Loss of a visionary

Carole Sloan, February 4, 2002

The world of retailing lost a great leader last month.

But the world of retailing also lost one of its pioneers who represented the antithesis of retailing today.

For those who never had the privilege of meeting and talking with Stanley Marcus, the second generation of a family business — Neiman Marcus — that now is a corporate entity, woe to you.

He was a person of consummate ability, keen foresight and with just a tad of professional ego — mixed with a strong sense of what the consumer world was demanding. And his genius was seen criss-crossing all borders of retailing and influencing the home, while his metier was high fashion apparel.

With his death, it seems that this milestone might be an appropriate R.I.P. for retailing as many of us knew and loved it, and grew up with it.

A favored lecturer at business and academic events, Marcus was known for speaking straight, never mincing words.

In the mid-1990s he predicted that the department store will have to be redefined and reinvented. Noting its importance in the distribution economy, he nevertheless insisted: "It is out of date. They don't even have the charm of a warehouse."

His vision was to get rid of the mass of merchandise and fixtures and offer a new, contemporary ambience to let them sell goods at a 28 percent markup.

In 1991, he addressed a blue-chip audience of furniture executives and told them to become "more progressive or suffer the consequences of change."

At that meeting, he said if he had spoken to furniture manufacturers at the time James Watt perfected the steam engine in 1769, he would have said, "As an industry of handcraftsmen, you are going out of business. You will be replaced by power tools operated by less skilled workers that will enable you to increase your production a thousand fold and reduce prices per unit by 50 percent."

As for the service issue, he said, "Service is not just selling a customer but having the right goods at the right time, when they're wanted and in the right quantities."

How omniscient he was is evident today as the furniture industry, among most others, is suffering from the same unpreparedness. Can you imagine his comments if he had been addressing the home textiles world?

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