Tag Archives: Retail

Sol Price: Retail Revolutionary and Social Innovator by Robert Price

Summary

  1. Robert Price, Sol Price’s son, recalls his father’s history, personality and journey founding FedMart and The Price Club. “Sol always said that luck plays a big part in what happens during one’s lifetime. This is undoubtedly true. Sol was lucky. His parents emigrated from Russia to the United States well before World War II. He was born with a brilliant mind. He was in good health for most of his life. His family moved from New York to California, which led to his love affair with and marriage to my mother. What Sol added to his good luck is what this book is all about.”

 

Key Takeaways

Sol’s Business Philosophy & Practices

  1. Sol’s core business philosophy was simple: drive operational efficiencies to save on costs; pass these savings onto customers; provide the best possible value to customers; excellent quality products at the lowest possible prices; pay good wages and provide good benefits, including health insurance to employees; maintain honest business practices; treat suppliers better than anyone else; make money for investors.
  2. Discount stores appeared in 1948 and FedMart followed the Fedco template in most every way including membership, concessionaires and a warehouse building. Perhaps the most significant difference between Fedco and FedMart was that Fedco was operated purely as a not for profit whereas FedMart was a not for profit combined with a separate corporation, Loma Supply, which operated as a for profit corporation. Customers would have to pay a minimal fee to become a member, hours were convenient for business owners, products were displayed and sold on makeshift fixtures rather than in display cases and most products, other than jewelry, were self-service, and the selection was limited. Most products were paid at a central register area in cash or with a check, no credit except for purchases of furniture or appliances. The products offered for sale included mattresses, clothing, luggage, furniture, power appliances, hardware, large and small appliances and liquor. Some of the departments were operated by concessionaires, while others were operated by FedMart. In addition, FedMart refused to stock products from manufacturers who enforced Fair Trade laws – companies such as Samsonite Luggage and Gillette Razor Blade Company.
  3. 20 years after founding FedMart, Sol sold control of FedMart to Hugo Mann in 1975 but the relationship quickly soured, inspiring Sol to later found Price Club. Happiest when challenged and new business was a clear slate – thought through all lessons learned and tried to wipe clean all assumptions. He settled on a wholesale business selling to a cross section of small businesses. The Price Club idea was finally conceived sometime in the middle of January 1976 – a wholesale business selling merchandise to small, independent businesses. The business owners would come to a large warehouse, select the products from steel rack displays, pay either by check or cash, and take the products back to their stores, restaurants, or offices. Instead of each business owner purchasing products from various suppliers who specialized in specific product categories, hundreds or even thousands of small businesses would pool their buying power by shopping at our wholesale warehouse. The warehouse would also serve as a storage facility for the various business owners so they would not have to buy and store large quantities of merchandise at their stores or offices. In effect, we would be their warehouses. The wholesale warehouse would buy directly from manufacturers and pass along the savings generated from volume purchasing directly to the store owners
  4. The word “club” was selected because customers would be required to purchase a membership. The customer would be a member of a club, a club that sold merchandise. Thus, the name Price Club was chosen. There were a number of reasons for charging a membership fee of $25, a significant amount of money compared to the rather nominal $2 membership fee that members at FedMart had paid. The most important reasons was to use the membership money to lower prices by including the fee in the calculation of merchandise gross margins. We assumed that, on average, each member would spend $1,000 a year in purchases at Price Club. The $25 membership fee was equivalent to 2.5% of $1,000. When included in gross margin, the prices of merchandise were reduced as shown in the following example:
    1. Example 1 – no membership fee:
      1. Product from supplier: $10.00
      2. Product selling price: $11.12
      3. Margin: 10.5%
    2. Example 2 – $25 membership charged
      1. Product from supplier: $10.00
      2. Product selling price: $10.86
      3. 8% markup plus 2.5% membership fee = $10.5%
    3. The $25 membership fee also operated as an incentive for the member to purchase more as a way to leverage the membership fee as a percent of purchases. In addition, the membership concept helped reduce operating expenses for the business because the membership psychologically tied the member to Price Club and eliminated the need to advertise
  5. Sol always said that teamwork is the key to success
  6. Was a very tough negotiator. He was not afraid to be tough when he felt it was necessary. He was willing to fight for what was right, even if it meant potentially losing, although Sol rarely lost. People wanted Sol in their corner because they knew he had integrity, he was smart, and he was strong. Sol’s experience as an attorney representing clients, and his own moral code, became a foundational feature of the FedMart business. Sol described his business approach as “the professional fiduciary relationship between us (the retailer) and the member (the customer). We felt we were representing the customer. You had a duty to be very, very honest and fair with them and so we avoided sales and advertising. We have in effect said that the very best advertising is by our members, the unsolicited testimonial of the satisfied customer. This fiduciary relationship with the customer was similar to the Golden Rule; the way Sol put it – if you want to be successful in retail, just put yourself in the place of a cranky, demanding customer. In other words, see your business through the eyes of the customer.
  7. Our first duty is to our customers. Our second duty is to our employees. Our third duty is to our stockholders
  8. By reducing merchandise acquisition costs for retailers and other businesses, everyone would win. Small businesses would pay less for their wholesale goods and supplies, retailers could charge lower prices – in turn improving their ability to compete against chain stores, especially the growing number of discount stores that were underpricing small businesses.
