This Much I Learned: TK Maxx’s top marketer on 30 years of selling an idea

Deborah Dolce has been with TJX Europe, best known for owner TK Maxx, for 30 years and joined as the ‘off-price’ fashion store launched in the UK. She praises culture and curiosity as being key to her longevity at the business.

Ardent listeners to Marketing Week’s regular podcast This Much I Learned will note that our guests tend to have travelled the marketing roads extensively, working across multiple businesses and categories as they shape their career, ultimately leading to those sought-after top jobs.

Things are a little different this week, however, as we welcome Deborah Dolce, senior vice-president, group marketing & corporate responsibility director at TJX Europe, the owner of fashion retail chain TK Maxx. It’s quite the mouthful of a job title but more impressive still is that Dolce has spent an incredible 30 years with the retail company, joining before it even launched its first store in the UK.

Or, as she puts it in conversation with Marketing Week editor-in-chief Russell Parsons, upon joining she was the marketing manager of “precisely nothing” as she awaited the launch of its first two stores in Bristol and Liverpool which arrived in 1994.

TK Maxx’s opened one of its first UK stores in Bristol in 1994. Source: TJX Group

The marketing challenge when they did, though, was to explain the ‘off-price’ concept – a store that stocks a wide range of brands at a lower price point but rotates its stock frequently – to a UK audience completely unfamiliar with it. “This is a business that really relies on a frequency of visit that would be more akin to a grocer than a department store,” she says. “It was more putting into customers’ minds the concept, its point of difference.”

TK Maxx still isn’t really known as an ‘off-price’ store, a term that has remained rooted in the USA, but there has been a change in perception around how it offers its value to the customer. Dolce spoke of focus groups in the past where customers would keep shopping at TK Maxx a secret whereas now they are proud to admit it. “Today, people are wanting to be seen as savvy and smart and not having the wool pulled over their eyes and paying over the odds,” she adds.

The TK Maxx model is distinctive and comes with benefits and challenges for the marketing team. Dolce believes the constant rotation of stock, meaning she can’t guarantee a shopper a particular item on a visit, is quite “liberating” as a marketer as she’s not driven by product. “I’m trying to sell you an idea of the business,” she says. “As a marketing team, we’ve been lucky because we’ve been able to focus more on emotions [of shopping at TK Maxx] and less on product marketing.”

The advantage of tenure is the consistency, the deep knowledge of the business, knowing how to get things done.

Deborah Dolce, TJX Europe

She’s aware, though, of the drawbacks that can come from this model, particularly when it comes to store layout. Dolce accepts that certain customers can find the shopping experience at TK Maxx to be “tricky” to navigate. “It’s not for everybody. We’re not naïve,” she states, but the team is constantly looking at ways to “evolve” and improve the shopping experience to make it as “easy as possible”.

This is helped by the nature of being a retail business. Dolce believes the “brilliant thing” about being a retail marketer is that you have a direct connection to your customers in your stores all the time rather than being “one step removed” like her contemporaries in FMCG. “By literally standing in the store you can learn so much from listening to customers as they shop,” she notes.

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The power of longevity

Of course, it’s Dolce’s tenure in her role that will catch many people’s attention, she accepts that it is unusual but has stayed at the company for two reasons: one, the challenges of the business model, and two, the culture of the business. “I’ve had lots of different roles in the business, I’ve had loads of opportunities, I’ve been in and out of marketing. It’s just been a really brilliant business to be in,” says Dolce.

She believes that finding out about the culture of any business you join is key to being satisfied in your work and that can change depending on the business and what you want from it. “It’s about matching to where you will thrive. I’ve been lucky to land somewhere that suits me and my preferred way of working and values,” she adds.

A TK Maxx store today. Source: TJX Group

Marketing Week has written extensively about the value of consistency and Dolce, naturally, can see the benefits of embracing consistency throughout the leadership team. She points out how in the exec team, of which she is a part, there are two others who have been at the business for 30 years, several for over 20 and those with the shortest tenure have still been there longer than a decade. “The advantage of tenure is the consistency, the deep knowledge of the business, knowing how to get things done, being able to be agile, quick, and really understanding our business model,” she says.

This has to come, though, with an acknowledgment of the dangers of complacency that can come with staying in a business for such a long time. Dolce encourages marketers to stay fresh by looking outside of their sectors and seeing how others are doing things, but also to keep things different by branching out into some pro bono work in different sectors, as she has in the charity and arts and culture sectors.

As to her top advice for any marketer starting out: “Stay fresh, keep yourself learning, outward-looking, curious and modern.”

Listen to the podcast above for more from Dolce about the key learnings from her career so far.

From opening up about mental health issues to closing the career confidence gap, you can listen to previous episodes of Marketing Week’s This Much I Learned podcast on Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud and Spotify.