Brunswick Home & Billiards in Chicago, IL with Sandy Stein
Guest: Sandy Stein
Topics: Brunswick Home & Billiards, leadership
Chris Ressa 0:01
This is retail retold the story of how that store ended up in your neighborhood. I’m your host, Chris ReSSA. And I invite you to join my conversation with some of the retail industry’s biggest influencers. This podcast is brought to you by DLC management.
Welcome to retail retold everyone. Today I’m joined by Sandy Stein. Sandy has been in the retail industry for a long time, he spent 45 years on the store design side. today. He’s a contributor on the retail section of Forbes. Sandy is the author of retail SHM retail, which came out in 2014. And he runs retail speak on LinkedIn, excited to be joined by him. Welcome to the show, Sandy.
Sandy Stein 0:48
Thanks, Chris. I’m really excited to be here.
Sandy, you’ve had a long history in retail. I’m excited for you to tell the listeners about it.
Well, I grew up in a retail family in Milwaukee in the 50s. And my father and his identical twin brother were in business their entire lives. And that business started out as a retail store in Milwaukee, which was anything but a brand. It looked a bit more like a garage sale than an actual retail environment. And they were as they referred to them as accidental retailers. They were both merchants and gut. marketing guys never took a marketing class in their life. In fact, neither one of them ever graduated from high school. But they had an idea and they had a wherewithal of selling people about anything. And for 10 years, they sold people about anything. And the store that they sold it in was called jewelry center on the main drag in Milwaukee Wisconsin Avenue. And the store sold everything from the first Japanese radios, to clocks that ran backwards and fake vomit. And I’m not kidding. Everything that was imaginable that they could get in small quantities because they were never buying great volume they would buy and they will sell and it was a curiosity among other things in Milwaukee and it kept two families eating three square meals. And it wasn’t until the end of that 10 year endeavor that the twins evolved from accidental retailers to actual brand builders, when the two of them had a notion about missing piece in Milwaukee retail, in fact, a new niche that didn’t really exist almost anywhere. And they developed a concept called pill and puff, which was the first discount health and beauty aids store in the upper Midwest. And I was at the time in high school and having taken several drafting classes, found myself laying out stores, by bedroom drafting table and becoming key components to what will or what would ultimately become a very successful endeavor for the twins. So I kind of got into this whole retail design thing by accident. But it enabled me to learn as we were going and become kind of the the passion of my life, and ultimately went on to as you said in the intro, a career of 40 plus years of which 34 of those. I had my own retail design firm in the Twin Cities doing work first, locally and then regionally and nationally for national brands and international brands. And that was kind of my my career in a nutshell at least up until I retired about six years ago.
What a long history in retail. What a cool story. We’re going to bring us to the next part of our show. It’s called Clear the air.
Are you ready?
I hope so.
All right, there’s three questions. Question one, when is the last time you tried something for the first time?
Almost every day?
What did you try? Last?
I am in the process of creating a website, which is something I had never done before. And certainly, it’s being augmented by the good people at GoDaddy. And I’d never done that before.
That is That is very cool. That is very cool. All right. Question two. You ready? Sure. What skill Do you not possess that you wish you did?
I am not a great people manager. And you could imagine that that might be an issue when, for four decades, I was hiring and trying to manage people in a young, a service environment. And my passion is design. I love design, I love working with clients. I love the interaction, I love living and learning from them. And my skill set with managing staff was never as good as it could have been, should have been, would have loved it to have been.
What an interesting answer, not one I would have expected. I think the thing that I love the most about that answer is the self awareness. You’re probably better than you think just because you’re self aware of the fact that it’s something you had to work on for your long career, especially as you run an organization, right? I don’t know how big your organization got. But as it gets got bigger, it turns into more of a people management job than it does a design job.
Yes. And that that was was an issue. On average, I think through the 30 some years that we were in that we were in business, the average was probably only about a half dozen people. But we did get up to 20 plus, and at that point, I did have other partners. And it was that that was not the most fun times for me.
But did you end up getting to a point where some of those things you could delegate, right? When you’re an entrepreneur and you start to grow, you can start to delegate the things that aren’t your strongest skill sets?
