If merchandise is the message, the merchant must be the messenger
Do customers know who runs your store? In the history of American retailing, the image projected by a visible, articulate, motivated merchant prince or princess has often been the factor that leads to greatness.
It was true in the 1800s when department-store founder John Wanamaker invented fixed pricing, a tactic that provided welcome predictability to customers tired of haggling. It's still true, says Visual Merchandising & Store Display magazine columnist Peter Glen, who notes companies large and small need excited and exciting CEOs who are visible and known to their customers.
Examples include Oprah and Martha Stewart, who have lent their names to burgeoning empires. Or Jack Welch, Herb Kelleher and Michael Eisner, whose names are virtually synonymous with General Electric, Southwest Airlines and Disney.
"The best retail businesses bricks, clicks and others are run by merchants," writes Glen. "The public wants great stuff and when stores are run by others that is, anyone to whom there is a more important subject than 'what's new?' they often fail."
This influence is why companies often go south when a visionary founder dies or retires, he says.
"Nordstrom started out with vision that communicated itself all the way to its customers," says Glen. "Now it is declining, led by the astonishing spectacle of five Nordstrom brothers [leading the company]." Brilliant though the members may be, some corporate teams can't articulate the vision of a single leader, assuming that leader has a vision.
Leaders take risks to find new things for their customers, says Glen. Marvin Traub, former CEO of Bloomingdale's, gave $22 million to 100 buyers and sent them to Japan to "find new merchandise." They came back with Japanese housewares, games, kimonos, art, fabrics, high-tech novelties stuff customers had never seen before. And the public bought it.
Some management teams, on the other hand, like process and regularity, says Glen. They do dull things such as send their merchandise managers to the Dallas or Chicago apparel marts where they look at parades of samples on rolling racks. These buyers end up taking the same products as everyone else.
"E-commerce would have you believe the merchandise doesn't matter that it's all in the distribution business," says Glen. "That's changing fast. Merchants are moving onto the Internet, [and having] a merchant at the helm is still the competitive difference between one Web site and another good merchants and bad, those who get it and those who don't."
The "it," says Glen, is the merchandise "first, last and always, now and forever."
Mark E. Dixon