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July 23, 2012

This month we lost two legendary figures in the retailing industry, one a person and one a company. And in an ironic twist that only reality could produce, the two crossed paths once in an ill-fated connection that did little to tarnish the reputation of either.
But they say losses comes in threes and in fact that's true in this case as well because we lost something else this month, something much less tangible but every bit as a important for the success of the industry.

The first two losses are, of course, the death of Bloomingdale's indomitable Marvin Traub and the demise of The Conran Shop in the United States.

Traub will go down as one of the greatest retailers in the history of general merchandising, the man who virtually created and then honed to a very sweet art the notion of retailing as theater. By now, you've heard all the stories of Traub's transformation of the dowdy Bloomingdale Brothers department store into arguably the most important store in the world at the height of his tenure.

And while there's much more to the Traub tale -his ability to pull the promotional trigger as a balance to all the fancy upscale footwork, his assembly of a world-class group of executives, his understanding of the role of food in general merchandise retailing - it will be the theatrical extravaganza that he created that he will forever be remembered for.

The most recent iteration of the Conran concept in the United States - the Conran Shop in New York City - only had a 12-year lifespan and frankly it never achieved the success of its predecessor, Conran's, which redefined contemporary home furnishings retailing in the 1980s.

But during those earlier years it changed the landscape of the home business in the way that no other so-called lifestyle store - not Pottery Barn, not Crate, not Resto - has done since.

Traub and Conran came together briefly in the mid-1990s when he led a team that tried to revitalize the by-then tarnished retailer. It never worked.

So we lost two great ones this month, but there was also a third casualty: A little bit of magic.

Both Marvin Traub and Conran's brought a certain intangible to the field of retailing that we see very little of today.

And that's largely because business has lost its patience and its understanding of how long it takes to make the magic. Ron Johnson is expected to turn around a moribund Penney's in six months, but imagine if that's all Marvin Traub was given to reinvent Bloomies. How about asking if Kevin Mansell and his team should be booted out of Kohl's because they've had a little rough patch after decades of success?

Creating magic is a delicate, imprecise art. Marvin Traub knew that. Conran's did too. But too few people in charge today understand that, so the passings this month are especially poignant.

We lost Marvin, we lost modern and we lost some of the magic.