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There are few businesses that run without setting their sights on making a profit. Unfortunately, many will pursue these goals without properly giving consideration to worthy causes.
To some, this is simply unacceptable—they believe that businesses should strive to serve a greater cause than just making a profit. Harry Cunningham, the VP of Retail Brand Experience for both Vera Bradley and goodMRKT, is certainly one of these people.
Harry believes that businesses can work closely with non-profit charities to support them. By doing so, marketers can use their skills and experience to help make the world a better place.
We asked the retail veteran about how he developed the concept for his latest venture, goodMRKT (pronounced ‘Good Market’). We wanted to know about his team’s philanthropic endeavors, and what it was like embarking on such a titanic mission amidst one of the most challenging periods of modern history.
Tell us about goodMRKT—could you explain the concept behind it, its background, and how you started it?
Harry Cunningham: goodMRKT has been a really exciting new adventure, one that started off in a different place than where we are today. Like a lot of retailers out there during COVID 2020, we were spending time thinking through what retail was going to look like on the other side.
We had stores that were opening back up and getting semi-back to whatever ‘normal’ was going to look like. We were starting to see that some of our associates were doing ‘Facebook Live’s and one-on-one video selling. So a group of us got together in July 2020 and said “Hey, um, what should we be planning for?” and “What should we be looking for in the future?”
We spent half a day or more in a big room. Each one of us had our own six-foot table, six feet apart, and then afterward came out to Jefferson Point (which is where our flagship Vera Bradley store is located) and saw that there was an open storefront across the way.
It was a former Williams-Sonoma that had been closed for about five years. We went over, pushed the door open, and walked in. We were surprised by how cool it was inside. We thought that it could actually be something. So we went back and talked a little bit about it and asked what we could do.
I was asked, “Why don’t you try something new?” I’m not sure who said it first, but I like to believe that the purpose behind goodMRKT actually found us.Harry Cunningham, VP of Retail Brand Experience, Vera Bradley & goodMRKT
There was an idea that we could actually create a new space that could be anchored by Vera Bradley and then add in other brands. Our CEO said that we shouldn’t “mess up the Vera Bradley store that’s here”, noting that it was the flagship store that should be left alone. They asked, “Why don’t you try something new?” I’m not exactly sure which one of us said it first, but I like to believe that the purpose behind goodMRKT actually found us. We somehow came up with this idea primarily because of the really strong philanthropic foundations of both Vera Bradley and our Pura Vida brand.
Ultimately, I’m ‘doing good.’ We came up with this idea of bringing purpose-driven brands together, brands that are all aligned around the mission of doing good. Initially, it started as a lab—just to kind of see what we could learn about retail and how retail would operate, to see if we bring third-party brands in.
It was a Williams-Sonoma, so they had a demo kitchen. We thought about putting a cafe in, and whether that would help dwell time or encourage repeat visits. We thought about what we could learn—things took off from there and kind of kept going. It’s been exciting to watch the community build.
Now, we have built this really amazing community of purpose-driven brands that are all aligned around this mission of ‘doing good’—whatever good means.
When you’re coming up with these ideas, was that more of a personal passion of yours? How did you go from concept store to concept store focusing on ‘doing good’ with that philanthropic need?
Harry Cunningham: There was definitely a personal passion behind it. The Vera Bradley brand has our Foundation for Breast Cancer that’s raised over $37 million for breast cancer research. We also work with a couple of other organizations, such as New Hope Girls and Blessings in a Backpack, and the Pure Vida brand works with over 80 charities around the world.
That means that ‘doing good’ was something that was already a big part of our company and something that we just built on it from there. By December 2020, we were saying “OK, we’re all in.” I believe that by the time we were getting ready to open this store, the world was ready to do good.
By the end of 2020, I believe that the world was ready to do good.Harry Cunningham, VP of Retail Brand Experience, Vera Bradley & goodMRKT
Just five months later by April 2021, we were moving and grooving and I think people were ready to just align around doing good. It was no longer about “should we.” It was about “how big can we do this?”
What did you guys hope to achieve with the concept store? What’s the ultimate goal you’re looking to achieve?
