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Steve Jobs, Merchant

Is another merchant leaving the scene? Too bad for retailing.

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There’s a reason the golden age of retail was golden. Marshall Field and John Cash Penney and, more recently, Stanley Marcus and Sam Walton, were more than nameplates over the door. They understood the sensitive nature of the relationship, the triangle that was the retailer, the merchandise and the customer.

At its most productive, it’s an equilateral triangle. All three elements are equal! Throw off the balance – cheapen the merchandise to increase profits or disregard the customer’s needs because there’s little return on that investment – and you run into trouble.

That means, of course, things like a well-trained staff, a reasonable return policy and a store design plan based on listening, watching and understanding how and why shoppers shop.

But as management of retail passed from the merchant to the accountant/businessman to the capital investment firm, that concern for that shopper who comes (or doesn’t come) in the door was replaced by how we solidify the balance sheet.

The owner merchants are not all gone, of course. We still have Leslie Wexner, Gordon Segal, Howard Schultz, Robert Mackey and the Nordstrom brothers. But one more merchant seems to be going. Last month, Steve Jobs announced another, seemingly more serious, medical leave of absence. He is by all accounts brilliant but prickly. Designers, contractors and architects who worked on Apple’s ground-breaking stores told me Jobs was involved in every aspect, every decision, every detail.

He’s been lauded for seeing the future, but I think he also understood the past. He had the same respect for his consumer that Marshall Field had a century ago, even if Jobs’ was a harder-edged, higher-handed respect.

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Consultant John Kao told The New York Times, “Steve Jobs is totally tuned into what consumers want. But these are not the kind of breakthroughs that market research, where you are asking people’s opinions, really help you make.”

At about the same time, another retail name from the Golden Age, J.C. Penney, announced it was closing some stores and rethinking its strategies. A new Penney board member, activist investor William Ackman (Pershing Square Management), told CNBC, “J.C. Penney is a great company and a great brand, but could be a better retailer.”

Interesting quote. I always thought ceo Mike Ullman was a pretty good retailer, from the old school. My concern would be, though, what Ackman meant by “could be a better retailer.” Did he mean, “We could do a better job of catering to this woman who comes in the door”? Or did he mean, “We could slash our overhead more and increase our margins more and produce a better return for our investors”? Too often in the last 20 years, that’s what being “a better retailer” has meant.
 

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