George Whalin’s experience in retail is extensive and firsthand. In the 1960s, he opened and managed the original Guitar Center on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, California. He sold instruments to the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jackson Five, Grateful Dead, and many more musicians. After leaving the business he became the senior training manager for a 125-store consumer electronics chain. In 1987, George founded Retail Management Consultants, which provides business-building services to retail companies and industry suppliers all across North America. He has worked with companies in every area of retailing from single-store merchants to leading national chains, as well as retail trade associations, franchise organizations, and some of the world’s best-known consumer products manufacturers, distributors, and suppliers.
His website ranks among the top five retail-consultant sites, he writes the monthly Retail Management E-Letter (online newsletter with world-wide subscribers), and he hosts a Retailer Blog. George is regularly quoted by USA Today, Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, US News & World Report, CNNMoney, and numerous trade magazines and newspapers across the country. He’s a regular guest on radio and TV newscasts commenting about current retail and consumer issues, as well as a sought-after speaker. As a “student” of retail George visits thousands of stores every year talking with front-line employees, store managers, owners, and customers. This in-store research gives him a unique perspective on retailing, stores, and consumers that he passes along to his audiences and readers.
His first book, Retail Success! Increase Sales, Maximize Profits, and Wow Your Customers in the Most Competitive Marketplace in History, is in its eighth printing and is used as supplemental reading in several university retailing courses. George’s latest book, Retail Superstars: Inside the 25 Best Independent Stores In America is in bookstores now, and he discusses it with Erik for our interview.
[Bio adapted from his website 6.16.09]
tompeters.com asks …
George, what gets you excited about retail?
GW: Well, I’ve been in it all my life. It’s the only industry I’ve ever worked in. Most recently, I’ve been a consultant in retail for 23 years. I’ve had an opportunity to visit thousands and thousands of stores throughout the country. So when I see stores doing really unique, interesting things from a merchandising or design standpoint, it gets me excited. Even if it’s just the way they do business.
What prompted you to write this book?
GW: I talk to reporters a lot. About six or seven years ago I kept getting calls saying, “It looks like the big guys, the Wal-Marts, Targets, and Home Depots of the world, are going to put all the independents out of business.” I said, “I think that’s true when it comes to weak independents, but I don’t think it’s true when it comes to the strong ones, the ones who really bring something to the marketplace that consumers want.” I said, “I know a lot of very good independent stores.” And that’s really what got me thinking about this. Then I spent six years putting it all together.
Why did you profile only 25 stores?
GW: I could have done more. And it took a while for me to winnow it down to 25. I tried at the last minute to add another one, but the publisher wouldn’t let me.
They wanted to stick with the number 25.
GW: Yeah, they like the number 25.
I think that’s so wrong. If it was 27 then you would think, wow, there were really 27. Whereas with 25, you know that somebody winnowed that list.
GW: It made the publisher happy.
Any favorites in that 25?
GW: I guess there are a few. The first one is probably Jungle Jim’s in Fairfield, Ohio. It is such a spectacular store. It’s just unbelievable. And he’s a really interesting guy. He started out in a fruit stand and built this company up to a 300,000 square foot store.
That’s the food store with 1,400 hot sauces, right?
GW: And hundreds of varieties of cheese and honey. It’s an amazing store. He’s got a full-sized fire truck that sits on top of the hot sauce display. I think it’s a 40-foot boat that’s in the fish department. It’s so much fun to go there. I’ve been there a lot over the years. Visually it’s a treat to go there.
As part of your research, do you go into any of these places as a sort of mystery shopper? Or were you always interviewing folks as part of the visit?
GW: Many of the stores I went in just to go in, because I wanted to see what they were like before I ever decided to put them in the book. Some of them, like Abt, the electronics store in Chicago, I’d been in several times before I even decided to do this book. Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, is an institution. I’ve been going there for years. The guy who owns In Celebration of Golf is a friend of mine. So a good number of them I had known before the book idea came about. And there were some that I didn’t know at all.
