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Joe Cicio: DNA of retailing has been compromised |
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Joe Cicio: DNA of retailing has been compromised

Joe Cicio
| Tuesday, January 22, 2019 7:00 p.m

If you think brick-and-mortar stores are in turmoil because of the internet, you would be wrong.

Thanks to 40-plus years in retailing, I’ve been fortunate to have worked alongside — and even study — some of the most amazing merchants and retailers who have built the industry’s impressive reputation. I can state with total confidence that the compromising of the industry’s DNA — the building blocks that make up retail merchandising — is precisely what has taken place.

The molecular instructions for an instructive lifeline of creative merchandising have almost completely disintegrated into brick-and-mortar emporiums of stuff housing racks of sameness and markdowns. Even worse, they have become distribution centers for online fulfillment sales.

It is investment corporate management that is compromising retail — not the amazing opportunity of the advanced technology of today.

What very few understand is that just about every true merchant is usually an instinctive retailer as well. But not all retailers are gifted with the DNA of a creative merchant. It’s of utmost importance to ask — what are the credentials the CEO brings with them to lead a retail business? This is important regardless whether the enterprise is brick and mortar, online shopping or direct mail.

For a retail brand to succeed, the order of management needs to be reversed to where it once was when retailing was an exciting experience for all. Simply stated, a retail CEO must be a creative merchant who establishes the merchandising DNA needed for everyone within the organization to follow. Simply stated, the brand’s mission statement.

History shows why this was so successful. To walk through a Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s or Henri Bendel’s of their day was pure merchandising entertainment. We ventured to those brands not because we needed anything. We ventured through their doors to discover originality, not to be overpowered by emporiums of stuff and markdowns. Being in the company of genuine creative merchants is no less exciting than sitting in the front row of a dress rehearsal choreographed by Jerome Robbins.

Here’s my common-sense solution: Partner the creative merchant CEOs with a proven and effective financial and operational No. 2. With such a strategic partnership, the CEO has a responsible sounding board, and the No. 2 has a sense of responsibility to the DNA of the brand. This is the kind of partnership that built some of the best retail brands, which are now finding it difficult to survive. Why? Because the DNA of the retailer has been compromised.

How would an investment CEO of today react to the creative passion and innovations of merchandising icons such as Stanley Marcus, Josie Natori, Leonard Lauder or Edward Finkelstein? These visionaries held the No. 1 position, guiding their brands to success through distinction. As CEOs, they were and are outstanding merchants with a natural talent for team building who built responsible and profitable businesses. They lived in their respective markets and on the selling floors of each store with their teams. They did not live in front of a computer 24/7.

The creative instinct and passion in the DNA of a gifted merchant must be an absolute necessity in the person who becomes the No. 1 in any successful retail organization.

At the end of the day, it always comes down to the right people in the right positions.

Joe Cicio is the former CEO of I. Magnin and president of Donna Karan Retail Worldwide and author of “Friends Bearing Gifts.”

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