  9. Expert Fallacy – “Fortunately most of us had backgrounds that were alien to retailing. We didn’t know what wouldn’t work or what we couldn’t do.” If Sol had been an experienced traditional retail executive, he probably would have focused FedMart’s expansion in Southern California and Arizona, thereby solidifying FedMart’s market dominance in that region. Instead, Sol made his decisions from the point of view of his own experience: the fact that he was an attorney and not a retailer, and that he was an entrepreneur and not a chain store executive. He was never driven by the need to have the most stores or the most money, but by the desire to give the customer the best deal and to provide fair wages and benefits to FedMart’s employees
  10. Of course, everyone wanted to work at FedMart. The fact that Sol was concerned about giving decent wages to employees was one thing, but why would he require FedMart wages to be twice as much as the competitors? FedMart was paying industry-best wages per hour in San Diego and Phoenix. The wage decision in San Antonio was simple: employees in San Antonio worked just as hard and as well as other FedMart employees. FedMart had excellent profits in San Diego and Phoenix while paying good wages, why not apply the same wage philosophy in San Antonio?
  11. Sol always believed real estate was a good investment and the financial characteristics of the business made it a cash flow machine, allowing for easy, fast expansion
  12. Touching the medium – As The Price Company prospered, Sol focused much of his attention on the numbers, daily sales, and monthly financial operating results – the balance sheet and cash flow. He would ask someone from the Morena Price Club or a new Price Club to call him at home every night and tell him what the final sales were for the day. He was intrigued by the Price Club financials, especially how different they were from the financials at FedMart. Comparing FedMart’s financial results for the fiscal year ending August 1969 with Price Club’s financial results for the year ending August 1979, the first major difference was the cost of sales (merchandise markup). FedMart had a 30% markup compared to Price Club’s 11.7% markup. FedMart’s total operating expenses were 17% compared to Price Club’s 9%. Moreover, Price Club’s sales were approaching $1,000 per square foot, at least twice as much as a typical FedMart store. The FedMart/Price Club balance sheet comparison provided other interesting insights. In 1969 FedMart had $20m in inventory and accounts payable of $12m, a 60% payable to inventory ratio. Price Club had $8m in inventory and accounts payable of $7m, a nearly 90% payable to inventory ratio. By the end of the fiscal year in 1981, Price Club’s accounts payable ratio had increased to over 120%. In short, Price Club’s suppliers were financing The Price Company’s business
  13. FedMart developed a line of private label merchandise. It was usually sold with the label FM, or for liquor, with the names of company executives. FedMart purchased these products with specifications and standards as nearly equivalent to the national brands as possible and stocked the FM brand next to the national brand to demonstrate the savings. FedMart’s low price merchandise, limited selection, yet breadth of product offerings had a major impact on the retail world. The challenge would be to operate a geographically widespread business successfully and respond to the competition that was sure to come
  14. Sol really wanted all FedMart employees to think about and understand why their jobs were important to the success of FedMart. He was not a big fan of procedures and training manuals because he believed that manuals were a substitute for thinking
  15. As the number of FedMart’s grew, Sol concluded that FedMart would be well served with central merchandise distribution facilities.
  16. Sol’s emphasis on teaching was expressed in the phrase “alter ego,” a rather simple concept He used the following example. If the owner of a store was able to do all the jobs himself – greet customers, order and receive merchandise, do the accounting, sweep the floors and clean the bathrooms – he would. But the reality is that normally the owner can’t do all the work himself. Therefore, he must hire people to perform their jobs as well or better than he, the owner, would if he had the time. As a corollary, the owner of the store needs to use his time to do the highest-skilled work and to delegate less-skilled work to his “alter egos.” In that way, the owner will devote his time to “managing” the business and making sure that his “alter egos” are doing their jobs and doing them well. The “alter ego” was the management component of a much more comprehensive philosophy that Sol taught to FedMart’s management team and, in fact, to all employees. Sol taught by example and he taught by engaging people in challenging discussions, demanding that they use their brains. Many people, who would later become successful in their own right, learned by following in Sol’s footsteps.
  17. Sol believed in building a long-term relationship with customers. He described his business philosophy as the professional fiduciary relationship between the retailer and the customer. In his words, “If you recognize you’re really a fiduciary for the customer, you shouldn’t make too much money.” The underpinnings of this fiduciary relationship were consistently high quality merchandise and consistently low prices. Sol infused FedMart’s employees with the belief that they were representing the interests of the customer. Sol’s sense of duty to FedMart members was punctuated by FedMart’s return policy: “Everything we sell is guaranteed unconditionally. We will give an immediate cash refund to any customer not completely satisfied with a purchase made at FedMart. No questions asked.”
  18. Sol’s approach to FedMart employees mirrored the relationship he had with FedMart members. He felt a responsibility – a fiduciary duty – to provide excellent wages, benefits, and working conditions for employees. In a bulletin to FedMart employees, Sol said: “You must feel confident that you are working for a fine and honest company. Somehow we must make this mean to each of you that you will be permitted, encouraged, and sometimes even coerced into growing with the company to the limit of your ability. We believe that you should be paid the best wages in your community for the job you perform. We believe that you should be provided with an opportunity to invest in the company so that you can prosper as it prospers. We believe that you should be encouraged to express yourself freely and without fear of recrimination or retaliation. We believe that you should be happy with your work so that your occupation becomes a source of satisfaction as well as a means of livelihood.”
