Growing Up Retail — Part 3, Lessons Learned

On a recent business trip to Honolulu, Hawaii, a group of us was treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the $300 million renovation and addition to the Ala Moana Shopping Center by General Growth Properties’ Senior Director of Development. Among many other items, he pointed out that the existing Nordstrom store, which is only six years old, was being replaced by a slightly smaller store in the expanded wing. The downsizing represented a further refinement of their prototypical model; intelligent supply chain management and increased technological efficiency are effectively eliminating the traditional stock room. The retail industry has been adjusting to this trend for quite some time. Anthropologie stores, for example, are famous for monitoring clothing trends by region, or by particular stores within a market area, and shipping to another store − overnight if necessary − most or all of a particular item that is selling stronger in the other area. The FedEx jet has, in essence, become their stock room. This practice has become commonplace in fashion merchandising and has changed the physical landscape of the shopping center.

Traditional in-line retail was historically designed for a lease depth of ninety to one hundred feet with the expectation of a sales area and a stock room adjacent to the service corridor running along the rear of the shops. Clearly, the minimizing of the stockroom and the traditional depth are at odds. Rightsizing a retail space has never been more critical both for the developer/owner and the retailer, as it directly affects the rent rate and the leasable space of a shopping center. Smaller tenant spaces theoretically mean less rent, but as the sheer number of retailers has shrunk post-Great Recession that equation is difficult to manage for a developer.

Online shopping presents a separate set of challenges for in-line retail. If one can shop for all styles and all sizes online, why go to the store and risk that they might not have the correct style and size? When online merchandise can arrive same-day or next-day to the shopper’s door, what role does traditional retail play in people’s lives anymore? Increasingly, the answer has been a heightened focus on customer service. Only the best retailers will survive, and the way that they treat their customers is the most basic and achievable path to success. The aforementioned Nordstrom is often quoted as the best example of that business model, but there is nothing revolutionary about the concept.

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In previous posts about Slater Menswear and growing up on Main Street in Olney, Texas, I wrote about the physical layout of the store, the “back” and the “back-back” of our leased space. Perhaps forecasting the shrinking footprint of today’s retail stores, both of these lightly used spaces were practically superfluous even thirty years ago; the show windows along the street frontage and the sales floor were where the money was made. And my parents’ merchandise selection was a critical component that I never quite understood until I started working for retailers as an architect and designer. Moving merchandise wasn’t just important, it was the store’s sole purpose.

Slater Menswear had two main show windows along Main Street. Divided by our front door, they had been designed to provide some window shopping relief along the street. Whereas many stores had storefronts flush to the sidewalk, Slater Menswear at 119 E. Main St. had an asymmetrical storefront that angled gently away from the demising wall on one side, then turned sharply on the other side to create a long show window that was visible and accessible from the interior of the store. The other show window, closest to the main door, was quite narrow and deep. That familiar, time-honored chime alerted us to customers entering the shop. Circular racks of clothing − shirts, mainly − dominated the center of the showroom and created the perfect hide-and-seek playground for me and the kids of neighboring retailers. Shoes and boots, a main attraction for many of our customers, were in the back, ensuring that they walked by the rest of the store’s merchandise before arriving at the ostensible reason for their visit. The chairs in the back area served as a lounge and gossip-zone when not occupied by customers trying on shoes.

My parents allowed me to work on the show windows at an early age, as I showed a talent for arranging the mannequins in the two distinct show window spaces. Christmas, especially, was a specialty window dressing opportunity, with Styrofoam “snow” dumped liberally over the display and covering the floor surface, and thousands of white twinkle lights on artificial trees. I remember the pride in my mother’s eyes when two gentlemen from Dallas stopped in to buy a last minute presents. Jack and George were well known around town as being Big City retail experts, having worked at the venerable Neiman Marcus. When one or the other of them said to my mother, “who does your windows?” and she fingered me as the designer, I waited, red-faced, until I got a nod and a “nice work” from them. I think I was twelve. I was also known in my family for putting the best, most expensive clothing on the mannequins and having to then undress them to sell the actual merchandise. Retail design always has a bit of the timeless mixed with a bit of showy commercialism. Growing up with Postmodern architecture − all the rage in the early 1980s − and having the “job” in window-dressing has served me well professionally as an architect.

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“Going to Market” was a phrase that I heard for years before my parents allowed twelve-year-old me to join them. “Market” was the Dallas Apparel Mart on Stemmons Freeway just northwest of downtown, a massive collection of showrooms and sales areas for fashion brands of the time. Individual boutiques were arranged around a sizable atrium with a center runway for fashion shows showcasing Polo, Jams, Reebok, Nike, OP, Guess Jeans, Marithe, Francois Girbaud, and other hip brands I was drawn to. Alas for me, Olney, Texas was a Levis, Red Wing, Munsingwear kind of place. I harassed my parents for not carrying the more fashionable brands, not understanding that they were making informed decisions about what would not only sell, but hopefully sell out to our customers 130 miles west of the big city of Dallas. It was a long while before I understood that the goal of retail is to run out of stock. Bare shelves always seemed sad to me, but it must have been the best feeling in the world for my parents to know that they had chosen their merchandise well and returned their investment.

In Olney, men wore work clothes to the oil fields and jeans and t-shirts to work around the house. There was a country club set that wore golfing outfits, but playing in boots, shorts and a cowboy hat wasn’t unusual, either. Most men had a couple of good Sunday suits, ties and dress shirts, and the Olney Savings crowd wore more of that uniform than the rest of the town. At Slater Menswear, the sale of a suit was cause for celebration as soon as the bell on the door announced the purchasing customer’s exit. If my memory is correct, a suit ran well over $100, our top price point for any merchandise. Adidas sports shoes were affordable and well-made but didn’t have the cachet of the Nikes or Reeboks that I wanted. Most of our clothes had minimal logos, befitting our working-class patrons, and went against everything that interested me during the 1980s consumption-oriented media. I wanted Polo-ponies and alligators. Back-to-school for me was a trip to the Dallas Galleria to buy wildly impractical clothes at the new Macy’s store or even an item or two at Neimans. My adolescence was firmly guided by the new network MTV; Sans-a-Belt slacks were definitely not on display in Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like The Wolf” video!

