By Joe Cicio
If you think brick-and-mortar stores are in turmoil because of the internet, you would be wrong. The recent closing of Lord & Taylor’s iconic Fifth Avenue store in New York City was not preordained by the impact of e-commerce.
The real problem was its ownership. Richard Baker runs a real-estate investment powerhouse with, in my view, little understanding of the retail industry – and, in particular, what it takes to implement an executive structure to build a profitable retail business. This is surprising since Baker owns other well-established international retail brands. Again, in my opinion, Baker’s strategy is to purchase retail brands with prime locations and the ultimate real estate value of each site. It becomes a back door entrance process with cash flow until the real estate value is where they want it to be.
Retailing is just an easier way with cash flow while strategizing the business. As investors, they know real estate best. In fact, Baker also owns the Canadian-based department store chain Hudson’s Bay, as well as Saks Fifth Avenue which operates three locations in Canada. I have first-hand knowledge of Canadian retail from when I was appointed CEO of Mayor’s Jewelry, a $400 million dollar U.S. business, which was losing money. I was charged with bringing it back to profitability so it could be sold. They did make it profitable, and sold it to Maison Birks.
Unfortunately for today’s struggling retailer, especially those who have yet to understand that in this day of challenging technology there is but one option for survival. That option is simply to make their brick and mortar locations once again creative merchandised attractions.
How? Through the implementation of merchandising initiatives that are focused on building brand consumer loyalty through distinctive merchandising and creative presentation. Those retail features are what made shopping pure entertainment for millions, fostered by the career buyers of their day.
Today, many enthusiastic shoppers would tell you that most stores, as they see them, are just warehouses of markdowns or fulfillment centers for the online consumer. No longer do numerous stores satisfy our senses through distinctive merchandising and presentation.
The sad truth is they all seem to have the same merchandise, more or less, as their competitors--the same merchandise of the same brands merchandised in the same shop designs found in every store. As a result, common sense would have to tell us, “why bother?”
Why bother leaving the comfort of our homes and computers?
Why bother dressing up to go shopping. After all, you never know who you might run into?
Why bother driving in traffic using expensive fuel?
Why bother getting frustrated at finding a parking space close to a given store entrance in difficult weather?
Why bother trying to find the perfect something in the perfect color stocked in the needed size?
And, if all of the above is acceptable, why bother, since finding a cooperative and knowledgeable salesperson in just about any given department store is an accomplishment on its own?
But, it would seem to me, as someone that lives in stores that most of today’s big-box stores have yet to figure all this out. I truly don’t believe that most of the management in stores today actually walk their selling floor or shop their stores anonymously. How could they today since many iconic brands have a national brick and mortar presence that goes well into the hundreds? But they need to regardless. They need to make that management procedure an organizational culture. That experience might help them see the selling floor through the eyes of their consumer. Something they would never get from a computer. That experience might very well be what finally helps them to figure out that only through creative merchandising and presentation will their stores, once again, be considered retailing entertaining attractions.
So “yes” to answer the question. Is yesterday’s retail buyer today’s legend?
The very word legend is defined as, “One who is notorious in a particular field.” Or even better, “One who is popularly regarded as historical.”
The retail career buyers that contributed to making stores great surely were highly regarded. And the more accomplished of them would be identified as notorious in their markets.
When I began my career at Lord & Taylor in retailing’s “Golden Age,” merchandising buyers were revered by all within the organization. For even before one could be promoted to the highly coveted position of “buyer” one had to have seven years of experience as an assistant buyer studying side by side with some of the greats. And once you were appointed buyer, it would be a safe guess this was a position in one’s career that most would continue in until they retired.
As an assistant, you learned how to evaluate your consumers while paying close attention to the ever-changing fashion trends of the day. You learned how to build relationships with your manufacturing markets. You learned the dignified way to negotiate, so everyone walked away feeling good, and you got the deal you had in mind when you walked in. In some cases, even better. You learned to listen to the sales associate on the selling floor. It was the sales associate who was in constant communication with the consumer. You learned how to take mark downs quickly. I believe it is well known until this day.
“Your first markdown is your best markdown.” In other words, you would sell more if the proper first markdown is taken. After years in the business, and having worked with many selling floor specialist, I finally realized there were two essential talents to guarantee a successful retail business--the buyer and the sales associate. Everyone else, as far as I am concerned, could all go under one heading: Support Services!
