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Retail and Communications today with Karen DiScala from Burlington Stores

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This podcast was brought to you by our host Chuck Gose and guest Karen DiScala, VP of Comms at Burlington. In this episode Karen shares a bit about Burlington’s fast growth from Burlington Coat Factory to Burlington Stores and what the day to day life looks like being the VP of Comms. She also discusses how they are using the SocialChorus platform to succeed, what sets them apart and and how they’ve dealt with the impact on retail through this year’s challenges.

Culture, Comms, & Cocktails Episode 45 Transcript

Chuck Gose: Hello, everyone. This is Culture, Comms, & Cocktails, the podcast with internal comms served straight up. I’m your host, Chuck Gose, Senior Strategic Advisor at SocialChorus. And on this premier episode of 2021 of Culture, Comms, & Cocktails, we have Karen DiScala, VP of Comms at Burlington. Welcome to the podcast, Karen.

Karen DiScala: Thanks so much, Chuck. So happy to be here.

Chuck Gose: And I am thrilled to tell your story or help tell your story at Burlington. So for those who might not be familiar, let’s begin by talking a bit about Burlington, first the business, what the organization does, and then a bit about the people and the culture, along with your role as VP of Comms at Burlington.

Karen DiScala: All right. Super. Well, as you said, I work for Burlington Stores. A lot of people think of it as Burlington Coat Factory, our previous brand, but we are now Burlington Stores. We are a fast-growing, off-price retailer. Although there’s a lot of doom and gloom around retail these days, we are growing really fast. We are approaching 800 stores and over 40,000 associates.

And you asked about the culture. Honestly, it’s my favorite thing about the company. I’ve worked in a lot of different places, and the culture at Burlington is really spectacular. It is a group of really smart, hardworking people, but there’s just such a level of care and concern that goes from the top of the organization all the way down, just really nice, genuine people who are all focused around driving results and caring for each other. So really fantastic place to work. I’m really lucky to work there.

Chuck Gose: And then go into a bit about your role of VP of Comms. Is it internal and external? What’s your day-to-day life there like?

Karen DiScala: My primary focus is internal, and we’ve just recently taken on talent brand. So I’ve got a fantastic team. We’re small, but mighty. We handle all official corporate comms, we participate in our corporate social responsibility report, we’ve got a video studio and onsite videographers. So we do all kinds of executive videos. We do support videos for our talent brand. We also manage our intranet. We have digital signage, but we have a lot of fun, and again, we’re growing fast.

Chuck Gose: You had briefly mentioned, when we were talking about the business, for someone who’s on the consumer side of retail, it seems like you hear this doom and gloom story about retail. So what has made Burlington, then, so special to be excelling during this time?

Karen DiScala: Well, I think it’s unique to the off-price model. So much of retail has been impacted by online vendors, but off-price is really unique, like our sweet spot is finding those deals that we can work down to up to 65% off department stores, but you have to be in the store to find them. So people who are interested finding a great deal at a fantastic price, you have to go into the store. And honestly, it’s a lot of fun to go to that treasure hunt thing. Our customers really enjoy the experience of just going in and finding that fantastic piece for that crazy price.

Chuck Gose: Yeah. That’s a great point. I didn’t think about that. There’s that lure and ease of online, but yeah, if you’re out for that treasure hunt of items and that deal-

Karen DiScala: Yeah. Really, at this point, it’s hard for online vendors to replicate it because it’s so fast moving. You just never know what’s going to be in the store week to week.

Chuck Gose: Well, and everybody loves a good deal now. So that’s great to hear the businesses doing well. The reason we’ve been brought together for this podcast episode is Burlington is a customer of SocialChorus. And back in early 2020, you had launched a brand new internal comms program for the organization, calling it FirstUp. But we’re going to deal with this first question in two phases. I don’t want to give away the spoiler at the end. Let’s talk about the original plan of how you were going to launch and roll out FirstUp to Burlington employees back early on in 2020.

Karen DiScala: Well, as I said, we’re a fast growing company, but we’d like to move slow. I think I mentioned to you, we had our sales cycle with SocialChorus stretched to years, not months. So when we were going to launch the program, we wanted to follow our normal model, which is to pilot to a small group and then do some analysis and then do a larger pilot and do some analysis.