  19. Nothing demonstrated FedMart’s commitment to business integrity more than the pricing of products. According to Sol, FedMart was not a discount store. He described FedMart as a “low margin retailer.” Discount stores set their prices in relationship to a percentage off the manufacturer’s suggested retail price. FedMart priced merchandise starting with the cost of the product and taking as small a markup as possible – consistent with covering expenses and a small profit while giving the customer the best price. Sol also had a rule against pricing any product below cost, the traditional “loss leader.” His reasoning: if some products are sold below cost, other products must be sold at very high margins to make up for the losses. In fact, when grocery stores were selling items such as sugar or coffee below cost, Sol told FedMart managers to place signs next to FedMart’s display of sugar or coffee advising customers to purchase these products at those grocery stores.
  20. The trusting relationship with members was reinforced by FedMart’s unique merchandise selection – limited selection and large pack sizes. Sol proved that it was possible to do more sales with fewer merchandise items (stock keeping units – SKUs). He pioneered large package sizes as a way of lowering prices. One of the more intriguing questions is: why does limited selection result in higher sales? Part of the answer lies in what Sol called “the intelligent loss of sales.” Conventional wisdom in retailing is to stock as many items as possible in order to satisfy every customer’s needs and wants. The “intelligent loss of sales” turns that theory on its head, postulating that the customer demand is most sensitive to price, not selection. And low prices are possible only if there is integrity in the pricing combined with being the most efficient operator. What does limited selection have to do with efficiency? Because payroll and benefits represent approximately 80% of a retailer’s cost of operations, pricing advantage follows labor productivity. Fewer items result in reduced labor hours throughout all of the product supply channels: ordering from suppliers; receiving at the distribution center; stocking at the store; checking out the merchandise; and paying vendor invoices. Put simply, the cost to deal with 4,500 items is a lot less than the cost to deal with 50,000 items
  21. The reality of Sol’s FedMart/Price Club compensation approach was more complicated that simple generosity. Sol was committed to the idea that paying good wages and befits would attract better employees who would remain loyal to FedMart. Providing excellent compensation and treating all employees as part of the team would also result in better job performance, loyalty and honesty. The success of FedMart and later Price Club had a lot to do with being the lowest-cost operator but low operating expenses were never achieved by short changing employees. Because such a large portion of the expense structure in retailing is employee compensation, how is it possible to provide excellent compensation and still be the lost cost operator? Employees who are paid well and treated fairly perform better. In addition, paying high wages puts a focus on continued improvement in labor productivity. As productivity improves, the resulting expense savings are reflected in lower merchandise prices. In return for providing a great workplace for FedMart employees, Sol asked only two things of his employees: that they work hard and that they think. In order to assist employees in thinking about their work, he created a management tool that he called “the Six Rights.” He summarized his ideas as follows: I believed the business broke down into three categories – personnel, product and facilities – and that the same six rules applied to them all. You’ve got to have the right kind, in the right place, at the right time, in the right quantity, in the right condition, at the right price. Along with The Six Rights, Sol insisted that FedMart stores have low displays and wide aisles. Sol had two inviolable rules: the 54-inch height rule and the six-foot aisle rule. His reason for these rules was to make shopping more comfortable for the FedMart member by giving the shopper the feeling of an open and uncluttered shopping environment. When Sol toured the stores, he would quickly spot any infractions.
  22. Nearly everything was wrong with Price Club when first opened – “The Six Rights are all wrong.” For the most part the product selection was based on the incorrect assumption that hardware and variety stores would be major purchasers when, in fact, there weren’t many independent hardware and variety stores left in San Diego. Most products were sold by the case, but the mom-and-pop store owners wanted to purchase in less than case-load quantities. The assumption that most members would want to shop early in the morning was wrong. The choice of Morena Boulevard for a merchandise business was wrong too. The site was difficult to get to and was located away from traditional shopping areas. And, many business owners were just not willing to give up the convenience of sales people calling on them, delivery, and credit in exchange for lower prices. Eventually decided to open up to Credit Union members. They were not charged a fee but had a 5% markup on all items. This turned the business around quickly
  23. Sol had an inner compass that steered him to honest business practices. Obeying the law was foremost in Sol’s mind. Nevertheless, when he thought the law was wrong – Fair Trade laws, separate bathrooms based on race – he had the courage to find a way to get what he knew was the right answer. He was courageous and tenacious
  24. Sold would not permit FedMart buyers to knowingly do business with suppliers who treated their employees unfairly
  25. Sol placed the highest priority on delivering the best possible deal to the consumer and providing excellent wages and benefits to employees. He said that the customer comes first, the employees second and the shareholders third. Yet, throughout his business career, Sol was remarkably successful in making money for people who invested in his business deals. Sol’s concern for investors played out in the success of the publicly traded stock of companies he launched, and in the private business partnerships he created for his friends and family. Sol developed a reputation for making good business decisions.

