The Wentworth Ballroom at Sydney’s Sofitel hotel was filled with nervous energy on Friday night as 25 retailers waited in their formal attire to learn which of them would be named Young Retailer of the Year.

The finalists all aged 25 or younger— supported by their families, employers and industry figures — were recognised at the 41st edition of the National Retail Association’s Young Retailer of the Year award, with a New York! New York! themed Gala Dinner.

Opening the evening, National Retail Association CEO Trevor Evans said the award provides an opportunity for retailers to acknowledge the work ethic and achievements of their young staff who are thriving in an industry currently undergoing a period of rapid change.

“The role of a successful retailer is evolving, these future leaders have demonstrated that to compete and prosper in this challenging market you’ve got to be savvy in many areas.

“Retail is no longer just focused around the bricks and mortar traditions of great customer service and product knowledge, it’s more than that. It is becoming a dynamic and more complex sector, guided by digital and online channels, complex consumer demands and ever-changing industry regulation,” Evans said.

The award also provides a networking platform and gives an insight into the career progression available to young retailers.

“This award aims to promote retailing as a viable career for the younger generation and to dispel the myth that retail is just a first job or a stepping stone to somewhere else,” Evans said.

“These young retailers have well and truly broken the stereotype that working in retail is something you do for pocket money when you’re young. They are proving that the retail industry can fulfil Gen Y’s desire for a dynamic and exciting career.”

Delivering the keynote address, CEO of General Pants Group Craig King remarked that fashion retailers today had more in common with NASA than a frock shop of five of ten years ago.

“Retail is innovating at an incredible rate and [so are] the opportunity and the jobs of working through retail, I don’t think it has ever been more exciting than it is right now and I challenge anyone to come up with an industry that has more going on with it than retail does right now.”

One way to adapt to this constant change is to task younger members of your staff with embracing these changes.

“Retail is ever-evolving and every time you think you have the winning formula something shifts and you are reviewing and remodelling. It takes a certain type to be able to keep up that momentum regardless, and to want to constantly challenge their premise,” King said.

“And somehow Gen Y have this locked in to their DNA, and when they combine this with a strong work ethic and the will to learn, they have the complete recipe for success!”

“There are possibilities and opportunities everywhere you look, and just think what we could achieve if failure wasn’t an option? Gen Ys certainly don’t think failure’s an option — they are often bullet-proof in their self-belief, which is an incredible trait to have.”

The top ten finalists were then announced and performed admirably in a live question and answer session, which from the audience, felt as though you were eavesdropping on a job interview.

Overcoming visible signs of nerves, they were asked about their careers by the MC and former-Australia’s Got Talent contestant Jonny Drama  AKA Dr Rhythm (who occasionally went off script by asking his own questions, such as ‘What is the most annoying kind of customer in retail?’ Correct answer: No customer is annoying).

The finalists ‘Described a personal or career achievement that expresses who you are’ as well as, ‘the essence of their business improvement plans’, they shared ‘what made them passionate about retail’ and without simply stating that they were awesome, they answered ‘Why are you a strong candidate for 2014 Young Retailer of the Year?’

Then it was time to announce the winners, five of the top 10 were to receive a prize, however a sixth award was added at the last minute sponsored by Microsoft, which demonstrated the difficult time the judges had handing out the prizes.

Joanna Zurzolo, store manager, Target (South Australia) was awarded the top prize of Young Retailer of the Year 2014, winning a place on the 2015 Westfield World Retail Study Tour, valued at more than $20,000.  The tour is designed for retail executives to be able to gather knowledge of the latest trends and management techniques, from some of the world’s must successful retail outlets and shopping precincts.

“It feels really surreal standing here right now, obviously I was in the awards last year and didn’t take it out and to come back this year and win is an absolutely incredible feeling. I’m really looking forward to what the next 12 months has to offer,” Zurzolo said.

Many of the finalists had entered the awards the year before, and the 2013 Young Retailer of the Year, Alex Oldfield from Supercheap Auto, entered the competition three times before winning.

“I think I am living proof that persistence pays off, I competed in the Young Retailer of the Year awards three years in a row and I eventually I took out the award last year. If you have the opportunity and you’re still young enough next year I strongly encourage you to apply again and put those improve plans into action,” Oldfield said.

2014 Young Retailer of the Year Award winners

  •        Young Retailer of the Year 2014: Joanna Zurzolo (25), Target store manager, Sefton Park, SA
  •        Runner Up:  Katherine Powell (25), Target store manager, Fremantle, WA
  •        Innovation Award: Jacob Bache (24), Harris Scarfe acting store manager, Moonah, TAS
  •        Scholarship Award: Medina Cicak (23), KFC graduate leader – human resources officer, Frenchs Forest, NSW
  •        Rising Star Award: Marnie Bain-Lindsay (20), Bardot store manager, Bondi, NSW
  •        Highly Commended: Aaron Lum (24), Woolworths buyer, Norwest, NSW