So our plan was a year ago, in February, we were going to release it to approximately 150 of our field leaders, and then, after about a month of testing that, we were going to release it to approximately 100 of our store managers. We weren’t going to open up two-way conversation there. We were just going to, again, test it out slowly to see what we were going to learn, and eventually roll it out to the entire business. But we were looking at about a three to four-month rollout process, again, to make sure that we could learn and assess and tweak along the way. That was our plan.

Chuck Gose: And then, obviously, we all know what happened as February led into March, and we’ve all been through and continue to work through this pandemic professionally, personally, socially, as we make adjustments. So then what happened with FirstUp? You had this plan all laid out to pilot and very strategic, of which audiences to bring in, but then you changed plans.

Karen DiScala: Yeah. What do they say about plans, right?

Chuck Gose: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Karen DiScala: Yeah, so as we got into February, obviously, we began to see what the world is seeing, that the pandemic was growing and expanding in ways that we weren’t really anticipating. And as we got into early March, it became clear that we were going to have to close some stores. We didn’t realize what stores, but we figured that we were going to have to close some stores. And one of the big selling points to us about FirstUp was that we thought that in a crisis, we would be able to deploy it, like if there was a hurricane, heaven forbid, or other tragedy, we would be able to open up a channel to our store associates to communicate.

So as we were approaching going into the second week of March, we realized that we had no way of knowing what stores were going to close or what the future was going to hold. So we made the decision to just open up the flood gates. We built 750 channels almost overnight. We had a whole team effort, one channel for every store, along with a couple of other ancillary channels. And then we just began the process.

That was approximately the point at which we realized we were going to close the entire chain. Our first and foremost priority has always been the safety of our associates and customers. So we proactively made the decision that we were closing everything down. So we had about one to two weeks’ notice that we were going to do that, and we just had this massive push, and we had started out, of course, with our communications plan and our change plan and making people aware of the app and everything else so that they knew what was coming.

All of that had to be scrapped. No one knew what we were even planning this. And we just went out to our store associates as best we could and said, “There’s this thing. You need to get it and you need to do your two-step authentication. You need to register. You need to get this thing, and you only have about a week left to do it,” because once they left the store, we were not going to be able to get in touch with them. We were not going to be able to give them the tools that they needed to download the app. So it was an incredible push, very frantic and totally threw our plans out the window for how we were going to slowly and easily ease into it.

And also, one of the things that we had planned to do was not open up the channels for people to post because we wanted to, again, take small steps in that direction, but when we realized that we were going to be closing the whole chain in a matter of days, we just, again, opened up everything and just threw caution to the wind to see what happened.

Chuck Gose: Now for those that might not be familiar with the SocialChorus product, and I did not have the privilege of working with you and your team there at Burlington on the launch strategy, I would say the majority of our customers launch was around maybe 15, maybe pushing 20 channels from a manageable standpoint. And your team rolled out 750 channels, which kudos to you and the team for, one, taking on that responsibility, recognizing the need to be able to do that, because I think that speaks to that very personalized and targeted nature of the communications.

Like you said, general company information needs to go out, but for a lot of these employees, it was about what was happening at their store. And thankfully, you had the attributes in there. You could target the content to those people so they’re only seeing their store and not seeing other stores. Is that one of the drivers behind being able to provide that personalized, targeted experience, and how else did you take advantage of those features during this time?

Karen DiScala: Well, when you say was that one of the drivers, do you mean one of the reasons we decided to go with the platform in the first place?

Chuck Gose: Absolutely.

Karen DiScala: Yes, but we didn’t think we were going to roll it out that fast. From our perspective was we knew that the SocialChorus platform could do this, but we were, again, “In the future, once we’ve learned, we’ll move forward.” And also to be quite candid, we needed to test out the app. Our feeling was, “Are the attributes going to work?” Every technology has its challenges, and so we figured that we were probably going to have to learn our way through on the attributes. So we didn’t want to run too fast. We wanted to crawl, walk, run in terms of launching things because we didn’t know what was going to work or not.

Chuck Gose: And you went out running.

Karen DiScala: Right.

Chuck Gose: Right away. Sprint.

Karen DiScala: Right away.

Chuck Gose: Dead sprint, right away.

Karen DiScala: Sleeplessly night, I’ve got to tell you, as we were watching, it was like, “Oh my. Fingers crossed this is going to work.”

Chuck Gose: I can’t even imagine, but clearly, it did. So one question, I think that would be good for people to understand, too, is obviously you brought this new tool in. Did it replace anything before? How did you communicate with employees before FirstUp was rolled out, and was this one of the reasons it was so beneficial to have a communication tool that existed outside the typical company backbone or the firewall that existed inside the organization?