Harry Cunningham: I think our ultimate goal, which wasn’t the same goal when we started, is to develop this into something much bigger. Case in point, there’s an author that’s writing a book about goodMRKT now, which will drop in April—all because she was so inspired by the story.
We opened the store with 34 brands. We thought we would get 10 to 12, but we opened with 34. This month (October 2021), we’re going to pass 60 brands that have joined us here. We think that this is really becoming a movement and it’s going to be a movement on a number of different levels.
There’s a physical retail piece, which is this physical community that we built up with the cafe and with the brands and the hangout. There’s also now the intermediate with the book, but we’ve got a couple of people that are interested in even taking that a little bit further, so we’re going to watch where that goes.
There’s so much content here, it’s a content-rich brand and a content-rich business with a lot of stories to tell. We’re excited to see where we can tell those stories. There’s a lot of blue sky, white space that we have here. We’re just taking it a day at a time and continuously pushing forward, looking at every opportunity that comes our way.
What it means to ‘do good’ and how brands can do the same
It’s always worth considering what your brand stands for and what goals it hopes to accomplish—especially if you’re trying to do good.
This extends to how your brand decides on partnerships. Harry told us how goodMRKT determines what ‘doing good’ means when evaluating business partnerships.
What do you guys specifically look for when you want to partner up with a brand? Are you generally approaching them, or are you getting to the point now where you’re starting to get this influx of brands wanting to work with you guys?
Harry Cunningham: Great questions! First, we look for brands that are ‘doing good’ and as I’ve said, ‘doing good’ takes on many different meanings.
‘Doing good’ could mean that you’re giving back to an organization that’s raising money for mental health awareness. ‘Doing good’ could mean that for every blanket we sell, you’re giving a blanket to someone in a homeless shelter. ‘Doing good’ could mean that you’re using some of your profits to help children get musical instruments in public school because their music programs are being defunded. ‘Doing good’ could mean that you’re keeping waste out of the landfills and keeping the earth a healthier place.
So we continue to look for potential partners doing good, but ‘good’ varies from ‘good for the earth’ to ‘good for people’ to ‘good for your community’ and everything in between. What we tend to really stay away from are things that are polarizing, things that might be exclusive. We look for a lot of inclusivity.
We steer clear of things that could be exclusive. Things that are ‘just about me, but doesn’t include you.’ We’re not saying that those types of initiatives, drives, or missions are bad. However, our mission states that ‘you belong here’ and we believe that everyone does belong here, so we don’t want to go into places that start to make people feel alienated.
With regards to brands, if they’re finding us or we’re finding them, it’s probably 50/50. We found that in the ‘doing good world’ that even though it’s a big world, at the same time it’s also a very small world, as the brands are already highly connected.
Many brands that are ‘doing good’ are digitally native. They already know each other and they’re sharing the same challenges. They’re learning together and we’re making an effort to help them learn and grow.Harry Cunningham, VP of Retail Brand Experience, Vera Bradley & goodMRKT
Most of them are digitally native brands so they know each other already and they’re sharing the same challenges. They’re learning together. We’re making a very concerted effort to help them learn and help them grow, which we continue to push and continue to drive.
Then there are brands that find us. I had an NYU student reach out recently who heard about a brand with a very strong mission supporting women and children in Ethiopia tihat have AIDs, and she’s raising money for them. She’s creating her own documentary about the struggles that those women and children are having and she found us.
We decided to work together, so we bring her cards and she creates these beautiful cards with images of New York City that we’re able to bring to our Soho pop-ups. With collaborations like this in mind, it’s not a stretch to say that it’s kind of all over the place right now.
Exploring new opportunities and challenges during COVID
Whether it’s ecommerce or brick-and-mortar stores, no one can talk about the last few years without the topic of COVID rearing its ugly head. The global pandemic rocked businesses all over the globe, regardless of whether they were well-established or fresh start-ups.
Harry was in a unique position in regards to this shake-up. He is an established and successful merchant, yet encountered the same challenges with goodMRKT as anyone else does while starting their first venture. He was planning goodMRKT during the peak of the lockdown, when a lot of brick-and-mortar stores were shut.
