Mike Cairnes is Revitalizing Retail

How Kirkland’s first COO is transforming the home décor company from the inside out

Mike Cairnes, Kirkland’s

Kirkland’s has more than four hundred retail stores in the United States, but one if its top leaders learned some of his most important lessons from watching a company with just two locations.

Today, Mike Cairnes is the executive vice president and chief operating officer of Kirkland’s. Years ago, though, it was his father who became part owner of Racquet and Jog Sporting Goods in 1979. Cairnes grew up helping in the Washington, DC-area stores and watched how his father developed authentic relationships with his customers. People felt at home in the store. Employees, who were athletes themselves, made strong connections with everyone who walked in the door. Racquet and Jog often held special events and worked to create a fun-filled atmosphere.

Because he wanted to pursue other interests, Cairnes decided at first not to follow in his father’s footsteps. He studied engineering at Lafayette College and later joined Texas Instruments’ semiconductor business. After a decade in sales and marketing roles of increasing responsibility, he left to manage a sales and operations team for a leading custom picture frame manufacturer and distributor. In less than ten years, Cairnes helped double revenues before Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway acquired the company in 2002.

The deal caught the attention of several industry insiders, including Michaels Stores’ then-CEO Michael Rouleau, who convinced Cairnes to join his team in 2006. Suddenly, Cairnes, who didn’t have a background as a merchandiser or buyer, was overseeing the largest merchandise divisions and soon after was running Artistree—a large subsidiary business.

Cairnes says he was surprised Rouleau took a chance on him. “He was willing to roll the dice on someone who would look at the business in an unorthodox way,” Cairnes recalls. “I wanted to combine what I knew from growing up in retail with my engineering background, and he took me under his wings.”

He spent months researching and visiting stores before creating the strategy for a complete overhaul. Cairnes believed Artistree—a custom framing business—was outdated. He installed cameras, gave secret shoppers gift cards, and scrutinized the purchasing process. “I learned we were making people anxious,” Cairnes says. “Custom framing is one of the only retail experiences where you don’t know what you are spending until the big reveal at the end, which can be shocking and embarrassing. Customers would say, ‘Let me check with my husband,’ whether they had a husband or not.”

Cairnes’s research also uncovered one critical piece of data—half of Artistree’s potential customers left without making a purchase. Using this actionable information, Cairnes revamped the entire experience, streamlining operations and increasing price transparency. While other companies were busy taking an incremental approach, Artistree was reinventing its approach. In the years to follow, Michaels more than doubled its market share and significantly grew margin at a faster pace. Today, Michaels is the largest custom frame retailer in the world.

After picking up another division known as Aaron Brothers, Cairnes thought he might take his talents to a charitable organization and enter a more philanthropic phase. But that’s when Kirkland’s called. The home décor retailer needed a COO to lead marketing, e-commerce, merchandising, planning, real estate, store operations, and supply chain. Cairnes says the opportunity and fit were perfect. “As you move along, you start to understand more about what you value. For me, it’s all about the people that you work with,” he explains.

Cairnes also loves a good challenge. Kirkland’s had several strong assets that were underperforming. Cairnes knew that he could use his twenty-five years of experience to chart a new path forward. So, he rolled up his sleeves, spent time in stores, gathered industry and consumer insights, and spent time with the leadership team.

Ultimately, he and the CEO led a two-and-a-half-day retreat to solicit thoughts and ideas from Kirkland’s senior leadership team. After that important meeting, he and the team created a 2022 vision—a comprehensive change management plan designed to help Kirkland’s succeed in the new and rapidly changing retail environment.

The plan’s five pillars focus on:

  1. Dramatic and profitable growth in e-commerce
  2. Initiate direct sourcing
  3. Grow and broaden the consumer base (millennials)
  4. Physical expansion into new geographic markets
  5. Streamline operations

The 2022 vision and a collaborative approach are now critical to Kirkland’s latest success. “Retail today is very different than it was even five years ago,” Cairnes says. “We simply have to win on the complete omnichannel consumer experience.”

That belief is motivating him to help Kirkland’s reinvent itself. Shopping at Kirkland’s used to be like a treasure hunt, but now stores are built to inspire and create ease for shopping. In-store associates are there to greet customers and help when needed, but not hover or oversell. In response, Cairnes says Kirkland’s is adjusting its retail environment and online presence accordingly. Soon, the team will introduce a new buy online and pick-up in-store option to increase customer convenience and choice.

Transforming Kirkland’s may be the biggest challenge of Cairnes’s career. But he’s succeeding by importing tactics he learned from his father’s small business and perfected at Michaels.

“When you walked into a Racquet and Jog, you felt at home,” Cairnes says. “And I want people to feel at home at Kirkland’s.”

Cairnes’s and his team’s efforts are not going unnoticed by their peers. “Mike more than deserves recognition for all of his hard work and determination,” says Jeff Martin, president of Darice, Inc. “We look forward to a bright future working with him and the team at Kirkland’s.”

Recently, Kirkland’s also held a friends and family event. Staff wore holiday lights, and managers led special festive, in-store events. “People were having fun, and the company had a monstrous day,” Cairnes says. “All of this goes back to a special team that has come together and put others’ interests, and the interests of the company, in front of their own agenda. This is the pinnacle, when the sum of the parts is greater than the whole in creating something magnificent.”

And with the 2022 plan underway, Kirkland’s is well positioned to revitalize not only the retail experience for its customers, but also the industry at large.

Photo: Caroline Sharpnack