If you had the right merchandise and the right talent to sell it, you probably could set up shop in a garage and be successful. An accomplished career buyer knew instinctively how to develop merchandising with their markets that most consumers didn’t even realize they wanted until they saw it brilliantly presented. They did not sit in front of a computer trying to anticipate what the consumer wanted. They told the consumer through distinctive merchandising and compelling presentation that we wanted it and we had to have it.
A career buyer also knew precisely what organizational support they needed to help move their business. The brilliant ones knew how to develop meaningful relationships with Advertising, Operations, Visual Merchandising, Human Resources, Maintenance and Accounts Payable, to name a few.
The buyers knew their business inside out. They had to. And just about every successful buyer was housed in a small office with their assistant and a clerical in a space carved out of every stock room just off the selling floor. Not glamorous, but extremely sensible. That strategic location forced the buyer and their assistant to walk their selling floor countless times a day observing inventories, consumers and selling staff. As a result, they always knew what was going on first hand with their merchandised responsibility.
Today the non-career buyer is usually offsite in a corporate office tower with countless other buyers and clericals. No merchandising, no selling staff, no customers, and sadly, no one-on-one contact with the selling floor. How are they expected to develop into career buyers in such conditions? The truth is, they are not. They know, as does the rest of the organization, that today, the title of buyer is merely an organization step to other responsibilities. Within two or four years there is every chance the buyer would then be made a store manager. The career buyers, if truth be known, have been replaced by what is known in the business as the Planning and Allocation specialist. They coordinate the inventories between stores and the respective markets. An essential and valid responsibility that somehow management has let replace the career buyer, while at the same time, making today’s buyer a middle man.
Ceci Kempner was the handbag buyer at Lord & Taylor when I arrived there and befriended me early on. I think because she thought I had good taste with a gifted eye for detail. She would call me into her stock room while reviewing a line by a vendor and proceeded to ask me all sorts of questions while examining each sample bag. Never lost for words or opinions I think I was able to make a significant contribution to her business. As this practice continued for many years, this simple, professional courtesy developed into a most cherished relationship.
I vividly remember being invited to accompany her to a black-tie industry event at the Plaza Hotel. I was so young and inexperienced that I had to rent a tuxedo, as I had never been to a formal affair before this time. A little nervous I was amazed to see several hundred guests had already arrived before us. When we entered the ballroom arm-in-arm everyone stopped talking and just looked at us. Truth is, they only looked at Ceci Kempner. So it would be safe to identify Miss Kempner as a true legend of her time. That was the moment I learned to appreciate what a real career buyer represented. Buyers of Miss Kempner’s caliber could make or break a vendor with a simple stroke of their pen. Her visits to their showroom gave them creditability in the marketplace, and they knew it.
When I started at Macy’s, Rosemarie Bravo was the cosmetics buyer. I don’t think I had ever been more impressed. It took no time to appreciate that she had complete command of her business. She knew every one of her vendors on a first name basis. She knew every line in every store. She knew the linear space the vendor required to reach her volume goals for each brand, in each store. She early on identified that I was pretty good with space planning, so, on many a morning, she would drag me onto the selling floor lured by a corn muffin and cup of coffee, always before the store opened, with the same constant cry, “Please help me find more space.” And we always did. And she always knew we would. I would bet she already had the space committed to a vendor even before we set one foot on that selling floor.
The professional career buyer that contributed to the amazing growth and excitement of the stores many of us grew up with, for the most part, virtually doesn’t exist anymore in the numbers that dramatically advantaged their stores. And sadly, one of the very major reasons stores are not attractions today is the lack of merchandising excitement those professionals were able to implement on a daily basis. Their most earnest goal was to do well by their store.
So, are yesterday’s retail buyers today’s legends? The answer is yes. But with that I profess it does not have to be a talent of the past never to be seen again. It just takes leadership. Leadership with a vision that can see opportunity partnered with patience and creativity. Leadership that is willing to support a retail organization to achieve merchandising distinction. Guaranteed through history to establish at the same time international brand recognition.
Joe Cicio is the former president of Donna Karan Retail Worldwide; CEO of I. Magnin, Mayor’s Jewelers, Inc., and Penhaligon’s Ltd, London among others; also merchandising and retail consultant to HRH The Prince of Wales, Joan Rivers, the QVC and HSN networks. He is the author of FRIENDS**BEARING GIFTS with a foreword by Nancy Kissinger.