A lot of them didn’t reopen, while others took longer to open than anyone assumed. Regardless, the uncertainties didn’t stop Harry and his team from planning to open a new brick-and-mortar store.
We asked him about this potentially turbulent period, along with the challenges he foresaw.
Did the concept of goodMRKT change from pre-pandemic to post-pandemic? Did you think about what should go into that store, such as your kitchen and indoor cafe? Did the overall construct of the store change and evolve, and what was the challenge of opening a brick and mortar shop in the midst of a pandemic?
Harry Cunningham: First of all, I’d say that we were fortunate that our food and beverages were all pre-prepared—it wasn’t as challenging to us as if we had a proper restaurant. I don’t think we have changed our approach, we’ve always been sensitive to the safety of our associates and the safety of our customers.
We just maintain that, so if we need to mask up, we mask up and if we can relax those standards a little bit based on community guidelines and CDC guidelines, then we’ll do so. But it never changed the fact that we knew we needed to do something and we needed to keep moving forward.
What I do think that has come out of the pandemic, as a result, is the freedom to try things and let things not be perfect, and to connect in different ways. If you think back to retail in 2019 before the big shifts in stores shutting down and then stores reopening, there was probably a lot more fear in the need to be perfect. Or if you weren’t perfect, what that could look like for your business coming out of the pandemic.
I’m a silver linings guy and coming out of the pandemic, I believe second-tier or suburban communities have become much more important—people want to support their communities. There was this kind of exodus from big cities into different communities. This made people embrace that it’s okay if things are local and scrappy.
I’m a silver linings guy and coming out of the pandemic, I believe second-tier or suburban communities have become much more important—people want to support their communities.Harry Cunningham, VP of Retail Brand Experience, Vera Bradley & goodMRKT
The pandemic gave us that ability or that freedom that we’ll just figure things out. If we have to change something today that we were doing yesterday, we’ll just change it. If we need to change the hours, we’ll change the hours. If we need to be closed today because we don’t have the staff, we’ll just be closed. It’s sort of been refreshing to be able to jump into this with a bit, or maybe a lot, of ambiguity.
I don’t like living in a very structured black and white world. I like living in a gray space that can ebb and flow, which is funny because I come from such a background where details are important. The details have been so important to every single thing I’ve done within my career—whether it’s windows on fifth avenue or designing a store in Houston, Texas, or Toronto.
I think that I have continued to bring that same focus on details to goodMRKT, but I’ve done it with a new lens.
Determining what sets apart ‘good’ from ‘great’
With so much experience in visual merchandising, Harry is certainly an expert when it comes to knowing what sets a great piece apart from a good piece—whether it’s a display, a website design, or even a piece of content.
We discussed having flexibility post-pandemic—allowing merchants a little more slack to be a little more scrappy. Harry hopes for a world where things don’t have to be ‘perfect,’ but ‘good enough.’
We asked him more about this, as well as where he believes these concepts will take goodMRKT in the future.
You mentioned how merchants, customers, and communities are becoming more open to adaptability. Is this ‘good enough now, perfect later’ approach a temporary shift, or do you think this is the way visual merchandising is going to stay?
Harry Cunningham: I hope, with every ounce of hope I have in me, that we maintain this freedom to be a little bit more easygoing. In the world that I was in prior to this one, everything was so focused on everything being completely ticked and tied and buttoned up. I lived that, I loved it, and it was what I was all about. I have an obsession with detail and an obsession about not overlooking little things.
That being said, one of the interesting learnings that I’ve had here with goodMRKT is completely counter to everything that I’ve done my entire career with regard to space. We walked into a space here with no budget and asked, “How do we put a store here?” That’s a real-time challenge that people all over the world face when they want to become entrepreneurs.
We were successful because we followed the phrase “get good enough to move on.” I’m a big believer in that. I’ll take a hundred things at 85% before I take one thing at 100%. That’s what’s allowed us to do what we’ve done. I hope like heck that we’re able to keep this mindset because there’s also a significant amount of authenticity that comes along with it.