 

On Charity & Giving Back

  1. An underlying theme of Sol’s life was his generosity and concern for others
  1. A good businessman has to find the time to take care of being involved with his family and charity; it gives him balance. If you’re lucky, you have the obligation to put a lot back into the pot.
  2. He believed that people give charity for one or more of three reasons: ego, guilt or emotion. Sol said that his main motivators were guilt and emotion, not ego. Sol’s “guilt” was related to his realization of the capriciousness of his life, his having such good fortune compared to those who were not so fortunate. For Sol, sharing his advice and financial resources with someone in need was his way of trying to right a wrong and even out the playing field. With regard to ego, Sol maintained a low profile in everything he did. He never sought publicity or recognition. His and Helen’s names were not usually attached to the gifts they made. Sol did have an ego, and a strong one at that. His ego was defined by his existential sense of the meaning of life – the idea that he always had to be thinking and doing, functioning at the highest performance level to find the right answers, whether in business, in making someone’s life better, or in improving society
  3. As a point of reference, he often cited Andrew Carnegie: “The man who dies rich…dies disgraced.”
  4. The logic for rich people to give back personally and through taxes took two paths – fairness and political pragmatism. Sol believed that fairness was a moral imperative. He would say that rich people often think that they gained their wealth on their own when, in fact, their success was the product of their teachers, along with government workers, service providers, and the employees in their companies. He believed that a just and fair society provides good wages and benefits to the working people who are, fundamentally, partners in wealthy people’s success.
  5. It is much easier to make money than deciding how to best give it away
  6. Through his philanthropy, Sol became social innovator, especially in San Diego

 