Karen DiScala: Yeah, that the biggest selling point, is we had very few ways that we could actually communicate. We had signage in the back rooms that we would replace every two weeks with associate information. We, of course, had store rallies. We have an intranet, but in terms of being able to connect with that associate directly with need-to-know or nice-to-know information, we were really, really limited.

And of course we were thinking in any kind of a crisis, that was so urgent, but even just generally speaking, just to share great news with our teams or let them know how much we appreciate them or to get safety information into their hands, these are all things that we … It was very hard to do, and we recognized that if we could get the platform, the SocialChorus platform, it could be a game changer, and it turned out to be.

Chuck Gose: Well, let’s talk a bit about the Burlington employees at the retail stores out there on the front line. You said  that some stores closed during it. Let’s talk about the user-generated content portion because that’s always one of my favorite topics when it comes to this platform, is how do we get employees participating in communication? So often, they’ve just been the recipient of it, as you just described some of those channels before. Now they can participate. What type of participation did you see from your employees, and how has this been critical to the success of FirstUp?

Karen DiScala: It’s become really the foundation of it, and again, this was a big learning for us because we had traditionally been top-down in terms of our communication approach. In those first two weeks, we wound up closing all of our stores. All of our stores were closed and our associates were furloughed for a number of weeks. But before that happened, we had over 20,000 people in the span of about two weeks to sign on. And what we started doing was we just started to see associates, and even since then, they have become the lifeblood of FirstUp.

Yes, we continue to push down the need-to-know information and other types of safety information, but they’re keeping it alive. The vibrancy that we see them submitting content and sharing their stories, and it is our primary recognition tool now. There are thousands and thousands of pieces of recognition posted every week from store managers, from regional managers, from just associate to associate. It’s fantastic. And me, as an administrator, I get to see all channels all the time, and this may sound silly, but there are times that I just wanted to cheer myself up and I’ll just start flipping through and just see this culture and the community.

As I said, we’re a very caring company. And you just see that amongst the associates talking about themselves and each other and how grateful they are. So it’s really become the sustaining element of it. And we have tried, since launching, to create channels that are not interactive in that way. And they flounder. They just go away. They don’t have the life to them. So it really is the associate that is the lifeblood and the spirit and the culture of the app.

Chuck Gose: Now what, from a employee standpoint, obviously, participation comes in lots of ways, and commenting, sharing those photos, doing peer-to-peer recognition, all of great examples. What would you say to another company who maybe is a little bit concerned or fearful of opening those flood gates or opening up channels and letting employees be that key voice?

Karen DiScala: I would say it’s hard to believe there is any company more fearful of it than we were. And it’s funny because when we were talking to some of the folks at SocialChorus, they would say, “Other people have gone in this direction. They haven’t had bad experiences. Just trust us.” And again, I was like … I’m not sure if I felt that it was the right move for us, but we didn’t have a choice. We launched 750 channels in a matter of weeks.

It is the tiniest of tiniest fraction of posts that we’ve ever had to look at to remove or comment that we’re all like, “Aw, not sure about that.” Literally, I think something that was considered inappropriate, fewer than five. There are things that people have contacted us and said, “You know what? I posted the wrong photo. Could you take it down?” or something to that effect, but yeah, it’s been remarkable. We’ve had millions of comments that we’re talking about over the last year, and a fraction …

Again, it was a learning for us because we just weren’t sure. We were absolutely in unknown territory, and it’s worked out beautifully. And we continue to monitor. We tell our store managers that they need to monitor their channels. We monitor the public channels, and even with all these eyes on stuff, it’s not the stuff that’s getting through because we’re monitoring it all the time.

Chuck Gose: And then let’s talk a bit about the store leaders because, obviously, they were critical to communication forever, pre-pandemic, even, just in giving employees updates. How did they adopt, or how did they change their communication style going from what would have been more of a face-to-face model, I’m guessing, before to now communicating with their employees through FirstUp?

Karen DiScala: Well, it’s interesting. It was one of the ways that FirstUp first showed us our return on investment. So once we closed our stores, we realized that one of the most important things that we had to do was keep that communication going between our store managers and their teams. At some point, we were going to reopen our stores. We didn’t know when. But critical to our success and being able to get back in the game was going to be getting our teams back.

