Mélissa Lessard: “Retail Is Never Going to Be Dead”

Mélissa Lessard has answered every opportunity with a “yes”—and it’s paying off big in her current role as Couche-Tard’s head of marketing and merchandising

“It’s easier to make the right decisions for the business if you venture outside your comfort zone,” says Mélissa Lessard, head of marketing and merchandising for Couche-Tard, a leading global convenience store brand headquartered in Canada. “If I would have stayed in marketing all my life, I wouldn’t be in the same place today.”

Mèlissa Lessard, Couche-Tard
Mèlissa Lessard, Head of Marketing & Merchandising for Canada, Couche-Tard Photo: Lucie Giguère/Studio 8

Lessard’s first foray outside of marketing occurred in 2016. After four years in marketing and merchandising at Couche-Tard (and previous roles in marketing elsewhere), she had her son, left the workplace for her yearlong maternity leave, and returned to a job offer as director of operations—a new-to-her field.

“My boss told me if I wanted to grow in the company, I had to spend time in operations,” Lessard says. “That’s the heart of the business, where the cash register is ringing. You have to understand operations if you want to make the right business decision later on.”

Accepting the role launched Lessard into an intense period of learning. “Coming back to the workforce after a year off is already a little frightening, and coming back to a new team and new objectives made it even more so,” she says. “I moved from managing one PNL with margins and vendors to one hundred PNLs with shrink and HR issues.”

In 2018, Lessard was asked to stretch her skills once again, adding leadership of Couche-Tard’s Québec distribution center to her duties. “I had no background in logistics, but I had an amazing team,” she explains. “It was a life-changing two years where I was fully out of my comfort zone learning every day but also contributing a lot because of my unique perspective.”

Lessard finally returned to more familiar ground in early 2019, accepting a position as Couche-Tard’s national marketing director, heading up the company’s new global marketing team. This February, she was promoted once again to head of marketing and merchandising for Couche-Tard’s Canadian division.

Mèlissa Lessard, Couche-Tard
Photo: Lucie Giguère/Studio 8

Within the first six months back in the marketing world, Lessard spearheaded a successful gamification program that increased engagement, brand awareness, and store visits. “I’m proud of the sales and traffic results, but I’m also proud of the fact that none of this existed before January of last year, and we launched in June. We’re talking millions in investment here, and the regions alongside my national team were able to turn on a dime and pull it off,” she says.

In total, Lessard and her team launched four games. Some were taken from the European market and adapted for Canada, while others were created entirely from scratch. One of the latter was “Rock, Paper, Prizes NHL,” where participants challenge NHL players to win prizes, including tickets to NHL games. “It was a big win to leverage the NHL, our vendor partner, and their players who have massive followers to endorse the Couche-Tard/Circle K brand,” Lessard says.

Lessard may be fully re-entrenched in the marketing world, but her forays into different disciplines significantly inform her work. Her time in operations, for instance, gives her an understanding and sensitivity to how marketing initiatives will impact in-store employees.

“Everything we do ends up impacting someone in a store, and they are our true everyday heroes,” she says. “It’s important to have an awareness of how much they do and whether we’re asking them to take on additional work. This means I question our decisions more.”

Her time in supply chain management, on the other hand, helps her identify opportunities with vendor partners she wouldn’t otherwise be aware of. “Having managed Québec’s distribution center (none of Couche-Tard’s other Canadian territories have this), I know the lead time needed to distribute product and the associated cost. That gives my team insight into how we can better work with our distribution partners, because we have some internal data to go off of.”

“Everything we do ends up impacting someone in a store, and they are our true everyday heroes. It’s important to have an awareness of how much they do and whether we’re asking them to take on additional work.”

She’s also honed her leadership skills along the way, building a track record of being an open, honest, and trusting leader. “I let the people on my team do what they do best,” she says. “I fully trust them and let people make mistakes, hoping they’re going to be honest enough to let me know something isn’t working. I learned this approach from my own bosses, and I’ve seen how it makes people deliver more because they feel empowered.”

Lessard has had to learn the nuances of influential leadership, too. “The national role I’m in has pushed me to put my ego aside for the good of the company, since a lot of my work isn’t leading a direct team but rather convincing our business leaders that a campaign is the right step towards achieving our goals,” she says. “If they’re not convinced, I can’t just fight for my idea, because we all want to make the best decisions for the company. I have to roll up my sleeves and find something better, because I need them on board.”

Although Lessard once worries that retail was dying, she says it now feels like a renaissance. As always, she’s ready for the challenges ahead. “Retail is never going to be dead, but the retail we had twenty years ago doesn’t exist,” she says. “We need to evolve as an industry, and we’re increasingly testing and learning what our customers want and finding new ways to delight them.”