The tendency seems to be toward huge stores, 100,000 to 300,000 square feet.
GW: Most of the stores are a pretty good size. Now, they’re not all big. There are a number of them that are small. Wanna Buy a Watch in Los Angeles, I don’t think it’s even 1,000 square feet. Even Junkman’s Daughter in Atlanta is not very big. I don’t think it’s more than about 12,000 square feet.
I noticed that some of these stores, like Junkman’s Daughter or Archie McPhee, sell really weird stuff, novelty stuff. What’s the appeal there?
GW: Well, Archie McPhee is the most irreverent store I’ve ever been to in my life. There’s nothing sacred to those guys. When I first visited, I sat down with the store manager and the guy who does all their marketing and PR and for an hour and a half all we did was laugh about the stuff they do. We had such a good time. They showed me all this goofy, crazy stuff that they make. And now they’ve got their own book that’s all the goofy stuff they’ve done. The people in this store have more fun at work than any store I’ve ever been in.
I was going to ask who’s having the most fun.
GW: These guys, far and away. It’s just crazy. There’s a librarian in Seattle who’s very famous. Well, they’ve got an action figure of her.
So there’s a lot of personalization going on.
We’re in a shopping downturn right now. How are these folks doing?
GW: I’ve talked to all of them in the last few weeks. I talk to them fairly regularly. Interestingly enough, they’re all doing okay. They’re not tearing the world apart, but they’re all doing okay, with one exception. And that’s Gallery Furniture in Houston. They had a big fire in their warehouse.
I saw something about that at your blog.
GW: That has closed their store down for a while. Business-wise they were doing great until that happened. The guy there is so positive and so energetic that they’ll be back up and running by the middle of July, I think.
A lot of this is about the shopping experience. It’s about going to that place and being wowed by merchandise that you won’t see anywhere else, or just having such a good time as you might at Archie McPhee.
GW: They’re all pure destinations. You don’t go to the mall and see one of these stores. You go to their locations specifically to go to their stores.
There’s always the small independent store. Here in Brookline, Massachusetts there is a small bookstore, and a big Barnes and Noble moved in literally two blocks down the street from them. The independent store is thriving now, and they became a much more interesting store as a result of the competition.
GW: It probably focused their selection and their way of doing things.
They have these pajama parties and welcomed pets with a pet night. They became focused on the customer as a person.
GW: Independent stores can do it if they don’t try to mimic the big guys. What we saw when Wal-Mart had a big expansion in the early ’90s, and they really started to get out of the rural south, is the stores that tried to mimic Wal-Mart, tried to play the price game or tried to be like Wal-Mart, almost universally lost and failed. The stores that accept that a big guy’s in their neighborhood and try to be different have more success.
One of the stores in this book is called Hartville Hardware. It’s in a little town of about 2,500 people but they’re not far from Cleveland. There are dozens of Home Depots and Lowe’s and others there. But they’re not like them. They focus on tools. And they’re the best tool retailer in the country. They’re just the monster in the tool business. They’re much better than a big box store can be.
I noticed none of the stores you mention are in Vermont. Tom happens to live in Vermont. There must be some great old country stores.
GW: Almost in Vermont. Close by in New Hampshire there’s a store that sells candy. I almost put them in the book, but the story wasn’t strong enough. A few years ago, the guy decided if he was going to draw people to his little town and into his store, he had to be different. So he built the world’s longest candy counter. It’s 136 or 137 feet and it circles the store. He’s got hundreds and hundreds of jars of penny candy, nickel candy, quarter candy, all that kind of stuff. He got himself into the Guinness Book of World Records. But I needed a better story.
What about L.L.Bean, which has been a destination store for decades?
GW: I tried to avoid companies that had a lot of stores. L.L.Bean is now getting to the point where they’ve got five or six stores. They’re hell bent on opening a lot of stores. And I really wanted to avoid those kinds of companies.
