“Every CEO would say the first year was unexpected, but my first year was very unexpected.”
Corie Barry, who became CEO of Best Buy in late 2019, had a first year like few others in the history of business. The head of the nation’s largest primarily consumer electronics retailer made decisions throughout the pandemic about closing and opening stores, going to curbside-only, and bringing back employees.
At CES on Tuesday, Barry was interviewed as part of a keynote by Alan Murray of Fortune, and she discussed all of the eventful things that happened in her first full year at the helm of Best Buy. (The interview was prerecorded, although it’s not clear exactly when.)
“Our hypothesis about changing lives with technology became the reality for every single person,” Barry said in the presentation. “Everything, overnight, became on the backs of technology.” She also noted that employees needed to “work differently,” as most Best Buy store employees had specific jobs pre-pandemic.
The company went to curbside-only in March, opening up some stores to traffic in June. And as Best Buy endured through all that, there were sometimes shortages, especially of products associated with working and learning at home.
“Nobody knew there would be a run on webcams… but suddenly it became the hottest item we had,” she said.
“One of the things we said was, we assumed this digital penetration was going to increase, and we needed to double down on our fulfillment mechanisms, and we had to put the customer in control. But what we thought might take 3-5 years to penetrate this highway, happened overnight. And one of the great things was that “all of the supply chain investments we’ve been making for literally four years, we flexed all of those up to meet that large-scale demand.”
Barry added that she didn’t have much trouble getting stores on board.
“There’s something very unifying about a pandemic,” she said. “And what I mean is, when you’re so worried about your employees’ safety, your customers’ safety, and making sure people get what they fundamentally need to live, that’s a very unifying factor, and all of a sudden you worry a lot less about, what channel is it happening in, which store is it happening in, and some of the real magic is watching the unification of our efforts, against very common and very basic problems.”
In the end, Barry reflected on just what an unusual first year she had running Best Buy, after working at the company for years.
“No matter how much you know about how you will lead in this role, you genuinely have no idea until you see the challenges in front of you,” she said. “There’s no way I could have walked into this job, saying ‘here’s exactly how I would lead through a pandemic.’ The pure nature of there being millions of books on leadership means no one’s done it right, no one’s done it perfectly.”
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.