So what we did is we told our store managers that it was incumbent upon them just to stay in touch. They didn’t have any store news to share, but to share information, just to keep talking to their teams and let them know that we care about them, that we’re there for them. We sent them a little calendars of things that they could post about if they were struggling for ideas. We held webinars with our store managers just to teach them, “This is how you post. This is how you do a video. This is how you can do X, Y, and Z.” But just the idea that it was just critical that they stay connected, and they did a phenomenal job.

We also, at the corporate end, we started pushing out information to our associates about how to stay safe during COVID, how to deal with stress, resources that they had, that the company was offering to them to help them get through this time. And so we just continued to speak with our teams all during the furlough.

And it was an amazing turnaround because when we actually did open up our stores, I don’t know the exact figure, but I was told it was north of 80% of our associates came straight back, which, based upon anecdotal information I’ve heard from other retailers, was far above what many other people experienced, and we attributed that to FirstUp, that we just kept the lines of communication open, letting people know that we’re here for them, even though the stores are closed, that we want to stay engaged in their lives. And we were able to get, literally, tens of thousands of people back to work.

Chuck Gose: That is, for one thing, absolutely remarkable. And I think it’s great to hear that the organization attributes FirstUp to that success. I think it also points back to that culture that you shared very early on when we started talking about it. If the culture wasn’t there, it doesn’t matter, sometimes, if the communication is there or not. But the culture is that foundation, and then the communication was that layer on top that kept people engaged, kept people involved, kept them wanting to come back when stores opened, and to think about, as you said, other retailers having to go through this. Can you imagine what this would have been like if FirstUp hadn’t been available for the organization?

Karen DiScala: Yeah. It’s hard to envision because it would have just been a bit of a black hole for everybody, and putting so much pressure on our store leadership teams to reach out to people. How would you do that? Individually by phone, by email? It would just make it so incredibly difficult. And this way, again, we were able to just keep the lines of communication open and just let people know what the resources we had for them were, what the status was as we began to open our stores because, depending on the state and the county, it was happening gradually.

So we actually put out a video series to all of our store associates saying, “Hey, this is what’s going on. We’re learning. We’re growing. Safety comes first. These are the plans that we have in place. So again, it just kept everybody in the loop about what was happening during this unprecedented and terrible experience.”

Chuck Gose: Yeah. I imagine it had to be just a huge thing for your store leaders to, one, be empowered to communicate with the people they worked with everyday, but also know that the company has empowered them to communicate.

Karen DiScala: Yeah, yeah. I hadn’t thought about it in those terms, but you’re right. Yeah, just to have this tool at their disposal to use as they see fit.

Chuck Gose: Now, on a previous conversation you and I’d had, I wanted to bring this up because I thought it was a great perspective. You had shared with me that you had a somewhat tempered view of what impact FirstUp and working with SocialChorus might have. I wouldn’t say negative view, but just very tempered view. So how did this change in that time?

Karen DiScala: Well, I’ll tell you, as I said, we spent a couple of years looking at us for a solution, and had so many different people offering their opinions, and we did an RFP. And when it came time to make the decision, I was on the bench and wasn’t necessarily sold on SocialChorus. Not for any particular reason, but I just wasn’t sure it was the right partner for us. But talking with my partners and then on the RFP, we scored it and SocialChorus came out on top. Not by much, but I was willing to go with the data. This is what the data is saying.

I’ve got to say, it has worked almost flawlessly. The things that we anticipated … Whenever you bring a new technology in, there are problems. There’s maybe big problems, small problems, but there are problems with integrations. There’s problems with understandings. You didn’t know to ask the right questions. You misunderstood an answer, whatever. It has worked, literally, flawlessly, 750 plus channels, and we have never had an instance where someone in one store is getting the content from another.

We have found it to be a simple platform to use. So simple. They sold it to us as like, “This is really easy. You need no technical skills,” and they were 1,000% percent right. And I was just beyond pleasantly surprised, and just everything worked the way it was supposed to. Again, it’s easy. And I’ve got to say, the support has been super. Shout-out to [Sharmila], who is our account rep. She has just been great. We talked to her every couple of weeks, just as a touch-base. She lets us know what’s going on. If we have a problem, she’s on the phone with us in a heartbeat.

But yeah, overall it was only after we got well through the summer and got back to opening up our stores, we were all fully opened by Labor Day. I think it was about Labor Day. And I just had a chance to sit back and exhale and realized, I was like, “Wow. That thing really has worked and has continued to work beautifully.” Far, far exceeding my expectations. So kudos to the whole SocialChorus team, the tech team, the support team. It really is a fantastic product.

