Care about sustainability? Get serious about your brand.

Posted on January 23, 2018

Not all brands are created alike.

“Brand” is one of those words – a little like “luxury”– that feels the very antithesis of “sustainability”. For many, it bespeaks glossy magazine ads, splashy parties, and a general glitz that feels gross, vulgar.

And in many ways it is, as it pumps up demand for things we don’t want. But ironically, for all the importance of using sustainable materials and processes, the single most important act of sustainability is to not create more waste to begin with.

In our society, waste implies that there is no market demand for a given item and that while it may have inherent value, it doesn’t have economic value. And things that lack economic value are waste. SO the imperative is to create value.

One of the most powerful ways to do that is through brand. In classical branding parlance, brands create a preference. They help buyers make choices among a variety of options. Over time, a brand becomes a signal – a shorthand – of quality or design. In that way, it begins to make one product more valuable than the one next to it, not just in the short term, but in the long term.

This even applies to the altluxe, very assertively non-brand / post-brand world.

It’s de riguer for an artisan, indie designer, or craftsperson to say that they are committed to sustainability because they’re creating “heirloom quality” goods of enduring value. They insist that they do not create throw away products and that their products will be handed down from generation to generation.

But what if that next generation doesn’t want that heirloom product? What if the current generation tires of it for whatever reason? Do we just have higher quality throwaway?

There are, of course, alternatives to the dumpster. Take it to a consignment shop. Better yet, pop it online, on eBay, or a high end consignment (aka “re-commerce”) site like The RealReal. Find someone with a thriving storefront on 1stDibs. Find a global audience, all hungry for lovely, timeless, products. That’s the theory, at least.

Here’s the challenge, though. If no one knows that makers “mark”, it’s far less likely that that product will be bought. Sure, a discerning, committed dealer could take a shine to a particular piece or maker and pump up the promotion, but that’s the exception not the rule. And IF that no-name product is sold, it will be sold for less: it will be less valuable.

The VALUE of product isn’t just about its inherent quality. It’s also about the market, and the demand for that product. And that’s where brand comes in. Brand isn’t just about selling more in the now. Brands are about increasing the value of an item in the future. For anyone who purports to care about sustainability and not creating a throwaway, branding matters.

For all those “timeless” products to be truly sustainable and maintain their value across the generations, they need to be associated with a great brand. Not necessarily big and beaudacious. Just great.

It’s not easy. But it is possible.


Reinventing retail. Something new to keep an eye on.

Posted on January 4, 2018

The new rules of retail: nurture the tribe

Many retail concepts these days have me rolling my eyes, but this one got me intrigued over my morning cuppa.

Founded by merchant Mindy Yang, Perfumariē is  a New York fragrance store that positions itself as a meta-discovery studio, open access event space, and incubator. The subject of What Perfume are you wearing? Now you never have to tell, Perfumariē feels very alt luxe, with its focus on nudging consumers to be more thoughtful, conscious. And it’s also a mix of the the new rules of retail I’ve been a proponent of: refining and elevating the in-store experience; centering the store experience on discovery, learning, and experimentation; nurturing tribes; and … getting daring here … charging people for the experience.

Is it good? I haven’t been there: it may be good PR aided by good journalism, but it certainly holds some promise, and I hope to find out. Will it work and can it last? I also don’t know. But I like the direction, and the ideas should be food for thought for other retailers.

Here’s how it works. Perfumariē puts the scents on tap, and allows you to try them without first knowing the brand you’re testing. You are led through a guided process, after which you select a couple that you like, and receive samples. You only learn the identity of the brand at a cocktail party (and ultimately online) at the end of the month. You pay a $20 fee for sampling. And there’s a membership you can buy, too, with the perks being exclusives, invitations to events, meet and greets, new scent “reveal” parties.

Here’s why this has me intrigued.

It creates better consumers…

…by damning the “branding”, dumping the story.  The perfume industry is one in which marketing, distribution and sales costs make up the bulk of the cost of a $100 bottle of mainstream department store perfume, leaving the true “cost” of the perfume at $2. Imagine buying a scent without seeing all that branding. Or, for those who won’t employ or buy glitzy marketing, imagine not knowing what that “story” is. And, if you eschew mass perfumes, imagine NOT knowing which perfume artisan created that scent, or knowing their story. You focus on the essence of perfume: what you like, what moves you, damn the branding and the celeb, damn the high-minded story.

…by helping consumers understand how important branding is to THEM. There are some downsides to this lack of brand and story, of course, because at the end of the day, brand and stories are a source of information. I think it’s important to know the quality of things. It’s important (for me at least) to know whether the fragrances use synthetics or natural ingredients, or to know whether it’s mass or artisanal. But if you’re at all thoughtful, this approach actually helps in a number of ways.

