It didn't take much for Beth Christian to get hooked on a career in collegiate retail. As a long-standing merchant and the former college store manager at Bloomsburg University she brings a unique, store-centric approach to her role as Director of Business Development (Stores) at Sidewalk. We spent five minutes with Beth to discuss her multifaceted career, the nuances of collegiate retail, and how industry needs and challenges have changed in the last few years.
What did you do prior to working at Sidewalk?
I have always been a merchant. I grew up helping in our family’s commercial kitchen equipment and design business. At the age of 22, I opened my own clothing store and after 11 years serving our local downtown in this capacity, I joined Bloomsburg University Store as the General Merchandise Manager in 1997.
Why did you choose Higher Ed?
I think many store managers out there can relate when I say I had no idea I was choosing a career in Higher Education when I began at the University Store. They were looking for someone who knew how to turn a profit, and I was looking for a new challenge that my little store could not provide. Truth be told, I thought it would be very similar to my background in “regular retail”. Surprise! I quickly learned there was a huge difference and so much to learn, but I was almost instantly captivated by the nuances of retail success on a college campus. Bloomsburg’s store is owned by the student government, so all of my college store years were spent truly working FOR students. This was a good foundation for thriving today in collegiate retail because my basic education in the industry has always been rooted in the student perspective.
My move to Sidewalk was similarly a quest for a new challenge, but this time a conscious decision that Higher Ed retail IS where I belong. After 17 years at Bloomsburg I had grown my career as far as it would go at that university, so I was exploring how to use my experience in a new way. In Sidewalk I found people who share my passion for student and college store success, with a future-driven focus that really inspires me.
Describe your current role.
Currently I am in a business development role that includes trade show coordination, liaison to industry associations, business strategy, and (most recently) managing our Customer Success team. Shout out to the eastern third of the country where I am also serving as your CSM!
How have stores changed over the past few years?
In the twenty years I have been in this industry, I have seen a gradual shift from managing stores as a local monopoly, to competing in a global internet economy. The most recent five years have been especially hard, and we’ve had to watch many independent stores hit rock bottom and lose their business. Change is required from independent stores moving forward and I’m happy to see them increasingly strip away old assumptions to explore tools well equipped for this new age of market competition.
How has the the path to store success changed over the past few years?
I think the most interesting change is the focus on contributing to the fulfillment of the academic mission and student success goals. This newfound alignment has greatly elevated store value and it’s exciting to watch their success become increasingly more meaningful to universities (beyond the financial return).
What do you think is the biggest opportunity and/or challenge facing college stores today?
I think the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity are the same thing--and that is time. Time is a limited resource, and stores are constantly challenged with needing to accomplish more at a faster pace. However, this moment in time is also stores’ biggest opportunity because there is new and exciting innovation currently available in the market that allows stores to make major strides towards success. 2017 is going to be a pivotal year in our industry and all stores would benefit to consider changes that will not only make the most impact for them, but make the most impact for them long-term.
In your opinion, what is the core value Sidewalk offers its partners?
I would say unique perspective is the core value that Sidewalk offers its partners. As someone who has walked in the shoes of a store manager, I highly value a partner who can approach the problems I am challenged with every day and bring a completely different perspective that helps a solution become obvious. I could educate myself, motivate my team, strive to meet important goals, but stepping outside my role to view a problem from a fresh perspective was most challenging for me. I think others face similar perspective challenges. When combined with Sidewalk’s transparent candor and desire to be a true partner to you, this unique perspective is even more profound. So often I hear about how different and refreshing it is to work with Sidewalk. And that makes me proud.
What was your best day at Sidewalk?
There are a lot of great days to consider, but I think my best day was Sidewalk Summit 2016 in Houston (before CAMEX). We planned and prepared so long for that day and ended up with great attendance. The sessions spurred interesting conversations and important takeaways, and the day was capped off by our bowling party where everyone seemed to truly enjoy themselves. It was the perfect combination of really solid teamwork (and I include our Summit attendees in that team) and just plain fun.
Most valuable thing you’ve learned or done at Sidewalk?
I’ve learned so much working at Sidewalk that it is difficult to pin down the most valuable thing. I also must admit some of the things I have learned I am embarrassed to share. (OK, I had never seen a google doc before I came here. My secret is out.)
If I had to pick, I think the most valuable thing I’ve learned is data-based decision-making. Before I came to Sidewalk I would have said that I only ever made data-based decisions, but I came to realize how many former decisions were actually judgment-based. After so many years, I relied on data in my head as a guiding principle. It is a far different (and more impactful) thing to list out the facts and reach a conclusion based solely on indisputable data.
Favorite book or piece of content you like to share?
Sidewalk has a great tradition of reading and being inspired by current business literature. One book the executive team read and then recommended to all of us is Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage. The book is full of practical wisdom for team building that we’ve pulled from at Sidewalk. I have recommended this book to some store friends who are using it to approach their management and team building in a new way, as well.