March 2, 2024

In most retail companies, there are several kinds of work happening simultaneously. One is day-to-day operations: sales associates wait on customers, inventory managers keep track of merchandise, and so on. Then there are staff who focus on the longer-term performance of the business, such as product managers and project managers. 

In today’s rapidly changing business environment, much of the success of any new business initiative depends on how well product managers and project managers work together. In this article, we’ll look at how these related functions differ, and the skills and strengths each requires to be successful.

What is a product manager?

A product manager identifies a customer need and the larger business objective that a product or feature will fulfill, defines what success would be for that product, and rallies a team to make that vision a reality.

In retail, where most businesses sell a variety of things to their customers, “product” can refer not only to a given article or commodity, but to the totality of the company’s offerings. Making a significant change in that spectrum of merchandise is the act of a product manager. They have discovered a weakness or an opportunity, researched the market, and decided on a plan of action.

For example, suppose the business is a women’s clothing store that carries a well-known but underperforming brand of women’s suits and separates. The product manager, researching the problem, notices that this particular line of merchandise was a late-season add-on and is being displayed in an under-trafficked area. What is needed, they conclude, is to move ladies’ suits and separates to a more prominent location and expand the sales space. They also decide to retrain the associates and schedule a store event to celebrate this change in emphasis.

Skills needed to be a product manager

A product manager needs to have certain skills to effectively perform this role. While recommended abilities run the gamut from communication to business and technical expertise, Product Plan and The Product Manager boil them down to a handful of primary requirements:

  • Balance between the tactical and the strategic
  • Balance between being a likable team player and holding firm when necessary
  • Balance between trusting your own knowledge (and your gut) and following where the evidence leads you
  • Market research experience
  • Critical thinking and analysis
  • Leadership and the ability to take initiative

Product manager challenges

Product managers encounter significant challenges in carrying out their objectives. Among those most often cited as difficult are:

  • Prioritizing the roadmap. It’s essential to make sure the decision to launch the project is supported by customer feedback, research, and market validation.
  • Establishing a smooth company-wide process. If the above-described initiative is for a chain and not a single store, for example, the product manager will need to accommodate a certain amount of local or seasonal variance in sales emphasis.
  • Tension between short- and long-term objectives. If the company is moving up in price point, it doesn’t want to leave its current market behind.
  • Communications. Make sure the team members involved in a product introduction understand the importance of the various steps in the process and their role in carrying them out. 

What is a project manager?

A project manager ensures an initiative is executed on time, on budget, and otherwise according to plan. The job includes meeting targets and schedules, assigning personnel and other resources as needed, and leading the project to completion.

A successful project manager must put together a team and set a schedule for the project. They must also make certain the team is provided with the tools and resources necessary to complete the project and, on an ongoing basis, make certain that the team hits its deadlines and remains on schedule.

In a retail setting like the women’s clothing store described above, for example, the project manager would need to balance the transfer of merchandise to a new part of the store with the need to interfere as little as possible with day-to-day sales activity. They would also balance training for store associates with their availability schedules. If the change in product mix involved repricing, the project manager would need to make certain that the necessary changes were being made to inventory and point-of-sale data.

Skills needed to be a project manager

Like a product manager, a project manager needs to have certain skills to perform the role effectively. A recent summary of desirable project manager attributes list the primary abilities as communication, leadership, organization, negotiation, and team management. Abilities also emphasized include:

  • Managing a budget
  • Adapting quickly to changed circumstances
  • Reporting clearly and concisely on progress and problems
  • Understanding basic organizational policy
  • Resolving conflict as it occurs

Project manager challenges

Like product managers, project managers are routinely faced with challenges as they put their plans into action. Some of the challenges most commonly encountered by project managers include:

  • Setting clear goals and objectives. The project manager needs to understand what exactly the team is being asked to do, and when.
  • Budget restrictions. Without adequate resources—both in terms of time and money—the team will not be able to do what is required. The project manager must make sure the product manager understands this and is able to resolve the problem.
  • Team conflict. This most often arises when either the project’s objectives are changed or unexpected circumstances arise.
  • Impractical deadlines. These often occur as the result of a snap decision about a previously scheduled product release. 

The key differences between product and project managers

Though on paper these functions look similar, product managers and project managers are quite different. A product manager is someone who identifies the what and why of a product, and is responsible for ensuring that all new products and features will fulfill customer needs and business objectives.

The change initiatives developed by product managers tend to consist of a series of finite projects. A project manager is someone who focuses on coordinating, managing, and overseeing those projects. As companies grow and change, it is very important that they understand this distinction.

Using product and project management in your retail business

In recent years radical change has become common in industries across the economy, and retail is no exception. Recent examples include the radical growth of ecommerce, disruption due to a global pandemic, the emergence of new competitors, and the changing expectations of the customer base. To adjust to a rapidly changing world, retailers have been forced to make both deep and rapid changes in their product offerings and business models.

Product managers work out how their companies need to change, and in what timeframe. Project managers enable them to execute those changes while continuing day-to-day operations. Together, product and project managers hold the keys to the future, and it is essential for retailers to make sure these managers understand their roles and are able to work together in harmony.


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Product manager vs. project manager FAQ

What’s the difference between a product manager and a project manager?

A product manager is a relatively senior staff member who leads product strategy and identifies an opportunity that can be met by the introduction of a new product. A project manager then subdivides a related project into a set of constituent tasks, builds a schedule for them, assigns them to the appropriate staff members, and takes responsibility for seeing that the tasks are completed as scheduled.

Can a product manager become a project manager?

Yes. Many successful project managers have come from the ranks of product managers.

Who is higher, a product manager or a project manager?

Generally, the product manager has a senior staff or management position and at least partial profit and loss responsibility for the outcome of the product launch. They normally outrank the project manager, who is responsible for managing the scheduling and details but not directly responsible for results.

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