Roslyn Jaffe opened the first dressbarn in Stamford, Connecticut, in 1962 with the intent of serving the newly evolving generation of working women. Building a reputation for quality, style, value, and customer service, the dressbarn store count grew, and in 2005 dressbarn acquired maurice’s. In 2009, they acquired Justice, followed by the purchase of Charming Shoppes in 2012. Today, the individual brands are organized under Ascena Retail Group, a leading national specialty retailer of women’s and tween apparel, with over 4,900 stores throughout the United States and Canada.
Shortly after the 2012 retirement of Larry Senn after 30 years as the head of loss prevention for dressbarn, LP Magazine editors sat down with Brian Bazer, the current AVP of asset protection and risk management, to discuss taking over the reins from such a long-term leader and how changing from a loss prevention to asset protection focus matched the evolving journey of the company.
How was it to step in after such a long-tenured leader had retired?
First of all, I was fortunate that Larry Senn and his team had built a solid program with a great foundation. I viewed my role as managing an evolutionary process versus a rebuilding process. It was important for me that the team realized that we were going to go on this journey together. I was not going to come in and change everything or bring in “my own” people.
During our first meeting, we discussed what it meant to be on a winning team. We discussed winning teams that we had been a part of in the past and what made them special. We took common themes from those experiences and defined what type of team we wanted to have going forward. As a homework assignment, each person had to think about how they connected to the newly crafted company mission statement: “Inspiring women to look and feel beautiful.” The team’s responses were synthesized down to the most common themes and our mission connection became clear:
We inspire women to look and feel beautiful by building an empowered, safer experience with integrity.
How did this connection to the company mission impact the department?
Once we had our statement developed, we threaded everything we did through this lens. If it was in alignment with our new vision, then we kept it. Here are a couple of quick examples of how this played out.
The department in the past had been secluded from the rest of the building, so we modified our work space to be more open and inviting. We conducted an open-house event to bring people from other departments into our area, learn about what we do, and have some fun. We incorporated a quarterly “take a department to lunch” program to build cross-functional relationships. We took our traditional institutionalized badge and updated it to be more stylish, changing the color of the badge to be more vibrant and consistent with the company brand, and empowered our associates to bring in their favorite picture to use. Also related to access control, there were some interior doors that were locked due to previous construction issues. We removed the access control from these doors so that associates could enter or exit the building in a timelier manner.
From a store perspective, we changed how we think about store visits and our actions inside the store. We migrated from a case-audit mentality to a purposeful visit centered on education and recognition. We modified our “silent witness” program to emphasize inspiring integrity, building trust, and doing the right thing. We changed the title of the field role from regional loss prevention manager to regional asset protection leader. Most importantly, we identified an opportunity to maximize relationships with field leadership by going from a geographically based coverage of multiple regions to partnering with field leadership in a one-to-one alignment with regional leaders.
What caused the department name change?
This was initiated by the department. When we looked at the things that we were doing and how the department was evolving, the team felt that the term loss prevention was reactionary and didn’t encompass everything that we were doing. When we think about asset protection, we talk about the proactive approach of protecting the company’s three most important assets—the people, the profit, and the brand.
From a people perspective, the department took on additional responsibility for safety and risk management. Talking about the types of accidents that were occurring, how to prevent them, and working cross functionally to develop better tools and processes to reduce accidents was now part of what the asset protection team did. Regarding profit, most people can relate shrink dollar loss to profitability. We have taken it a step further by looking at any time as a company we do not realize full sale potential for an item to be profit loss. The department now has a strong focus on margin erosion involving coupons, manual discounts, and damage write-offs.
From a brand standpoint, the department is involved with the brand committee working to help shape and connect the things we do with the brand.
How has the department evolved during this transformation?
Over the last few years, the department has developed a strong set of guiding principles that help shape how we do our jobs:
Assume Positive Intent. During conversations or actions, it’s easy to start thinking about what the other person’s motivation is. As a department, we assume positive intent first and ask follow-up questions to better understand what is going on. We leverage a person’s or department’s strengths versus playing to their weaknesses. This has helped us navigate some tricky waters when situations stemming from conflicting interests arise. We start with the common goal, which is usually the best interest for the company, customer, and associate, and then we work our way from there.
Have a Voice. Everyone on the team has a voice, and there is an expectation that we use it. We are respectful when others are voicing their opinion, which is harder than it seems, by not talking over each other, active listening, and the use of paraphrasing and follow-up questions. Also, there is no hierarchy when it comes to the conversations. I have the same voice as others at the table when we are discussing the department. We have developed some facilitation techniques that help promote everyone being heard. During our yearly planning session, we use Post-It notes to capture everyone’s ideas to achieve our goals. Each note is discussed, reviewed, and categorized. We then determine if it’s an idea we will go after or not. This helps temper those people who like to talk a lot in meetings and ensure that those who are quieter are heard.
Rule #6. This comes from the book The Art of Possibility by Benjamin Zander. In simple terms, it means don’t take yourself so seriously. We realize that we can have fun and enjoy what we do and how we do it. A great example of this is our asset protection training videos. Each video is around five minutes in length covering various topics, such as dealing with a shoplifter, inventory management, and safety. The videos focus on something that is being done right to provide recognition, and we use humor to emphasize points. The feedback from the store associates has been extremely positive. I’m often surprised when I’m recognized from the videos, or when lines from the videos are quoted back to me.
