Tag Archives: retail

Abercrombie and Fitch needs a Somali intervention (oh, and a CCO)

thMike Jeffries, CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch, can expect a C-suite invasion any day now.  Some guy is going to come climbing over the side and say, “Look at me.  Look at me.  I’m the captain now.”  

The problem is simple.  Somehow A&F drifted out shipping lanes.  It lost it’s navigational signals.  Sales fell.  Wall Street got like so mad. 

This is odd because Jeffries was once indisputably a captain, not just of A&F, but retail writ large.  He seemed to know exactly what consumers wanted.  As Matthew Shaer puts it in a recent New York Magazine,

“From 1992, when [Jeffries] was hired at Abercrombie, to the early aughts, Jeffries presided over one of the more impressive runs in the history of modern American retail. And he did it by turning an all-but-moribund clothing brand, best known as a fusty safari outfitter, into a multibillion-dollar behemoth with more than a thousand storefronts and a style that competitors were tripping over one another to imitate. Unlike his peers, who tended to view the youth market with clinical detachment, Jeffries had a Peter Pan–like ability to commune with the whims of the average American teen.”

(Mr. Shaer’s excellent essay can be found here.)

But time and teens move on.  And Jeffries somehow lost touch.

A company designer gives us a glimpse why.  She told Shaer: “[Jeffries] has a tough time moving past that classic American aesthetic of jeans and polo shirts”

Retail analyst Wendy Liebmann has something like the same story to tell.  She told Shaer: “The sexy collegiate image fit into the age of Gossip Girl and 90210 but now it feels like it’s grounded in an era that’s at least ten years old. I don’t think shoppers in the U.S. and Canada have totally walked away. But, as a whole, I think shoppers have moved on.”

Erik Gordon at the University of Michigan’s business school has studied Jeffries. “If our hero has a fatal flaw, it’s that the world changed and he hasn’t.”

It’s a pretty standard problem.  Along comes a guy like Jeffries who seems to have a perfect sense of what the consumer wants.  What he does not see is that this is an illusion.  What he knows is merely what he wants.  This just happens to be what the consumer wants…for the moment.  Eventually taste and preference will change.  And when that happens, there is a sudden, cataclysmic loss of consumer interest and investor confidence.

It’s hard to feel sorry for Jeffries.  All he had to do was drive through Brooklyn to notice that the preppie look was losing share and that in fact most people preferred to look like survivors of the American civil war.  (You know, I’m just an anthropologist, but I feel confident that “preppie” and “civil war” are quite different looks.)

And this is why you hire a Chief Culture Officer, someone who spends his or her life listening to culture, monitoring consumer taste and preferences, watching for trends and, when necessary, yelling, “OMG.  Something is happening out there.”  The CEO can still “go with his/her gut” but now he/she has someone standing by to report on disruptions.  And save you from your illusions.

Everyone likes to think they have perfect pitch when it comes to retail.  And when you have a run as long as the one Jeffries has had, you are entitled to a sense of your own infallibility.  But we have to know that reading a world that thrashes with change is fantastically difficult.  And no one can be right all the time.

Or think of this way.  It has to be better to share a little power now (with your new Chief Culture Officer) than have to give it all away when someone climbs aboard up and says, “Look at me.  Look at me.  I’m the captain now.”

For my book  Chief Culture Officer, please go here.

The Reclocking of America (and the death of the mall)

The English historian E.P. Thompson suggested that as industrial capitalism took hold in the West, we began to organize time in new ways.   A ritual cycle with lots of saints days and religious celebrations was replaced by a model in which leisure days were fewer and more concentrated (on the weekend, in the summer, etc.)  The West was being, in effect, reclocked.  (My term, not his.)

Surely, post-industrial capitalism is having this effect as well.  I believe we are cultivated a "just-in-time" model that says we prefer to dispatch things the moment they "come up."  We are disinclined to keep a to-do list.  

This means that when I think of something I want to say to someone, I much prefer to write an email.  I really do not want to make a phone call.  This is because I can dispatch the task as part of my immediate work flow.  More importantly, the email "stacks" at her end, allowing her "to get to it when she gets to it."  (A phone call demands she stop what’s she’s doing, to field the call or the message.)

This extends to our buying behavior.  The old model of retail says, in effect, "you come to us."  You, the buyer, must stop what you are doing and come to the mall, the high street, the retail outlet.  The trip there is time consuming.  Parking is almost always a high stress exercise.  The place is crowded.  The choices too numerous.  The undertaking mostly joyless.

How better it is to visit Amazon.com and make the purchase in our "work flow."  Amazon then takes care of virtually every thing else, and the package stacks, quite literally, on our door step.  It’s ready when we are.  Not the other way round.

In this model, we organize our time into one continuous flow.  This means, as others have noted, that we weave public and private time together, work and personal life blur.  But it also means that we dispatch in real time, stacking messages and purchases as we go.

This spells the end of retail as we know it.  We might use a traditional model and say this represents the "disintermediation" of the buying process and the elimination of the middle of the chain.  And this much is exactly what is happening.  But I think the deeper, cultural motive here, is the wish to respond to the dynamism and sheer press of our lives with a model of interaction that organizes time more intelligently.  To do everything called of us we are embracing another kind of disintermediation, dispensing with that to-do list stop and go model for something more fluid and just-in-time.  Thus does "time management" gives way to "improv."  Thus does planning gives way to something closer to an instantaneous "sense and respond" model.  Thus do we move in the direction of what Stuart Kauffman calls complex adaptive systems. 

