Hall of Fame Profile: Karen Sales

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Hall of Fame Profile: Karen Sales

By Bill Schober - 02/16/2018

Karen Sales

Title: Vice president, digital partnerships and shopper marketing, Albertsons Cos.

Education: MBA from University of Oregon; bachelor’s in business leadership from University of Puget Sound. 

Community/Industry Activity: Network of Executive Women (NEW); Co-founder of WIIN (Women’s Inspiration and Inclusion Network) for Albertsons Cos.; Path to Purchase Institute faculty; Progressive Grocer’s 2016 Top Women in Grocery; 2017 P2PI Women of Excellence – Collaboration award.

Karen Sales is vice president, digital partnerships and shopper marketing, at Albertsons Companies. She and her team are directly responsible for collaborating with the national and division merchandising teams and CPG partners to develop multiyear, strategic national marketing events across 2,350 stores.

Her career path includes multiple sales roles as well as customer strategy and shopper marketing leadership roles for Coty, Sara Lee apparel and foods, and Quotient (formally Coupons.com). At Albertsons Cos., she manages a team of shopper marketers and agencies tasked with supporting CPG vendors in their efforts to amplify targeted marketing efforts at Albertsons Cos.’ 20-plus banners, across 13 divisions and 35 states. The team plans, executes and evaluates activations across e-commerce, digital and social media, loyalty and coupon events, in-store demos, POS and print – in coordination with national and regional merchandising activity.

On Tuesday, March 13, Sales, along with Matt Pierre, director of e-commerce, General Mills, and Jamie Sohosky, VP, marketing, customer experience, Walmart U.S., will be honored at the 25th annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony, held in conjunction with the Shopper Marketing Effie Celebration, in Schaumburg (Chicago), Illinois. Both events are part of the Path to Purchase Summit.

In mid-January, Bill Schober and Steve Frenda interviewed her at Albertsons Cos.’ headquarters in Boise, Idaho.

Photos by Chad Case

Where are you from?

Sales: I grew up in Sitka, which is on an island in Southeast Alaska. My father, David Moore, who had a pharmacy degree, wanted to live in a small town and run his own store. A pharmacist in Sitka told him that if he came up and worked for a couple of years, he could buy his business. So we moved up there when I was 6. Like most kids of entrepreneurs, I started hanging around the store when I was 11 and doing the odd jobs that any 11-year-old could do reasonably well.

Was your mom happy about moving to Alaska?

Sales: Maybe not so much at first. You can only reach Sitka by ferry or plane. They call it a northern rain forest for a reason – there’s more rain than you can imagine. But we all did very well there. It’s a wonderful community and my mom got very involved. She started a big daycare center and later managed the books at the pharmacy. It was definitely a family affair.

And you’re an 11-year-old working the store.

Sales: I was the oldest child, so they kept me busy facing and stocking shelves, making price changes, and cleaning. During the holidays, we had a little booth that I’d sit in and watch to make sure people weren’t stealing. It was fun, especially during the holidays when we did a lot of full-service help like gift-wrapping.

Sounds like an early education into business.

Sales: He did give me a lot of responsibility, which definitely shaped a lot of who I am. I even helped open and close – granted, it was a small town, but it was still a great deal of trust. When I was a teenager, he gave me the cosmetics and tourism department, where I handled all the ordering and stocking.

One thing I really enjoyed was designing the front windows, showcasing all the products we were featuring. I tried for a classic department store look, especially with the beauty window.

I also got to meet a lot of the sales reps who would travel up to Sitka once a year from big companies like Revlon, Coty and Kodak. When that rep came, you had to be ready because you’d buy everything for the whole year ahead. I’m sure they were like, “Come on, I fly all the way here and I’m meeting with some 18-year-old?” But I was always impressed with these people, and I think that was the first time that I could see myself doing sales.

Did you get the bug for retail?

Sales: Well, I mainly just wanted to get off the island. My dad really wanted me to be a pharmacist, but I had my heart set on becoming some sort of “international marketer.” There was the lure of travel ... heading overseas; maybe doing fashion advertising. But during school, I realized that nothing was quite so simple.

You went to the University of Puget Sound. What was the attraction there?