Sol’s Legacy

  1. The remarkable thing about Sol was not just that he knew what was right. Most people know the right thing to do. But he was able to be creative and had the courage to do what was right in the face of a lot of opposition. It’s not easy to stick to your guns if you are swimming against the current of traditional thought when it comes to wage and compensation plans for employees. His lessons and philosophy – that business is about more than making money and that a company also has an obligation to serve society – are still valuable reminders for many of us in business today. The fact that he instilled these concepts in so many who were around him is, in my mind, his greatest legacy.
  2. What greater legacy could there be from a father to son than leaving the gift of life skills necessary to carry on?
  3. Unlike many people who retreat into themselves as they age, Sol continued to engage with a broad range of friends, young and old. Sol’s conversations with friends were rarely retrospective. They talked about politics, ethics, the latest books they had read; they told stories and shared jokes. Sol seldom talked about his past accomplishments
  4. Even more than his willingness to fight for what he believed in, Sol never compromised his values. Sol’s retail success was grounded in an absolute commitment to bringing the best value to his customers. Just as importantly, he insisted on paying high wages and good benefits, including health care, to his employees. He had a real conscience satisfied only by giving the best deal he could to just about everyone
  5. Whatever I [Robert] have learned about business I learned from my father – everything – from how to read a financial statement to management to good judgment and fair dealings. My father taught me how to think and how to question and not to fall into the trap of assuming rather than checking things out for myself. He also taught me to be humble, to appreciate the unpredictability of life, to care for people, to remain hopeful, and always to be there for people who are in need.
  6. Many people who worked for my father were afraid to speak up, although, in truth, he always listened carefully to what other people said
  7. What really made our relationship special was the trust that we had in each other and the knowledge that, beyond the arguing, there were shared values and a loyalty and love that would endure
  8. People often have good ideas. Sol was inspired to make his good ideas happen. Sol’s actions were rooted in a value system that he learned early in life and from which he never strayed, a belief that life can and should be lived with purpose, and lived in the right way. Sol’s life was a testament to the truth that success can be achieved by acting in the right way.

 

Other

  1. Sol had a knack for putting together seemingly unrelated facts to form clever solutions
  2. Sol was more creative, enjoying the brainstorming and conceptual part of starting businesses whereas his son, Robert, was more operations-focused
  3. My father expected to be informed, fully, openly and honestly, even if he didn’t like what he heard
  4. Sol was a really smart man but what set him apart was his exceptional wisdom. A wise person is someone who knows what’s important. Moral reasoning, that is, the ability to judge right from wrong; compassion; kindness and empathy; humility; altruism; patience; successfully dealing with uncertainty. My dad’s life encompassed all these qualities
  5. Sol’s social conscience was molded by his parents’ beliefs and by their actions. He would later apply the lessons he had learned at home to all aspects of his life, the practice of law, the operation of his businesses, and his personal generosity to family, friends, and society.
  6. “I’m not a great student of the Bible. I can’t rationalize giving God credit for mercy and all the good things that happen – who takes the responsibility for the bad things?…It would be very easy for me to be an atheist except for two things: No. 1 – I’m unable to understand or cope with infinity, and No. 2 – over the years there have been many smart people – much smarter than I – who have wrestled with the concerns I have stated above and who end up – in spite of that – believing. What am I missing?”
  7. Learned the value of reputation and trusting relationships as a lawyer. Did a lot of pro-bono work for Jewish charities when he was a lawyer
  8. Incredible work ethic – taking advantage of every hour
  9. Exemplars – Always had an older person as a mentor
  10. Balance – Although Sol was intense when he was dealing with FedMart businesses, he always found time during his business trips and other travels to have fun
  11. Throughout his legal and business careers, Sol believed that he was given too much credit for his success because he felt that people did not always recognize the role luck played in his life. “Most of life is luck [and] much of what is referred to as genius…is luck.”
  12. Skin in the game – Sol personally invested in Loma Supply because he believed that FedMart would be successful. He would never ask anyone else to invest unless he invested, and Sol was willing to take some risks. This willingness to take risks was to be an important factor in his life.
  13. Sol and his companies changed consumer habits, especially with respect to pharmaceuticals and gasoline
  14. Wasn’t afraid to fire people and act boldly if he thought the company was headed in the wrong direction
  15. Influenced by Dutch chain Makro – pallets, “passport” membership, massive warehouses
  16. Sol felt that before investing a lot of money and hiring people, it would be a good idea to do some market research contacting as many small store owners, restaurant operators, and professionals as possible to confirm that the concept would work. Contacts were made with liquor store operators who sold cigarettes and candy, convenience store owners, hardware and houseware store owners, restaurant owners, and lawyers and accountants. The questions were always the same: Where do you buy your merchandise? Which products do you spend the most money on? How much are you paying? What do you like about the way you are purchasing? What don’t you like? There were some consistent threads in their answers: a few of their products represented a large proportion of total purchases; and they preferred the traditional wholesale system; which involved salesman calling for orders, truck delivery, credit and billing; and they thought that the prices they were paying were high. When asked whether they would be willing to give up some conveniences in exchange for lower prices, most seemed mildly interested but some were not interested at all. Even though the market survey was not all that encouraging, we made a decision to give the wholesale idea a try
  17. Rick was the head buyer and little by little created what would become the opening product assortment. He asked: How do we secure a location? Where to begin? Where should the warehouse be located? How big should it be? How much parking area?
  18. Sol was averse to debt for financing his business, for his customers and personally
  19. Respected velocity – Sol’s motto – “Do it now.”
  20. Sol always said he was lucky and that luck was a huge part of his success
  21. Sampling of products was a major hit. The buyers would showcase new products they liked and human’s inclination for reciprocity when they receive something free made them buy more
  22. Even though Price Club had tried to stay under the radar, people in the retail industry were taking notice. In 1978 Bernard Marcus, soon to be the founder of Home Depot, came to see the Price Club and to visit Sol. Sol inspired dozens of similar concepts – Costco, WalMart, Home Depot, Target, etc.
  23. True believer in competition because lead to better results for the consumer – gave away many secrets and best practices
  24. Having pioneered the warehouse club concept, The Price Company had lost the initiative to competitors. Rather than sticking to a well-planned business strategy, many decisions were being made reactively in response to what the competition was doing. The Price Club was like a sports team that comes into the game with a pre-planned, well thought out strategy, but once the game starts the other team has its own strategy, so the first team gets confused and does not stick with its game plan. Sol admitted he made mistakes in not franchising fast enough and being reluctant to add fresh food departments, allowing Costco and Sam’s Club to rise and expand quickly
  25. Price Club and Costco merged in 1993. Price Enterprises later spun off which Robert, Sol’s son, ran