Absolutely. And I try to bring in complementary people who I could delegate, and sometimes that worked really, really well and other times less well. Sure. But that’s the challenge with any entrepreneur. And sometimes, you know, a few of us have all of the skills you need for all of the time and yet smart ones are able to find their compliments and the kind of complete the checks, checks. All the boxes are.
Yeah, well, thank you for that. That was a that was really interesting answer that I wouldn’t have guessed in a millionaire. So that was insightful. Last question. What is one thing most people agree with that you do not?
One thing most people agree with that I do not there you go take that however you want looked at or at almost flip that around, I tend to be a very positive, optimistic person. And in this time that we’re currently going through I’ve heard a lot from a lot of people about how things are not what they should be. And that is certainly the case. But I’m very optimistic about some of the things that we’ve learned about ourselves about caring about others about the importance of community and a lot of other positive things that have come out of COVID that I believe is going to make us as a people better. And so I flipped your question upside down.
I don’t think you did. Because the way I the way I think about it is if you think that most people think that it is, you know, business is doomed out there and you’re optimistic about the future and the power of community is doing well. Most people agree with this and you don’t agree with them. So Oh, I don’t think he flipped it. I think he answered it perfectly.
Good. Well, thanks. Three, I got did I get three? Right? Off?
There’s no right or wrong?
And what do I get for that?
Stay tuned. Okay, in 2014, you wrote a book, let’s let’s go to your book, interesting title, retail shoe retail, tell us about
what the book is about.
Well, the book was both memoir and business book. And what I had intended to do with it was become a stepping stone from the career that I had to how I wanted to spend the rest of my indefinite semi retirement as I refer to it. And so I wanted to go back and look at the both the career path that I had, and really 100 years of retail America and try to try to get a clue and cues as to things that were happening 100 years ago, and how they ultimately influence things that are happening today. And what could be happening tomorrow was, everything is kind of being reinvented. And so I use both the experiences that I had, working with some wonderful clients, and some really inspiring retail thought leaders. And I kind of bounce back and forth between those stories. And the stories of watching my father and uncle do the things that they were doing. And there’s so much of what they did, in terms of really focusing on their customer, understanding what brands were understanding how good brands should behave, that were seminal in my work, both as a designer, and now as a trend forecaster and writer. And that kind of brings it all forward. So the book is both some funny and I’ve been told funny, amusing stories that are related to the family that are related to my career, and also look at some very real trending that has been going on over the course of the last century, and very much, give clues and give a kind of a roadmap for what’s, what’s happening now and what’s going to happen going forward.
That’s an interesting take this combo family memoir, business book,
it was also one of the first I think the first published book that talked about omni channel that went back to my first writing about it in the late 2000s. The bookstore, I started writing the book in about 2010. And I had already written a couple of articles about this notion of omni channel. So we were a little bit early to that wedding. And that’s part and parcel of some of the things that I was contemplating at the time.
I like how you say, 100 years, and you looked at the past to take a glimpse at the future. And so tell us a bit about
what you think
is going to and where and where those indicators are taking us from a trend perspective.
You know, it’s it’s, it’s really interesting as we, I’ve written a lot of articles about the downfall of the department store. And the fact that that category, that segment, and some of those great merchants of the early 20th century who really started some of those wonderful stores really had a good sense of of what customer experience should be, and how to both meet and exceed people’s expectations, as well as creating a delightful experience. And I think that moving forward? Well, first, I think that if you wanted to put the demise of the 20th century department store in tight capsulation, it would be kind of a commoditization of the people that bought all of those chains and tried to make them efficient, and kind of homogenized them down to the most efficient and price. most efficient and economical way of putting products in a box. They were successful at that, but they lost everything that a lot of those first, great department store merchants we’re doing. And we’re thinking about their about their customers. And that’s true with Marshall Fields in Chicago. It’s true with Dayton’s in Minneapolis, and almost every one of those other regionally based startup department stores that really at their core, had merchants who cared deeply about their customers and really understood what a great customer experience and a lot of great service was about. And moving forward. And looking at what is becoming the modern day department store, at least in my opinion. You look at a company like Target. And everything that they’re doing today is kind of commensurate with what those early department store merchants were doing. By being absolutely fastidiously focus on their customer, in Target speak on their guests. Understanding what they need and anticipating what they want, even before they know they want it. And those things that those stores did back in the day, forgot about in present day, and retailers like Target are doing in spades that are creating incredible return returns on investment and incredible customer experiences.