Sales: I’d applied to schools back East because I have family in Vermont and Massachusetts, but the cost and logistics were just too much, and I realized that I’d need to stay more West Coast. Puget Sound had an “Ivy League” feel. It was a beautiful campus, it was small, and they accepted me into their business-leadership honors program. I was also hired by the business department to recruit other kids coming in, which was a terrific on-campus job.

You worked your way through school?

Sales: Yes. I did a summer internship with Horizon Air [now part of Alaska Air] which was a super cool job. I still can’t believe they paid me to fly all over the Pacific Northwest, assisting the marketing department, introducing their new planes to different travel agencies. I also did evaluations – as a secret shopper – on their customer service. Plus, I had a group mentorship through the school’s business leadership program with Weyerhaeuser doing various projects for their manufacturing teams.

In December 1991 I had to graduate early because I ran out of money, and I fortunately found another internship in the marketing department of a company that made the cash register scanners.

That sounds pretty far from “international marketing.”

Sales: [Laughing] It got worse. Next I found a job at a paper plant selling seven-part-carbon business forms and direct mail. I swore that I’d last at least a year – job hopping looked bad on resumes in those days – but it was a horrible environment. I actually cried the day I made it to a year.

Right about that time, I saw a want ad in the paper for Coty. Perfect! However, the newspaper was a couple days old, so when I called, they were already done taking applications. So I desperately told them my history: how I loved the Coty reps when they came to Sitka; how Coty had become a part of my previous work life; how I’d actually won a P-O-P display award from Coty when I was in school. And they made an exception for me.

I started as a route merchandiser handling the Coty product line in the Seattle area: cleaning shelves, doing resets and building displays. Pulling all-nighters, of course. I still have nightmares about backrooms at general merchandisers at Christmas.

The next step, then, was into sales in California, correct?

Sales: I was based out of Fresno with a challenging area calling on Longs Drugs from Bakersfield up to Manteca. And yes, these were rough neighborhoods, but you could sell the dickens out of cosmetics and cologne like “Musk for Men.”

I also met my husband there. He was selling Oral-B and calling on the same cosmeticians. One of them had a feeling about us, I guess, and went out of her way to introduce us.

You’ve said that you learned an important truth about business in that job.

Sales: Thrifty Payless was my first major account and they had tough buyers. Really tough. Back in those days, you often could succeed just by developing relationships with buyers. My lead buyer was all about the numbers – and she was abrupt, too. But I refused to give up. Finally, she said, “All right Karen, I’ll give you the order, but only because you are a bulldog.” It was an early indicator of where the business was headed: Sales data, ROI, just the facts plus a little determination to get the sale.

So much for glamour, eh?

Sales: Exactly. Coty offered to move me to New York because I’d told them I wanted to be an international marketer, right? Travel, fashion marketing, all of that – and I was ready to say yes, but then I realized I couldn’t afford my student loans on the salary they were offering and without commuting two hours each way. I still regret it ... I just couldn’t make it work financially.

I have one other career regret: an opportunity with the CIA. I took their personality test; filled out a gigantic application; they even sent some recruiter out to Sitka to walk around and ask people about me. After all of that, they offered me a job ... in personnel. I turned it down, but I do wonder what might have been.

Why did you move to Sara Lee?

Sales: Thrifty Payless was bought out by Rite Aid. I wanted to stay in Portland, so I found a job with L’eggs pantyhose, tasked with converting their western DSD business to broker managed. Looking back, those two jobs – Coty and L’eggs – really were life-changing for me. At L’eggs, I had a boss, Dave Miller, who was a great mentor that helped me grow as a manager.

Eventually I got the Safeway account, and then an opportunity to go through the management development center at Sara Lee, then back to school to get my MBA. After that, they hired me to be the new Safeway team lead for the food group.

You went from selling pantyhose to sausage.

Sales: It was a steep learning curve. I had a good understanding of GMHBC, but not the meat department – Ball Park, Hillshire Farm, Jimmy Dean – or the fresh process. In meat, you have buyers who will scream – literally – about a transportation issue because it’s a high-turnover, high-volume, high-pressure seasonal category. If your white pantyhose SKU in size B is out of stock due to a manufacturing problem, nothing escalates all that fast. But in meat, things escalate really fast if the “little smokies” get delayed during a key selling season.