The only one from your list that I’ve been to is LouisBoston. It is a great store. Incredible merchandise. I got the best pair of pants I’ll ever own there, and I’ll have them for the rest of my life. They’re Luciano Barbera. How was your talk with their CEO, Debi Greenberg?
GW: She’s a great gal, and I’ve known her for a while. But finding two minutes to talk to her is nearly impossible. I’ve talked to her four or five times over the last ten years and it’s never been for more than about three minutes, because she’s always got to be somewhere.
She’s CEO as well as the main buyer. Is that a unique proposition?
GW: Truly unique. She’s just a whirlwind and obviously very talented and smart. I’ve been in that store lots of times, too. I love that store.
In your discussion of LouisBoston, you mention their strategy of paring down good clothing lines if they’re available somewhere else in Boston. I think she discontinued the Ermenegildo Zegna line because they opened a Zegna store almost right across the street.
GW: Her father started that. He didn’t want to sell things that anybody else was selling. It has served them well over the years.
The hardest category of stores to choose from for this book was good high-end apparel stores. There are a number of excellent ones. There’s one in Dallas that’s just awesome. It’s a beautiful store with fabulous service and wonderful products. I couldn’t include many, but I got two in, one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast.
Do you have a favorite large chain store?
GW: Oh yeah. I love Apple stores. I think these guys are as good at it as anybody in the world.
What sets them apart?
GW: Everything. First, the merchandise is wonderful. But their whole business concept is different than anybody else’s. I’m an Apple guy. I’ve got an Apple store down the street from me. I can take my Apple laptop in there. I can sign up online for an appointment at the Genius Bar and drive down there and they’ll fix my computer, do whatever I need, and I’ll be out of there in 10 minutes. That’s a model that nobody else can do.
Second, I like the fact that they are technology people. A little less than a year ago, I noticed that they’ve essentially removed their cash registers, their point of sale system. Now they do it all with hand held computers. I handed him my credit card, he slid it through, and I was out of there. He said, “How do you want your receipt?” I said, “Send it to my email,” and he did. It’s very cool.
I love the Genius Bar. I’m always amazed that that option exists.
GW: Their service is unbelievable. I had an iPod that went bad. They just gave me a new one.
Where did you start in retail?
GW: I started at the original Guitar Center on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles in the 1960s. I was the manager and sold musical instruments to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, The Who, the Grateful Dead, Eric Clapton, everybody.
Wow. Any tales from those days?
GW: I could tell you stories for five hours.
Tell me one.
GW: In addition to selling new guitars, we bought and sold used guitars. In those days, we’d buy a guitar, get all the ID from the guy, and we’d have to hold it in our store for 21 days with a report in to the Los Angeles Police Department to make sure it wasn’t stolen. We were open until midnight and every night I’d go out to all the studios and sort of hustle up business and talk to people.
One night I was out, and George Harrison was recording at A&M Studios. One of his guys told me, “Keep an eye out for a particular guitar that George owns. It was stolen recently.” While I was out, my assistant manager bought that guitar and got greedy. He bought it pretty cheap and figured he could sell it for a high price fairly quickly. Well, the kid that bought the guitar was from Guadalajara, Mexico. Somehow the kid learned that it was George Harrison’s guitar, so he hightailed it back to Guadalajara.
There was a group called Canned Heat whose bass player was a good friend of ours. He was from Guadalajara. So we asked him if he would go down with one of our guys and see if we could get this thing back. While they were down there, he called me. I happened to be at George Harrison’s house that afternoon. The bass player said, “We can’t get the guitar back but my uncle is a Federale and he’ll shoot this kid for 50 bucks.” [Laughter]
We eventually got the guitar back through other means. It took us about four months and there were all kinds of hassles, but we got it back. I was there for 12 years. It was a lot of fun; we had a good time.
Did you then think about opening your own store?
GW: I did, Whalin’s Sound City, which did well for several years. Eventually, I went to work for a company called Pacific Stereo. It was a chain of consumer electronic stores with about 125 stores, and I did a whole bunch of different things for them. It has since gone out of business.