Really interesting perspective, a lot comes to mind their first thing that comes to mind question, do you think that if department stores didn’t try to scale and they stayed these local brands, that they would be much more successful today?
They’d still be in business. I’m absolutely certain of that. You can, you can see that. And just last week or so another article from came through on the closing of the last Macy’s or one of the downtown Macy’s in Chicago and the comments from some of the people who still Miss Marshall Fields, which Macy’s had taken over in Chicago and kind of neutralized, like all of the other brands that they took over. Those stores had had private label brands that were focused on their customer. They understood the importance of service. They understood that having intelligent people who were didn’t have a job that had a career working those floors, and developing relationships with their customers was everything in terms of loyalty in terms of creating a wonderful experience and bringing people back in year. in and year out, and we identified with those brands almost like they were people like they were family. And I know that in Minneapolis when the Dayton’s family, which is the founding company of target, date, and Hudson, when are Dayton’s store closed as a result of, of federated Macy’s actually buying them and first converting them to Marshall Fields and then becoming Macy Macy’s, that it was like, important people in the city died. And the commentary after those store closing was not unlike reading obituaries, that people that identified with the passage of of time with celebrating weddings and holidays and involved in and the degree to which that brand, that company was ingrained and part of their their their lives. spoke to the the passion that the merchants had that created them, and the mindfulness that they had in maintaining the that experience that made them feel like parts of the family and their communities. These these chains would have endured, had they remained as they were in my opinion.
Wow, that is something you don’t read about often.
I like to take, if I were to unpack that, is it fair to say that? I’ll use one of your words? Is it fair to say that when the stores got aggregated, they lost brand identity? And then they lost their consumer? Is it? Is that a way to unpack it? Pretty simple?
Absolutely. You You You did a You did a wonderful job of that. Yes. Yeah, they lost to the last two they were they lost their connection to their customer. And everything that made that those companies special, got kind of homogenized out, you know,
one of the organizations who has done a fantastic job of brand aggregation but enabled the brands to maintain local has been Kroger. Kroger has banners all over the country they’ve got they bought, pick and save where, you know, in Milwaukee, where you’re from, they own the Kroger banner, they own Ralph’s on the West Coast, they have Harris Teeter in the southeast, yet they’re all branded as they were, they’re not converted to Kroger, which is interesting. There’s a lot there’s a school of thought that says to enhance the Kroger brand, you convert those, and that’s just branding in a branding class. Right. However, there has been this other school of thought that says grocery is so local, that you shouldn’t do that and in Kroger hasn’t, and they’re very successful to the largest grocer in the United States. And I think it’s an interesting distinction, because I hadn’t looked at it that they would have been the department stores of martial fields. And some of the others you mentioned, would have endured, had they not given up their brand identity and and because that was the reason that they lost their consumer. Very interesting and thought provoking. Thank you for sharing that. I guess the one thing I would say that you mentioned that I’m not sure I totally agree on because is the target piece. I’m huge fan of target. But I think that the one thing I think about target, I don’t love the name department store, because because when I think of department store, at least in my head, I’m thinking of this fashion oriented shop.
You know, they’re really focused on essentials, they have fashion they’re bringing in. They’re bringing in more beauty concepts as they partnered with Ulta and they’re doing things like that, but they were built on essentials versus built on fashion. So to me that is a distinction there between them in the traditional department stores. Because fashion has been challenged especially during the pandemic whereas essential All items have been in demand.
I can argue with you, in general in terms of the perception of what a retailer like Target is and was at its roots. That said, Target has become based on just their kind of at least 10, core, home grown brands that have all reached a billion dollar. Oh, it’s fantastically. And I know, in, I would have never imagined three to five years ago that I would find myself in Target buying most of my clothes. And that has happened, and perhaps, in part to the fact that maybe I don’t have the same kinds of fashion needs. But yeah,
maybe that’s the case. I the way, the way I would characterize it is I think the difference is Target’s done an incredible job. I’m enamored by target, I think they’re amazing. I love their app, their omni channel, I talk about it all the time. It’s incredible. And they have all these different departments. But they’re rooted in the essentials. And they ventured into these other categories, and they’ve done a fantastic job with growing these brands, whereas the department stores were rooted in fashion.