You understand how important brand is to you – either pro or con. You may find yourself liking something from a brand or celeb you despise. Or, of course, you may find a brand you and your cohort have never heard of.

Either way, you have to decide what you want to do: ignore your inner snob or engage it; or perhaps ignore the cred that buying Bey’s or Tom Ford’s latest might give you and instead let yourself fall for that no-name perfume artisan from Tel Aviv? You are in control of what you do with that insight. You engage differently with the entire process of consumption.

…by getting people in touch with their senses. It puts the focus on what you’re smelling, and what it does for you, which is the essence of perfume. As a society, I’m feeling that we’re so affected by brand, by story, hype, that we’ve LOST the ability to make decisions about what we really like. What moves our senses? That is the start of all things. Meaning matters, of course. But it comes later.

It teaches great retail lessons…

…Elevate the product. There is a process for evaluation, a ceremony of sorts, that you are led through. The practice of treating the product with respect through ritual seems to be a dying one these days: this is a welcome change. Of course, over-ritualizing is the stuff of parody and customer flight. But done right, it can be wonderful thing.

…Put learning at the center of what you’re delivering. Shoppers learn and engage, and even if they walk away not having found the fragrance of their dreams, they’re transformed: they have learned something new and will probably tell all their friends about it. This ticks a whole host of boxes in experiential marketing: memorable, shareable, personal, relatable, etc.

…Get people to value the complete experience. Obviously, experiences are valuable in and of themselves, so why shouldn’t people pay? The customer will be more engaged, and the retailer will presumably pay attention to deliver the experience extremely well. Sounds like a virtuous circle to me.

…Nurture tribes. Not having been to one of the “reveals” I have no idea if this is true, but it creates the possibility of creating new connections, whether over a shared love (or loathing) of a fragrance, stories about unexpected findings, or simply a love of fragrance. People need to connect.

…Add mystery, make it a game. People also love to compete. The guessing game is a fun one, as is the reveal. Another big, big box in experiential marketing.

…Add a feedback loop to your suppliers. Instead of treating suppliers as mere vendors to be (barely) tolerated, Perfumariē provides feedback on product.  Obvious but often overlooked.

Anyone been? What’s it really like? Do tell. And in the meantime, I’m keeping an eye out for other concepts like this. They feel like the future of retail.

5 ways to reinvent retail.

Posted on December 6, 2017

This post is a companion to A Cure for What Ails Big RetailGetting Experiential Retail Right

If you love a good experiment, as I do, the last few months in retail should have made you pretty happy. Having now cycled through the classic grief-response phases of Denial (it can’t happen to me); Anger (can’t we put Amazon out of business); Bargaining (continuous discounting + perhaps a new look); and Depression (dithering, procrastination and turning to the usual drugs, like financial engineering); a growing chunk of the retail world has finally reached some sort of Acceptance.

But acceptance of what? That one should chuck it all in and sell on Amazon? No. Acceptance of an existential question: what, exactly, is the purpose of a store in the 21st century? Confusion reigns: even Walmart has dropped the word “Stores” as part of its name.

Whatever we call it, it is, of course, about the experience, the purpose of of which is to build emotional bonds with the customer so they will buy products. And the most important way to do that is by redefining the store as a place to deliver service.

Ah, service, the overlooked, quiet, sensible, un-sexy sister to the more conventionally beautiful, buzzed-about entertainment/design/promotional/tech side of retailing. And yet, as every reader of Jane Austen knows, it’s that quiet sister who saves the day.

Most retailers, of course, offer services. But what I’m talking about is broader notion of service, which starts with a strategic understanding of what your customer needs and craves, and is then fulfilled in a way that is consistent with your brand, your story, your personality.

Service needs to be front and center of the retail revolution. And yet … it isn’t. 

Crawl: Just the basicsIn one of my early drafts of this piece, I neglected this one because it’s so obvious. But it shouldn’t be. A basic greeting with a smile; “how can I help you”; “sure, let me take care of that for you”; “goodbye and see you soon,” etc. … are missing in the large majority of stores, let alone anything more high touch. Large chains claim to invest heavily in customer service training. It’s been wasted.

Poor customer service in physical retail is Amazon’s best friend.

Yes, we know it’s hard. No, service doesn’t scale. And you’re right, service is not really considered a worthy calling in America; and yes, it’s incredibly tough to find great customer service staff when you’re paying minimum wage. But take a page from Cole Hardware, my local Ace Hardware store. God knows it ain’t pretty, but there are pleasant greeters, easy-to-find, knowledgeable help who can explain to me in MY language what I need to get and how to use it to fix my problem. And popcorn to stave off the hangries.

