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Writing the Family Business

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Sanford Stein’s passion for (and education in) retail began by watching his father and uncle, the proprietors of the Jewelry & Toy Center in Milwaukee in the 1960s.

In 1981, he founded retail architecture and design firm Stein LLC, and has been involved with more than 400 projects running the gamut from regional and national prototypes to niche and retail service concepts for clients like Brunswick Billiards, Formica, Select Comfort and Target.

Stein, a member of the Retail Design Institute, has been writing about retail for the past 15 years; last month, his book Retail Schmetail: ONE Hundred Years, TWO Immigrants, THREE Generations, FOUR Hundred Projects was released.

What inspired the book and the title?

The seeds of the book go back to a request from Bruce Wright, an editor with Architecture Minnesota in the 1980s. My young firm was becoming recognized for our retail design work and Bruce was aware of my story about growing up in retail, in the very funky Jewelry & Toy Center in Milwaukee … . This mid-century icon of consumerism felt more like a garage sale than a bona fide retail operation, but despite its distressed appearance it served as my virtual Petri dish for consumer behavior and retailing.

When I first started to contemplate writing a book on the evolution of retail in America … it needed a hook, particularly if the book was to gain interest outside of our industry. Because I’ve used my family retail stories to illustrate many of the fundamentals of trending and branding, I felt it was fair game to use a Yiddish-inspired term like “schmetail” in the title, not to mention the alliteration.

You also trademarked “Retail Schmetail” as a term, right?

I did. A wise client of mine … told me to always “plan for success.” Because I’ve spent my whole career in branding and creating branding environments, I’ve been very cognizant of the book becoming a brand, even early on. This influenced everything from the layout, design, photography [to the] typefaces and white space, something not common to the average business book.

Even the book’s Twitter [handle] @schmetail focuses on the book, and not the author.

The Jewelry & Toy Center had a big influence on your career choice. Tell us what it looked like and what you learned there.

It’s almost unimaginable in this day of visually engineered branded environments how ad-hoc that first store was. There was no money even to paint and the signs from the previous apparel store tenant were left to hang amid the peeling floral wallpaper. No two fixtures in the store had the same “born-on” dating.

That said, I was certainly fortunate to have been a part of a legendary — but hardly unique — story of two entrepreneurs with little formal education but a lot of street smarts and tenacity who went from accidental retailers to brand builders with the launch of a truly defining brand in the late ’60s.

Additionally, this was all happening at a particularly formative time in my life. Given the nature of a retail family whose lives revolve around “the store,” I had a lot of early curiosity and I was often mesmerized watching my father “work a sale.” He could always leverage a negative to his advantage. … there was a third-hand jewelry showcase so severely scratched that my dad would say to the customer, “Here, let me take that out of the case so you can get a better look.” He was then moving [the customer] from curious observer to “engaged” customer.

Even over dinner, we talked about the store, and many of those lessons remain with me today. Among them: “If the retailer thinks they’re one thing on Tuesday and something else on Friday, how is the customer supposed to know what they stand for?” In other words: Retailer, know thyself! And that’s … as relevant today as half a century ago.

What’s your take on the increasing shift from merchandising goods to staging retail experiences?

We are going through a cultural change as fundamental and disruptive as a century ago, going from an agrarian economy to a manufacturing one. The downsizing of America, effects of the Internet and its democratization and “MEtail” [mobile electronic retail] are challenging the nature of consumption and customer behavior unlike anything that has happened in 100 years of retail. And unlike the more evolutionary changes that have occurred over the years, these profound changes are happening at warp speed.

Now that the customer can buy what they want when they want it and at the price they want to pay, the [ever-evolving] point of engagement has taken a back seat to brand positioning and an effort to create an [omni-channel] customer experience. This will have a profound effect on the very nature of what a store is and will become for the foreseeable future.

The concept of “showrooming” will ultimately lead to more experiential showrooms where a higher level of celebratory brand engagement will take place. This recognizes that controlling brand value and associated emotions take precedence over where the sale takes place and for how much the customer will pay to procure.

Gazing into your crystal ball, can you share how we’ll buy and sell in the future?

If you read the last chapter [of Retail Schmetail], it deals with six overarching themes, the underpinnings of which are built throughout the book. They include: “Big to Small,” the downsizing of all things retail (except Amazon); “Generalized to Specialized,” the proliferation of niche and specialized concepts created to meet the needs and demands of the rapidly changing consumer and marketplace; “National to Local,” the reinvention of the indie retailer and the attempt of nationals to look local; “Synthetic to Authentic,” the renewed appreciation for what’s real, unvarnished and genuine; “Static to Kinetic” — today, if it doesn’t move and change, it doesn’t move us, and this will drive everything from pop-ups and highly evolved temporary tenancies to brand events measured not in months and years but minutes and hours; and “Discard to Repurpose” — sustainability will become our watchword and an increasingly important brand attribute, particularly in the eyes of the millennial customer.

Besides the obvious repurposing and the new cottage industries built around “sharing” stuff, we will watch as many of this country’s dying malls become the building blocks for an entirely new community form.