Editor’s letter: the soul of american retailing

by Karen Alberg Grossman

What a joy it’s been these past few months to interview menswear merchants whose stores have been in business for more than 100 years! In this issue, they graciously share with MR their wisdom, passion, and survival secrets, as well as their challenges and approaches to change.

The history of many of these stores reflects the proverbial immigrant story: escaping persecution or famine in Russia or Eastern Europe to come to America for a better life. Jim Crooks tells of his grandfather who took over the store in 1929: “He ran it throughout the Depression doing whatever he could to earn/save money. He cut hair, he pulled teeth (50 cents per tooth), he kept all the lights off until someone walked through the door. When my dad returned from the war, he was shocked to find the store devoid of inventory. He went to Philadelphia to meet with a key clothing brand; when they wouldn’t sell him, he sat on the stoop for two days until they took his order. … ­the store was empty: he had to fill it.”

While today’s century store owners range from sophisticated luxury merchants in booming cities to intrepid store owners in rural America to celebrated retailers in historic tourist towns, they have much in common. Shared priorities include an emphasis on above-and-beyond customer service, exceptional tailoring, distinctive product, frequent store renovation (although not frequent enough, in some cases), a passion for giving back to the community, and a mantra of treating associates like family and customers like friends. Says Ken Metzger from Metzger’s in Mobile, reflecting the thoughts of many, “I love the people; this isn’t the business for you if you don’t. We come in all shapes, sizes, ethnic backgrounds and beliefs. Sharing life experiences with others has enriched my life in so many ways.”

Century merchants also disclosed some surprising success secrets including “luck,” “a charismatic personality” and “deep pockets.” Says Ed Barbo Jr. from Columbia Clothing in Duluth, “Cash flow is always tough; few independent store owners end up independently wealthy…” Says David Kositchek from Kositcheks in Lansing, “Prosperity has made it possible for us to grow but adversity has been our greatest teacher.” Several merchants acknowledge that it takes a larger-than-life personality to succeed in this business, noting that the “charisma” gene is not always passed down through generations.

In this issue, these century survivors generously share their insights into succession planning (many have children not interested in retailing), competing with online businesses, competing with their own brands, creating private label programs for exclusive product with improved margins. Notes Mitch Sugar, a star seller at Kannon’s in Raleigh, “Th­e increasing number of vendors selling direct is a big problem. We’re looking for more brands that want a symbiotic rather than parasitic relationship. We’d love more boutique lines, and even private labels, which are admittedly hard to acquire without huge orders.”

But bottom line, with all of today’s trials, store owners admit that they’re warriors who love the fight, who cherish the challenge of succeeding against the odds. (A few even confess to being masochists!) So, here’s to our warriors and masochists, to figuring it all out in the next century, and to making a little time for some golf!

2 Replies to “EDITOR’S LETTER: THE SOUL OF AMERICAN RETAILING”

  1. Dear Karen, What a great story. This was the first article I read when I received the magazine. Blacks is blessed to work with several of these companies. I salute all the companies, Congratulations, the great American dream.

  2. Karen,
    Wonderful to read about these century survivors. “So, here’s to our warriors and masochists, to figuring it all out in the next century, and to making a little time for some golf!” makes me think of you know who!
    Let’s catch up soon.
    Susan White Morrissey

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