Walk: Amping up Convenience. This is where the more nimble retailers and the DTCs-now-branching-into-retail have focused.   Buy online-pick up in store/ order online from the store; delivery services; easy buying – perhaps without even having to deal with a real live human, if that’s the customer’s yen. (Though wouldn’t it be wonderful if your staff is so smart, engaging, and efficient that people would rather engage with them, instead of a scanner?)

This all may be a foundational but retailers still struggle with this one. SAD, as our Tweeter-in-Chief would opine.

Walk Faster:  Merchandising is a service, not just a way of displaying things so you’ll buy them. Merchandising is also about helping consumers make more informed choices, learn about the product (where, how made, design features, sustainability, how to use and care for it, how to dispose of/recycle it, etc.) This is one of those fine balances between sales staff, signage, and display tech. And it’s pretty bad throughout retail. Just try finding out the country of origin of a product in most stores.

Run. Become a service brand. This is where the leaders are, with different riffs on what service means.

Integrate the product with the service. Stores that are about customization and strict curation have always known this. Established and new Saville Row-type stores, obviously, have the edge here. But so do stores that feature customization and co-designing – sneaker stores like Converse and Nike come to mind. So does Warby Parker, with its notion of offering eye exams in its stores (albeit via a clever piece of tech).

The master of service integration is Apple. Integration is part of its DNA: they were, after all the first to truly integrate hardware and software.  In a much derided move, (and long before Walmart did so) Apple began referring to its stores as “town squares” and “locations”. I snarked too. But now I get it. The Apple stores are chill, airy temples of cool where the architecture almost disappears; filled with geniuses; a focus on help not sales; lots of inspiration from people doing things with all their Apple toys; interaction between customers; and an almost invisible purchase experience.  They’re places where everything feels that it’s going to be OK, and your universe suddenly feels lighter, bigger, better. Like a monochrome, grown-up Disneyland.

Compare and contrast, please, with the Amazon store, which has succeeded perfectly in translating its online brand offline: the local Amazon store is an anarchic, unattractive online experience that’s curiously both claustrophobic and bewilderingly expansive. The only difference: there are lines of people waiting to check out.

Another alternative: tap into the eco-system for your product.  Perfect and intriguing example: Nordstrom Local. If your primary product is clothing, Nordstrom reasoned, then service is also about delivering all the flanking services: personal shopping, tailoring, styling, accessorizing, cleaning and repair, wardrobe management.  The store is a place to access these services, (along with a juice, latte, wine, and a manicure) and is a showroom only: no grab and go. Like Apple, the idea is more cool club and oasis more than store, a place for locals to drop in, chill out and experience services you hopefully won’t be able to live without.

This is all an experiment, of course, and it needs to be given time. But it feels right, both because of its content, but also because it feels so consistent with the Nordstrom brand. The key will be a) driving revenue for the company as a whole and b) delivering great service, and c) staying consistent with the vision.

Just consider the applications for this kind of thinking, including my beloved Cole Hardware.

And this is not going to be the right model for all retailers: Macy’s probably shouldn’t try this.

The key to it all: people.  The concept of “associate” needs to be expanded (not just in a title). It cannot be the texting, Snapchatting, gum-snappers of today. And traditional retail managers focused on units sold and overtime avoided are not the ones to inspire and lead this new cohort.

The model of hiring minimum wage retail staff for these experiential, high-touch service roles won’t work without far better, more rigorous hiring and training.

The store team will need to have a team that has the high touch care orientation,  thoughtfulness and resourcefulness of a luxury hotel concierge. Someone also needs to be an event programmer with a keen appreciation of the brand, a deep understanding of what’s going on in their communities, a fine appreciation of who their customers are and how to bring the brand to life in a way that’s useful and compelling to customers. Other skills? Teaching and educating – not a bad side hustle for worthy schoolteachers.

Managers should not be spending their time myopically focused on inventory management, data analysis, or the wrangling of sullen teens. They need to play the role of host: someone who treats the party as their own, empowering staff, mixing the guests, taking care of the wallflowers, turning down the music, fixing problems, and calling a Lyft when that guest can’t get home on their own steam.

For the right person, working in a store could become an interesting and rich alternative to something more “professional”. For customers, there would be a reason to go to a “store”. But for retailers, it calls for a whole new range of skills and sensibilities. In fact…

And moving beyond question of whether the word “store” is an apt one, should we even call it retail anymore?


