3 ways rue21 harnesses loyalty with its ‘internal customers’ (aka associates)

Posted on: March 18, 2024Updated on: March 19, 2024By: Maliyah Bernard

Doing right by customers is everything at rue21—and this customer-obsessed nature starts from the inside with its associates (or ‘internal customers,’ as the apparel retailer calls them).

So how does rue21 stay in touch and maintain connections across 580 US stores, without overwhelming teams with too much communication

We spoke to rue21’s Ann-Marie Clendenin, SVP Stores, Operations & Visual, and Karlyn Mattson, EVP and Chief Customer Officer, at NRF 2024, in a tactical discussion of their approach to tapping into customer loyalty by fostering an equally loyal employee base. 

NRF Big Ideas Session: Harnessing Loyalty

To understand what consumers are looking for in-store, what’s trending on social and how customers want to be engaged from a loyalty perspective, the rue21 team regularly analyzes data. But they also leverage data to learn more about their own associates and develop a deeper understanding of the workforce at scale.

A video of the full session is below, but here are three ways that rue21 uses data with its associates to prioritize agility and deliver the retail experiences that bring customers back, again and again. 

1. Limiting information overload

Things are changing faster than ever in retail. But Clendenin says today’s rapid pace of consumption isn’t going to stop rue21 from fulfilling customers’ in-the-moment needs. Rising to the challenge of sourcing goods as accurately and quickly as possible requires a nimble workforce that can pivot just as fast. 

Preparing associates for agility takes clear communication from leaders about what’s important and what’s not—because when everything is labeled as a priority, nothing can really get done at the pace the business needs. 

The retailer put its prioritization skills to the test last year during Black Friday, where they used real-time data and customer learnings to make merchandising changes and shifts to marketing initiatives, and were able to keep teams in the loop every step of the way.

 “Our stores felt safe and secure in knowing we had a plan and there were contingencies built on, so they could deliver for our customers and not feel overwhelmed with what they were being asked to do.”

Ann-Marie Clendenin, SVP Stores, Operations & Visual, rue21

2. Leveraging digital tools

One of the ways rue21 has been able to keep staff in the loop about real-time changes is by having the right tools in place to get updates to them quickly. 

Embracing digital transformation can be tough for a brand with a 50-year legacy. While it wasn’t a light lift to transition from an entirely paper organization to a digital one, understanding more about how internal customers want to receive information has made it easier to reach them with critical communications.

“They’re using their phones; they’re not writing on paper anymore. They don’t snap it out of a notebook, keep it in a folder and carry it around. Everything is digital. Everything is on their phones. 

So to serve them, we have to give them information how they want to receive it, which they said—loud and clear—is not on paper. They’re not collecting paper from five floor sets ago and creating files in the stock rooms. There’s no need for ten filing cabinets in a store anymore. It’s about immediacy and delivering the information in a way that’s digestible to them.”

 “When you have a technology platform and a partner that can continue to evolve with you in selling behaviors, teaching, training tools and information, it gives associates one place to go, not ten places to go.

Ann-Marie Clendenin, SVP Stores, Operations & Visual, rue21

3. Training to reduce turnover

If your team is constantly turning over, the customer experience is bound to suffer as a result. So retaining staff and prioritizing loyalty and tenure is a critical part of customer loyalty (because tenure = knowledge).

Loyal employees who have been with the brand for longer have the competence and confidence to serve customers in ways new hires aren’t able to when they’re first starting out. So rue21 builds retention directly into the learning path.

“When people don’t feel overwhelmed or unsure, know what to expect and understand the basics, you can lean into that. That creates greater tenure,” says Clendenin. 

Proper training and enablement is one way to mitigate the overwhelm, which in turn, mitigates turnover. When you’re prioritizing agility and change as much as rue21, the fear of overwhelm is very, very real.

“We saw the lowest turnover and the greatest tenure happen in November and December, which is unheard of in this organization. When you’re dealing with a nimble, high-turn workforce, getting at an understanding about why they’re leaving (Is it because they’re overwhelmed? Do they have other options? What obstacles are they overcoming?) and leaning into a platform was incredibly helpful for us. They feel confident and that confidence means, ‘I’ve got it. I got another day, I got another week’.”

Watch the full conversation here:

Maliyah Bernard

Maliyah Bernard is an academic writer turned content writer. As a former frontline worker, she loves writing about all the ways organizations can support these essential workers smarter.