That’s true. That’s not that’s undeniable. And it’s same time those department stores back in the day, you could buy anything from, you know, the bedroom set to electronic equipment that evolved since been, you know, realigned with the specialty retailers like you know, Best Buy and furniture retailers like Rh and Crate and Barrel. And so the true department store, which we’ve really lost track of is a, an entity that’s gone, because even the few remaining department stores that are barely hanging on, you’re not going to buy a bedroom set at in all likelihood. And, you know, the days of being able to get a Craftsman tool at Sears is, you know, a story that somebody will tell their grandchildren about. So, yeah, you’re you’re right.
We’re gonna get to the story in one second, I want to save enough time for that. Before we get there. One last question. If you were to sum up, where’s the future of retail going? You are optimistic. Tell me why you’re optimistic about the future of retail.
I’m optimistic about the future of retail because I think on one hand, it’s probably never been a better time. For a really well curated and focus niche, retailer, concept. People person group to, to watch retail, the the cost of getting in the game has never been so low. And there’s, you know, there’s a whole segment of, of future retail that’s going to come from, you know, entrepreneurs, millennials that want to make a job rather than take a job and the ability to work with some of the marketplaces like Spotify or you know, Amazon or any number of other marketplaces is, is there. So launching and creating niches, segments sectors within sectors is going to be a very strong and fertile area. In in in the future. And the other reason I’m I’m very optimistic is that we have new needs and we have new opportunities that are, you know, confronted, confronting us, you know, every day as we age as well. Wellness is becoming something that we’re more mindful about. That we’re we’ve kind of taken control over a lot of things that we used to give control over to doctors and lawyers and people who were quote unquote, taking care of us who didn’t. Well. So there’s lots of opportunities out there for the future of, of retailing, as it becomes far more personal and individual will
end that piece on that note, that was great. I want to move to the story. You are involved in so many stores opening over the course of your history, you’ve designed so many stores in the country. Tell me about one that’s near and dear to your heart. We’re going to Chicago Illinois, what is the what is the name of the store?
I had a backup a little bit I had a wonderful relationship with the Brunswick brand based out of out of Illinois, the parent company of Brunswick bowling and billiards and Life Fitness as a division that they own. They were they are the biggest boat manufacturers with their all of their boating lines, but I had starting in the late 90s. But 1999 I was asked to come and interview with the corporation with the Brunswick billiards Corporation, based in actually a very small town in Wisconsin, and I was being interviewed for a what ultimately became a store in store concept. They were as a as a manufacturer of billiards. They were connected to a whole lot of small independent retailers throughout throughout the country. And their brand was being commoditized in a lot of these retail stores by small, often family owned sometimes multigenerational companies that would have a Brunswick Line and then number of other lower price lines and they would often use one to sell the other. And meanwhile, these beautiful Brunswick products were kind of getting lost in the shuffle. And when I was first being interviewed by the then president by the name of John Stransky, he asked me what I thought of retailers stacking, built billiard tables on top of one another in order to get more of them into this store. And I paused for a minute and I said, you know, I was with my father in law this past weekend at a Lexus dealership, and I didn’t see the left side stacked on top of one another. And he laughed. That first meeting led to my firm designing a store within store concept, where we would take over about a third of these retailers, independent retail stores, and I and created a concept that really was brand centric, and manage the the experience. One of the first things that we help Brunswick understand is that they weren’t selling a big guy toy thing, they were selling a large piece of furniture, and that the decision maker was the better half of the relationship with a woman and that if they wanted to really get that sale done, that space had to look very much different than it did. It had to be about style. It had to be about home decorating and we created a concept store within store that was very much about style and very much about the various interior design idioms that the tables were being styled to. And we created. room settings in warehouse says photograph those room settings and created floor to ceiling, theatrical scrims that we lit that were really lovely rooms featuring the tables. Wow Brunswick was selling,
how big are these, these that How big was this location,
four feet wide, 10 feet tall,
the whole store the whole store, how big was the the stores,
the spaces within the stores were in their area 1500 to 2000 square feet and a store that might have been eight or 10,000 square feet. And so we were controlling the entire brand experience. So everything that the customer would see feel and touch within that brands, Brunswick area, help them to make a decision made the the the selling process more user friendly, began to answer the top questions that a customer might have about choice making within the segment. And more than anything really elevated the tables to the beautiful pieces of furniture that they were. And it became the go to place within these stores. And every one of the stores that adapted to it really did very, very well. At some point. It was also becoming apparent that the rest of those stores the other two thirds that Brunswick didn’t control really kind of compromise their brand because they remained looking as badly as they did before we improved a third of them.
