Why did Starbucks, Blockbuster, and Nike come calling on a little-known consultant? Because she knows how to make their cash registers ring

Jim Gabbert has problems and he knows it. Seated in a cramped and bunkerlike conference room on the ground floor of his retail furniture company, Gabbert has the look of a man who has just been read his Miranda rights. Across the table sits his principal interrogator, J'Amy Owens, president of the Retail Group Inc., a Seattle-based strategic retail consulting firm she cofounded 12 years ago. At her side sits Jim Copitzky, the Retail Group's chief operating officer. The two of them are hammering Gabbert with questions about his business: "Do you know who's not coming through the door?" "Do you get a customer sort under 25?" "What about crossover trade with other retailers?"

Gabbert is making an earnest effort to respond, but he lacks the answers. "Well, uh, I don't know if you can ever be clear....We are in the process of trying to focus the store in a customer-driven, customer-friendly way."

It has fallen to Gabbert, age 47, to carry his 53-year-old, $125-million family-run furniture business not just through its second generation but into the brave new Internet-frenzied millennium. The furrow in his brow signals how painfully at odds he is with the task. Jim Gabbert, like his father before him, sells furniture the old-fashioned way--one overstuffed sofa at a time--out of four funereal and large (the average size is 100,000 square feet) locations, in Dallas, Fort Worth, and here, in the Minneapolis suburb of Edina.

The subject this day is a major remodeling of the Gabberts store in Dallas, in order to blunt the thrust of an aggressive competitor that is poised to enter that market. For Gabbert it is bite-the-bullet time. If he hires Owens, it means forking over a $200,000 consulting fee, plus at least 10 times that sum on the renovation. Gabbert has the edgy look of an entrepreneur finally forced to carve some sacred flesh from his cash cow. Owens knows that, and she is trying to stiffen his spine. "The customer has a real problem today trusting the retailer," she warns. "But the person who frees the customer from the torture will be rewarded."

By torture, Owens means the dread that comes with shopping for expensive furniture in low-rent settings. On the drive over to Gabberts--a retail space all but barren of natural light--Owens had referred to the store as "the largest mausoleum in Minnesota." (She's probably thinking of one particularly somber room, full of mattresses and an eerie blue light.)

Walking through the store, Owens announces: "This is like a rabbit warren. It's not segmented by lifestyle, price, or classification." As a result, the customer who is looking for, say, a sofa must wander from room to room in order to comparison shop. "By the time you get to the next couch, your butt can't remember what the first one felt like," says Owens.

The furniture business--with its traditional ways of selling, distribution, and marketing, and its highly fragmented market with few recognized national brands--is ripe not just for consolidation but for obliteration, says Owens. "The industry is imploding," she says, "and most of the people in it are in denial." Owens adds that most salespeople in furniture stores are "white guys wearing short ties," and yet women drive 80% of furniture-buying decisions. "You know," she says, "there is a reason why the people who work at Jenny Craig don't weigh 300 pounds."

Tart and truthful
J'amy Owens, 38, comes off as a cross between Katie Couric and Nurse Ratchet. A woman possessed of equal parts perkiness and biting candor, Owens delivers the blunt truth in such a perversely charming way that she strangely seduces her clients--and startles them into action. Owens may have an eye for design, but she also has an ear well-tuned to the ka-ching of the cash register. "We give our clients good design, but that means nothing to them if we can't improve their bottom line," she says.

In an era in which brand counts for so much and consumers find themselves overwhelmed with advertising and drawn by the siren song of E-commerce, J'Amy Owens is very much in demand. Her client list is a roster of familiar names--even storied brands--that often have been looking to regain lost luster. McDonald's is soliciting her advice to spice up its bottom line. Starbucks called on Owens to design the first stores it opened outside Seattle. And when Nike lost the devotion of Generation Y (those born between 1977 and 1994), it commissioned her to figure out how to win them back. (See "The Next Target: Gen Y," below.) Meanwhile, Owens--a glutton for new retail ideas--has jumped into more start-up, cutting-edge concepts as well. She is an investor in, designer of, and board member of the following: Laptop Lane, which leases high-tech office space in airports; Ravenna Gardens, a chain of stores with an intimate atmosphere that caters to the urban gardener; and an as-yet-unnamed, Internet-based, design-driven retailer of furniture.