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Madia Willis '00

Product Development Manager at Five Below
The Alumni Office recently chatted with Madia Willis ‘00 to learn more about how her work has changed since March in response to the shift in lifestyles and consumerism due to COVID-19.  Madia is currently the Product Development Manager at Five Below.  She focuses on creative direction, sourcing, and trend projection in retail.

How has her work shifted in the last six months?
Madia shared that at first she started by monitoring the virus in China where a large amount of her suppliers are based. She followed factory closures, the opening and closings of ports which would affect their shipments and inventory.
Once stay at home orders were in place, Madia had to immediately react to people’s changing lifestyle and new buying decisions. Consumers were focusing inward on the home, home improvement projects, home offices, and she needed to react to how consumers were choosing to spend their money. She works for a store that sold nothing that people needed for a pandemic lifestyle. She had to add consumables (cleaning supplies, masks, hand sanitizer) to their product line-up and learn how to make the store relevant in the moment.

How is business now?
Five below has 1,000 stores which means that the company was nimble enough financially but small enough to also be able to make changes that big stores aren’t able to make. After being closed for two months we were able to reopen with new and relevant inventory. 

For example, Five Below has always offered candy and chips but they wanted to start selling frozen foods, milk, and bread (for example), which meant the investment in freezers and refrigerators in stores in certain markets. There was a new need for a snack and food buyer within the company who had to deal with a whole new level of regulations. Making partnerships with brands that they hadn’t worked with before (Proctor & Gamble, Lysol, Clorox) was a new business line that had to be learned and implemented.

What does she anticipate next in the retail industry?
Madia projects that we will continue to see retailers go out of business. At the time that we spoke companies such as Pier One, Neiman Marcus, JCrew, Brooks Brothers, Forever 21, Ann Taylor, and Justice had announced store closures and bankruptcy. Madia shared that there is so much carryover inventory between seasons that what retailers already purchased for future seasons is in danger of not selling as the product doesn’t fit into our current lifestyles.

She also projects that the mass discount market will continue to do well and a strong e-commerce platform will be necessary for success and growth. If a company cannot deliver the product from an online market they will not be successful or sustainable.

Companies also need to respond to consumer demand. For example, loungewear as a category vs. “Rent the Runway” has shot up in demand, as well as work out wear. Similarly, the blending of multi-purpose spaces in the home has created a demand for home designs and decor and people are working from their homes like they never have before
What did you most enjoy about being part of the SSSAS community?
What I enjoyed most about SSSAS was how well rounded it was. I could be a three- sport athlete, lead on the student council, take art classes, and excel academically. I think this experience has served me well in a career that requires an equal amount of left and right-brained thinking.

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