Getting experiential retail right

Posted on July 31, 2017

Summer 2017. In the US, the retail carnage continues, with each week bringing another story of store closures and bankruptcies. Having vanquished all but the most scrappy book, electronics, and mall stores, Amazon is making its move into brick and mortar stores, and mulling its plans for pharmacy. Neiman Marcus can’t even get itself bought. And Nordstrom is taking itself private. Talk of retail reinvention is everywhere.

Notably absent in much of the conversation are explorations addressing the most crucial and enduring parts of the retail equation:

+ creating covetable products;

+ having a clear and differentiated brand (what, as a merchant, do you stand for);

+ good old customer service.

Instead, much of the talk has centered on changing up the “retail experience”.  “Experiences”, the thinking goes, will bring in the shoppers, as in “come for the experience and stick around to shop a little”. Shops now have to be destinations, palaces of entertainment and discovery, where every sense is catered to.

This is silly. Retail, in fact, has always been experiential. It’s just that no one paid attention to it, and for that, retail (in particular, big retail) is paying the price.

But at least it rediscovery might prompt some thinking about the role of experience – physical, emotional – in the shopping process, and in particular what it can be in physical space.

With a few exceptions, “Experiential retail” has clustered into two categories.


APPROACH #1. JUST DRIVE TRAFFIC. The obvious goal of this approach: get the punters in. As many as possible, as often as possible.

Sending in the clowns. AKA in-store entertainment. Some times it’s small and story-telling, such as trotting out the artisans out to demonstrate in an “in store” studio. Other stores go big and bodacious: celebrities, “influencers”, sound and light shows. An almost-ancient formula, now with a social media spin.

Sprinkling in the services. This means bringing outside services into their stores with nail salons, cobblers, yoga studios, and wellness clinics being some of the most frequent mentions.

Rounding up the usual suspects. This means periodic or one-off product demo’s, hands-on workshops, designer meet and greets, and talks. Long the purview of craft/cooking stores, design galleries, and high fashion, it’s moving into the bag of tricks of more general lifestyle retailers.

The challenge with this set of “just drive traffic” approaches is that they drive traffic (in the short term) but no love.

In the desire to connect with consumers, these  strategies often have a strong whiff of inauthenticity (ok, let’s call it bullshit) and desperation to them. Neither is a promising sign of long-term health.

First, let’s take entertainment. In limited quantities, spectacle is good: we all love to be entertained, all love to a bit of showmanship and effort. But it’s not the panacea.  First of all, as behavioral psychologists have noted, humans have a built-in novelty-seeking tendency. To feed that, the traffic-driving events will have to continuously outstrip each other in grandeur and/or coolness. Then, there’s the cost. This approach is expensive. It’s also pretty exhausting. And if every store in the mall, main street and high street starts doing big fat experiences, won’t people tire of them?

And from big celebrity-studded events to the humble one-off workshop or book talk, many of the drive traffic events require the bolt-on of someone else’s celebrity and pulling power to pull people into the store. Suddenly the store becomes about someone else’s brand. Effective yes. But again, if every store starts doing the same kind of thing, then the store is just a venue: interchangeable, forgettable.

Finally, the just add service approach won’t add anything to the brand unless it’s such an extraordinary, exclusive service or unless it’s integrated with the product of the store (e.g. gyms and yoga in a workout gear store.). It feels like an inauthentic bolt-on and just turns the store into a mall.


APPROACH #2. DEEPENING + EXPANDING THE BRAND CONNECTION. This slightly more subtle approach generally takes the following forms.

Help people learn.  Not surprisingly, direct to consumer brands root their brand connection in the product, using their physical space as an integral part of their product and brand story. This is not about hand-wavy story telling. This is about really teaching people about the product. Learning, after all, transforms people, which transcends product. Through sales staff, in-store show and tell, even a look into how it’s made (views into workshops, ateliers and factories), the goal is to imbue the product with meaning and justification of its “specialness”.

Mixing things up. Concept, small independent stores, and certain department stores like Selfridges are the classic examples – stores that use the physical space to create strong and steadily changing retail experiences. The soul of the store is the curation and depends on the art and craft of retailing, from sourcing to merchandising.

Branded services. For some enterprises, like the tailors of Saville Row, the service “experience” and product have always been inextricably linked. But what about other industries that don’t rely on as much customization? As opposed to bolting on external services, brands like Apple have brought the service experience into the store, elevating it along the way. Now service (or at least its front end) is in the hands of approachably cool Geniuses, not the stereotypically shifty dude with questionable hygiene working in darkened apartments.

There are also those other inherently “experiential” lifestyle companies, like Rapha and Trek, who’ve extended their brand into the experiential space far outside of their stores and into true experiences: rides local and far-flung bringing together the brand and experience in a beautiful self-reinforcing way.