There’s a lot to be said for the alternatives, like the way that Disneyworld operates. They go for 100%, doing things like repainting the horse posts every night while there are no guests in the park. You come back the next morning and it’s fresh and clean all over again. There’s a lot to be said for that. But, there’s a lot to be said for the authenticity that we are able to celebrate here.
With regards to the future of goodMRKT, we now have the ability to go into a community and give life to something that was part of the community before. We don’t have to find somewhere that was once retail space. What if we went to a great community and found an old restaurant that the community had loved? Maybe the restaurant was unfortunate and hadn’t been able to make it. We can go in and bring that beloved community restaurant back to life because it has the infrastructure of a coffee shop—we can bring the retail space into it.
I love that we’re able to step away from this very structured, very boxed-in world and have this freedom now. After all, we’ve all seen enough exposed brick walls to last a lifetime.Harry Cunningham, VP of Retail Brand Experience, Vera Bradley & goodMRKT
I love that we’re able to step away from this very structured, very boxed-in world and have this freedom now. We’ve all seen enough exposed brick walls to last a lifetime, so how do we do something that gives us that freedom? That’s why I hope this mindset stays around.
If you look forward, say five years, where do you hope goodMRKT will be?
Harry Cunningham: My first hope is that we’ll be within all the markets that want to embrace what we’re doing—and I think there are a lot of markets out there that want to do that. Beyond that, there are tremendous opportunities out there and I’m hopeful that we can continue to tell the stories of the founders that are creating these products.
We have a saying here at goodMRKT—good people, great products, and exceptional causes, all three have to come together. We have the opportunity to tell the stories of those good people of the great products of those exceptional causes. I’m honored that we get to do it, but it’s a big task that we have ahead of us.
I hope that we can continue to do more of it, but more than all of that, I hope that we are actually able to make a change in the way that people think and shop and act. It shouldn’t cost more for you to buy organic. It shouldn’t cost more for you to buy recycled. If we can start making an impact on things like that, then now we’re making real change.
For example, if we can start making an impact on helping women that are living on the streets, that have to work in the sex trade industry to care for their sisters who need care for breast cancer, then we’ll be making that real change we want to see.
If we can make those kinds of changes, we’re doing real things. If we can save one person that is struggling with mental health challenges, if we can save one life—we’re winning.
If we feed a million more kids through the Feeding America program that Bella Tunno does, that’s a one for one. They’ve already fed six and a half million kids, but why are there six and a half million meals that were needed in the first place? And more importantly, how do we get rid of that? How do we get more clean water out there?
Forget the number of stores—I just hope we have stores everywhere that we need to be. I hope we get to be a part of as many communities as we can, communities that want us to be there.
Above all else, I hope the outcome we see is that we take capitalism out of things and actually use capitalism for a purpose that’s changing lives. That’s where I want us to make a difference.
Let’s get some people off the streets. Let’s get some people food. Let’s get some people shelter. Let’s get some people warm.
Forget the number of stores—I just hope we have stores everywhere that we need to be. I hope the outcome we see is that we take capitalism out of things and actually use capitalism for a purpose that’s changing lives. That’s where I want us to make a difference.Harry Cunningham, VP of Retail Brand Experience, Vera Bradley & goodMRKT
Your work is something that every merchant should strive to emulate. For those who want to help give back and ‘do good’, can you elaborate on how the process works? How do you figure out what particular changes you want to make in a particular community? Do you guys look actively look for like community partners, such as homeless shelters or women shelters?
Harry Cunningham: Yeah, I think it’s a double answer. First and foremost, we have a number of brands that are in the space with us, including brand partners that are already working with shelters.
Sackcloth & Ashes is a great example. They’re working with over 500 shelters nationwide. If you come to Fort Wayne and you buy a blanket from Sackcloth & Ashes here, you can actually leave your zip code with us and they will donate a blanket to a homeless shelter in your community that they’re working with.
A number of the partners that we have are already working all over the country, even all over the world. So ABLE, another one of our partners, has a tagline of ‘local and global.’ They’re employing women locally in Nashville where they’re based, but they’re also employing women globally in Brazil, Ethiopia, and other places that they’re making products.
