Grocery pioneer Barney Kroger once said, "Making money is giving full value for money received."
Retail's founding fathers seemed to have all kinds of simple wisdom. (Marshall Field's "give the lady what she wants." James Cash Penney's "honor, confidence, service and cooperation.")
But the recent newspaper article that quoted the Kroger founder also said, "[the retailer] has strayed perilously from that tenet in recent years."
There was a picture, accompanying the article, of Kroger chairman and ceo Joseph Pichler, in a suit and tie, leaning over a flower display in one of his stores - as if he were making his regular loaf-of-bread shopping stop. I couldn't help but think of the first President Bush's ill-advised photo opp where he was amazed at the way the supermarket's cash register worked. Pichler wheels a wobbly cart up and down Kroger's aisles with the rest of us about as often as I sit in on a Kroger board meeting.
Somewhere, at some time, nearly all the merchants of old got replaced by the businessmen of today, and the path that was so clearly laid out hasn't always been followed.
Nowhere is that more true than in the world of department stores. Once part of everyone's lives, today's department stores are, if you believe what you read, dying. And sadly, the very things that made them what they were - breadth of merchandise, size of store, extensive floor plans, knowledgeable sales personnel, anchor positions in shopping malls - are the very things said to be killing them today.
If men are hunters and women are gatherers, it makes sense that department store shoppers (mostly women) don't like to hunt - for parking spaces, for merchandise, for sales help, for places to pay, for information, for escalators, for mirrors, for decent lighting.
In March, a page one Wall Street Journal article declared, "Department Stores Battle to Stay Relevant."
"They cut what made them attractive," said one analyst. "Great assortment, presentation, better-than-average service, the exclusivity they tried to achieve - all have declined over the past decade."
True merchants didn't all disappear with the 19th Century. Sam Walton had a laser-beam view of retailing, and Wal-Mart this year became the single largest company in the world. Gordon Segal protects his Crate & Barrel brand like a goalie. Ditto, Kenneth Cole, Ralph Lauren, Les Wexner. They're legendary for involving themselves in every detail of their companies'retailing activities.
Why is J.C. Penney suddenly showing renewed signs of life? Could the hiring of Allen Questrom be a coincidence?
J. Crew is said to have hit rough times around the time Texas Pacific bought the company and eased out founder Arthur Cinader and his daughter, Emily Woods, both true merchants passionate about the Crew brand. Texas Pacific may have known how to buy and sell properties in the health care and transportation arenas, but it has been accused of severely misunderstanding retailing - focusing too narrowly on the bottom line with a management team that lacks merchandising experience.
Attention, Donatella Versace: Is this really the company you want steering your brand?
Are merchants gone, though, from Federated, May Co., Marshall Field's? I'm sure they're not. Do department stores need to adjust? Absolutely. But is the opportunity still there to satisfy today's consumer, to give her again that shopping experience? It has never gone away.