Tatiana Birkelund joined Neiman Marcus as VP/GM Beauty & Jewelry in April 2021 after a nearly 16-year career at Ralph Lauren where she was Senior Vice President of Sales and Planning. Tatiana has also previously worked at YOOX, Bloomingdale’s, and Macy’s. At Neiman Marcus, Tatiana’s focus is to provide leadership to the beauty and jewelry division working alongside cross-functional partners and brand partners to deliver on the luxury department store’s strategic framework and provide customers with a differentiated shopping experience. Here, Tatiana spoke to CEW Beauty News about how she is handling pandemic-induced uncertainties, her focus over the past nine months, and her three-year plan. 

BN: Tell us about your career background, highlights, and successes.

TB: I spent the last 15 years at Ralph Lauren. So many people have had outstanding careers that started at Ralph Lauren and then went on to do phenomenal things. Ralph Lauren was a magical place to work. No one defines the brand better than he does with a singular vision. The first half of my career was in merchandising, and the second half was in wholesale sales, focusing on the Lauren brand initially. That was my baby that we grew to build credibility in women’s wear. One of my proudest accomplishments was repositioning the Polo brand. When I left Ralph Lauren, Polo was set up for success with positive business momentum in the luxury segment.

BN: What attracted you to the opportunity at Neiman Marcus?  

TB: Neiman Marcus is at an incredible moment in its history right now. And it was learning a new, different category for me. I wanted to immerse myself in product categories that have a different kind of emotional connection with the consumer. Beauty and jewelry are categories that are incredibly dynamic and emotional. There is a passion that people feel for their beauty routine, trying new products, and how they work for them. That’s super exciting. My role as General Business Manager includes both merchandising and planning reporting into me and this gives me a holistic way to continue and focus on profitable growth momentum in these categories.

BN: How have you spent the first nine months in the new role? What has been your focus?

TB: The first couple of months were about getting to know the team, the business, and the key relationships. Neiman Marcus has come out of a challenging time with grace and strength, poised for success. The brand had an incredible legacy and the plans for the future are inspiring. After the onboarding, the questions I had for the categories that I manage were, ‘How does the beauty strategy [align with] the overarching relationship-driven Neiman Marcus strategy? How do I continue to support beautiful luxury experiences, deepen customer relationships, integrate selling, focus on digital as well as stores and training, and reinforce the customer experience?’ The beauty category is very different in terms of the wider market distribution. Neiman Marcus is differentiating by continuing to build relationships with our most loyal luxury customers, as well as attracting new quality customers into the category. Our customers appreciate the magic in our assortment and the impeccable service that we provide as part of the integrated retail approach.

BN: There is also the digital component which is competitive but also offers opportunity.

TB: It’s super competitive. But we see an enormous opportunity to serve our customers in an integrated retail way, in stores, digitally, and in our remote selling channel, CONNECT. This was accelerated during the start of the COVID pandemic. It creates an integrated luxury retail experience so shoppers can tap into their Client Advisors whenever and wherever.

BN: We didn’t anticipate the recent resurgence of the virus. As a retailer, how did you pivot? How do you plan?

TB: What I’m focused on at this particular moment is hind sighting the business for holiday while it’s still fresh in our minds. I am also partnering with our key brands on how to keep the learnings and what to do for next year, given that the supply chain was a hot topic and that we had an exceptionally successful holiday season. To your point, the customers were in the stores. It’s only the post-Christmas timeframe, which has been a little bit more of a pullback, and that’s never our greatest time, to begin with. We’re continuing to stay the course and focus on categories such as Fragrance that is achieving all-time highs. We continue to focus on our leadership as a destination for luxury fragrance and offering incredible experiences in treatment. Color has been the hardest hit by the pandemic and the resurgence. Just as we were ready to wear lipstick again, we pulled back out. That’s the category that is the most wait-and-see.

BN: How is Neiman Marcus maintaining its position as a destination for fragrance? 

TB: We have an incredible assortment that continues to grow and evolve. With our longstanding relationships with brand partners, we’re able to offer one-of-a-kind experiences and services to our customers. For example, Neiman Marcus was the first retailer in the US to carry Maison Francis Kurkdjian; it has been a cult favorite with our customers ever since. And because of this incredible partnership with the brand, our NorthPark location was the first to launch their new holiday fragrance experience this previous holiday season. Moments like this are a testament to the incredible fragrance buyer and team that has partnered very closely with the growing brands, the niche brands, the established brands. It’s a portfolio approach. Kim D’Angelo, our fragrance buyer, is one of the best in the industry.

BN: What is happening with in-store services? Are consumers looking for them? Do they feel safe in the department store environment?

TB: We have a day-by-day, market-by-market approach. We must pivot on a day-by-day basis, but we’re in it for the term long term. We are investing in aestheticians in all stores, our renovation projects, our spa rooms, and adding private makeup rooms. We are adding beauty experience areas where we can do master classes or private events, such as girlfriend night. It’s not all about women. Men’s is an opportunity, so it could be a men’s grooming event. We’re trying to make that a part of every store and build upon that. This is a human market strategy, not just a beauty strategy, as we look at our renovation doors and how to increase customer engagement.

BN: Can you speak about opportunities as they relate to digital? What are you focusing on in the first half of 2022?

TB: Neiman Marcus Group is committed to delivering luxury every day through exceptional and personalized experiences for our customers. NMG has invested in our data and machine learning capabilities. This leans into NM CONNECT, which helps our associates interact with clients, providing them personalized recommendations crucial for beauty. I don’t necessarily have a differentiated strategy for beauty because it’s very consistent with the areas of focus.

BN: Many work off a three-year plan. Is that your approach as well?

TB: I love a good three-year plan! It’s the subject of a lot of discussion because I’m still learning in terms of the operational aspects. There are several things we want to test before we put it into practice. We are also trying to continue to elevate the experience and focus on regular price selling. One of the things we observed this past holiday was that there was a lot of promotional activity in beauty. So, I’m looking at strategies to elevate and insulate Neiman Marcus from some of that promotional activity. That’s part of the longer-term view. Also, to continue to take a leadership position in fragrance. Elevate treatment and color. Deliver except exceptional experiences. Those are really cornerstones for sustainable growth.

BN: Is there anything else that you would like to mention?

TB: As I think about the two businesses that I have both have incredibly strong cores. What’s exciting about beauty that we can focus on is the storytelling and executing with precision, which is very exciting. We are able to really develop a longer-term relationship and connectivity to the consumer, which has been an incredible learning and really satisfying to lean into.