the offerings—they’re now dramatically expanded. Our first benchmark was to have an assortment of products that matched the offerings at our flagship, and now we’re moving beyond that so we can offer an “expanded aisle,” things that aren’t available in our stores. One of our first examples is menswear: We’ve added a big and tall collection online. We’ve done a lot, and we’re going to do more.

What are you still looking to improve?

I’m not sure “improve” is the word I would use, but we’re certainly looking to evolve our digital navigation. We want to make sure we’re quick and seamless. And we’re working toward making it possible for customers to buy online and pick up purchases in-store. The next thing that will evolve is our mobile technology. It’s so important. We actually just had the team from Google come in for a lunch-and-learn. I like to host things like that, where outside companies come in and talk to our leadership team. It reinforced for us how much information-getting is happening through mobile. So that is certainly on our radar.

What other companies have you brought in for chats?

MasterCard came in and spoke to the group about consumer trends, which was certainly interesting. The learning sessions are something I’ve just started, and I’m hoping to do them on a quarterly basis. Last year I also did a lot of “lunches with Liz.” I really want to be an accessible president, so I spent a lot of time in my first year getting to know all the central teams. I probably met with 150 groups. It was very casual and all about making connections. I asked everyone I met to tell me something about themselves that most people don’t know, and it really helped people get to know one another and discover common interests. This is the culture we want to create: We’re fast, we’re decisive, and we’re in this to win together as a team.

How are you aiming to differentiate Hudson’s Bay from some of the department store chains in Canada that are rapidly expanding?

One thing we’re really proud of is our partnership with Kleinfeld Bridal. We’ve sold 4,000 wedding dresses since we opened our Kleinfeld boutique a year ago, and we are now the number one bridal registry in Canada. But in addition to fashion and ladies’ apparel, we’re also focused on home as a destination. This is an important area for us, where we can go from the most accessible price points and really be the destination for all things home. We’ve renovated the flagship Toronto location and are continuing to do that to other stores to ensure home is a core part of our business model.

How will you differentiate between Hudson’s Bay and Saks? Both will be occupying space at your Toronto flagship on Queen Street. Is it strange to have them side by side, offering similar stuff?

I think the brand matrix is broader at Hudson’s Bay. Every chain probably has a “good, better, best” brand strategy, but Hudson’s Bay’s strategy is really to have great brands at accessible price points. And we’re really going after active lifestyle customers—activewear is a big part of what we’re about.

Is there a typical Bay customer?

There’s no single definition. We want to be a bit more democratic than that. We look at serving customers with a range of tastes, from the more classic to the most contemporary. An example of that end of the spectrum would be our Topshop partnership. It’s very contemporary.

Do people in Sydney, N.S., respond as enthusiastically to the Topshop partnership as shoppers in Toronto? I’m wondering how much you localize selection as a national chain with 90 stores.

We definitely localize our assortments. We’re continuing to evolve all of our stores, but some are more appropriate for certain products than others. And there are other factors we have to think about too. In Vancouver, sizing is different and raincoats are much more of a thing.

There’s been talk in the past about taking Hudson’s Bay to new markets. Do you hope to eventually open stores outside Canada?

The plan today at Hudson’s Bay is all about Canada.

Meaning the chain will operate exclusively in Canada?

That is the plan. We do have our Stripes program—Hudson’s Bay products that we sell internationally. We’ve done collaborations with Lacoste and Converse, for example. Those have been distributed across the pond.

It’s been a bit of a running joke in the past that you can never find someone to help you at Hudson’s Bay stores. How are you planning to improve customer service?

We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about ways to serve the customer and how speed and ease are important. We’ve got a model now where we’ve separated responsibilities: There are staff putting merchandise out and there’s a different group doing selling. We’re also doing a lot of coaching. We talk about how appropriately and how quickly we connect with the customer on the floor. We have a standard that is quite quick, and we certainly hope to continue to evolve. Another thing we’re thinking about is how quickly we get back to the consumer when there’s any kind of disappointment. We have a pretty intense team working on improving that process because we think it’s a real opportunity.

How did you feel recording your first Hudson’s Bay ad? Like Bonnie Brooks, you’ve got a wonderful, deep voice made for radio.

I have to admit I had some trepidation. I went from being a chief merchant, engaging the customer through our products, to talking to them directly. But getting in the booth and putting the headphones on, you really feel like you’re talking to the customer. It was much easier than I expected. You do a few takes, some need a little tweaking, but then you’re good. Bonnie, of course, was encouraging: She just said, “Go for it.”

What do you want people to think when they leave one of your stores?

I want them to feel satisfied, to feel welcome. I want them to think, I want to come back!