November 3, 2010

How bricks-and-mortar retailing got modern

When he got to Columbus, Ohio, my late father Peter Monash helped make retail industry history. So before I continue a more personal view of his life story, let me talk a bit about the broader industry dynamics. I am, on the whole, no expert on retailing.* But perhaps I know just enough to get the discussion kicked off.

*Well, there was that one time Duane Naccarato and I did strategic consulting for a Central American general merchant chain. But that only came about because their culture put strong emphasis on personal friendships, family connections, and the like. Also, one of the many things they needed to upgrade was their information systems …

Big stores were only made possible by technologies such as (fairly) modern transportation and, for that matter, electric lighting. Malls, well-stocked specialty stores, further depended on developments such as automobiles and suburbs. So as of the 1970s, the modern retail industry really wasn’t all that old. 

Several Ohio State University professors, including Alton Doody, founded a retail-oriented consulting firm called Management Horizons, which exists in some form to this day. Opinions differed on where to focus along the theoretical-practical spectrum, and Doody was toward the hands-on end. Doody’s key non-academic recruits to Management Horizons were the late Carol Farmer, who had expertise in art and design, and in 1973 my father, who actually had run a group of discount retail stores.

Also at Management Horizons was Dave Kollat, who went on as head of Victoria’s Secret to — as my father put it — brilliantly integrate catalog retailing with soft-core pornography. Dave was the first person to explain to me why one shouldn’t be an economist. “Microeconomics,” Dave said, “is trivial, and macroeconomics is wrong.”

Doody, Monash, Farmer et al. pushed ideas that in hindsight are blindingly obvious:

One implication was drastic changes in how retail stores were physically designed. Fixtures were lowered and signage was enlarged, so that you could actually see from one side of a store to the other. Many stores got looping aisles, inviting shoppers to conveniently circle the display floor. Chains that didn’t wholly follow these approaches were often the ones that met the same needs in other ways, such as Wal-Mart with its greeters who directed you around, or Home Depot, where every floor employee can do a decent job of directing you to exactly the aisle you need. In essence, user-friendliness and navigability came to retailing. (Agility was strengthened too, although I haven’t given examples of that part, and frankly I think it’s one of the principles that most often got compromised away.)

Even more important was that retail chains cleaned up their positioning (my father’s term for this was “clarity of offer.”) The idea was that your merchandise assortment and pricing and signage and service levels and advertising tactics and so on would all be in alignment. You could be upscale or cheap or young/trendy or conservative/value or affordable/stylish. Or you could be overwhelmingly deep in a particular niche. But you had to stand for something.

Tying all this together was another of my father’s catchphrases — “What is value?” He was railing against what he saw as an overemphasis on pure price competition. Rather, he focused on the convenience or even pleasure of the shopping experience, where “convenience” included confidence that you’d get what you needed in a quality that suited you. Obviously, those are important considerations when you decide whether or not to travel to a particular bricks-and-mortar store.

As a consulting business, this manifested itself primarily in two ways. One was in actual store design and remodeling. A retailer would decide “We are going to redo our stores.” This entailed a lot of physical remodeling, graphics changes, and so on. Also perhaps involved were employee retraining and changes to the merchandise mix. Given all that, paying consultants to help you get that right could make a lot of sense, and appear on the whole to be just a small part of an overall very large budget item.

The other was education. Before a retailer could make decisions about how to change, they liked to know what else was out there. The original hook for my father’s hiring into Management Horizons was that he knew French and German, and could write for them a research report on trends in international retailing. (When it was finished, Alton Doody kindly told him that he had just done the equivalent of a PhD thesis.) In the 1980s and 90s my father flipped this, leading groups of European, Japanese or other foreign retail executives on tours of the advanced store concepts to be found in the United States. And of course, free education was central to these consultants’ marketing of their services. Just as I get most of my business in connection with my freely available blogs, Peter Monash, Carol Farmer, and others generated much of their income from the leads turned up by well-attended speeches at retail industry conferences.

And that leads me to one more point, directed at the surviving consulting folks themselves — you guys and gals created an irreplaceable historical record of the visual environment. My father (whose original career dream was to be a photojournalist) took literally 10s of 1000s of slide photographs of retail stores in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Other people took 10s of 1000s more. I don’t know how many of these survive (his own collection was given away upon retirement, to somebody then still working in the area), but it would be a tragedy if the slides were not preserved. There are plenty of university archives that would be thrilled to have them. And if there’s any problem with the labeling of the ones that survive, then let’s all pitch in and try to figure out which slides were taken where by whom at what time in connection with which project.

Comments

7 Responses to “How bricks-and-mortar retailing got modern”

  1. Peter Monash, the Columbus working years | Software Memories on November 3rd, 2010 3:16 am

    [...] just written a long post about the general creative consulting endeavors my late father was involved in. Highlights specific to him [...]

  2. Ken Galloway on November 3rd, 2010 7:34 pm

    Curt,

    Per your questions below, I’ll try to help you a bit………….as related to me in 1979 by your father, Alton, and others………….

    Your father, Mike Gade, Alton and Carol Doody, Denny Riga, Norma Needham (as Admin Assistant), and one other (maybe Gene Ames, but I am not sure), took a 4th of July trip to Alton’s place in Petosky, MI in 1976 to celebrate the 200th birthday of the U.S. and talk about common business thoughts. It is my understanding that they essentially formed The Doody Company on the dock at Alton’s beautiful lake home with 7 associates.