Personal note: in a couple of hours I am taking the train from NYC to Rochester.  It takes 8 hours and it should be a complete nightmare.  If I have internet access (and what are the chances) I will tweet the experience with the hashtag "forgodsakehelpme."  I am traveling with physicist Steve Crandall, because, well, these days I try never to leave home without a physicist.  It’s part of my reclocking experience.  Steve has resolved never to travel without an anthropologist.  Not sure why.  


Kauffman, Stuart. 1996. At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity. Oxford University Press.

Thompson, E. P. 1967. “Time, Work-discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” Past and Present. 38. (December): 56-97.

May I call you “Darling?” Thoughts on “the Dolores effect”

The CBS show Undercover Boss sent, Joe DePinto, the CEO of 7-11 into one of his franchises in Long Island.  

His mission: to figure out how this little 7-11 manages to sell a virtual Niagara of coffee every morning, some 2500 cups a day, more than any other 7-11.

DePinto expects the answer to be complicated.  But once he’s spent the morning in the franchise, the answer is obvious.

The answer is Dolores.  She’s been working at this store for 18 years.  She has been there a long time and, hey, she knows people.  Some she kisses.  Some she calls Darling.  She greets many people by name.  And some she hits.  

"I got to hit you.  You know I got to hit you."

And she does, on camera.  There she is, pictured above, laying one on a customer. Because she likes him.

Customers reciprocate by calling her Dolores and some call her "Ma."

Dolores represents a conundrum for the corporation.  In a perfect world, every retail employee would endear herself to customers as Dolores does.  

But we can’t legislate this sort of thing.  We can’t make it part of the "script" that employees follow.  Nor should we try.  Obligatory endearments are wrong, and frankly just plain creepy. And touching customers?  Um, I don’t think so. Go ahead, just try punching one of your customers and see what happens.

But that doesn’t mean that "The Dolores effect," let’s call it, can’t be managed.  We would want to do an anthropology of the Dolores effect.  Who can do it?  How long does it take to acquire?  What is the developmental cycle here?  Then we would want to create a Dolores training regime.  Dolores is a naturally gifted social actor.  We can train those who aren’t. The next step is to figure out an incentive system.  I bet 7-11 pays Dolores what they pay other people who do her job.  This is wrong.  We don’t want Dolories to simulate her bonhomie for commercial purposes, but once she has began to built a community, we should darn sure make sure she is compensated.

The fact of the matter is Dolores is creating value.  As it is, the only way we have to think about this value, the only way we have to measure it, is by the number of cups of coffee this 7-11 sells each day.  Surely, we can do better than that.  Surely, it’s time to understand the Dolores effect.


The YouTube clip for Undercover Boss.  If you know the concept of the show, you may skip forward to 1:10. click here

7-11, where brands go to die

Think back, way back, to the last time you were in a 7-11.  Recall the smell, the light, the linoleum underfoot, the clerk behind the counter.

It’s as if everything that is bad and wrong in the ordinary world has assembled in a kind of jamboree of awfulness. When I used to frequent one in downtown Boston, I would shuffle around endlessly looking for something to eat. And I came to the conclusion that with the exception of a token apple or two, only artificial food is allowed in this place.  If you ate here exclusively for a month (instead of at McDonald’s), there is no chance you would complete the assignment.

But it’s not just food that’s bad for you.  Something about this very entropic place actually manages to wick away your knowledge of the world; what time it is, what season it is, what neighborhood, city, region you are in.  And once the locational knowledge goes, it’s not long before basic identity info begins to go.  Forget eating at 7-Eleven for a month. Try living there.

We are bat-like creatures, bouncing signals off the world to locate ourselves in this world.  You can try this in 7-Eleven. But no signal returns.  You are lost in a box lost in space.

So what happens to the brand in this box? But of course it withers and dies.  It has been crafted by brilliant marketers. Millions have been spent to give it all but only the meanings that will make it resonant, interesting and vivid.  But none of these meanings are robust enough to survive the 7-Eleven.

And what happens to culture in this box?  Damaged beyond recognition.  It has been crafted by the rest of us.  And we what a thing we have accomplished.  Talk about resonant, interesting, and vivid. That’s us.  But even this is not robust enough to survive 7-Eleven.  It is impoverished and hollowed out.

There have been two recent attempts to save the 7-Eleven.  One was the Homer Simpson "endorsement."  D’ho!  I think this was a bad idea.  (See my blog post below for the larger argument).  More promising is the appointment of Rita Bargerhuff.  Yes, she was the one who okayed the Simpson endorsement.  And that tells us that she’s trying and that she knows the direction 7-Eleven must move: away from "convenience" (that concept that has underwritten so much bad design and experience) to something funny, playful, more responsive to the culture around it.

Who knows? Perhaps Bargerhuff will someday double as 7-Eleven’s CCO.


Hein, Kenneth.  2009.  7-Eleven Elevates Bargerhuff to CMO.  BusinessWeek.  November 18.  here.

McCracken, Grant.  2007.  Homer Simpson and the 7-Eleven Endorsement debacle.  This Blog.  July 17.  here.

Note: this post was lost due to Network Solution incompetence in December 2009.  I am reposted it today, December 24, 2010.