When Michelle Gass joined Kohl’s Corp. in 2013, she was “a little bit of an out-of-the-box hire,” CEO Kevin Mansell said in a recent Gadfly interview.

Gass had been a key lieutenant of Howard Schultz at Starbucks Corp., so she had plenty of retail leadership experience. But let’s be honest: The business of selling the masses their daily caffeine fix is quite different from selling dresses, sneakers and crockpots to busy families.

Now, after being Kohl’s chief customer officer and chief merchandising officer, Gass has been named to succeed Mansell when he retires in May. That means she will tackle one of the toughest jobs in all of retail: transforming a department store — perhaps the most besieged format in the industry — into a digital-era shopping powerhouse.

The Death of the Department Store

It’s not clear department stores have a long-term future. But if one exists, there’s a good chance Gass will be the one to write the playbook for it.

Her work so far at Kohl’s suggest she brings to the CEO job an of-the-moment understanding of what consumers want. And her Starbucks experience may be relevant in ways that are critically important, if not immediately obvious.

Kohl’s, like other department stores, is grappling with lackluster traffic. The company has had a long stretch of weak comparable sales (though they improved in the past two quarters).

But certain things are going right at Kohl’s, and Gass has played a big role in them.

For example, Kohl’s has seen real strength lately in activewear, not a traditional department-store cornerstone. Gass broadened the merchandise mix in this category. In particular, she scored big in wooing Under Armour Inc. to sell its gear in Kohl’s stores. That helped push Kohl’s activewear category to a robust 20 percent increase in sales in the latest quarter from a year earlier.

That merchandise maneuver is revealing…