My Retail Story: Juanita Lee-Garcia

Retail jobs are a Canadian resume standard, a vital rung on the employment ladder. But the retail industry and retail workers are facing significant challenges. In the first half of 2020, the pandemic led to a loss of 1.3 million retail jobs. Retail is among the top three industries at high risk of automation, and the Great Resignation further impacts the retail sector. 

While the skills gained working in retail are vital and increasingly in-demand, barriers still exist for those seeking new opportunities. The Venture for Canada Reskilling Retail Workers Project explores career pathways for folks with retail experience. Learn more about retail as a career foundation through My Retail Story, a series of interviews with folks who got their start in retail. 

Thanks for joining us today, Juanita! We’re excited to hear your retail story. Can you kick it off by telling us a bit about yourself and what you do at Venture for Canada (VFC)?

Thanks for hosting me, team! My name is Juanita Lee-Garcia (she/her), and I am the Director of Strategic Partnerships and Marketing at Venture for Canada. I oversee our Marketing and Social Innovation team, leading strategic initiatives, including this project.

You were a big part of bringing the Reskilling Retail Workers Project to Venture for Canada, and part of that is because, at one point in your career journey, you worked in retail.  I’m wondering if you can tell us a bit about that experience?

I worked in retail for over nine years, starting a part-time job in high school. I had just immigrated to Ottawa, Canada. I worked at a locally-owned boutique store for about a year and ended up falling in love with merchandising, buying, fashion and sustainability. After that, I went to work with a friend at Aritzia when I was 17. I worked on the floor (all before the days of e-commerce) as a sales associate and became a “Super Seller,” which allowed me to save up for my undergrad. While completing my undergraduate degree, I worked through other sales and management roles at Aritzia, learning about the 6-core business areas. I then went to grad school and transferred to Toronto training as a Learning Leader, where I got exposure to train-the-trainer programs for store and floor and associate managers at the store level.

That’s impressive! So what prompted you to make a move out of retail?

I considered a couple of things when thinking about what I wanted to do long-term. One of them was my health. I was diagnosed with a chronic illness, which required routine, which is difficult with shift work. It was difficult for me to get what I needed within the scope of work I was doing. I was also looking to apply more of my educational background to my day-to-day, which I got to do a little bit, but I found it challenging to navigate the “floor to HQ politics.” Shifting into the startup sector made a lot of sense in terms of career advancement, wanting to learn new things, and applying my skill sets to the startup space.

You already touched on this, and it’s something we talked a lot about at VFC – transferable skills. Can you share some of the skills you gained working in retail that you have been able to carry into the subsequent phases of your career?

Yes. I love this question! For me, transferable skills are skill sets that you can take into another job and explain and talk about how you’re taking them into another job. It doesn’t always mean that it’s the same skill applied in a different context, but it’s an evolution of that skill. I would say there are five top skills that I gained working in retail:

  1. Skills to work with others

We call “people skills,” which I believe are rooted in building authentic relationships. The relationships you build while selling are probably the top skill that I could transfer from retail into a sales job at or in any team dynamic. It’s very similar in the sense that you go through the process of approaching (communication & self-awareness), determining needs (qualifying), and discovery (demo-ing). 

  1. Emotional Intelligence

Being clear, concise, and able to provide the client/stakeholder/customer with the information they’re looking for and leveraging my team to enhance the experience. I had to gain a lot of product knowledge (what the item or article was made of, why it was designed in a certain way, who it was inspired by, etc.). Ensuring others around you trust you is crucial in any exchange or transaction. Knowing what information is essential in any given moment is a way to maximize the outcomes our that situation.  There’s a storytelling component in sales that I could transfer when I started working in the social impact space. Being able to explain things that people may not know about in a way they can understand from a foundational standpoint is critical. 

  1. Prioritize, Organize & Follow-up 

oOe of the skills I use the most is seeing things from a bird’s eye view and anticipating needs. As a busy retail store manager, there’s music, people on the floor, and tons of opportunities. On a day like Boxing Day, we would have lineups at the cash, lineups for fitting rooms, lots of traffic and risk. That environment requires you to look out for everything happening while assessing risk and thinking about how your systems and processes are set up. To have the right people at the right time at the right place to forecast what it’s going to look like in an hour or two hours is key. This is a skill I have transferred to project management and utilize in identifying how we set up our systems, processes, and timelines.

  1. Learn by doing!

Learn by asking clarifying questions, finding examples, and then trying it yourself. Often in partnerships and marketing, we make assumptions about what something should look like because of how it’s presented in the moment, a potential fit in a market, or our own biases. Listening to customers and what they need, putting yourself in their shoes, trying it, and analyzing the data is so important. In retail, someone might assume you need a product at the front of the store to sell well. But when you’re in merchandising, you know that if you want a product to sell, you put it where it’s at eye level, it’s easy to reach, and easy for people to see. That’s very similar to what we do in UX on a website, for example. The information you want people to see right away to drive people towards should be in a place that’s easy to find and easy to see when they land on a page.

  1. Getting & Managing the Resources You Need

In a fast-paced retail environment, you need to understand how to be resourceful and elevate the client experience. Whether that is looking for a garment at another store, offering to order it online, or offering to take down their number to give them a call when it arrives, being resourceful about how you can make the client experience better is so important. In my work, I have to adapt to sudden changes. Instead of interpreting that change as stressful, I see it as adapting to the business or the environment and identifying solutions that will work for everyone. Our teams strive to have a really good way of communicating changes and not making folks feel stressed in the process. Working collaboratively while being resourceful is also a skill I learned from retail.

Those are amazing skills! It’s clear they’re foundational, lifelong skills that can be applied across a lot of different experiences. I love that you talked about that additional step of articulating those skills and talking about their evolution. If you were talking to a young person with a foundation in retail who is looking for their next chapter, what advice would you give them?

Think about how retail experience has shaped a belief. Reflect on how belief will inform other roles. I’d also say reflect on the work you’ve done and tie it back to a specific skill. What are the tasks you’re doing now, and how are those tasks representative of a skill you possess? If you don’t know the skills, try a quick Google on what skills are in-demand right now or what skills you need to go into a specific job. Try being resourceful and see if you can connect those skills to a task you already do. Understanding the language of skills is a great way to talk about and build the story of your career, explain why you want to pursue something else as a next step, and demonstrate that you already have relevant experience.

That’s great advice and a really good reminder that different people talk about other skills and different ways, especially across sectors and industries. Last but not least, is there anything else you want to share when talking about retail tech skill-building or entrepreneurial mindset.

The landscape of retail and tech skills building is changing. There are tons of opportunities with e-commerce. There’s tons of opportunity to expand into financial tech businesses. Having a background in retail is a positive foundational experience for roles in those types of spaces.

The pandemic and automation have widened employment gaps, and displacement factors disproportionately affect women, Indigenous, and racialized communities. The Reskilling Displaced Retail Workers Project is a project funded by the Government of Canada’s Future Skills Centre. The project supports the design of a reskilling program focusing on racialized and Indigenous youth in Ontario. To learn more about the project or participate in our program testing, join our Recovery Community.

Una Lounder Una is a graduate of the MMIE (Master of Management Innovation and Entrepreneurship)...