Friday, December 18, 2009

Tis the Season

Retail Therapy, 2003

It’s the holiday season. By now you’re probably in the thick of it. Maybe you’ve even finished your Christmas shopping.

I’m not a big shopper. I don’t like to “go shopping.” I do like the art of retailing, though, and I do like to visit stores to see what they’re doing.

Early in my career I did a lot of research in support of retailers. Through this work, I came to meet and know one of New York’s finest retailer executives. Al was one of those people with whom you couldn’t walk across the street without learning something interesting. He could spend five minutes in a store and tell you five ways to make it more engaging to the customers and profitable to the owners. He knew the business of retailing. He also understood the theater of retailing.

Spending time with someone like Al really makes you appreciate a well designed and professionally staffed store. I remember the first time I went into Crate & Barrel’s flagship store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. I thought, “These people have done something really smart!” Not long thereafter, Nike Town opened across the street and raised the bar again for what a store could be.

People flocked to these stores not because the merchandise was new or different—most of it was well known from catalogs—but because it was presented in a new and exciting retail environment.

I don’t get the impression there are many people like Al in retailing these days. The Apple stores are a smart reflection of the brand. Target is probably the most inventive and successful of the old department store retailers in the way it transitioned from the stuffy Dayton’s into the modern Target. The Gap brands still surprise us from time to time. Macy’s plays with thoughtful advertising to let us know it’s not going down without a fight.

When I was in college I worked part-time for the company that owned two highly respected regional department store chains and the Brooks Brothers men’s store chain. This was the early 1970s. There were people in the organization who understood the narrow margins and cutthroat business competition of the time. But there were also buyers, artists and merchandisers who understood the theater of visual display and retail salespeople who knew how to provide the kind of service that brought customers back.

But even then I could see the onset of a different ethic. Department store chains were starting to move out of the hands of their founding families and into the hands of raiders and investors who had no interest in their core business and traded them like baseball cards. There were a few bright spots—Macy’s, again—but by and large performance was weak.

And so it has continued. In the absence of engaging store design, enthusiastic, knowledgeable salespeople and interesting merchandise, why should we pay attention to anything but price? Why wouldn’t we move to online shopping? Even an impersonal virtual “Shopping Cart” and checkout is more satisfying that some physical store where the surly, minimum wage clerk waiting on you doesn’t want to go to the back to check to see if they have your size.

Retail Therapy, above, was taken at an outlet mall in Williamsburg, Virginia, in what should have been its strongest season of the year. But this mall operator missed the boat when it came to creating an attractive, contemporary retailing environment. Other retailers right down the street were doing a booming business that day. This place was a ghost town.

And no, to finish my opening thought, I haven’t finished my Christmas shopping. If luck is with me, on the day this is posting I will have had the chance to take some time out from work to sit on a bench on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, California, and photograph some of the crazy people walking by. I can finish shopping when I get home.

[“What I Saw” will be on vacation the week of Christmas. See you back on the 28th!]


  1. When traveling by car, I only stop at brightly lit, clean and BIG convennience stores (the kind you can find a Subway or a Dunkin' Donuts in) for some of the same reasons you've posted here. Interesting....

  2. Have a great holiday season, Chris! It's true--it's a real pleasure to head into some stores that "get it," and as you say, some just aren't going to make it, with online shopping as an alternative, now. I honestly don't like doing battle anywhere during the holiday season, though. I also just like to find tiny, non-chain stores for unique items whenever I can. I just like to support those kinds of shops for their creativity if I can.

  3. Very interesting commentary ---and it's true, too. Stuff alone can 't attract people to buy. We want atmosphere and a charming ambience.