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Above all else, the success of Slater Menswear in the hardscrabble middle lands of North Central Texas was due to my parents’ understanding of customer service. A born salesman, my dad wanted to talk to everyone he met and desired to be liked by every person who entered the store. He would find a way to engage a customer, discern their need, and then guide them to the finer-quality purchase, if possible. My mother was a much more reticent soul and was much more at home in the back of the store doing alterations for the clothes my dad had sold. They shared many hearty laughs at farmers and old field hands who clung to their pant size as a prized relic of their youth, despite the sizable overhang of their bellies. Mom would shake her head as she altered the waistbands of pants doomed to be covered by said overhang. But they were friendly to everyone, extended credit to most and participated in a barter system with the other merchants around town. “Charge it” was a common phrase from my childhood, as we traded Slater Menswear merchandise for goods and services around town. I’m afraid I overused the concept on candy bars at Gillespie’s Drug next door and was cut off by my parents more than once.

It was many years before I understood that the Black in Black Friday referred to the bottom line in the ledger books of the retail stores. For Slater Menswear, as with most retailers since the invention of Christmas presents, the period between the day after Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve was our most critical season; a validation or repudiation of the clothing stock we had purchased at our own risk and expense. Slater Menswear had a tradition of gift wrapping for free and holding most presents at the store until they were collected by the customer to put under their tree. The long side-walls of the store (visible in the photo below) were lined with suits, jackets and pants on the left-hand side, and dress shirts and ties on the right. On top of these built-in cases, the giftwrapped Christmas presents would be stacked, at a slight angle to show off the handmade ribbons, awaiting pick-up. It was a shiny, colorful manifestation of the sales season’s success. As December wore on, the presents started filling first one, then the other side of the store, building the excitement of a good sales year.

The sizes of the boxes varied − most of the larger giftwrapped purchases remained in the store the longest, as their size and shape under the tree would be a give-away to their recipient. About a week before Christmas, townsfolk would start coming in to collect their presents and the collection would dwindle. Many people picked up an extra present of a tie or handkerchief when they came in to collect their goods; these last-minute purchases were an added bonus to our bottom-line. But the line-up of wrapped boxes never quite disappeared from atop the displays. Every year, from the time I was six years old until we sold the store in my sophomore year of high school, my dad would deliver the remaining packages to their owners, who had simply forgotten about them. I accompanied him on these trips when I was little and it was thrilling to be a lay-elf to my father’s layman Santa Claus. People were overjoyed that we had remembered that forgotten last present. Since Olney was a very small town, it rarely took very long to make the deliveries, leaving us ample time for our own family celebrations.

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I suppose that what I considered a remarkable feat of customer service is not so different from any Amazon Prime purchase today. Fed Ex and UPS have replaced Phil Slater as the last-minute Santa and never again will customers be limited to the local shopkeeper’s choice of brands and styles. The success of Nordstrom is due to the some of the same customer service principles employed at Slater Menswear. A customer at Nordstrom in 2015 is greeted by a well-dressed salesperson, asked their name and assisted in their purchase, upsale and all. The stores carry only a selected range of brands, chosen for their quality and timeless styling, and the salespeople follow up on your purchase, note your size and preferences in their CRM system and, eventually, learn your name. All of this in the service of emptying shelves, or shipping stagnant items to the outlet store. But even as the instant gratification of same-day delivery has become commonplace, the return of the small shop and the authentic shopping row has returned to many cities and boutique shopping areas as a relic of the Main Street of my childhood.

It is hard to say that retail has come full-circle since the truly authentic Main Street retail of my youth. The new or reconstituted Authentic places, as I detail in my ULI article linked below, are crafted to appeal more to a reimagined past rather than being an accurate facsimile of the Olden Days. After all, most of the hipsters buying Red Wings and denim work shirts at Temescal Alley are wearing them to write code, serve slow-pour coffee or practice architecture, not toil in the oil fields. These days, artisanal clothing is most often offered at a premium, while the vast majority of clothing is purchased at outlets that didn’t exist before Walmart drove the concept in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Warby Parker glasses, Shinola watches and Frye boots all mix their online infrastructure with bricks-and-mortar retail outlets more as a brand-building exercise than a primary sales driver. What the aforementioned retailers have learned, and Nordstrom has never forgotten, is that face-to-face interaction and active customer service remain the recipe for success.

One investment made by my parents eclipsed all others: an investment in people. Besides us Slaters, they hired a beloved woman named Frances Logan who created an intangible value in a way that merchandise or store layout never could. She made our customers smile, laugh and feel good about their purchases. She reassured them about a fashion risk and ran a tight ship on the front end. The most direct translation from growing up in Slater Menswear to my practice today is that the greatest investment we make is in people. Our employees, clients, friends and customers are the beating heart of our business and customer service is the bedrock upon which we build our success.

Frances Logan manning the register and the gift wrapping station, circa 1983.

The author and his Dad, Philip Slater in the office of Slater Menswear.

The author’s brother, Scott Slater, aka No. 12 on the Olney Cubs Football team.

The author’s sister, Shannon, and grandfather, Phil, in the office of Slater Menswear. The alterations station is in the background.

Related article:

http://urbanland.uli.org/planning-design/crafting-authenticity-retail-destinations/