Of the two sets of approaches, the  brand-forward approach is by far the better model for “experiential” retail. It’s brand inspired and driven, and thus feels authentic. But there are still challenges.

The brand-forward approach roots the experience in the product, and that, too feels that it builds a deep connection with the brand. It will work for a while, but what happens when the product falls out of style or the people who love the product move on, or if the product just meets market saturation? In other words, how long will this matter to customers? And is it enough to keep them coming in?

On the other hand, the “mixing things up” approach has so much going for it: it uses space as a place for helping people discover new, rarely available things for limited periods of time in much the same way as markets of yore did.

But it’s also devilishly tricky to deliver on, as it relies on a powerful brand vision, flawless execution and relative exclusivity. Many stores like Anthropologie will try to become concept stores by bringing in a wide variety of lifestyle items. We’ll see if that works.

True concept stores like Collette show that it’s all about the curators and their very distinctive ability to make people curious about, and caring about what they are curating. But how many people have that knack of truly curating  – not just merchandising – in a way that people care about? When the curators are ready to be done – as is the case of Collette Roussaux and her daughter, Sarah Andelman with their knack of creating delight around discovery – it’s hard to bring in other people. And so the store will close.  Similarly, it’s hard to imagine Dover Street without Rei Kawakubo’s subversive eye, restless soul and utter control over every detail.

Of the three approaches, the clear winner is the “branded service” approach: it’s similarly on-brand, and has the additional advantage of being an integral part of the product. The service matters to the product Every retailer should find its inner, and absolutely necessary, can’t-live-without-it service.

But let’s say you’re not Apple or a Saville Row tailor with an obvious way to create those kinds of services.

Well, first off, if you can’t create services, you’re not thinking hard enough. But for those who’ve already got branded experiences going in or out of the brick and mortar store environment, and those who have yet to move in that direction, here’s a thought starter:

How can retailers take advantage of the unique properties of physical space to help people do things that matter to them in a way that builds a profound and enduring connection to the brand

More on the new rules of experience to come.






3 syllables. And a cure for what ails Big Retail.

Posted on January 23, 2017


OK, that wasn’t actually my first feeling when I heard that The Limited would be shutting its stores effective immediately. Rather, my first feeling was that of nostalgia, maybe even sadness.

After all, like so many women my age, my first job was at The Limited, and the source of so many key life skills I use to this day. The invaluable life skill of selling and servicing, how to deal with low lifes, a little bit about design and styling, and of course, how to steam clothes without burning yourself.


The dear departed. Image courtesy of Chain Store Age

But then, the schadenfreude kicked in. Good riddance, I thought, to The Limited and all those chains (Macy’s, Ann Taylor, Gap. Abercrombie, American Eagle Outfitters, BCBG, Wet Seal, Bebe, Hot Topic, and more weekly) with their same uninspired approach to the art and craft of retail.

And lest you think that the luxe end of the market is immune, Saks is struggling financially despite a major revamp of its stores, while Neiman Marcus has yanked its IPO and Tiffany has lost its luster.

We have entered the Dark Ages of Retail. Yes, consumer demand is shifting, there’s the Internet, etc. But a great deal of the damage is self-inflicted:

  • Lack of self-awareness: So many retailers didn’t/don’t seem know who they are, or WHY they are. Instead, they chase the latest up and coming market, losing the essence of their brand along the way.
  • Lack of originality: They insist on selling merchandise that’s uninspired, undistinguished, undifferentiated.
  • Lack of imagination: They persist in soulless store design and an enduring lack of sensitivity to creating an experience that’s memorable, emotional, compelling … and superior to the internet (which, when you think about it, still delivers a pretty crappy experience for anything but the basics).
  • Apathy: Retail chains persist in rolling out cookie cutter stores (many poorly designed), so you don’t know if you’re Albuquerque, Atlanta or Amsterdam. The rationalization done in the name of efficiency and brand integrity. Of course, some of that is important, but doing it at the expense of boring customers is self-sabotage.
  • Over-reliance on discounting: When a store is 3/4 sale rack and 1/4 new, you have a problem.Discounting is retail crack, but like any drug epidemic, it creates all kinds of bad effects.
  • Inattention to the details: They skimp on staff training and nurturing, resulting in a cadre of bored, unmotivated “team members” more interested in Snapchat than customer service.

The easy way to think about all this is, of course, “The internet’s so much better for shopping so let retail die.”

