More insights from a merchant’s merchant

by Karen Alberg Grossman
Joe Cicio
Joe Cicio

Joe Cicio on mentors, direct to consumer selling, and the value of data.

Q: You’ve worked for some of the all-time great merchants in your career: what did you learn from them?

A: I’ve been blessed with some significant mentors in my life, not all of them merchants. Through my Monastic studies, I developed a cherished relationship with Brother John of Weston Priory. I’ve always considered him an inspiration who helped me move forward with a more receptive approach to relationships. We would spend hours walking and talking. On one of our walks, he turned to me and said, “Are you aware that you often set yourself up for disappointment by expecting others to react to a given situation the way you would? You have no right to do that for we are all very different. And it is exactly that difference that adds so much joy to life.”

Ceci Kempner instilled in me an appreciation for art in all its forms. She taught me to train my eye to focus on detail, and what it contributes to the bigger picture, be it in art or in life. If not for her interest in me, I would have never been prepared to write my book “Friends Bearing Gifts.” Just about everything in my home of any emotional value is credited to her lessons on cultivating good taste, especially in relationships.”

Edward S. Finkelstein was an important mentor: he taught me how to be an effective executive and leader. He taught me to never lower my standards but always treat others fairly. He counseled that the decision to let someone go is always difficult, but never keep someone on too long, no matter how strong the emotional tie. Do it with kindness but replace them with someone more competent.

Stanley Marcus taught me never to waste time. Whether at an airport between flights or in a doctor’s waiting room, don’t let time go by without stimulating your creativity. Even browsing through a magazine or newspaper is time well spent. Our minds are cameras constantly taking pictures of everything we see. When the need is there, our minds can bring forth the right creative snapshot at the right time. When I started to travel a good deal, he told me to be sure to check out every museum that every city has to offer. Keep taking mental pictures, keep discovering newness.

Q: Speaking of newness, what’s your take on the current blending of luxury with streetwear?

A: Retailing is a business of constant change. What you sell, how you sell it, where you sell it, how you communicate to your consumer… At the end of the day, it’s all about the brand and the product that brand represents. Luxury is no different than any other category: if you build it they will come! Think of all the hot luxury brands that commanded fashion editorial space in the last 20 years that either no longer exist or are lost in cyberspace.

Fortunately for today’s creative geniuses, there’s now amazing technology to help them put the right product in the right stores in the right quantities at the right time. It’s a huge advantage, be it for luxury streetwear or whatever’s next.

Q: How important is visual merchandising to whatever’s next?

A: Visual merchants today and tomorrow must be both left-brained and right-brained. Just having great taste or being creative is no longer enough: visual impact must be combined with entertainment and of course the right product. That can only happen if the DNA of the organization is merchandising and if it’s directed from the top. Unfortunately, these days, leadership at the top is often insecure and as a result, makes the wrong organizational choices. I am convinced that this theory also applies to online shopping: Web designers are not merchants any more than store architects or visual display people are. Often, we are left with the blind leading the blind. 

Q: Would you comment on the impact of direct-to-consumer sales: will this destroy multi-brand stores?

A: As brands struggle with bottom line performance, they will inevitably search for wider distribution. Eliminating the middleman is obviously a strong financial incentive. I read someplace that by the year 2020 Nike is planning on a DTC volume of about 16 billion. There are good reasons: 1) Added volume. 2) Direct control of the brand’s image; 3) Optimization of the customer experience resulting in impulse purchasing. (Amazon does it brilliantly.) But while it all sounds good, like anything else in retail it takes the right mix of executive and worker bee talents to make it profitable. One must be very sensitive to not damaging the brand by diminishing its established, proven and profitable distribution.

Q: How helpful is the flood of data we all receive to predict consumer behavior?

A: There’s no question that information can be helpful, but too much information can be destructive, especially if not understood or used properly. The flood of information received today can sometimes create yet another wall to separate the principle from the product.

Creating exceptional product comes from many sources; not everything is learned in front of a computer screen. Predicting customer behavior can be very tricky and as a result very expensive. Yet another good reason to not spend one’s entire day in front of a computer.

I’m a big believer in being involved with your product one on one. Walk the retail selling floor but also walk your distribution centers, a practice I always engaged in when running retail or wholesale. I’d also call in orders to our 800 number as a consumer wanting to experience the call. I wanted to see how the package was shipped and received. I’ve never understood how a real estate agent can take a client to a property they haven’t seen. I find manufacturing very exciting. To be in a plant in Hong Kong with hundreds of whirring machines sewing a polo pony on each shirt made me cherish the ones I own even more.

The bottom line for me has always been my belief that all customers are human beings with a host of different likes and dislikes. Identify your market and run with it. Don’t waste time trying to ascertain what every consumer might want: most have no idea what they want until you tell them. Distinctive merchandise brilliantly presented within a store or online or even in a catalog can make them want it. That’s what creativity is for in all its forms.