This month's cover story focuses on Cohoes Specialty Stores and on the innovative techniques chief executive officer Sandy Zimmerman has used to create what many experts call "the store of the future." Like most INC. features, the article can be read on several levels.
On one level, this is a story about innovative marketing. Cohoes combines the consistent lower prices of a discount store with the quality goods and service shoppers are used to finding only at the most expensive retailers. Zimmerman sells high-quality fashions for less. But unlike traditional discounters, he maintains full inventories and a sales staff several times larger than that at the average store.
The last point underpins the entire Cohoes operation and leads to the second level on which the story can be read. Cohoes, N.Y., might seem an unlikely location for a high-fashion outlet, but the ready supply of labor -- mostly women willing to work for wages lower than those offered in most retailing operations -- combines beautifully with Zimmerman's talents as a master motivator of people. Several of our cover stories this year -- The King of Productivity" in April and "The Un-Manager" in August, to name two -- have focused on CEOs whose careful attention to hiring and the care and feeding of all their employees, not just senior management, is the basis of their companies' success. Add Zimmerman to the list. After spending several days with him in the Cohoes store, senior editor Curtis Hartman said that the affection Zimmerman's workers hold for him is "astounding. I've never seen anything like it." Zimmerman is a classic retailer -- he loves spending time on the floor, talking to his customers, praising or cajoling his employees, paying attention to everything, both important and trivial.
And that point, in turn, leads to a third level for reading the story. Because Cohoes is a small company, Zimmerman is able to mingle with customers and employees rather than be trapped in an office far away from the action. When he was president of Abraham & Straus, Zimmerman found his days filled with meetings and maneuverings. Now he is free to roam the floor. A smaller environment has given both him and his company flexibility and room to grow.
The presence of a remarkable individual at the center of a story like this one leads to obvious questions. Zimmerman wants to expand, and he thinks he can add a store a year for the foreseeable future. But can other Cohoes operations, without his powerful presence, function as well, even if all other conditions are the same? Will the kind of bureaucracy he found so frustrating in the work of big retailing set in as an inevitable response to the burdens of size? Will original Cohoes employees be willing forever to substitute praise and a family feeling for more traditional commissions on sales?
These kinds of questions no doubt will lead us to follow Cohoes closely in the future. For now, it is apparent that Sandy Zimmerman has found a good way to keep a new breed of shopper happy and bring them back in droves.