The work of Karla Sherrell, director of store planning and design at Aaron’s, was on full display at one of the company’s Ft. Oglethorpe, Georgia, stores in February of 2021. The Chattanooga Times Free Press was able to capture, through a lone customer’s description, Sherrell’s entire ethos of the hundreds of stores she’s overseeing the remodeling of over the next five years. “It’s definitely changed a lot and looks a lot brighter and better with more options,” the customer described while walking the aisles of his local Aaron’s.
The description may seem vague, but it underlines how successful Sherrell’s short tenure at Aaron’s has been. She’s helping lead a brand-wide overhaul and remodeling that improves the design, flow, and delivery of Aaron’s products while still not straying too far from what has made it one of the most successful furniture retailers of its kind.
It Works Until It Doesn’t
It’s not the choice of lighting or new signage that denotes Sherrell’s leadership; she has a design team and partners for that. It’s the new processes and procedures she’s built and instilled that enables Aaron’s to remodel 150 stores a year. It’s not the destination, it’s the map the director has helped draw to get there. That is where Sherrell has truly shined.
“Everything in my world is a living process,” Sherrell says. “If it doesn’t work, tweak it. If it works, immortalize it until it doesn’t work and then we try again.”
It’s a simple axiom but one the director says is far too often ignored for an easier path. “I’ve read that the new definition of ‘illiteracy’ is not the inability to read, but the inability to learn, unlearn, and relearn. In retail, you have to do that, or you wind up like some now defunct retailers. You’ve lost before you even knew you were losing.”
How does Sherrell’s dedication to evolution play out at Aaron’s—an organization she joined after seven years of progressively more senior roles at Carter’s, along with other experiences including refining Gap’s Athleta brand at Phillips Partnership and three years at Chick-fil-A as a design consultant?
The director says the longtime brand had not touched its store designs for quite some time, and the chance to come to the company and make an immediate impact was too good to pass up. “I’ve had the opportunity to develop a program that encompasses all of the issues that have become top-of-mind from a corporate perspective,” the director explains. “My job is to make sure that our look is seamless, that our design is seamless, and think about just how we’re delivering that experience to the customer.”
That focus on the customer seems to be driving Sherrell’s initiatives. From a presentation standpoint, the director says the company is doing a complete 180, focusing more on the customer and employee experience inside its stores. That starts with the store layout.
“A revelation we’ve had in the last year is that we simply have to have a certain sized stock room in order to operate,” Sherrell says. “That wasn’t much of a consideration in the past, but it has become absolutely mission-critical going forward. My job is to integrate that into the design and still maintain the customer experience given the footprint that we’re working with.”
But here, again, it’s important to remember Sherrell’s real skill. She isn’t just helping Aaron’s tackle an estimated 150 complete store rehabilitations per year for 800 of the company’s stores, she’s building the means to actually make it possible. “There are things you can do with 20 stores a year that you can simply not do at 150—that, I promise you,” Sherrell says, laughing.
And, the director points out, there are ways of working from 2019 that simply no longer apply to the company. To help enable that evolution, Sherrell says cultivating partnerships both inside and outside of the company has been essential. For a director who didn’t meet her team in-person until only a few months ago due to the pandemic, it’s amazing to consider she’s been able to build any relationships at all.
“I think I’ve been able to leverage partnerships here fairly quickly,” Sherrell explains. “We cannot work in silos. I’ve got to depend on information from store operations, from real estate, from brand strategy, and all those different functions to do my job—and they have to depend on me.”
Breaking out of those silos has proven easiest when learning to barter and creating a synergistic relationship with all involved. “When you need something quickly, I got you,” the director puts it succinctly. “What do you need? What do you want? What do you got? I’m the short order cook of Aaron’s.”
Everyone has taken notice. “We at Pratt Visual Solutions are extremely proud of our work with Karla Sherrell and the team at Aaron’s,” says Jeff Van Vactor, Pratt’s senior director of sales and business development. “Karla’s style of leadership gives her team the confidence to know that she fully supports their decisions as they work towards transforming Aaron’s.”
Stay, Love, or Let It Go
Sherrell’s previous experience is essential, because she’s worked on virtually every side of the fence when it comes to vendor relations. “I understand that companies often require things from vendors without any appreciation for what they’re really asking for,” Sherrell explains. “I believe in servant leadership, and if I’m creating a process that is going to make it cumbersome for you to execute, I’m more than happy to blow that process up. Let’s do it. Let’s give it a shot.”
While the remodels have consumed huge amounts of Sherrell’s time, it’s part of a larger right-sizing effort for Aaron’s that the director says comes down to three main buckets: Stay, Love, or Let It Go. The first bucket means a store is doing exactly what it needs to do. The second bucket means the store needs some TLC to make it better. The final bucket, Sherrell explains (again, in perfect succinctness) as “stores we need to move out of yesterday.”
And here, “right-sizing” isn’t simply a euphemism. Along with the remodels, Sherrell will be building new stores, but at a time when Aaron’s is catching its second brand wind, it’s best to know where the organization is going first. Call her what you want: Aaron’s short order cook, the cartographer, or Ms. 150. Regardless, Sherrell has come to Aaron’s to make an impact and deliver on her commitment to excellence.