It was also an introduction into the whole supply chain side of the business, which was fascinating. There were plant consolidations, high level price negotiations, and a lot of balancing and analytics to make efficiencies happen. I’m glad I had that job for a couple of years.

Were you unusual being a woman on the road that much in those days?

Sales: It might have been unusual, but for me, it was just the way the job was at the time, and I gladly did it. At Sara Lee I helped start a women’s network for the field with newsletters and mentorship/sharing opportunities. Here at Albertsons, we started something wonderful in 2016: WIIN, the “Women’s Inspiration and Inclusion Network.” We’re affiliated with NEW and have about 10 events a year built around mentoring and learning. I’ve always felt strongly that women in the workplace need to help each other. WIIN is open to men, too, because a lot of what we do involves networking and learning about different parts of the Albertsons Cos.’ business.

Eventually, you were named “Senior Manager Shopper Marketing: Walmart / Safeway / Supervalu,” but stayed in Boise. Why?

Sales: I was given a choice: live either in Chicago or Boise, and I chose Boise because we were basically building an Albertsons team up here from scratch. I ran the office, and had analytics, trade marketing and category management under my umbrella. Then there was this new thing called “co-marketing” that we were getting pretty good at. I had been putting deals together at Safeway because Sara Lee had the whole “power of one” with things like hot dogs, buns, and apple pie – and it often made sense to partner with other complementary companies to share the costs while adding value for the shopper.

Eventually I started reporting for Kris Abrahamson, who’d come from Kraft and brought a wealth of shopper marketing discipline and use of insights with her. She was at corporate and I had the larger field accounts. We really hit it off, and she added a lot of process and structure to help the team grow.

Those were great learning years. You had a completely different set of shopper marketing tools at a Safeway, which was all about loyalty, displays, POS and working with vendors like News America, compared to Walmart, where you had to work really hard to get anything at scale in – like inclusion in TV ads or custom holiday pallet displays. My biggest wins involved me selling internally to get funds, going from brand group to brand group and dialing for dollars. Shopper marketing involves selling and educating all parties – the brand, sales, trade, and the retailer to show how value can be built through investment.

In 2012, an opportunity with IN Marketing brought you to Bentonville.

Sales: We decided that if we were ever going to move our family, Bentonville would be a really good fit. It was a short stint, but I’m thankful that I did that job because I learned insight into the agency side of the business: how RFPs and business development works, how they manage accounts; the structuring of price and labor; how to represent yourself as an agency in front of a retailer – all the sensitivities. Now, here at Albertsons Cos., we have a very large extended team made up entirely of agency people.

You followed that up with two years at Coupons.com (now called Quotient).

Sales: Bentonville is a CPG selling paradise and the accounts were easy to call on because the coupon and media solution was working for them. What I really loved about the job was that it added digital and media experience to my resume. Yes, I’d bought digital media and executed targeted shopper programs in the past, but to be on the agency side of the business is such a different perspective as you become the subject expert. I had always respected the people at Coupons.com, and it was a great move for my career.

And then in 2014, in a sense it was “back” to Albertsons.

Sales: During the years the chain was going through its corporate transformation, I’d kept in touch with colleagues in Boise but I didn’t know anybody in senior leadership at Albertsons LLC or Cerberus. I started networking and was introduced to Amy Kirby [then VP-marketing, now director of marketing at Albertsons-Safeway Denver], and I pitched to her that I could build a shopper department for Albertsons. A few months later, they launched MyMixx and decided they needed a shopper marketer to link and sell the coupon solutions along with media and in-store. My first month with Albertsons, I called about 50 CPGs to connect with their shopper teams to introduce what we could do – from there we kept building our package of marketing amplification solutions. When the merger with Safeway happened four months later, I was selected for the VP of shopper job.

You’ve called it your dream job.

Sales: It is. I got the opportunity to build the department from scratch, and I have used every part of my job history in the process, even down to the direct mail and business forms I sold. We want to drive sales with our CPG partners while delighting our shoppers – that’s what we are here for.

Albertsons Cos. has made a pretty big announcement about its digital ecosystem right now.

