“Our first impressions are generated by our experiences and our environment, which means that we can change our first impressions . . . by changing the experiences that comprise those impressions.” — Malcolm Gladwell
An old adage states that you only get one chance to make a first impression, but is that still inherently true today? With 28% of Americans being online “almost constantly,” first impressions aren’t always made through face-to-face interactions that were commonplace when that saying became popular. In today’s digital age, I believe “first” impressions are now generated in phases based on our experiences and environment.
As an example, I have had four “first” impressions of Sharon Leite, which is the current CEO of The Vitamin Shoppe. The initial one was generated on July 23, 2018 when The Vitamin Shoppe released a statement naming their new CEO. Along with reading that announcement, I did a quick audit of Sharon’s previous work experience, projects she’d publicly championed, and scorecard of “turnaround” performances, before I turned on the camera to essentially wish her luck in a YouTube video.
The second “first” impression was generated on November 7, 2018 when I heard Sharon deliver her first quarterly earnings conference call as The Vitamin Shoppe CEO. Over my almost 9-year strategy consulting career, I have listened to 100s (maybe 1000s) of quarterly earnings conference calls. With that much experience, it becomes very easy to separate the good from the bad, and also the thoughtful from the fluff. After listening to that earnings conference call, I came away impressed and combined my first and second “first” impressions together.
My third “first” impression was generated on the final morning of the 2010s (December 31, 2019), when I had the opportunity to have an hour-long candid conversation with Sharon. Here are some highlights…
“We Are Cut From The Same Cloth”
Since neither of us came into the call with an actionable agenda, we spent the first part of the conversation learning about each other and building the foundation of a great relationship. I’m not sure how fast house foundations take to be built, but our relationship foundation was built instantaneously when Sharon asked, “what is a Kent State Golden Flash doing in Austin, TX”?
To be completely honest, her initial question surprised me a bit because rarely does someone know my alma mater’s mascot. I quickly realized I somehow forgotten that Sharon had also attended Kent State University. Additionally, we are also both the product of growing up in Northeast Ohio, but chose to move away for professional opportunities. We shared how we both cherished the Rust Belt upbringing, while also believing deeply in the personal expansion of thoughts and values when you leave your hometown.
Many entrepreneurs in the supplement brand come from fitness and athletic backgrounds where extensive product usage turned into a deeper passion for the space. Being that Sharon’s prior retail industry experience had come in categories like apparel, beauty, home furnishings, and confectionery, I had to ask the obvious question…“why supplements”?
Sharon informed me that these passionate entrepreneurs gave off an infectious energy that drew her further into the functional CPG category. With her keen eye of retailing strategy, Sharon felt there was a disconnect in legacy supplement store operations that were actually further “mystifying” the wellness category to consumers. By simplifying and demystifying the experience of shopping for health and wellness supplements, Sharon has positioned The Vitamin Shoppe to serve shoppers by “helping customers be their best selves, however they define it.”
“We Didn’t Know Our Customer”
You’ve been hired to transform a struggling 700+ location billion-dollar retail brand, but you’re lacking transparency into who the actual customers are…
Can you imagine a bigger challenge for an incoming CEO?
In retail, everything starts with the customer! To overcome this challenge, Sharon spent the first 90 days mostly listening and learning from all The Vitamin Shoppe stakeholders. She even went as far as working inside store locations to get customer-level feedback. Through that experience, Sharon quickly realized the customer personas that drove the specialty supplement retailer’s strategic decisions for the last decade were incorrect. She realized that The Vitamin Shoppe didn’t know who it was, how to differentiate in the marketplace, and who its customer really was. So, her team went to work talking to real customers and getting both quantitative and qualitative data to validate what those customers love/dislike about The Vitamin Shoppe and take those learnings and apply them to get better.
Turning The Vitamin Shoppe Into a Brand
“Is The Vitamin Shoppe a brand or a place that sells the collection of other people’s brands”?
The Vitamin Shoppe brand awareness is very low. So, Sharon set out to distinguish The Vitamin Shoppe amongst a very broad set of competitors and become nationally recognized…
Every material strategic business change starts with the brand. While a consistent brand is a vital source to its business image, a great brand is a living business asset. When executed well, it creates identification, differentiation and intrinsic value…great brands know who they are and more importantly who they aren’t. Sharon understands this ever-changing process won’t be easy and The Vitamin Shoppe has a lot of work ahead, but she has been steadfast in this approach with revitalizing the business.
What Supplements Does The Vitamin Shoppe CEO Take?
As a functional CPG strategist, I am intensely curious to learn about consumers’ “what and why” behind product purchases. Knowing that New Year’s resolutions were right around the corner when we chatted, it was only natural that I asked Sharon about her current supplement regimen…
- Only Me = this is the newest private label brand offered by The Vitamin Shoppe. Only Me is personalized supplement plan that’s as unique as you are. Sharon enjoys Only Me because it takes out the guesswork around what she needs to take to achieve her goals. As an added bonus for busy professionals, Only Me is offered through a subscription model, making it even more convenient.
- Collagen = by adding unflavored multi-source collagen to her morning coffee, Sharon is able to seamlessly include a supplement that supports healthy joints and healthy skin, hair, and nails.
Final “First” Impression
My fourth “first” impression happened on March 10, 2021, when The Vitamin Shoppe’s owner Franchise Group released its 2020Q4 earnings. Without much publicly and commentary from the parent company, I read between the lines of the financial statements to see that The Vitamin Shoppe had arguably faced the most challenging year of its 44-year history, but it came out of 2020 smelling like a rose. In the midst of a organization-wide transformation plan that included; a successful new prototype store, a re-energized approach to private label brands, and a laser-focus on product quality, merchandise and service innovations, the “COVID-19 Effect” rocked the global business landscape.
Fact is, Sharon had to reinvent what she was reinventing, all the while keeping her employees safe, supported, and inspired. The amazing job she did was no small feat and should be getting A LOT more attention than it does within the business community. While it hasn’t been the flashiest turnaround plan in history, The Vitamin Shoppe should be extremely excited about its future and I believe they’re on the right path to maximize growth with Sharon Leite as its CEO.