Kristen LaFrance Is Uncovering the Resilience of Retail One Merchant At a Time

Resilience in retail has never been more important. From forced shutdowns to a hamstrung economy, merchants are looking beyond traditional methods to not just survive, but thrive during a global pandemic. Kristen LaFrance, Head of Resilient at Retail at Shopify, is uncovering these methods one merchant at a time, capturing their inspirational stories in the form of a podcast. To learn more about the innovation taking place across the retail landscape and why it means so much to her in the first place, I spoke with Kristen over Zoom.

Every merchant on the planet has been affected by the ongoing global pandemic. Success stories are far and few between. It’s mostly been understood like this: Amazons and Walmarts of the world watch their stock prices skyrocket while the overwhelming majority look to federal subsidies and loyal customers for support.

Yet among small to mid-sized businesses, tales of ingenuity are beginning to rise to the surface, showing the strength, resolve, and character endemic to the world of retail, offering a glimmer of hope to the millions of people that comprise 10% of the world’s workforce.

Technology is doing its part in this evolution, revealing itself to be a powerful tool in the reinvention of the industry, allowing retailers to connect with customers in ways previously unheard of. Those tools span everything from virtual shopping apps that add a human touch to the online shopping experience to ecommerce platforms that empower hometown heroes to set up digital storefronts in minutes.

Together, the two form a kind of symbiotic relationship: humans looking toward technology to help bring their entrepreneurial spirit and product expertise to customers around the world, and technology looking toward humans to help elevate it from sterile feature to purpose-driven product.

Shopify, the Canadian ecommerce giant behind over 1,000,000 merchants, is no stranger to this complementary relationship. For years it’s made it its mission to give entrepreneurs the tools they need to do what they do best. From mega celebrities like Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian to recent Elsewhere subjects Capsul and KITH, Shopfiy knows as well as anyone the kind of success that comes to real people when technology is built to help merchants sell.

In the wake of the pandemic, it’s made bold strides to ensure this message is clearer than ever, putting out resources nearly every single day to help merchants meet any challenges that come their way during this period of unprecedented change.

Among its most moving storytelling properties to date is Resilient Retail, a new podcast hosted by Kristen LaFrance. Kristen, affectionately referred to as the Mayor of DTC Twitter, joined Shopify at the height of the pandemic for one reason: to connect with merchants and bring their stories of resilience to life, providing insight and guidance to countless others along the way.

To find out more about her personal journey and the retail journeys she’s uncovering one merchant at a time, I connected with Kristen over Zoom.

Hey Kristen, I have to ask this right off the bat: how did you become the Mayor of DTC Twitter?

Yeah! I’ve been in the ecommerce DTC space for basically my entire career. My very first job was doing social media at an agency that served ecommerce clients. From there, I started doing content and for the last two and a half years I’ve been deeply rooted in the DTC community.

Helping with customer retention was a big focus—basically building a customer experience for ecommerce brands. With that came two different podcasts before Resilient Retail. The first was Playing for Keeps. That podcast was 100% about DTC customer retention. I was either talking with subscription-based companies, DTC companies, or industry experts that could speak on the importance of retention.

That ran for two seasons and was super fun. That’s how I got my legs in podcasting. And then this summer I ran a segment for a show called Ecomm Norms, which was just 30 minutes of me talking about news in ecommerce every Friday.

With all of that came a lot of writing and guest posting and Twitter threads. I slowly built a community around myself and within the DTC space. Then sometime in the last year somebody shouted out that I should be the official Mayor of DTC because if people are arguing on Twitter, I’ll come in and be like, “Okay guys, let’s figure out what we’re really arguing about. This isn’t helping anybody right now.”

It’s the weirdest, most fun, fake title to have of all time—and that title followed me to Shopify and Resilient Retail!

“Commerce is one of the biggest engines that moves our societies, our cultures, and our communities along.”

Amazing! Before we get into Resilient Retail, what keeps you so interested in the ecommerce space in the first place?