And yes, while all those chains have indeed squandered the right to be in business, the accelerating problems in traditional retail are going to have a big impact on communities and people (Macy’s is axing 10,000 jobs – and that’s just for now). And there’s all that real estate and all those malls, the default town centers of so many suburbs. (Real estate analyst Nick Egelanian notes that there are 1000 traditional malls left in the US, down from 3000, and that 2/3rds will close before this bloodletting is done. As if to underscore that point, Wells Fargo found itself the only bidder for a Pennsylvania Mall, and paid $100 for it. Wells, it turns out, had foreclosed on it the year before.)  And it’s all those entry level jobs where you can learn about showing up on time and the  art and craft of customer service.

No end of industry analysts have pontificated that it’s experiences that we all want, not “stuff”. Some truth there. But does it really make sense to have all those brands (high or low) move out some product, and start adding random massage services, trunk shows, local maker “pop ups”, DJs, and whatever else in a completely uncontextualized way that doesn’t relate to a larger brand story? No, particularly when they continue to try to sell unimaginative, banal, shoddy products. It’s not just about omni-channel, either.

We will never go back to that halcyon days of ever-expanding growth, but retail is important for jobs and communities and really, for humanity. So here are a few interrelated ideas on how to fix retail, be it at the low, middle, or luxe end of the market. And while, for retail chains fixated on traditional metrics of sales per square foot and marginal cost, they may not be the most profit maximizing, efficient, or streamlined.

Bottom line: the salvation of big retail lies in thinking small. This forces a different way of thinking, operating, buying, and even conceiving what “retail” means. But it’s how to get consumers engaged again. And yes, those consumers might even buy something along the way.

Know, and live your brand. Most of these chains have fallen apart because they don’t know who they are. For many of the dead and dying chains, the idea – the brand essence – that connects merchandise, merchandising, store design, and promotion seems to have never been there, or have been eroded completely. Consumers lose faith. Investors follow.

Naturally, it’s easier when you’re a newer brand or a small one or one that sells directly: it’s no surprise that specialty, own-brand, and concept stores (L’Eclaireur, Dover Street Market, Collette, Apple, and Warby Parker) do this particularly well but the challenge for larger retailers of all stripes is to regain that energy and originality and laser-like focus on the brand.

Re-conceive what the store is. It’s brand expression, service, and marketing  for whatever is being sold. It is only secondarily a sales channel.  Embrace the idea of showroom, not salesroom, of flexibility, not fixed spaces.  (Yes, this is where omni-channel comes in.) Maybe that desire is fulfilled in the store, or online. It shouldn’t matter. For that reason, embrace the principles of concept and lifestyle stores out there for whom it’s about mood and story (aka brand), and just not a place to display inventory.

Loosen up. Cookie cutter stores must die. A store in Albuquerque SHOULD look different from the one in Amsterdam. Embrace terroir and place: maintain or build local brands, or at least have highly local edits in terms of merchandising and store design. This may not be efficient, and merchandisers will hate it. But keeping things relevant and connected to place adds personality, reason to buy (particularly for tourists).

The Federated/Macy’s strategy of acquiring venerable, beloved local brands like Marshall Field, then either closing them or renaming them Macy’s, sowed the seeds of the chain’s woes. Makes great sense of paper, of course: it’s about efficiency of buying and merchandising, promotion, brand, and the notion that consumers love to shop from brands they trust and are familiar with. But it doesn’t take into account the power of place and the need for these retail palaces to be about community, not just consumerism. If there’s no emotional tug, why not just turn to the internet?

The irony about knowing who you are as a brand is that it also becomes easier to play with it, expand on it, riff on it. A wonderful example of this is Aesop, who – confident in who it is – has a different look to each store, created by different architects using local materials.

Embrace scarcity and surprise. Ubiquity is the killer in the luxury category, but increasingly (thank you, Internet) the more mainstream categories as well. So how do you create scarcity?

Get scrappy and do what the small indie brands are doing, of course. Fewer and smaller stores; shorter runs on the merchandise; limited editions; mobile retail; unlikely markets; showing up in other peoples’ stores; pop ups that are true works of art. But with scarcity comes responsibility: you have to be imaginative about it and highly memorable when you do appear. But then, leverage all the resources that come with a bigger enterprise: high quality design; higher levels of service; including customized service;  omnichannel; and deeper inventory.


Freda Salvador mobile pop up at West Coast Craft in San Francisco, 2016

Treat your merchandise with respect. Choose better quality, choose less, discount less. Differentiate. Don’t buy the trend. Don’t BE the trend.  No mass buys. No mass sales. There’s not much else to say on this point.

