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Executive of the Year: Michelle Gass, Kohl's

Under its CEO, 2019 was a year of innovation for the retailer as it pushed for increased foot traffic, streamlined its supply chain and rolled out new partnerships.

The magic of Michelle Gass' success this year started with the Instant Pot. Which is to say, it started in the 2018 holiday season, when Kohl's dunked on the competition by selling 60 Instant Pots per minute on Thanksgiving.

The success of Kohl's under Gass' leadership over that season set the stage for all of 2019. What was about to happen was a year of innovation, and of generally showing big-box players that Kohl's isn't backing down — not from pushing for foot traffic, streamlining its supply chain or taking some big swings with partnerships.

Gass delivers strategic collaborations

Creative solutions started in January when Kohl's announced a tie-up with WW (formerly known as Weight Watchers) with an 1,800 square foot concept, called WW Studio, in a Chicago store. "[A] strategic partnership with WW provides the opportunity to further advocate for the health and wellbeing of Kohl's customers and our associates," Gass said in a statement at the time.

That announcement was followed a few months later with the launch of another partnership, this time with Planet Fitness. The company announced up to 10 workout centers were to open adjacent to select Kohl's stores with the company eyeing the prospect for expansion of the deal in the future. Gass explained that the collaboration was "an important initiative to not only leverage our real estate assets but also drive traffic to our stores through key partnerships."

But, the biggest home run of 2019 came in the form of Amazon. In April the retailer revealed that it would take returns from Amazon at all of its locations. Even more impressive? People didn't even have to have a box or a label for the return to take place, further reducing friction for returns. Kohl's had been working on a pilot program with the e-commerce giant since 2017, but the rollout meant that customers would have an incentive to walk into one of its 1,150 locations across 48 states.

The health initiatives with WW and Planet Fitness, along with a positive response to the Amazon returns program, is part of an overarching strategy to keep people coming into stores. Gass drove home the point when she explained in a Q2 earnings call that the Amazon collaboration "aligns with our top strategy of driving traffic. The overarching goal of this program is to convert the traffic that comes into our stores into loyal Kohl's shoppers over time."

Private label + celebrity mix

Gass' previous experience as the company's chief merchandising and customer officer has played into her strategic efforts to balance the store's product offerings. Gass started streamlining operations last year with a mission to mix private label items, which drive better margins, with exciting tie-ups with brand names.

Those efforts have played out in 2019.

This summer the company announced the arrival of "Curated by Kohl's," a concept that includes products from emerging brands that are to be sold online in over 50 stores. Curated by Kohl's was done in partnership with Facebook and will continue to roll out new brands each quarter that "have built a strong online community on the social media platform," the company said.

In October, Kohl's announced a large assortment of brands that would join the store for the holiday season that included Fanatics, Ellen DeGeneres, Nine West and Scott Living (from HGTV's "Property Brothers" stars Drew and Jonathan Scott).

Kohl's is no stranger to celebrity partnerships. Former star of the television show "The Hills," Lauren Conrad, is celebrating the tenth year of her LC Lauren Conrad for Kohl's line. Designer Vera Wang's line, Simply Vera Vera Wang, has been an affordable fashion mainstay and shoppers can still find Jennifer Lopez apparel at the retailer.

Continuing that trend, 2019 brought two additional fashion-forward moves at Kohl's. In April the retailer signed an exclusive deal with sisters Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen for their lifestyle brand Elizabeth and James. Starting this holiday season the collection of apparel, handbags, accessories, and beauty products will be available in stores and online. "This is another great example of how we are bringing newness and fashion relevancy to the millions of women who shop Kohl's," Gass said in a statement at the time of the announcement. "We also know that Elizabeth and James will support our efforts to drive new customers, particularly millennials, to Kohl's."

About a month later the retailer announced that it also will have an exclusive, limited-edition women's apparel collection with designer Jason Wu. The line is "inspired by classic Hollywood glamour" and consists of "signature pieces for holiday dressing," according to the company.

The product diversity affirms Kohl's positioning of offering refreshed lines while continuing to drive traffic in its brick-and-mortar locations.

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