Harry Gordon Selfridge and Ron Johnson: Retail Icons Met with Doubt

Jeremy Piven plays Harry G. Selfridge in the PBS drama “Mr. Selfridge.”

Harry Gordon Selfridge, an icon of the retail industry who founded the world-famous department store Selfridges, will soon come to life on television. “Mr. Selfridge” premieres at the end of this month on PBS and Entourage’s very-own Jeremy Piven will play the American-born retailer. JCPenney’s embattled CEO Ron Johnson will probably watch the show with intrigue and wonder if will he get his own show in a hundred years. Johnson takes inspiration from Selfridges for his JCP vision and while these two men may be separated by history, they have a lot in common.

Both are considered titans of the retail industry and have gone to great lengths to make shopping a pleasure instead of a dreaded chore. Like Selfridge – but for different reasons,  Johnson is facing intense scrutiny as sales at JCP have plunged; coupon-addicted customers bailed after he moved to an everyday pricing scheme. Consequently, loyal and elderly skewing consumers had no incentive to check out the uninspiring merchandise in the dated and deplorable stores which had not been updated since the opening days at Woodstock.

While radical plans to turn JCP into a consortium of branded “shops-within-a-shop” are moving along, sales continue to slide. There was no way Johnson could have manufactured a turnaround in four business quarters. JCP had excessive inventory that needed clearing. Ancient systems were being employed to manage the IT infrastructure. Excessive funds were being spent on promotions. And the company had a bloated workforce. Sounds like the Titanic was ready to sink. Unfortunately, Johnson jumped on when they were ready to hit the iceberg.

As a pioneer of the retail industry with his legendary stints at Target and Apple, Johnson can make JCP work despite his early mistakes. The current “shops” are already performing 20 percent above the rest of the old JCPenney store.  But the board must take the company private in order to give Johnson the time and breathing space needed to execute his vision. Investors are already calling for Johnson’s ouster. But what they fail to understand is that all the talent drawn to JCP because of Johnson and his initiatives will bail.


Harry Gordon Selfridge


The Culture Beat: Grow Up Abercrombie

Abercrombie & Fitch, the iconic teen retailer known for its racy campaigns and cult following, seems to have a lot less customers these days. A variety of factors have contributed to the company’s plunging popularity; weak international markets, premium pricing, and changes in clothing preferences amongst the company’s target demographic. But the Ohio-based retailer woes began when the recession started four years ago. The A&F counter-strategy seems to have involved opening stores overseas where demand was strong enough to mask falling sales at home. Some observers may call that move desperate and in our opinion; it was. What Abercrombie didn’t predict was the high-level of economic volatility around the globe that ensued.

While management has indicated a shift in shortening the development pipeline to pursue fashion trends, it has no desire to make changes to the design team or overall look. We believe this thinking will only compound Abercrombie’s issues.  Essentially, customers are rejecting the uniform look that A&F provides. The company was a hit with consumers because the brand was appealing and it was the “in thing.”  Nobody ever went to Abercrombie because they provided great fashion pieces. Have you been ever to make a clear-cut distinction between their clothing each season?  

A&F lacks versatile clothing options that can be worn with most outfits. Smaller logos and basic staples such as sports blazers or tweed jackets with a hint of Abercrombie style may win people back. In our opinion, the marketing will also have to mature because it lacks innocence and honesty. You can still have “racy” photographs, but ensure some level of elegance is retained.  The billboards evoke the same thing they did years ago; attractive models with ultra-ripped bodies sporting little-to-no clothing. But it is time for the models to cover themselves up or step aside.

Online Launch for Zara Home and Massimo Dutti in U.S.

Starting this October, fast-fashion giant Inditex will launch e-commerce sites for Zara Home and Massimo Dutti in the U.S., according to recent earning reports. The push into North American market and China is being made to counter softer sales in Europe. Inditex is also launching brick-and-mortar stores for the Massimo Dutti brand in Toronto, New-York, and Washington.

An Oasis on 29?

When exiting the core of Reston Town Center, you notice that the surrounding area is well-planned and co-exists in harmony with the aesthetic of the landmark development. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the Mosaic District complex in Fairfax/Merrifield. Situated on the corner of Route 29 and Gallows Road, this sparkling new development is an oasis built in the heart of an industrial wasteland; lined with auto-repair shops, home improvement stores and warehouses. We scoped out the place yesterday. While the urban complex has great potential with an eclectic tenant mix in cookie-cutter Northern Virginia, we found our exiting trip to be painful. The surrounding area needs a considerable amount of investment. Landscaping on Route 29 will require serious attention and some businesses may have to re-locate if Merrifield wants to be the next up-and-coming hot spot.

D.C. Massimo Dutti to Open in November

According to WWD, Spanish-based retailer Massimo Dutti will open their Georgetown location in November. Zara’s older sibling will setup shop at 1220 Wisconsin Avenue. Parent company Inditex finally admits to the exact location after dodging our questions. We can only hope the customer service is better than Zara’s. We personally witnessed a scene at Zara Montgomery Mall.

Customer: “I would like to buy that cologne, but it is on the top-shelf which I cannot reach. Can someone take it down?

Zara Rep: “Are you gonna buy it or not?”

Customer: “Of course, why else would I be asking!”

Tired with American Apparel? Look Overseas!


We were inspired to write this blog post after we asked the Men’s Health Magazine fashion director whether he knew the British retailer River Island. They are rumored to open in NYC next year. Much to our surprise, he claimed that he did not know about them. But he liked what he saw. If you are fed-up with the apparel offerings in this country, check out some options below. Most have very reasonable shipping prices to the states and with one exception (Collette), their price-points will not break the bank account (even after the currency conversion).


Collette: A retailer frequented by the likes of Howard Schultz. Known for its unique offerings that will make you go into some serious debt.


Uniqlo: The Japanese clothing firm set to invade America. Often compared to Gap. Launches an e-commerce this fall for the U.S.


Zara: You may be living in a dark hole if you have not heard of the fast-fashion giant.

Desigual: Spain’s version of Urban Outfitters.

United Kingdom

Asos: This online retailer needs no introduction. They stock hundreds of brands besides their own.

House of Fraser: British version of Nordstroms.

Marks & Spencers: The nations favorite department store.

Next: Popular high-street chain known for trendy looks.

Reiss: Think Calvin Klein, but more sophisticated.

River Island: A cross between Urban Outiftters and Zara.

Credit: M&S