“What’s normal anyways?” -Forrest Gump

Early last month I read the news that I had been expecting for quite some time. Gump’s (“After 157 Years,” read every article) is closing. I’m certain that many of those articles will proclaim that the San Francisco-based Gump’s is just another domino in the progressive and inexorable death of retail. Surely Amazon must have put them out of business. My favorite was “It (Gump’s) survived the 1906 earthquake but it has joined a number of department stores that have not been able to withstand competition from online retailers,” local TV touted. The deliberate comparison between the two events boggles the mind.

Despite the dastardly intention of that pesky earthquake I disagree completely.

Gump’s killed Gump’s. Bring in Hilco & Gordon Brothers to clean up the mess. And move forward.

I remember the first time I walked into Gump’s. I was thirteen and alone. It was Willy Wonka-esque magic. I saw objects of wonder from floor to ceiling in a smallish space. A room of silver. Glass of every color. Dinnerware. Furniture. Clever things. Not Thalheimer’s from home with their giant brassiere section you had to pretend didn’t exist as you made your way into the mall. Manageable. The entire front window was filled with the most wonderful ceramics I had ever seen. For Gump’s didn’t just sell the best- they also championed new artists, companies, and designers. I asked questions. I learned. I returned every time I was in San Francisco. For decades. I watched my friends take the floor for exhibitions. I brought back my children and family in reverence.

So what happened?

Many things. Many mistakes. One stands out. Gump’s forgot to move forward.

Gump’s began in frames and mirrors. It was the mass destruction of the Earthquake of 1906, ironically, that made Gump’s. The second generation owners, led by Abraham Livingston, brought new product to San Francisco to rebuild and re-furnish homes.

The ability to implement large-scale change and refocus an organization occurs in every great retail (or business) story. Pathfinders come from within an organization. Stanley Marcus brought fashion to the forefront and morphed catalog sales into The Book. Frank Woolworth needed his brother, Sum, to innovate customer service and display. Gump’s needed to move forward online.

“It’s your fault, Eeyore. You’ve never been to see any of us. You just stay here in this one corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. Why don’t you go to them sometimes?

1999 was filled with catch phrases, imagery, and money. Mid dot.com boom stuff. Remember the Pets.com Puppet? Beenz Snow Globe? Company Valuations Based on Ether? That time period. One phrase from that time, however, ‘click and mortar,’ was very important. A retailer would need to also be online. Many retailers with a physical presence, however, were afraid their own websites would ‘bleed’ their established locations. Instead of moving forward they fought back (especially in the luxury trade) by using their connections to restrict visibility of specific brands online.

“Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?”
“Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh after careful thought.

The end result, of course, is that many luxury brands decided to go it on their own online. Other manufacturers also decided to go retail (with higher margin) with their own stores. The owner of a large company that I marketed in my store (and online) at the turn of the century once told me, “ I don’t need to deal with my retailers anymore.” Needless to say, we moved forward.

The traditional job of the retailer was to present and sell product to the client.  Many manufacturers, it seems, were now competitors.  Choose your enemies wisely. The retail world was no longer about Gump’s representing fine brands.  It was about Gump’s representing themselves.

So what should have Gump’s done? Re-evaluate the internet, for one.

There are plenty of paths in the wilderness. Sometimes you have to make your own.

A few basics. Oddly enough.

  1. Know your customers. We are, fundamentally, animals. Hunter/Gatherers. Make the hunt fun. And easier for the client.
  2. Everyone does not want the same thing. We are not clones. Get to know your customers.
  3. We have five senses. We like to use them as much as possible.
  4. The Internet did not kill Retail. It enables sales in more locations with less overhead.
  5. The Internet is a huge database. Be forewarned. View it as such.
  6. Customer Service is not in the Amazon model. Dissatisfaction is.
  7. Customer Service is a knowledge-based job. Educate and assist.
  8. Be unique. Competition online is, generally, a negative concept. I equate today’s online retail to the Retail Electronic Wars of the 80s and 90s. Most will not survive the compete-via-discount trend.
  9. Think about your brand. That is what you have control of.
  10. Treat online as you would any other outlet for your brand. Stanley Marcus wouldn’t farm out his catalog entirely. Do as much in house as possible.
  11. No one cares about your brand if they have never heard of or interacted with you.
  12. Be a shark. Move forward.

What I view as the main issue with Gump’s was the decision to make their website an extension of their in-house catalog. The ‘feel’ of their site is based upon knowledge of the store itself, meaning, the site acts as a service to already existing customers. My opinion was that the job of the website should have been  to expand their customer base and sales. Many people outside of San Francisco have never heard of Gump’s. While their uniqueness put them in a position to be strong as an online brand, their myopic view of the possibilities of the internet caused the company as a whole to maintain their decline. No path was changed.

“This is a nothing sort of thing that we’re doing now.”
“Oh, I see,” said Pooh again.
“It means just going along, listening to all of the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”

Who’s next? I’m sure there is a long list out there, somewhere. Start with the retailers that have forgotten about in-store service and cut customer service jobs instead of management.

Do an experiment. Dress down and go to your favorite retail location. Does the staff still assist you? If not, shop somewhere else. One day I had a photoshoot for the New York Times and went to Neiman-Marcus to look more ‘professional.’ No one greeted me. Except one person. She had me as a client for the rest of her career. As did Neiman-Marcus. I stopped shopping there when she retired.

Us? We recently purchased a bookstore as an extension of the Amusespot family. “Why would you purchase into a dying retail concept?” many asked. Because the model needs to be updated, not discarded. We interact with possible clients one on one.  Sales are up, we’re driving prospective clients to our main site, and we are helping to keep a downtown vibrant. We will be looking for more members of the family soon, no doubt.

Move forward.