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:
- When you consider going to a store, you should have accurate expectations of what you will find.
- When you get there, you should actually be able to find it.
- When walking to get it, you should pass and see other things you may be interested in buying.
- In line with these goals, store owners should be able to reorganize their stores when conditions — or perhaps just seasons — change.
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.