You’ve seen the rocking chairs out front and, no doubt, sampled some of the restaurant’s classic buttermilk biscuits. But Cracker Barrel is about more than its “Old Country Store” image — and Head Merchant Laura Daily is making sure of it. Here, Daily discusses how she’s positioning Cracker Barrel’s retail strategy for a multi-generational audience and offers advice to help other women have the courage to make their own career-defining transitions. Welcome today’s FACE of the South, Laura Daily.
How did you make the transition from Ballard Home Furnishings to Cracker Barrel?
I was working late on a Monday evening and I got a phone call from an executive recruiter. She said, “Laura Daily, I’ve been watching your career, and I think I have an opportunity for you,” and when she told me who it was, I just started laughing. I said, “You do know I’ve been in home furnishings my whole life, and this is Cracker Barrel. This is so different.” She told me to give it a chance and, once we started talking, I said, “It’s funny — I ate there yesterday. I eat there on Sundays with my family, and I absolutely love the brand. I’m addicted to the chicken and dumplings, which reminds me of the chicken and dumplings that my grandmother made, and I love that the kids — I have two girls — can find things in the retail store to keep them occupied during the meal.”
So I came (to Nashville) and talked to the executive team, and the more I did research on this company, the more I fell in love with it. It is genuine. So the same thing you see and feel in the store, it radiates throughout this company. And even though it was such a different path from what I had been on, I got that kind of butterfly feeling in my stomach. You have to differentiate that butterfly feeling from excitement and encouragement versus just being scared but this was excitement and encouragement, and it just felt so good on so many different levels.
What exactly is a “Head Merchant,” and what is a typical day like for you?
First off, there’s no typical day. We are responsible for selecting, curating and putting together all the assortments that you see in the Cracker Barrel stores. I have a team of over 50 people that ranges from buyers all the way through to visual presentation, or the people who determine how it looks in the store. There are so many facets to the position and I love it because you can be wildly creative one hour, and then the next hour be totally immersed in numbers, down to the pennies. So a head merchant really wears many different hats. You’re managing people; you’re managing product; you’re managing logistics; you’re out in stores; you’re getting to know the guests and what they want; you’re looking at trends; you’re looking at global trends; you’re looking at global manufacturing. So you get to experience a lot of things on many different levels.
Speaking of that global perspective, you get to travel quite a bit. What’s that like?
We have “major trips” about four times a year and we are everywhere from Europe — so we’re in Italy and Portugal, and France — to China and Thailand, to Vietnam, Indonesia, India. We source globally, and we go to where the materials and the craftsmanship are indigenous. And we do a lot in the U.S., too, so we’ll be in California, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Michigan … We’re all over because what we want to do is find the best product at the best price — and the artisans that make it.
What are some of the most significant changes you’ve made to Cracker Barrel’s retail strategy since starting with the company and what has been the impact of those changes?
When I came on, I really wanted us to move towards a more encompassing product line. We have a very diverse customer base — one that includes an older generation, to the millennial, and now that Gen Z edge — and what we need to do is make sure that we are pleasing everyone. As a merchant team, we have worked really hard to diversify our product mix and make sure that we are satisfying many different needs. So, whereas we may have had only one or two silhouettes in our apparel offering, we now offer tunics and crocheted tops, and wraps with fringe. We have some really fun metallic and bright colors in our home décor. In our quilt offerings, which were typically pieced quilts and very traditional, we now have whole-cloth, printed quilts, which are very much like what you would find at some very trendy retailers, but we’re in the $129 range. So what I wanted to do was bring great style to a lot of different generational cohorts and a lot of different tastes, and bring it at an affordable level so that they all could enjoy it.
I do think that the perception of Cracker Barrel is that the brand does cater to an older demographic. So it’s interesting to hear that you are intentionally trying to reach a broader demographic and multiple generations.
Absolutely. And you know what? It doesn’t always work. When I first got here, I was so excited to do some things new and I may have pushed the team in some directions that may have been too fast. And one of the things that you have to remember with a brand that is so deeply entrenched in Americana is that you can’t always push it as fast as you think it needs to go. You have to be very respectful of what the brand is. So, I put some things on the floor in the very beginning that didn’t fit yet. We hadn’t evolved to that spot. So, you make a mistake. You realize you made a mistake. You regroup and you see what you learned from it.
What advice do you have for other women who are nervous or apprehensive about making a drastic career change — or jumping into something new — the way you did?
Roll your sleeves up and just get it done. Because I think when you really do some soul-searching, you know when you’re ready for a change. I had the experience and I knew that I was ready to take a next step. So, when you know you’ve done your homework and you know you’ve practiced, just do it. Don’t let fear hold you back.
If you’re not dining at Cracker Barrel, where do you go to have a good meal?
I really like little hole-in-the-wall restaurants. If I see a diner on the side of the road, I’m pulling in because I bet they have some good food. I’ve been spending a lot of time down in the St. Simons area of Georgia and oh my gosh, that Low Country … can you get enough Southern food? I mean, you’ve got me at biscuits and gravy and sausage.
Aside from faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
I can’t live without food. I love food. I would have to say number two would be my horses and dogs. I have a very special horse,and I love her a lot. And I think the third thing would have to be reading.
Thank you, Laura, for enlightening our readers today. And thank you to Ashley Hylbert for today’s beautiful images. See more of her work at AshleyHylbert.com.
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