In your current consulting work, do you consult to large chains?
GW: Both large and small.
What are you asked the most?
GW: These days? How do we get more customers through the door?
And what do you say?
GW: Well, you’ve got to be better with everything you do. Your marketing has to be better. You have to be more focused. You have to give people a compelling reason to come to your store. If you’re like everybody else, then who cares?
What do you think about stores having blogs?
GW: I think it’s necessary. There’s a dichotomy between the newspaper and electronic media. If you’re 45 to 65 years old, you read newspapers. If you’re 16 to 25 years old, you don’t. So the only way you’re going to reach the younger audience is through electronic media. You absolutely have to if you have any desire to serve that customer.
I was staying at a medium-size independent hotel north of Boston recently and noticed they had a blog. They were featuring people who worked at the hotel, and guests who must have agreed to have their story told. I was quite impressed with that actually. I’ve been a huge proponent of blogs. I think anybody can use them effectively.
GW: I absolutely agree. I think they’re great. I think this whole electronic communication process is just terrific.
Are the people who are featured in your book mentioning the book at their websites?
GW: Absolutely. One of them had their 60th birthday celebration this last weekend, and sold a bunch of books. They’re definitely doing that. It’s being highly promoted by the stores.
It’s a great book. I have a lot of new places that I have to go visit now.
GW: It’s funny, over the last three or four years as I talk with people about the book, there’s a growing number of people saying, “I’ve got to go see that store.” They’re certainly unique. Like Smokey Mountain Knife Works in Sevierville, Tennessee. Who would think to build a knife store? I’m not into knives; maybe you are. I don’t hunt or fish. The store has been packed whenever I’ve been there.
I like that they’ve given space to a knife museum as well.
GW: Yes, the National Knife Museum is now in their store.
So you could go there just for the sake of going to the museum, right?
GW: I think a lot of people do.
I’m guessing they feel compelled to buy a knife on the way out the door.
What I see is niche things taken to the nth degree. Taking an item and just running with it. What’s interesting about the knife store was that they started off as arrowhead guys.
GW: Yeah, arrowheads and Indian artifacts. They thought that was the way to go. But then all of a sudden people just started buying knives.
That seems to be another theme in your book—the people who are running these stores, they seem to just love selling something. They might start somewhere, but end up in a different area just because their customers dictate it, right?
GW: That’s true. The guy with the knife story is a collector of stuff. His office is filled with collections. It’s just jammed packed with knives and Indian artifacts. There are four or five different collections in there.
I interviewed Matt May recently. We talked about how the human brain is wired to collect and consume. I guess that’s why we’re shoppers. Any other stores you’d particularly recommend?
GW: Do you get to New York City very often?
GW: Go to Zabar’s. It’s the coolest place. It is not like any store anywhere else in the country, because it’s a New York institution. The customers, some of them are crotchety. And the people working there, some of them are crotchety. It’s very interesting to watch all the interactions. It’s a heck of a store. The guy that runs it, he’s got to be 80.
Well, these people love to sell. Given our current economic downturn, people are obviously making do with less, shopping less. Do you see that continuing, or do you think once the economy picks up again that people will get back into their acquiring ways?
GW: I think people will get back into their acquiring ways. If you look at our history as Americans, we have had economic downturns before. And every time we came roaring back and spent more money and acquired more things and improved our lives. That’s the way we’ve always done it. I can’t imagine we’re not going to continue to do it.
So maybe it’s a good time to open a store.
GW: Might be.
You’re not interested in going back into retail?
GW: No, I’m having way too much fun doing what I’m doing now.
George, it’s been great talking with you. I can just tell from your voice that you love this business.
GW: This book was a labor of love. It was absolutely fun to write, fun to research. It’s a great story to tell, I think.
It is a great story. Thank you so much.
Email: george (at) — whalinonretail (dot) com