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From Digital to Physical | An Interview with Melanie Masarin

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Feedback and mentorship have fueled Melanie Masarin’s impressive path from finance student to freelance consultant. Her journey is a prime example of the importance of a strong network and hard work. Insightful and wise for such a young professional, Melanie shared her thoughts and opinions on the retail industry and even some secrets to success.

Share with us the trajectory of your career.

It was not a very linear path. I graduated from Brown, where I studied economics, and was lucky to get an internship and then full time offer from Goldman Sachs in banking. I quickly realized that it wasn’t for me. I was an analyst in the energy group but I really wanted to work with a product that was more tangible or with companies that I would be able to empathize with more.

From there, I joined American Eagle Outfitters’s newly formed strategy group. It was a good mix of being able to work in an industry I liked and understood but also being able to flex my muscle intellectually by being very analytical. One day, a colleague of mine and I had a bad lunch at Dig Inn and sent some feedback to the team via their customer service form. It turns out the CEO was reading them, and he reached out asking to get coffee. From that meeting with him, I ended up joining the team at Dig Inn. I had always grown up in a very food centric environment, so it felt right to be there. I joined as the Director of Strategy and I was later given the responsibility of building the marketing team and overseeing the creative direction for the brand. This was probably my single most defining professional experience to date. Adam, the CEO, was tough but fair, extremely generous with feedback and mentorship, and ultimately took a chance on me. Without any formal design training, he allowed me to cut my teeth, follow my intuition, and rebrand Dig Inn from the website to the design of the stores.

Then, a few years later I was introduced to someone at Glossier and ultimately joined the team in 2017.

Photo from Melanie Masarin.

What was the process of taking an e-commerce brand into the physical retail space like? And why is it important for a brand?

Any brand that wants to be successful, and that I’ve seen successful, is one that truly listens to their customers. Physical, human connection is the pinnacle of engagement for any customers to have with a brand. It’s hard to do well and difficult to scale – more difficult than putting up an ad on Instagram – but the reward is also so much higher. When someone has a great experience in person, chances are they will be a brand advocate and come back to experience that magic again. Glossier, for example, is especially customer centric. The challenge for Glossier was really figuring out what that physical experience would be like. We dove into how you would feel if you were in the store, not just what things would look like. The brand is community forward, speaks directly to customers without being transactional, and extremely inclusive. We wanted all of these intangible things to come through in the offline experience.

Passion in your work?

I really struggle with that because it’s not just one thing. It’s like having to pick my favorite child or my favorite city. I’m happiest when I can solve business problems by coming up with creative ideas. And of course I love spaces and creating things that don’t exist yet. I currently spend about half my time advising pre-launch start-ups and the other half creating the third (offline) dimension of digitally native brands, and it’s definitely the most fun I ever had at work.

Photo by Cayce Glifford.

When building your team do you make up for your lack of formal training with people who have had it?

 I try! I’ve been so lucky that I’ve worked with such great people and I hope that I can bring a new, untrained eye and strategic thinking to projects to create interesting discussions.

“I think of myself as the glue of the team and letting my teams flex their muscles and do their best work.”

What are the challenges of the various industries you’ve worked in?

There are so many! Both food and beauty are very saturated industries with a lot of top of funnel content. It’s hard to differentiate yourself and get in front of people. Retail is just one way to do it. I just read this quote that said “a brand for a company is like a reputation for a person. You earn reputation by trying to do hard things well.” That really resonated with me. I focus now on helping brands find these intangible touch points that make all the difference.

“Retail is really scary. It’s risky, it takes a lot of energy and is hard to do on your own.”

Photo by Christian Harder.

What factors would you say make or break an in-store experience?

Human experience. If you think about it, you can go to store that’s in serious need of renovation, but if you have this amazing experience with a staff who spends the time with you and can give you that undivided attention, you’ll leave feeling really good about the brand. The community is really important as well. I really appreciate when stores localize their experience. I think Apple does this really well.

With human interaction at the forefront of design where do find balance with digital?

I think they are very complementary actually. In this digital age, the offline experience transcends the four walls allows brands to reach more people and places. It allows brands to connect with their customers on a wider scale and collect data to serve them better. You need both.

Photo from Melanie Masarin.

“It’s about both irl and url.”

Which brands do you think are “doing it right”?

I’m biased because I work with some of them, but I think Sweetgreen has done a good job of integrating offline and online. Plus, they have upwards of 90 restaurants and every single one is built with love and care for the community. I think Airbnb is doing that really well, and I’m excited to see what they do with Airbnb Experiences. I’m weirdly a big fan of Musa Tariq who is head of marketing for that vertical and I can’t wait to see what he does with it. The whole concept for Airbnb is a pie in the sky project that, in concept, could be quite dicey – letting strangers sleep in your home. They managed to execute the community piece flawlessly.

I’m also loving smaller brands focused on inclusivity and positivity – Chromat, ThirdLove, Parade which is launching soon, or Madhappy and Recess which incorporated offline early on in their growth.

You were listed on Forbes 30 Under 30 in retail and e-commerce. How do you feel about that honor?

I’m flattered, but I also realize it’s a label and not something I worked for per say. At the end of the day, managers are given the credit for a lot of the teams’ work so it should be a group pride.

What are your thoughts on the “death of retail”?

Retail is not dead of course. The internet culture has just shifted consumer demand for it. If the internet has brought 2-day shipping and convenience, then offline has to deliver on experience. Hyper efficient, small footprint retail with 10-15 year leases is definitely dying, and landlords and the market are having to adjust. It’s about merging new experiences together and breaking away from seeing retail as just another distribution channel, often in conflict with its ‘dot com’ counterpart. It’s about building one brand for the customer.

“Retail isn’t dying, retail as we know it is dying. It is a much needed change.”

Photo by Jason Schmidt.

Where do you find inspiration?

I love design, and I’m really inspired by art and people who make things with their hands. It’s a precious type of focus that I’ve come to really admire, especially since I can’t draw or paint or anything like that. Despite all that, I live by the mantra that “what’s essential is invisible to the eye” (from The Little Prince) and I take a lot of cues from the hospitality industry, especially from a service standpoint.

You recently left Glossier, what’s next for you?

I’ve been doing some freelance work for brands I admire, either pure-play business advisory or developing concepts for digital brands wanting to go offline or deepen their offline experiences. I am exploring some business ideas of my own on the side but for now, my juices are flowing and I’m really enjoying working for different brands.

Photo by Christian Harder.

What’s the best piece of advice you can share from your experiences?

Find your mentors. I’ve been given so much advice over the years and still have so much more to learn. I’ve been so lucky to ask and receive feedback from my previous employers – their mentorship and the challenges they made me rise up to shaped me into the professional I am today.

By Sarah Rossi