Treat Money as If It’s Your Own. I don’t micro-manage travel or expenses. Each person is given a budget for travel and recognition, and how they maximize it is up to them. Each quarter we review the departmental P&L and discuss things that are working as well as opportunities. Every once in a while, I do make sure that the team is eating healthfully on the road. As those of us who travel know, it’s difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle when traveling.
On-Purpose Participation. If there is an event or activity sponsored by the company, our department is represented in some way. We participate in the educational courses, on company committees, and in work-life balance activities such as softball and Run Club. This mindset extends to the industry as well, such as our involvement with the National Retail Federation, Loss Prevention Research Council, and Loss Prevention Foundation.
Accountability. As a department, we have a strong accountability model. First, we hold ourselves accountable for supporting our mission, living by our principles, and the results that we achieve. Secondly, there is peer accountability. We are there to support each other, including when results aren’t met or principles violated. With these two components of accountability for the team, very seldom does an issue come up that requires a supervisor or manager to get involved.
Are there other structures or processes that your team uses?
Every associate in the asset protection department has a playbook. The playbook is divided into sections that include their job description, the company competency model and values, the yearly company and department plans, the company and departmental scorecards, an individualized development plan, and a place to put recognition received throughout the year.
The first section is the job description. At a basic level, every one of us wants to know what is expected. The next section is the company competency/value system. At dressbarn, we are measured each year on “what” we do and “how” we do it. Similar to our departmental guiding principles, the company values help shape our actions throughout the year.
The next section is the company plan and the departmental plan. This section is the tactical plan that we are going to execute throughout the year. The plan is reviewed quarterly and updated as needed. After the plan, comes the company and departmental scorecards. On a monthly and quarterly basis, we examine the key aspects of the business, such as our department P&L percent to budget. We examine the percentage completion of new store leader training and workers’ compensation results and cases, to name a few.
Also included in the playbook is a section for meeting and call notes. We have a departmental call weekly and a quarterly meeting. Our weekly calls are meant to highlight key learning’s for the week, and how we have leveraged our applied learning’s from previous calls.
The last section of the playbook is for recognition. We place the recognition that we get throughout the year in this section, which helps us during mid-year and year-end appraisal process periods to better articulate our accomplishments and the impact we are having on others.
What programs does your department have in controlling shrink?
Philosophically, I don’t believe that a company can control their way to low shrink. For me, it’s about building an enduring low-shrink culture that is in support of the larger company macro culture. The more controls that are put in place, the more likely associates and customers are going to try to find ways to defeat the controls. You get into this cycle of consistently trying to “one up” the other group. This cycle takes a lot of energy, time, and cost to sustain.
Conversely, by building a healthy culture where people feel like they are part of something larger than themselves, empowered to make educated decisions that impact their store, and understand their role in the customer experience, there is less likely to be operational errors, internal theft, or external loss; not to mention increased sales and profitability.
With that said, we do strategically focus on two high leverage areas from a shrink-culture perspective—new store leader locations and high-shrink locations.
We conduct a new store leader orientation for every new store leader within the first 90 days of service. The session is intended to emphasize the fact that our department is here for them as a resource. We want to demystify who we are and what we do, and let them know that it is okay for them to call us for support. We also discuss business metrics, review key policies and procedures, and provide coaching regarding back-office systems. After each new store leader orientation, the store leader is given the opportunity to take an anonymous survey providing feedback about the experience. We use this feedback to make the training content and our facilitation better.
In partnership with our field leadership, each regional asset protection leader picks those locations in their portfolio of stores that impact their region the most from a shrink perspective. These higher shrink stores are placed in our ASAP program, which stands for Associate Shrink Awareness Program. The store leader of these locations develops a plan in conjunction with the district leader and regional asset protection leader. The plan is unique to the issues of the store and outlines the commitments of the store, district, and regional leaders. Additional physical inventories are taken at these locations until the store has demonstrated a consistent shrink improvement.
What have been the company benefits seen from the department changes and shrink focus?
Without going into specific company results, the relationship between the asset protection team and the field leadership team as well as the home office team has significantly improved. Loss control and risk strategy and policy-and-process improvements are designed and implemented cross-functionally. An example of this is a recent shrink summit that was conducted. Senior leaders from the field, marketing, merchandising, finance, store operations, and IT came together to review the recent store physical inventory results, discuss key categories, and develop cross-functional ways to reduce loss.
What are the next steps in the evolution of the department?
I’m going to take a sport analogy from Gil Dennis, SVP of stores, with whom I have a wonderful relationship. I would not be as successful as I am without his mentorship and support. He often says that his team is the offense driving sales and the customer experience, while my team is the defense driving bottom-line profitability. We work together and support each other’s plans and programs with our unique roles. In the end, we are on the same team playing for the same outcomes. Next steps for our department are to continue learning and growing and to share our story to help positively drive the importance of leadership and culture building within our industry.
This article was originally published in 2014 and was updated March 8, 2016.