 

What I got out of it

An inspiring man! Sol was so innovative and caring – his intentions seemed pure as he truly wanted to help the customer. He revolutionized shopping and inspired a new era of retailing. Be as efficient as possible and pass those savings on quality products to customers; no advertising, no superlatives, everyday low pricing, honest and fair dealing, win/win decisions, pay employees well and treat suppliers a step up. Good advice for any business!

The Great A&P And the Struggle for Small Business in America by Marc Levinson

Summary
  1. An in depth analysis of The Great Atlantic & Pacific – one of the largest and most dominant retail chains of all time which changed how Americans shopped, ate and expected from their retail experience
Key Takeaways
  1. George and John Hartford were the men who made the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, later the Great A&P, into the behemoth it became but it was George Gilman who originally founded it. They became so powerful that they were charged with breaking the Sherman Antitrust Act as they had gained such scale and were able to lower the prices of their goods to the point that other, smaller and often independent owners couldn’t complete.
  2. George was very conservative about how to run the business whereas John was more aggressive and open to new ideas. John traveled often, met with the stores and their competitors in order to bring in and act on new ideas.
  3. A&P was the first to successfully and adamantly aim to lower prices as much as possible and to make the profits by volume rather than trying to get the most profit per item.
  4. They were the first to reach $1 billion in sales in the 1920s and in the 1930s they were the first to shift from grocery stores to supermarkets.
  5. They were often the country’s and sometimes the world’s largest importer of many goods and their sales were twice that of the second leading retailer
  6. The size, scale and influence of the A&P was novel and they helped revolutionize food safety, supply chain management techniques and more. They drove many smaller scale grocers and retailers out of business but this also freed up vast amounts of labor to help the economy grow in other areas
  7. George Gilman’s early retail stores were found to be very cheap but quality was low. As they grew, Gilman wanted to portray the image of a great, reliable and quality store to suppliers and customers in order to attract large merchants, espcecially tea, he spread rumors and fabricated shipping statements to appear they were larger than they really were
  8. Gilman, one never to miss a chance to market his company, sought to profit off the new coast to coast railroad. He thus began The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company – it was more of a front however than a legitimate business venture as he was trying to fend off competitors and lure in customers and suppliers. This “front” was destined to become the world’s largest retailer
  9. They went after the growing tea market and startled their competitors by starting their own private label brand name tea – TheaNectar. Shortly after the government passed patent protection laws and their tea was protected, becoming a household brand.
  10. Gilman was a genius marketer. He created beautiful pictures people wanted and this transformed into coupons and later into trading stamps, becoming a marketing staple for the entire industry. This drove customers into the store and to spend more than they otherwise would
  11. After the Great Chicago Fire, Gilman and Hartford sent a lot of food and support to the victims and also bought key land and set up their first store outside New York. When they opened, they had unmeetable demand. The success was so great that they decided to expand aggressively and 4 years later had 16 stores in many cities. They became the first retailer with that kind of broad, national presence and became widely known. Gilman was the marketer and innovator and George Hartford was the managerial genius – yin/yang power combo
  12. The Great A&P became a temple for coffee and tea and were exceedingly lavish in order to appeal to new customer’s increasing focus on status
  13. The Great A&P was very successful but they have one big issue and that they were really reliant on coffee and tea and once prices on these commodities fell, their sales and profit did accordingly. George Hartford reacted in a sensible way and sought to broaden his product line. They started out with other commodities such as sugar but then moved to baking powder which was expensive at the time but made of cheap materials. They took the innovative step and created their first private label baking powder with the A&P brand. This soon became a national, powerhouse brand. The idea of a brand was new at the time and allowed  consumers to know they’re getting a consistent and quality product, although for a higher price and allowed retailers to segment the market and eventually reach economies of scale never before reached.
  14. Cardboard boxes, a mistake invention, and the tin can were inventions which allowed retail brands to proliferate. The A&P’s shift from tea company to grocer was underway but two things were constant: lavish use of marketing and premiums
  15. They tapped into the power of women through their coupons. At the time, women had little authority over the family budget except for food and through the collection and use of coupons, they were able to buy items which otherwise their husbands would have resisted