There’s a lot of that that’s already happening. I’d say about 25, 30% of the brands are local to this area. We didn’t set a number on saying we have to be at 25% or 30%—it was more about wanting that connection because we do want these stores regardless of what city they’re in.
We do want them to be connected locally to that local community as you come in and shop goodMRKT. The hope is that you might come in knowing about one brand, a brand that you’re already aware of that is already working on a mission that you believe in. But then, you also might get to learn about 55 other brands that you didn’t know about. You’d come in to buy from brand X, but then you’d see brand Y and you didn’t know that brand Y was doing this, or that there’s brand Z who’s supporting a cause you believe in.
This community of brands would run a ‘share of wallet.’ If you walked in and you only have $10 to spend, all of the brands celebrate you spending your $10—regardless of if you spent your $10 with them or with one of the other brand partners. This is because they are all aligned around doing better for the world, so they’re happy that you two—the customer and the brand they’re buying from—are aligned with doing better for the world.
Mistakes made and lessons learnt
Of course, merchants should strive to ‘do good,’ but in order to do that, they need to succeed with their business. With this in mind, we shifted gears to talk about how a merchant can grow their business, along with what mistakes to avoid along the way.
Harry has enjoyed a long and diverse career, working with several distinct, well-known companies. With such an impressive resume, it should be no surprise that he’ll have a wealth of experience for others to learn from.
With a focus on working in retail, we asked Harry for some of his sage advice—both in terms of what he wished he knew when he began his career, as well as what he’d recommend to those starting their careers.
If you give yourself a piece of advice from when you were younger, what do you think that advice would be?
Harry Cunningham: Listen—all day long. It’s amazing what you can learn when you listen. There are so many people that come into the world thinking that they have all the answers. There’s a great amount of drive that goes behind that. However, if you just pause for a moment and listen, you may have the answer that somebody needs, or you may actually learn something and they may have the answer that you need.
Were you one of those people that knew it all?
Harry Cunningham: Of course! People might even say “were you one of those people?” or “are you still one of those people?” and I honestly wouldn’t know. But I’m a far different person now than I was 30 years ago when I started my career.
This year has been so dynamic for me—it’s changed my career and changed my outlook on the world. But I’ve been able to tap into every single thing that I’ve learned over the last 30 years and, more importantly, I have learned more in the last year with these partners and these brands and these people that are on these wonderful missions, than everything I learned before. So it all comes together.
If you were giving advice to a junior in their work experience, do you think anything has changed in the last few decades where maybe their ability or receptiveness to listen has diminished? Do you think people are more open and inclusive in the workplace now?
Harry Cunningham: When I started out in my career, there was definitely a ladder, if you will, and a very hierarchical process by which things happened. One of the things that I am super excited about is that it feels like that ladder has flattened out. There are always titles that are needed in a business. After all, someone has to run the show. But with the ladder flattening out, it’s letting everybody have a voice and a seat at the table.
That’s what made us as a company far more current, far more worldly—it’s part of the culture. I’ve heard my colleagues say countless times that they used to ask the UPS guy what he thought about prints and patterns. Like how cool is that—that somebody that probably doesn’t have a design background, somebody that was in a very different place—was actually able to offer an opinion? That culture has stayed with us here.
I heard my colleagues ask the UPS guy about what he thought about prints and patterns. How is that, that somebody in a very different place was actually able to offer an opinion? That culture has stayed with us here.Harry Cunningham, VP of Retail Brand Experience, Vera Bradley & goodMRKT
That is what I’m seeing more of the shift of—that people are starting to not just assume that because you’re the CEO or because you’re the chief whatever officer that you know it all. I think that there is definitely a willingness to hear and a willingness to connect in a different way and not assume that you’re going to teach a 25-year-old ‘how to shop’ but how they ‘want to shop’ and create a great experience for them. That’s how I would sort of see the shift.
How to genuinely and authentically use cause marketing
With Harry being so active in a lot of different causes, he’s seen his fair share of cause marketing—both good and bad. Cause marketing picked up traction roughly a decade ago and eventually became more mainstream.
