“Retail Schmetail,” is an odd choice for the title of Sandy Stein’s book, recounting his life, growing up in Milwaukee and the suburbs, and his long career in the world of retail design.
That particular juxtaposition of words is a cultural, vernacular device meant to diminish the first word by teasing it with the second. (Like the dark-humor punchline to an old joke: “Cancer schmancer, as long as you’ve got your health.”)
As Stein recounts in his autobiographical 300-page book, he always had one foot in retail (through his father and uncle – twin brothers – who owned a series of successful pop-and-pop stores in the Milwaukee area) and one foot in design (through his love of 1950s- and ’60s-era American muscle cars, which refined their designs – the lines, the colors, the fins – with each new model year.)
He found his way into the industrial design world via a fascination with Plexiglas signage, which led to a move to the Twin Cities to work with Peter Seitz and InterDesign, and a love of Bauhaus. Stein eventually had his own design firm and was creating store concepts for a retinue of small, local businesses in the pre-mass-merchandising/category-killing era.
He found his métier by understanding early on that retail design was not so much about shapes, colors and finishes as it was a communications device between the store owner and the shopper, understanding the shopper’s needs and aspirations and how to meet them, how to problem-solve, and how to develop a singular brand.
Branding schmanding. Here’s where eyes are rolled. Everyone’s had it up to here with “branding.” But as early as the 1980s, Stein understood, and began tutoring his clients, that if they didn’t stand for something, they stood for nothing. And if all they stood for were lower prices, they would be commoditized out of business, an agonizing trip to bankruptcy court.
More than that, once the Unique Selling Proposition – the “USP” in “Mad Men” lingo – was determined, design could help achieve and support that premise, giving even the smallest retail space a specific identify other than aisles, shelves and boxes, a reason to come into the store and come back to the store.
(There must be a reason why “store” and “story” seem to share a root meaning somewhere in the nether reaches of the development of the English language.)
Stein delved into his boyhood to create a concept for a Mall of the Americas retailer based on the old-time service station of the post-war years. (Why does he call them “service stations” rather than “gas stations”? Stein pumped gas at one of these stations in his high school years. Gas was the commodity. Wiping windows, looking under the hood, checking the tires and generally taking a part in the maintenance of the vehicle was the special sauce – or, if you will, the brand – though proprietors didn’t see it as anything special, simply as something they did. The best branding is natural, not a self-conscious creation.)
For that and many other clients, Stein was a hero. But the author had his own pantheon of heroes, which he lovingly portrays – Steve Jobs, Ken Walker, Charles and Ray Eames, Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore. And he relates a bunch of episodes – what the entertainment world now calls “origin stories” – about the beginnings of American malls, NikeTowns, Apple stores, Costco, Crate & Barrel, Starbucks, Select Comfort mattresses, The Limited, imported cars and Walker’s 01-01-00 branding of the millennium. But he also discusses the demise of Toys “R” Us, CompUSA and the Sony Metreon in San Francisco.
Stein tells his own origin story, about moving to the Twin Cities, the creation of SteinDesign and his emergence as a sought-after speaker. But the book doesn’t only look back. Stein is also a bit of a futurist, talking about likely occurrences as the ever-shifting cultural sands reimagine the consumer dynamic.
Anyone interested in the beginnings of store design as a business profession would like reading this book. So would anyone interested in the development of a relationship between design and retail. And where we’re heading – though that’s a bit of a dice roll. The world these days changes every 90 days. But there’s always some form of retail.
Retail schmetail. Nothing unimportant about it.