    The key premise was to ‘fill a gap’ from strategic retail consulting and architectural services by providing very focused retail store planning services. While I am not sure who all the clients were, this business plan seemed to be well received. By the time I joined Alton and team, leaving The Limited on January 2, 1979 as the 35th associate, the momentum was pretty strong. For instance, I remember 7 new associates joining us from Lazarus one week after my first day, including Kate Murphy, Ted Clemens, Mike Murphy, Jane Homan, and I now draw a blank………………..Denny Gerdeman joined us a few months later, following me from The Limited. Pete McCoy joined us in mid-1979 as Controller.

    I remember your father focusing on help with Walmart, working directly with Sam Walton when Sam only operated 163 stores, and also helping grow our international business in Europe and Japan. We were also fortunate to land a major contract with Montgomery Ward and their newly acquired subsidiary, Jefferson Ward in New Orleans area, and literally grew by over 100 associates in 1979 alone. I ended up staying 16 ½ highly enjoyable and energetic years seeing the ownership structure change a couple more times – it is all a blur to me now – and leaving July 1, 1995 after serving as President for 7 years.

    The Doody Company continued to prosper after the incorporation in 1976, with ownership transferred from Alton to a group of associates in 1983. The name was then gradually changed to Retail Planning Associates (RPA) over the course of the next 12 months. I can’t remember exactly when Terry Westmacott joined the firm, but I think it was prior to 1983, and he and your father, along with Chuck Krallman left to form a smaller consulting firm named ROI, as you mention below.

    As all of our memories tend to become a bit more vague, I am hoping that some of the ‘old guard’ above might help you fill in the blanks from my memory for the time-table, so that you might put the pieces together. For instance, I cannot even remember exactly why your father decided to move on with to the smaller ROI team.

    Ken Galloway
    6415 Meadowbrook Circle
    Worthington, OH 43085
    614-846-1838
    614-403-2039 cell
    kengalloway@columbus.rr.com

    From: Monash Research [mailto:contact@monash.com]
    Sent: Monday, November 01, 2010 10:21 AM
    To: kengalloway@columbus.rr.com

    Subject: Re: Anita & Peter Monash Passing

    I could actually use some help on the rest. I basically get that my Dad joined MH; that Alton, Carol, he, and Denny formed the Doody Company, I believe with Mike Gade also in the mix; that somehow RPA emerged from that (I’m too unclear on those details); that he, Terry Westmacott, and some others split off to form ROI (the backconstruction Retail Optimization International was actually my coinage at the time); that he briefly rejoined RPA after ROI broke up; and that he then went out on his own as Peter E. Monash & Associates.

    But I’m shaky on a lot of the dates and details.

    Thanks!

    CAM

  3. Curt Monash on November 3rd, 2010 7:48 pm

    Thanks, Ken. That’s a great email thread we have going; thanks for leading the re-posting here.

    One irony is that of the Doody Company founders, my Dad is the guy who had actually opened multiple stores (discount department, at White Front) in the past. But his heart was never in the big-army part of Alton’s business plan.

    Alton Doody was (and for all I know still is) so far as I could tell a classic kind of entrepreneur. He was full of big ideas, some of which got executed well and some of which didn’t, or frankly couldn’t conceivably be. But — and this is the entrepreneurial point — despite a hit rate of well under 100%, he wound up leaving some substantial creations behind by the time he moved on to the next thing(s).

    CAM

  4. Ken Galloway on November 3rd, 2010 8:07 pm

    CAM, Alton Doody was a retail marketing genius, and probably still is, although many of us have lost touch. He created ‘opportunity space’ for all of us, including your father, and encouraged us to develop and fine-tune the ‘marketing idea.’ With a lot of positive energy and stress during those times, we did not always appreciate what we were doing, but we sure had fun learning and growing together. And Peter Monash was a bit like the ‘trusted father’ in the company, who cared about everyone and knew how to totally enjoy ‘the job’ while pleasing the client.

  5. kevin e collander on November 8th, 2010 9:55 am

    (in response to Kate Murphy’s recollections)

    Kate…you have a wonderful memory…to add to the “Discount Department Store Team” (which did the 60 & 80K WalMart prototypes) which @ sometime in the evolution became the “International Team” based on Ito Yokado, Maus Freres, Coin (pre-Terry Westmacott/Candy Koval program) were Gary Kaiser, Bill Wood, Gene Ames & Laura Hemker…i, as a rookie retail planner, had the most fortunate opportunity, when we first moved to the German Village office, to have an office very close to John Samson, Gary Kaiser and Peter Monash…it seemed Peter was always dictating client correspondence into his mini-cassette w/ his delightfully emphatic & loud voice…you could not help but overhear if you listened…he was a marketing mentor of great energy and always promoted his talent base, his team members, to the max…i, as a graduate of Architecture (but not licensed), was always promoted to clients by Peter as a Project Architect, which i foolishly found uncomfortable in my rookie status…i later realized that this was marketing savvy on Peter’s part as well as his show of respect & appreciation of my growing talents…the few but special trips in which Peter attended were insightful experiences in how to market clients w/ a delightful combination of sincere concern & humor…Peter was so dedicated to his tasks & always found time to joke, to make the work environment a pleasurable experience…we carry your good memory with us forever…you & Anita were a beautiful couple w/ an international flair…it was a time special…kevin

  6. Sterling Commerce predecessor company Management Horizons Data Systems (MHDS) | Software Memories on February 13th, 2011 6:04 pm

    [...] deaths, then put it aside. However, I have been informed that my father’s old colleague Alton Doody has cancer himself, and if we are ever to get his input, it would be best to solicit it REALLY [...]

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