Learn to let go. Not every retail brand needs to be around forever. Some brands (Hot Topic, for example) are so rooted in a zeitgeist or trend that it doesn’t make sense for them to continue. Some brands just don’t stretch that far in terms of equity. Don’t keep stretching them, or keep adding spin-offs that chase a market, but still are in need of an idea (as Limited did with Limited Express.) Let brands die before they get killed. Create new ones that make sense. Then let them die too.

As big retail begins to reinvent itself by getting smaller, here’s a provocative question: What if your showroom/alt-store idea were so great that you could charge people to get in? What would that mean? It would mean, theoretically, that you could lower your prices for the merchandise because people are paying directly for the retail experience – something that can’t be replicated online. I recently went to an art fair where the cover charge was $35 just to get in: no freebies or discounts. And I paid the fee properly knowing that I’d see things I couldn’t see everywhere, would meet interesting people, and would be a part of “an event”. Why not?

Obviously, all this requires a complete rethink of retail culture, operations and the whole notion of how to master broad-based retail. It can’t be command and control from a central office any more but instead requires creativity, smarts, and flexibility in the “field” and the actual market level. And that means people. Is there that kind of talent out there? Sure. It’s probably just not in the traditional retail sector.

Great stores can be magical, soul-restoring, and important. Let’s hope that the current retail Dark Ages creates its own Renaissance.






Learning to wait

Posted on August 9, 2016

Making the wait the worth

Making the wait the worth

I recently received a gift from no less than Francois-Henri Pinault, the head of Kering, which holds a good chunk of the luxury industry.

No, it wasn’t a little something from McQueen or Stella McCartney, or even a pair of Pumas.

No, M. Pinault said something a few months back that really got me thinking differently. The occasion was his comment on an announcement by Burberry that it would move toward letting consumers “shop the runway”, doing away with the practice of having Fall collections shown in Spring and Spring collections shown in the Fall. Paul Smith and Michael Kors followed.  The Guardian dubbed it “See Now, Shop Now”.

Now, all this made eminent sense to me: the idea that in this day and age there’d be this time lag between showing and making available seemed the epitome of silliness, but M. Pinault had a different spin. For him, Burberry’s plan “negated the dream” of luxury; making consumers wait as long as six months to buy a collection “creates desire”.

This comment prodded something in my consciousness. Of course, the cynic in me saw the self-serving nature of the remark in its  unwillingness to change. That same cynic was repelled by the notion of engineering more time for “desire” to build so as to stoke demand and justify high prices.

But was there something interesting and true in the idea that waiting is a good thing, that desire should be allowed to build? And how integral to “luxury” is this idea of waiting?

I admit it: I am by nature a “want it now” kind of person. But age and observation have tempered that in many aspects of my life. And embracing craft and artisanship as I do, I’ve had to change my expectations about objects of desire being available on demand. And yes, since traditional luxury has been hand-made to order, luxury has a strong element of waiting to it.

There was even a recent NY Times piece that seemed to pick up on this notion. In Has Waiting for Things Become the Ultimate Luxury? writer Heidi Julavits tracks a series of mini trends that seem to point to “waiting”  as being trendy – epitomized by the (in)famous waiting list for Hermes Birkin Bag.

Now, I’m all for waiting if it reflects the time it takes to make something (anything hard to make or made to order or customized), or is specifically designed to separate instagratification trendsters from the true believers (Hermes, on a charitable day) then the waiting is good.

But if it’s just another marketing gimmick – to stoke demand, to invent desire – it is cynical and manipulative. It is, unfortunately, what many have come to expect of the business of luxury.

Still, it makes me think about what it means to wait.

Let’s say you’re waiting, as I recently did, for that holy grail of pants – edgy but flattering – that I was having cut to order by my friend Diana Slavin. (No, it wasn’t couture, I’m just hard to fit.) It took four weeks and gave me ample insight into the ways and byways of desire and waiting.

Not that I was completely obsessive about these pants, but at certain moments, I found myself thinking about them a fair amount (a welcome distraction from other life woes). A  30-second sampling of my thoughts would run like this:

These pants are going to be great: they’ll solve all of my wardrobe problems, giving all those outfits the je ne sais quoi they sorely need. Snap out of it. Be in the moment. Don’t future trip. No, they’re going to be great. With them, I could…What’s four weeks? It’ll all be sweeter for the waiting. Just get on with your life, focus on your work. OK, you know, the other thing I really need  is the perfect white T-shirt. When are they going to be ready? Maybe the studio can speed it up if I ask nicely, or maybe they’re already there and they just haven’t called? Maybe I could have them tonight? I can cancel that meeting and head over. Don’t be silly. Those pants will not change your life. Yes they will…and the cycle would begin anew.

