HOW I DID IT

Gordon Segal: My One-Page Business Book

Crate and Barrel founder Gordon Segal boils down his successful approach to retail.
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Gordon Segal founded Crate and Barrel with his wife, Carole, in 1962. Today, the company has 120 stores and more than $1 billion in annual sales. Segal, who retired from Crate and Barrel in 2008, has never written a business book. But, as he shared with Inc. editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan, if he were to write one--and if he had to boil it all down to one page--this is what it would say. 

Introduction

I'm a store person. I like to surround people with merchandise. I like a feeling of abundance: stacks and stacks of glasses, each one polished so it shines. I like displays so inviting that people want to touch things: to feel the weight of a bowl or to brush their fingers across a blanket. I like to charm customers with great salesmanship.

It's hard to be a specialty retailer these days. It takes time to fully develop a concept. Companies want to grow fast. Customers want to shop fast. When everyone is in a hurry, something is lost.

Chapter one: Point of View

The great specialty retailers start from a distinct point of view. It's a matter of taste and style, and also of how things are priced. Point of view is not just about the products you sell but also how you present them. A Ralph Lauren store takes the point of view of an English manor house--British but contemporized for American tastes. That's very different from a Crate and Barrel point of view.

Chapter two: Curtain Time

The store is the stage, with the lighting, the music, the atmosphere. The product is the script. The employees are the actors. The customer is the audience. And it is the job of the actors to convince the audience that this is a good play--a good product.

Chapter three: Actors, Waiters, Teachers

You have to hire people with personality and passion who are great at interacting with the customer. We loved to hire people who had worked as actors or in restaurants. Schoolteachers are also wonderful: They are gifted at explaining things. In the early days, many schoolteachers who worked for us as part-time sales associates became great leaders. Three of our top executives were former teachers.

Chapter four: The Maturing Buyer

As a store buyer, you try to understand the market. But people are guided by their own tastes. And those tastes change over time as rising success and world travels make people more sophisticated. So buyers in their 30s buy one way, and that changes as they get to their 40s and then to their 50s. And the store changes as a result. You have to be aware of that.

Epilogue

The Internet is a wonderful thing. I remember our first website. You could go to our fulfillment center and watch the orders printing out in the morning. It was so easy. Like printing money. But retailers on the Internet today are so flooded with data that they barely have time to get up from their desks. You have to go out to the stores. Walk the floor, talk to the sales associates, watch the customers respond to the displays. The stores are where life is.

Previously in Inc.: • Gordon Segal was featured in November 1985 ("Best Managed Companies in America"). He also advised Inc.'s "Cool Startups" in July 2007.

IMAGE: Courtesy Company
From the July-August 2014 issue of Inc. magazine

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor at Large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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