I just love entrepreneurs going and chasing their dreams and I’ve always loved really cool brands. I remember being in college I was like, “I’ll only be happy if I work for a brand that sells dog apparel.” From there I realized actually what I care about is brands that stand for something and are doing something cool.

I also think that commerce, whether it’s retail or ecommerce, is one of the biggest engines that moves our societies, our cultures, and our communities along. At the same time it’s also really, really hard to do.

There’s this really cool situation where there’s all these entrepreneurs doing incredible things. They have amazing ideas. They’re building these brands that are changing the world.

So I found this niche where I got to do the best of both things. I got to really hone in on my skills as a community builder and a content marketer, and on a personal level, I’ve been able to come in and help people that are doing something so cool and honorable and world-changing without having to actually go run a store myself, because I don’t think I’m quite ready for that.

What about on the retail side?

I’ve always loved local shops and walking around small towns and seeing the founder of the store and learning the brand story. I’ve always had this weird dream that one day I want to own a coffee shop. It sounds like the most relaxing, fun way to retire; to just have a nice cafe where you know everybody.

Harley and I talked about it on episode one, that idea of walking into a restaurant and they’re like, “Oh, your usual.” That kind of experience has always been magical to me. So with Resilient Retail and Shopify, all of it came together in this perfect storm of retail and ecommerce being closer than ever, if not interchangeable.

With that, I could take what I knew from DTC and ecommerce and bring it to the retail space, while also learning a lot from retailers because there’s a lot I don’t know about merchandising and stocking and training staff. It’s an inspiring area to be in. I spend my life talking to cool people doing amazing things. It’s the coolest, possible job I could have.

Let’s go into the Resilient Retail journey a bit. What were your initial conversations with Shopify like? What was the intention of the show from the beginning?

Resilient Retail has an interesting genesis story actually. After I left Churn Buster, I posted on Twitter and Matt Nelson, who’s my lead, popped into my DMs like, “Hey, I’ve got a project for you. What would you think about this?”

I met the entire team and was amazed by the energy everybody had. Immediately it clicked in my head what Resilient Retail could be. It was this conversation where we were tossing it back and forth like, “Well, I think Resilient Retail should be a podcast, not live events because I don’t think that retail merchants necessarily have an hour every Tuesday at 1:00 PM.”

And then from a content perspective, it was clear that there was this hole for storytelling, for big aspirational stories. There was also the opportunity to talk to merchants about point-of-sale—particularly the smaller merchants that have one to five stores and are new to ecommerce—learning all of this as they go through 2020.

In those conversations, the vision just kept getting bigger. On day one we were like, “Yeah, this is a podcast, but in two years, this is an entire digital publication and this is the place that a retailer goes for inspiration, for community.”

So as those conversations were going, I got pulled on to the team, went through onboarding and from day one we were running on the ground with Resilient Retail. We put on two of those events first because we had promised that content to the audience and then we used them as a way to bring people into the whole Resilient world. A couple weeks after we did those events, we dropped all new branding and released five episodes and we’ve been rolling ever since.

Tell me a bit about what’s gone into this first season of episodes. How do you pick the guests? What’s the thinking behind the lineup?

I would say picking guests is the hardest part of the entire thing. At first I was afraid it was going to be because it was going to be hard to find the right stories, especially coming from a DTC background where a lot of my contacts are, but the hard part has actually been narrowing it down.

The initial plan for Resilient was to do one episode a week, and as I was starting to find guests and talk to people, I was like, “Oh my God, there are so many stories even just within the Shopify Point-of-Sale market and community!”

That said, the goal of this first season is to get to know our audience and figure out what they really want to hear from the show and how we can help, so we made the decision to do two a week.

For guests, we could have gone the big-hitter route. We’re Shopify, we have access to really big companies. But when I was thinking about who’s going to listen, I had to balance those stories with very real, authentic stories that our audience could relate to and learn from and feel less alone from.