This kind of thinking isn’t much different from what went down in grade school: Does he like me? Does he like her more than me? I’m so perfect for him. Maybe if I walk by him real slow in the cafeteria…). It zips between desire, competition, stalking, and high fantasy, as much True Detective as True Romance. If this is the flavor of desire that M. Pinault had in mind, then no thanks. This kind of energy can follow an item around, leaving behind the aura resentment, spoiling the beauty, the pleasure of ownership.

Waiting shouldn’t be passive – some thing that’s imposed on you. In fact, the origins of the word  “wait” lie in notions like waking, and watching. This suggests an engagement, an active component to the process. The quality of the wait should be match what you’re waiting for.

A healthier approach to waiting builds that long-term appreciation, taking more of a wakeful, watching role in the waiting process and making the most of the wait. Anticipating but not fantasizing. Deepening appreciation by understanding why the hell those pants or shoes or bookshelves are taking so long. Creating space (mental or physical) for them. And yes, watching, exploring and learning from that crazy arc of desire.

It’s all part of the essence of the thing. For me and my pants, the wait is an intrinsic part of the worth. And were they worth the wait? Yes. They were.






Is cool where it’s at?

Posted on May 21, 2016

I have these friends – smart, accomplished, reasonably self-aware grownups – who a great many people would consider cool, very cool. And yet, these friends are earnestly obsessed with others’ coolness and want “cool” people in their orbits so perhaps that coolness will rub off. Which of course is not cool.

What is it about coolness? People are cool (Bowie, Prince, Benicio del Toro, and Charlotte Rampling seem to top a number of lists I looked at.) Things are cool: as of this instant, vinyl, cannabis, koji, local grains, Cuba. And ideas, too: philosophy, localism, and populism (Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump).

As a word, “cool” has ebbed and flowed in terms of its own innate “coolness” but the attraction remains. Cool is “hunted”, and its absence sneered at, dismissed. We all kind of know what “cool” means: something slightly beyond reach, mysterious, something that doesn’t try hard (sweat is not cool), something that  just is, and most importantly – doesn’t care that it is. Self-consciousness is the essence of uncool.

More than anything else, cool is anything that you are not. If you are old, then cool is young. If you are young, then Jagger is looking pretty damned cool. (And we’re all younger than Sir Mick.) And geographically speaking, as Luke Leitch points out in 1843 Magazine, Cool is where you’re not.

This out-of-reach-ness is essential to coolness. In fact, the “hunting” is the key to the desirability of cool, our perpetual search for novelty and status.

Version 2

Always over there, just out of reach.

According to Mike Vuolo, writing on the Birth of Cool for Slate, cool is “an alluring mix of style, hipness, poise, and who knows what else.” The same article notes that a psychologist named Ilan Dar-Nimrod sums up coolness research (yes there is such a thing) as linking behavioral traits to coolness, including sexual appetite, risk-taking, masculinity, and muted emotion. (Think Don Draper.)

But is coolness necessarily a good – a desirable – thing? Yes, but, only if you split out what IS cool from what’s associated with that state.

The very word is neither here nor there but kind of a middling state (what really is the difference between lukewarm and cool anyway?) I don’t particularly like cool food or drink: I want it to be fully hot, or fully cold. Cool is a temperature I put up with but not happily. From a physical perspective, “cool” is only desirable on a very hot day.

In people, there’s something off-putting about coolness. Being cool is about keeping others at bay, about observing, about being so self-possessed that you just don’t need others. There is a crisp rationality, heartlessness, and a lack of empathy, generosity, and caring. You don’t get the sense that they are enjoying life, or indulging in any of its pleasures.

The coolness of “over there” means disconnection from what’s happening “here”. You notice less, Of course we’ve all been in the situation where when we get “over there”, things feel smaller, more quotidian than we had imagined. Not that we admit it, of course.

I want to be surrounded by people who do care, who are passionate, who connect and are connected, give me something with grit, and sweat. And yes, some of them may BE cool, but they don’t behave cool. I want experiences that have that same character. I want great food from passionate farmers, sellers, chefs and even servers. And, essentialist that I am, I want things the things that surround me to be made by people who have that hot passion for what they’re doing.

The irony is that the paragons of “cool” are actually only cool because they connect – deeply – to something they care about and had the guts to go with their hearts and it made them turn away from the mainstream. And they’re all a little older, which also says something about the state of mind that it takes to really BE cool. For the most part, they were / are passionate, contrarian, engaged, just maybe not with everyone. Those who actually behave cool generally comes off as a twit, or just an asshole.

Love, connectedness, caring are at the heart of cool. Just not at the heart of the hunting for it.