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A Q&A with RILA's Sandy Kennedy— A leader among retail leaders

While she may be helping to pave the future of retail, she's always up for a surprise.

Tell us about your background and how you became interested in the retail industry.

I’m from the Midwest and went to school in Iowa. In high school and college, I worked in a jewelry store selling jewelry, engraving—and even piercing ears. In a small store like that, there was so much exposure to the retail and customer experience. After graduation, I moved to the east coast and began working for a variety of associations, which ultimately led me to RILA. I fell in love with the industry.

You have been with RILA since 2002. What significant industry changes have you noticed over that time?

The change in channels has been huge. Whether you’re looking for cosmetics or food the channels are completely blurred. Some of the consolidation and loss of brands has been surprising.

What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishments in the retail industry?

At RILA, we’ve done a lot in the public policy arena, establishing the retail industry as a powerful force in Washington. In one case, we took one of the most influential special interests in Washington, banks, and won, saving merchants and their customers billions of dollars. We’ve also moved quickly to create an industry-wide resource to help improve cybersecurity and data privacy for retailers. We’re working on information sharing, actionable intelligence and training. I’m very proud of how the industry has responded to the threat of cyber criminals. And as an organization, we were agile and quick to respond.

A lot of our public policy work has to do with challenges in supply chain transparency. A concern we have as an industry is to make sure we care about the sustainable nature of our supply chain. It’s always a pleasure for me to report back on our progress.

What has kept you involved with associations for so long?

If you have curiosity about an industry, associations are a great place to be. I have an up-close look at major retailers. At RILA, I work with so many large retailers and CPG companies. It’s really fascinating for me, especially in retail where there is such a velocity of change.

What do you believe to be the biggest opportunities for retailers today?

Understanding technology and customer wants and desires and providing a seamless experience. Retailers need to understand the opportunities and challenges to evolve the customer experience in the store, online and in mobile.

Can you think of one memorable story or an important lesson that you learned from a RILA member?

I’ve learned that culture is so important. From 2008 on, we haven’t lost members. We’ve only gained members. I think part of that is because we’ve listened. We’re very entrepreneurial. We take risks. It’s also important that we serve our members and treat others as we expect to be treated. That makes us a very collegial and effective organization.

As a retail customer, what impresses or frustrates you?

I am all about the merchandising. I like to move freely through well-lit aisles. I like to encounter a surprise. In small retailers, I love those that have an interesting mix of merchandise that you won’t see on the street. It’s also important to find help when I need it. And items need to be in stock!

When you go shopping, are you able to leave your work hat behind, or are you always looking for trends or ideas to bring to your members?

I’m always a student when I go into a store. I appreciate when merchandising is done well. I appreciate the whole experience. Sometimes I’m able to put it aside. I love shopping when I’m not looking for anything. I tend to frequent stores that do a very good job. I also like to send letters to a company when a sales associate goes above and beyond.

Outside of work, what do you like to do?

I’m an avid reader, everything from business books to history books. Right now, I’m reading the new Stephen King book, Mr. Mercedes. I like reading on the iPad when I travel; it’s more convenient. I also like pressing a word if I don’t know the meaning. When I’m reading casually at home, I like to read an actual paper book.

We enjoy time at our cottage on an island called Anna Maria, south of Tampa, Florida. Going there is my chance to unplug. I also enjoy my two marvelous grandchildren.