In that five-episode drop, you’ve got Harley who came on and gave such an inspirational talk to merchants. You got Coco and Breezy who are these two absolute, bad-ass, powerhouse women who designed sunglasses for Prince. Then we balance it with Eric Bandholz from Beardbrand, a DTC brand that’s not massive, but doing really well and who opened a barbershop in the middle of COVID.

Another huge focus has been diversity. I’ve talked to people from different industries, different backgrounds, different ways of thinking because no single retailer is the same and no one goes through the same experiences.

“As human beings, we’re always going to be searching for those human-to-human connections. And for a lot of us, we get those in shopping experiences.”

This one probably sounds obvious given everything that’s transpired in the last nine months but why is it so important to be telling these stories right now?

The best way to put it is what Harley said on episode one: “Retail will never die. It will only evolve.” All the data shows that retail is not going to die. Resistant retail is dying.

They’re also important because just as human beings, we’re always going to be searching for those human-to-human connections. And for a lot of us, we get those in shopping experiences. You get that when you walk into a store and you get it when you’re checking out at the supermarket. Even merchants who have had to transition fully online are doing well because people want to shop local. They want to shop with people they know.

There’s a lot of really big corporations out there where you might be able to get the cheapest price, but you’re not going to get a great customer experience and you’re not going to know what your money is going towards. But if you’re going into a local shop, you know who you’re buying from, you know the story, you know that the money’s going into that community.

Brick-and-mortar merchants have been hit extraordinarily hard, especially ones who didn’t have an online store, who don’t have a bunch of VC funding, who don’t have massive cash flow or are fully dependent on foot traffic. At the same time they’re more than brick-and-mortar stories.

They’re omnichannel stories because if your doors are closed, what are you going to do? Everybody I’m talking to has stayed open in some capacity. They’re alive, they’re surviving. For a lot of them, they’re thriving in this new environment.

That’s why it’s so important to me.

And what about resilience? What does it mean to you in 2020?

The heart of resilience is that unrelenting vision of what you want to do and not being so married to it that you can’t adjust and you can’t pivot. The entrepreneurs I’m speaking with refuse to say, “Because this happened, my dream is done.” Instead, they’re saying, “I can shift this. I can take this sculpture I’ve made and turn it into something more beautiful.”

This year that connection was clear but entrepreneurship and resilience naturally go hand in hand. We don’t know when “normal” will ever happen. I don’t think there’s ever going to be a time where we go back to what retail or commerce was like before the pandemic. There will always be a new challenge. There’s always going to be a new channel, a new tech platform, a new tool, a new way that people want to shop, a new opportunity to do things.

“The importance of maintaining humanity in commerce and focusing on human-to-human dialogue that happens between brands and consumers can’t be overstated.”

Over a dozen episodes into Resilient Retail, what are some lessons that’ve been consistent across interviews? What are some takeaways every brand can apply to themselves?

Simple: what you say your brand is, isn’t what your brand is. How your customers experience your brand is what defines your brand. That’s a lesson I keep hearing again and again from these guests. The challenge is taking that in-store shopping experience and recreating it online—and vice versa.

Another one is the importance of human-to-human connections. In every shopping experience, there’s an emotional decision taking place. There’s human psychology going on. The importance of maintaining humanity in commerce and focusing on human-to-human dialogue that happens between brands and consumers can’t be overstated.

I also keep hearing about how quickly people have been able to pivot. You’re talking doors closed, a day later, fully online and ready to go. Four days later, fully online doing curbside pickup for the first time ever. Home delivery for the first time ever. I leave a lot of them baffled at how incredible these people’s brains and hearts are, and how they’re able to work through those challenges.

Last question from my end. What kind of feedback from listeners have you been getting?

Oh man, we’ve gotten lots of positive feedback. People are telling me, “I never felt I could hear stories from other people going through what I am and to have that is so helpful.” Better yet, they’re also getting tactical ideas to implement, which is another huge mission of the show. Hands down, that’s been the most exciting part.

Resilient Retail can be heard through Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and anywhere else podcasts are available.