  16. After Gilman died, ownership was split between Gilman’s family and George Hartford. Hartford made his sons George and John officers. John was the most outgoing of the bunch, often traveling and visiting the stores and meeting suppliers, Edward was disinterested and George Jr was the conservative numbers man
  17. Good story working smarter not harder – In 1907 there was a run on the banks and the bank which held the store’s money was rumored to be going out of business. John waited in line overnight but then decided to go to the front of the line, asked the man at the front how much he had with the bank, gave him more money than he was waiting for and took his spot in line. He got all the store’s money out of the bank and the man at the front was happy too
  18. Edward, George senior’s third son, never formally worked for the company but was secretary for some time.  He was however very accomplished in his own right, inventing the shock absorber and jacks which became ubiquitous on nearly every car in the world
  19. John exposed himself to new ideas in the industry and helped his more conservative father and brother move forward. The Hartfords were not innovators but what they were great at taking great ideas and understanding how to make them profitable – grocery stores, economy stores, supermarkets, lower price to raise volume…
  20. The competitive advantage for wholesalers was credit, not price
  21. They took advantage of the situation after WWII to buy coffee roasters, canneries and other manufacturing facilities and started to become vertically integrated. They received such scale that they were one of the few to have the size to negotiate cheaper rates with the railroads and their suppliers (which later got them in trouble with Congress for potentially violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act)
  22. As they grew, they were forced to decentralize and they pushed sales, purchasing and as many other responsibilities down the food chain as possible because those people had firsthand knowledge of the situation. This lead to better decisions and more buy-in from these people since they were getting the chance to grow, take responsibility and make their own decisions
  23. Because of their scale, they were able to get slightly lower prices for nearly all their goods and they eventually gained greater efficiency, influence and customer data than any other firm before them.
  24. The genius of A&P is that they sought to reduce the price and margin on every good in order to increase volume. They did this by reducing costs in never before thought of ways
  25. By the late 1920s, A&P had more stores than the rest of the top 5 largest chains combined
  26. In the mid 1930’s, The Robinson-Patman Act sought to change legislation and break apart large scale retail chains because it hurt so many independent shop owners
  27. The Hartford’s brilliant insight was that too high profits were a warning sign and bad for the long run prospects of the company. They thought that this was a bad indicator because this meant they were charging more than they had to and this would lead to decreased volume as shoppers would go to their stores less, leading to the same fixed cost being spread over fewer customers, forcing them to raise prices again and on in a vicious cycle
  28. One could argue that few organizations have done more to raise the quality of life for the average consumer than A&P. Their obsession with lowering prices and innovating everything from supply chain to pre packaged carrots opened up new products and frontiers for mid America
  29. Once John Hartford died they had a succession plan in place but Mr. Ballinger died as well soon after. So, Ralph Burger who was seen throughout the company more of as an assistant to John then as a leader, got thrown into the leadership position
  30. As shopping centers became more common throughout the US, A&P became too conservative without John and were unwilling to sign long-term leases or own real estate and soon got locked out of the most premier locations. Their conservatism brought disaster as their competitors were adding high margin desirable product lines, had big stores in good locations with fast growing populations while A&P was relying on the legacy of their past. Today’s ship cannot sail with yesterday’s wind
  31. The A&P went public and their secrecy and lack of detailed information made investors and Wall Street nervous. Their decline was incredible as they were unable to innovate and keep up with new trends and customer demands
  32. They were eventually bought by a German company called Tenglemann, not knowing how dire their situation eventually was. After two Chapter 11 bankruptcies, The Great A&P, who was once the largest and most dominant retail chain in the US and maybe the world, officially shut their doors in 2015
What I got out of it
  1. They laid the framework, game plan and precedent for many of today’s largest firms such as Walmart and Amazon. Their two leaders, George and John Hartford, played off each other’s skills of conservatism and innovation/risk taking to create a behemoth. However, once they were no longer in charge, conservatism and inability to adapt took hold and A&P’s dominance was quickly eroded by faster moving, more innovative companies such as Walmart. Through their focus on lower prices and higher volumes, they were able to get more and more nutritious food to the average American, changed the country’s shopping habits and helped innovate the nationwide store, brand, supply chain and everything else that goes with that