Chuck Gose: Well, that’s great to hear. If they’re not listening to this podcasts, I’ll make sure they get to hear that part. And I think it’s especially important when you think about, one, the urgency that all of this rolled out, plus that added complexity. Again, I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of great organizations in my three and a half years at SocialChorus. Nobody has launched with that type of complexity right out the gate, or even, I would say, even from a maturity standpoint, push it out that far.

But clearly, your organization did it for all the right reasons and are now reaping the rewards of getting the tool out there that everybody has access to, everybody can participate in. Some are empowered to then lead their teams, communicate directly with them, and that’s great to hear that the organization continues to excel. Your people came back, and again, that’s only going to continue to grow as the organization keeps … I don’t know, if we talk again in a year, maybe there’s hopefully more than 800 stores out there. But it’s great to hear this has been such a huge success for you and the team and everyone else there at Burlington.

Karen DiScala: Yeah. Really, it’s been quite a ride, I’ve got to tell you, over the year. Now we’re just looking at the platform and trying to figure out what we’re going to do next, and there’s just so many different opportunities. It’s almost like being a kid in a candy store of all the different ways that we’re thinking we could possibly leverage the tool, whether that’s from an onboarding process or supporting our L&D teams, or there’s just a whole variety of things. And it’s literally like I have to hold my team back. I’m like, “Okay, we’ve got to pick a few things and go for them,” because there’s just such a wide array, and everybody’s got their own ideas about where we could really land the next big win with the tool.

Chuck Gose: Well, that is really great to hear, Karen. I want to thank you for coming on the podcast. It is called Culture, Comms, & Cocktails. So we spent time talking through the culture and communications there at Burlington. Now I’d love to hear from you, what is your favorite cocktail?

Karen DiScala: I’m unbelievably boring. I tend to be wine, just really boring, nothing special about it. But I do have one thing to offer, and it’s my boring alcohol choices. And that is that everybody at some point need champagne, right? You need to buy a bottle for a celebration or whatnot, and I never know what to buy. I look in the store, and there’s prices from practically two dollars up to 3,000, and I just never know what to buy.

But I have a recommendation. I’ll tell you where I got it from. Many years ago, like 10, 15 years ago, my husband and I were in Washington, DC on a vacation, and we went to a supermarket just to pick up a couple of groceries. And my husband started talking to the woman in front of him in line and they were talking about New Mexico. My husband is from New Mexico, originally, and they were just chit-chatting about things, and they started talking about a champagne or sparkling wine that’s made in New Mexico. And this woman’s voice sounded familiar to me. I didn’t know why. And I turned around and it was Justice Sonia Sotomayor of the Supreme Court.

Chuck Gose: Whoa.

Karen DiScala: And she was telling my husband that this was a champagne or a sparkling cider, wine, excuse me, that she was very familiar with in New Mexico and we should try it. She was getting confirmed that week, so she wasn’t officially a justice, but my feeling was, regardless of your political stripe, if a justice of the Supreme Court recommends a champagne, you try that champagne. And I’ve got to tell you, it was great. It’s called Gruet, G-R-U-E-T, and it is now our go-to. It is very inexpensive. I prefer the rose, but the white is just as good.

Chuck Gose: That is a remarkable recommendation.

Karen DiScala: It was quite a shock. I couldn’t believe it. I looked around, and I saw everybody in the store was looking at her. I was like, “Yeah, this isn’t my imagination.” And we did ask. We were like, “You are Sonia Sotomayor, right?” And she was like-

Chuck Gose: Yeah, that is the most supreme recommendation you could get for that. I love the story. I love the story that goes with it. Karen, thanks again for coming on the podcast. Congratulations to you and the team on the success with FirstUp. And thank you for all the complimentary things you had to say about our team. But more importantly, it’s been great to hear that Burlington has succeeded, you’re doing well, people have come back, you’ve got this amazing tool, you’re keeping that culture alive. And, as you pointed out, there’s so many more things now the organization can do. Hopefully, we’ll all come out of this pandemic healthy businesses doing well, and FirstUp is doing better than ever. So thanks again for coming on the podcast.

Karen DiScala: My pleasure. Take care.

Chuck Gose: If you enjoyed what you heard from this episode and want to check out others, find Culture, Comms, & Cocktails on Apple Podcast, Google Play, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen. And when you do, hit that subscribe button so you don’t miss any future episodes. This has been Culture, Comms & Cocktails, internal comm served straight up. Thanks for listening.

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