This includes brands broadcasting how they give back to a community or charity. Many DTC brands, especially those that primarily sell online, launch with this cause marketing approach.
We asked Harry his thoughts on what constitutes a genuine example of cause marketing. We picked his brain on what merchants should strive for with it, as well as the role he believes cause marketing will play in the future of branding.
Do you think cause marketing is going to be a necessity for most brands moving forward? Or do you think it’s going to be more niche?
Harry Cunningham: That’s an interesting question. I would say that at Vera Bradley, it was never cause marketing. We did it because we needed to do it. We founded the Vera Bradley Foundation for Breast Cancer because one of our earliest sales consultants died of breast cancer at 51 years old.
We said, “This doesn’t need to be happening. We need to do something about it.” It was a quiet part of our company. Well, I say ‘quiet.’ We’ve raised $37 million over 25 years, so it’s not that quiet, but it was quiet. It was a marketing initiative for us, one that I felt strongly about.
It was in 2018 or 2019 that we really pushed that out and we really celebrated the foundation. I was of the belief that it wasn’t about using it for marketing. It was using it to celebrate the work that had been done in a woman’s life that had had a positive impact.
If somebody is tapping into something that isn’t authentic, then shame on them for even doing that. But if you’re doing it for the right reasons, then keep moving forward. If you don’t have a purpose, if you don’t have a cause behind it, even if it’s just as simple as keeping something out of a landfill, then shame on you.Harry Cunningham, VP of Retail Brand Experience, Vera Bradley & goodMRKT
So, with cause marketing, if you don’t see through the BS of cause marketing and you realize somebody is tapping into something that isn’t authentic, then shame on them for even doing that. But if you’re doing it for the right reasons, then keep moving forward. I believe every single brand that’s on the earth needs to have a purpose behind what they’re doing. If you don’t have a purpose, if you don’t have a cause behind it, even if it’s just as simple as keeping something out of a landfill, then shame on you.
Vera Bradley has made a very strong statement. We’ve said that by 2025, we will be using recycled materials and we’re already well down that path with our Performance Twill, which is made from recycled water bottles. We’ve also started introducing recycled cotton.
Brands need to embrace this stuff. It’s legitimate. It’s real. We owe it to future generations. We’re already seeing the negative impacts of all the garbage that happened before us for the last 30, 40, 50, 60 years. It’s time to do something.Harry Cunningham, VP of Retail Brand Experience, Vera Bradley & goodMRKT
There’s a lot that needs to be happening. Brands need to embrace this stuff. It’s legitimate. It’s real. We owe it to future generations. We’re already seeing the negative impacts of all the garbage that happened before us for the last 30, 40, 50, 60 years. It’s time to do something. So cause marketing is important, but it needs to be authentic—not just for the purposes of driving more sales.
If there’s one thing you want people to take away from the goodMRKT initiative, what would that one thing be?
Harry Cunningham: From a goodMRKT perspective, I would reiterate my earlier comment about the importance of listening. Come in and learn about how you can make an impact and learn what you can do. I think that there are a lot of people that want to do good and don’t know how to do good because they just don’t know what to do.
I think that there are a lot of people that want to do good—they just don’t know how because they don’t know what to do.Harry Cunningham, VP of Retail Brand Experience, Vera Bradley & goodMRKT
If you come to goodMRKT, hopefully, we can help you learn how to do good. The takeaway from me would be to always ask yourself, “What can I do to do good?” and “How can I do it?” It doesn’t matter how big or how small. That’s irrelevant. Some people may only be able to do a little good, and that’s OK. Just strive to do something good. That’s what it’s all it’s about. After all, we’re all in this together.
If Harry’s long career showcases anything, it’s that diversity can be invaluable when thinking about how to do good. He started his career primarily working in retail before branching into more ethical-focused businesses. It is Harry’s wealth of experience that has inspired charitable work and meaningful collaboration.
This just goes to show that you don’t have to volunteer to clean up parks, donate money to charities, or simply stick to traditional means of ‘giving back.’ With a little inspiration and a healthy amount of willpower, you can transform any endeavor into one that helps others and gives back to the world to do good—even if that’s selling your products online.