Sam Walton: Made in America by Sam Walton and John Huey

Sam Walton recounts his background and Walmart’s path to retail dominance

The Big Store: Inside the Crisis and Revolution at Sears by Donald Katz

Summary
  1. Katz describes the rise and fall of Sears and the men who helped revolutionize it when it was on the brink of disaster
Key Takeaways
  1. Ed Telling had to work through college to pay for tuition but he did it and ended up marrying the love of his life, Nancy
  2. Ed worked his way up through the Sears organization and quickly became Dead set against the decentralization process where HQ made decisions from afar without knowing the true situation. They knew the map but not the terrain
  3. There is no correlation between time spent on something and it’s productiveness. My most productive meetings are spent roaming the halls
  4. You can’t structure around a problem
  5. Ed got rid of the head of the Midwest and sought to bring someone from outside the company, outside the system, who had fresh eyes and could serve as an agent for change
  6. Moran became de facto head of merchandising and could draw on his deep knowledge of eastern culture to effectively deal with Telling. Telling rarely gave a direct order but hinted and suggested at what he wanted
  7. In the mid 1970s, Sears lost its way due to the sin of arrogance. They were not effectively serving customers and were wholly focused on hitting their quarterly numbers
  8. For some time, the interest rates charged to Sears were 11%, making every sale a loss and forcing them to borrow up to $400m per day
  9. Telling was a very forceful, vocal and harsh boss. He often shifted people around through seeming promotions but in fact was just moving them aside. By the time he realized his harsh and “management by mystery” tactics weren’t working, it was too late. He had alienated too many people and was all alone
  10. Changed certain metrics to get the changes they wanted as it allowed people to “kill sacred cows” and act in previously unacceptable ways due to tradition. By focusing on hours rather than number of salesman, They were able to get rid of underperforming but politically savvy salesmen
  11. Much dispute between the “Sears is one big store” mentality and the “each one is its local community’s store.” Centralization and consistency vs pleasing local tastes
  12. The Sears leadership put a huge focus on efficiency and technology. Their scale meant that every penny or minute saved would lead to millions of dollars and thousands of hours when extrapolated company-wide
  13. Funny recounting of how every level of management put the blame on “them” but one manager eventually found out there is no “they.” They are us. There was no ownership
  14. Telling began thinking of how Sears could begin operating more like a bank as they were already one of the largest financial institutions in the US due to loans and insurance. Focus groups indicated that hundreds of thousands of people may open brokerage accounts if it was associated with a trustworthy brand like Sears. Sears soon acquired Coldwell Banker. The vision was for Sears to become the “chassis for the American consumer’s material life” – becoming central to every purchase and transaction they were making, from hardware to mortgage to securities to credit cards
  15. Don’t “study things to death.” Be action oriented. They decided to spend millions experimenting with new stores and display concepts. They sought to make the most modern one shopping store in the world. No more haggling with dozens of different stores.
  16. Edward Brennan eventually became CEO and where Telling was quick and offered no explanations for how he acted, Brennan was slow, deliberate and methodical.
  17. Purcell believed that every great empire builder tried to tear down what they’ve built before they died or were forced out
  18. The main source of demoralization within Sears was the pace. People cannot endure for long the tenor of revolutionary tasks. People eventually lose the ardor they feel for a cause once the charismatic leader steps away
  19. The company Bill Bass inherited from Brennan was just exhausted. “We’ve just been working them too hard. The people will be able to talk freely with me and know they have the freedom to talk. It’s not really about how hard you work people which is making them exhausted, but the lack of recognition.” Bass had morale whereas Brennan did not, he had a destiny
  20. “Don’t worry,” Brennan said, “no one person can ruin Sears. We’ve all tried, and we’ve all failed.”
What I got out of it
  1. Good summary of Sears’ history, rise, fall and revolution. Older book so doesn’t have the most up to date info but good background
  2. Pair with this article comparing Sears and Amazon