by Karen Alberg Grossman
Simon Graj
Simon Graj

How is retail changing and where is it going? This was the subject of last week’s presentation at a Retail Marketing Society luncheon.  (For more info on RMS, visit their website.)

For the past half century, Simon Graj has had a passion for retailing and marketing, working with Mickey Drexler and other industry greats early in his career. Twenty-seven years ago, with Eric Gustavsen, he founded Graj + Gustavsen, a consulting and branding agency with a mission to “position companies to become more successful by connecting the core strength of the company with an emerging opportunity.” Clearly, this is more difficult that it sounds but G&G has worked its magic on companies from Brooks Brothers, PVH and Levi Strauss to Kimberly Clark, Waterford Crystal and Harley Davidson (“They’re not selling motorcycles; they’re fulfilling the dream of personal freedom…”)

Graj maintains that we’re moving from an era of seduction, where brands can convince customers to buy their product based on an image they’ve created, toward an era of empowerment, where consumers create their own image based on insights, instinct and interconnectedness. Most young people have awakened to the fact that they don’t need stuff. Many feel empowered to be their own personal brand rather than an advertisement for some name designer.

So how are retailers and suppliers supposed to thrive in this strange new world? The best ideas, Graj believes, spring from a state of innocence, from detaching ourselves from an outcome. This new breed of intelligence is all about awareness, the “aha” experience. “Don’t think too much,” Graj insists. “Let it come to you. If the solution isn’t obvious, it’s not the right solution.”

He goes on to explain a process that involves letting go of long-held opinions. “These merely validate the past rather than create something new. In most cases, if you’re committed to something, you’ll validate it no matter what. But this is where companies get stuck: even when the discovery is right in front of them, they don’t see it because they’re caught up in what was. Companies need to create a culture of discovery: the greatest stuff can happen if you don’t focus on what you know. In other words, thinking is over-rated. Start with a clean slate, use your insight and everything becomes meaningful.”

“It’s no longer about success formulas,” Graj continues. “Formulas don’t work anymore. And it’s okay to not know where you’re going when you first start out…”

In addition to desirable product that “elevates the everyday,” Graj insists a company needs a purpose, a mission, an authenticity that goes beyond transactions. “Millennials (18-36) sense bullshit: they’re no longer controlled by marketing, they want something genuine, and they believe that they can change the world. So it’s no longer about prescribing something for them, but instead inviting them to prescribe for themselves.”

Graj also believes that small is the new big (i.e. microbreweries have overtaken Budweiser). Limited editions and small quantities are assets. “The apparel industry needs more ideas and fewer sku’s. We’re in an idea economy: great ideas are the drivers of new business; smart is the new cool. Brands with authenticity, soul and purpose are the future.”

What’s more, concludes Graj, our industry is in the midst of a huge transformation: half of today’s stores and half of today’s brands will ultimately be out of business. Which half are you?


  1. Mr. Graj, Your address was inspirational and validating. After 15 years in menswear retailing in Texas and NY, at Paul Stuart, I started my custom clothing business, Jon Green Bespoke, based on the values you so clearly explained. Thank you. Jon Green

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