Sales: Yes, we recently launched “Albertsons Performance Media,” which is powered by Quotient. It’s a digital media capability that will enable brands to use our proprietary shopper data to drive sales across our network of stores and prove back ROI on how the media drove actual sales, with or without being tied to digital coupons. Everything is now targeted. We don’t talk to the shopper in a non-personalized way anymore, and digital is at the forefront of how we start the conversation with our shoppers every day. I’m also excited about shifting POS into more of a digital experience that coordinates with our mobile activity – brand managed, of course – not just a bunch of messages screaming at you.

At the same time, we’re still very much focused on the human element inside our stores. In-store demos, for example, remain a very viable piece of the business, especially when you couple it with our “Just for U” loyalty offers. I hired Advantage two years ago for our national in-store demo platform “Favorite Finds.” As of this week, all Favorite Finds associates are trained on “Just for U” and how to incorporate it into the demo conversation. We’re raising the level of sales expertise – it’s no longer just “Mabel at the Table” – and making sure that there’s always a related offer in “Just for U.”

Meanwhile, our reporting for in-store demos now connects back to our Shopper 360 data. Nobody else has this that I know of – and it’s adding a lot of value. We’ve segmented our different shoppers, so I can tell you about the person that bought an item; if there was repurchase from that same household; who they are from a tastes and preferences standpoint or from the same-basket standpoint. This new reporting capability enables a brand to learn a lot and it also helps prove an ROI out for the demo solution.

Do you see Albertsons Cos. as a resource to national brands?

Sales: I believe that we are unique in the industry in terms of how much time our national and division merchants give to CPGs. We have huge, collaborative all-day annual planning meetings with representation from each part of the business, which can result in amazing discussions and event building. We’ve also been doing road trips to CPGs to meet with the brands on their turf; we do it because we know we can be more challenging to work with because of our decentralized structure.

During one of our summer meetings last week, a CPG lead told us, “Folks, at the end of the day you guys are still very fair, and that’s certainly not the case everywhere nowadays.” Well, I just loved hearing that. Sure, there are still tough conversations ... it’s business ... but there’s a sincere drive to be collaborative too, which is why I’m proud to be here.

Tell us about your team.

Sales: My team here had to be lean, but still provide national programs of value, to support our divisions. I would not be successful here today without my rockstar team. Kendal Callender and Angela Moore [directors of shopper marketing] have been with me since the merger in January 2015.

Kendal has been an unbelievable resource from a knowledge standpoint in digital and social as well as the management of both CPGs and agencies. She’s basically been my “right hand” in all partner top-to-tops. Angela, meanwhile, took over leadership of our four national events and look – we’ve grown this department by five times in terms of the size of our events. She’s always out there finding new opportunities to make our events bigger and better.

Last question: You spoke about your battle with cancer at the 2016 Women of Excellence reception. How’s it going?

Sales: I’m doing great. And I really love having my hair back. [Laughs] You know, along with my husband, everybody jumped in and helped me. On the day that my head got shaved for a St. Baldrick’s event prior to it falling out, everyone on the team wore wigs to work – we called it “Wigapalooza.” It felt like we would all battle it together.

The support of my management was unbelievable: Dennis [Clark, SVP, grocery merchandising] and Shane [Sampson, CMO & EVP, marketing & merchandising] and leaders like Mike [Massimino, former SVP, merchandising], Karl [Meinhardt, VP, social/digital marketing]; Justin Dye [former chief administrative officer] making sure my insurance was OK, that my team and family was OK. Everyone, all the way up to Bob Miller [executive chairman and CEO], would check in on me regularly.

The culture that exists here is amazing. I didn’t really realize how great my Albertsons Cos. work family and CPG and agency community partners were until I went through that, and I am so thankful.

Left to right (above): Dana Tiegs, senior administrative assistant; Angela Moore, director, shopper marketing; Karen Sales, vice president, digital partnerships and shopper marketing; Cassi Joos, coordinator, shopper marketing; Jodi Taylor, senior manager; Dan Massimino, manager, shopper marketing; Kendal Callender, director, shopper innovation and digital partnerships; MaryPat Muguira, coordinator, shopper marketing.

Photos by Chad Case