How Shannon Damen works retail wonders

In our Real leaders. Real stories. series, Athleta leader Shannon Damen talks about creating meaningful retail connections with customers. 

Even as a kid with just a coin purse, Athleta CFO turned chief commercial officer (CCO) Shannon Damen was fascinated with the art and science of consumer behavior and finance.

“I wondered, ‘Why would one vending machine have very large buttons, and other ones have those funny up-and-down devices? And who chooses that? And why did people buy the things that they bought — and who gets to do the science on why they want what they want?’”

From those childhood curiosities, a career was born.

Today, Shannon asks just as wondrously inquisitive questions about shoppers to find more highly sophisticated answers about consumer behavior. As CCO for Athleta, a Gap Inc. brand, she leads customer experience across stores, digital and omni-integration points.

“One of the things I love about retail is you can move very fast,” Shannon says, sharing important lessons she has learned in leadership and life. 

Picture of Shannon Damen
Shannon Damen

1. Build strong teams and learn how to push them further


A lifelong athlete, Shannon found that sports helped her clear her head so that she could focus on her schoolwork. She played soccer from the age of four, joined the rowing team in college and took up running in her thirties. When leading teams, Shannon recalls how her coaches and professors never settled for average. “The ones that were most impactful knew that I could give more,” she says.


Shannon gives individualized attention and direction — always attentive to the effect on behavior. When building teams, she looks for curiosity and collaboration. “In order to win, you have to think, ‘How do we help each other?’”


For example, Shannon and her team used data and a test-and-learn approach to launch a pilot test at a single store. With tweaks, the program resulted in double-digit increases. Athleta rolled out the new plan to 17 more locations and then the full fleet, with consistently successful results.


“We use data in the digital shopping experience and all along the customer’s journey to achieve the art of what we want her to experience,” she says, of the success that came from the strengths of her team.


2. Recognize the importance of the long-term journey


Shannon learned math and science, pursued studies in finance, marketing and international business, and earned an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management. Her 20-year career in retail finance and strategy included roles at Vera Bradley and Victoria’s Secret.


For every person on their own path, Shannon emphasizes the importance of building a toolkit of career skills toward long-term goals, but not focusing on titles.


“Everything comes in phases. So, while something may seem sideways, it generally is not, as long as you have in mind the experiences that you’re trying to accomplish. Take those learnings and apply them to something else.”


She says one of her best career milestones was a fledgling director role where she helped an international brand launch new stores. “It really isn’t about titles; it’s about the impact that you make on other people and on the business.”


3. Take risks – and weigh how you respond


Don’t be afraid to raise your hand for new opportunities, even if it feels risky, and don’t be afraid to ask for help, Shannon advises.


“Too often, people feel like they have to have all the answers first,” she says. “Not everything is going to work out, but that’s actually when you learn the most.”


Something Shannon says she wishes she’d learned earlier in life is to take time to develop mindful responses.


“It’s how we respond to the unexpected that matters,” she says. “Give yourself the space to step back for a minute before you respond so that you can do so in a way that you’re proud of.”

4. Anticipate market changes and be ahead of the curve


Citing the dynamic nature of retail, Shannon embraces an outlook of continuous learning and experimentation. For example, her teams are exploring the power of digital tools and artificial intelligence (AI).


She anticipates a future where retailers can securely collect and use data to build personalized experiences, create deep connections with customers and draw on those 360-degree connections to create a novel product distinctive for the customer.


Despite digital advancements, Shannon doesn’t foresee a future without physical stores. People still need those personal connections and to feel and see products.


“The ability to toggle between the two (physical and digital) is a more mature strategy. How do we connect her online journey and her offline journey so that it actually doesn’t feel like two different journeys?”


Reflecting on these four lessons, Shannon continues to work wonders with an eye on the future, as Athleta aims to build a community of empowered women. Through the Power of She Collective, the brand champions wellness, with the help of several well-known athletes and entrepreneurs, with an eye on the future and the business.


“It is our job to continue to make products that help our customer feel better about herself, and we also want to help her continue to be the best version of herself, through movement, connectivity and helping to build a better tomorrow,” Shannon says, with an eye to the next wonder. 

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