So let’s go back to this one in Chicago for a second. So
that store in Chicago was the first store that we controlled, where Brunswick was the only brand and were the entire customer experience, including products that were not specific Brunswick design, like the bar is barstools gifts for home homes, gifts for people that were going to a other assessories that related to entertainment home entertainment. The home game room, we created a concept around that that was as well branded and as brand centric to the Brunswick brand. As the store within store concept was what made this particularly interesting and fun for me is the idea of the pure branded. Brunswick Coleman billiard was one that I brought to the president after we had done the the store in store concept. And while he thought the idea was a good one, he didn’t think he could sell it to corporate. And I took it upon myself and my staff over the course of a year to write a business plan. do the due diligence in terms of numbers and in terms of of product skews and in terms of the entire customer experience and presented him with a package that he could take to the chairman at the time of Brunswick and sell the concept that got the project funded that enabled us to open the first Brunswick branded complete experience called at the time browser Chrome and billiard in Chicago, Illinois.
What what time period was this? When was this?
This was the first the store opened in 2003. We started talking about it in 2001. One of the seminal meetings that took place between myself and John Stransky and a gentleman by the name of Brent Hutton, who I brought into kind of run the concept took place on 911. Wow, yeah, we were Brent was coming from Indiana. I was coming from the Twin Cities and I was flying into was midway. And as the plane was taxing, I opened my phone Brent said, our, our plans may have changed the towers in New York were just hit by an airplane. By the time I got off that plane, I saw what would never want to be seen again, all these people huddling around the video monitors in terror watching the world change. But we found the last rental car out of out of Midway, drove to the Brunswick Corporation and had a meeting talking about how we were going to put this concept together and within about a year, the first store open.
Thank you for sharing, I want to make sure that we the listeners understand what the store is. So Brunswick home and billiard is at about a 10,000 square foot store with many stores inside all centered around the entertainment of the home. More specifically billiards. Each one of these little stores is a separate brand.
This, this stores were one single brand, and it was all and it was all Brunswick, but they were divided into the billiards and into other home furnishings related to entertainment. And they included non Brunswick product that was selected and curated and displayed in ways that we believed were best in category display. And that way, we were controlling the customer experience. And as I had one said to most of my retail clients controlling or utilizing design to control the bottom line that design is about selling and is about empowering customers to understand choice making and to yield a predictable outcome customer visits of the store
I love that line using design and control the bottom line that is
a great line.
One of the things one of my biggest takeaway from this was just seeing through the vision, the grit and determination, I don’t hear many design firms putting this entire package together that you you did you are part real estate broker part corporate real estate professional part designer, cart part analysts all in one in an effort to try to get this concept launched and without that, we might not have had that store in Chicago and that is a pretty cool story. And thank you for sharing that
and thank you for putting it in such a nice way
is the store still around today?
It is not it is not regrettably things change different. It it it served multiple purposes. And in fact, there were there were many more of them that that that opened around the country and they immediately became the best generating stores for Brunswick. As new Heads of divisions come and go. Different emphasis is different things become emphasize money becomes available in different places. And you know the drill. But that was it was a 10 year relationship for myself and my firm with a company and we had a lot of great successes with them. And it ultimately opened the door to us, us being the firm to be working in other Brunswick divisions including bowling and Life Fitness.
Fantastic. Ah, last part of the show
is called retail wisdom.
Are you ready?
I hope so. All right. Three questions. Question one. What extinct retailer Do you wish would come back from the dead
that’s a good one. Hello,
I don’t remember them were they and was
a boy a merchant out of Great Britain and opened many many stores was ultimately bought out by IKEA. But back in the day they were a very design focus New York retailer of furniture and furnishing accessories. And it was as close to we is as close as we might have to Crate and Barrel as an example. But Conrad’s was, was a store then I would it take a trip to New York just to just just to to visit. And it’s great one.
Sec. Second question. What is the last
item over $20
that you purchased in the store?
A last item over $20 that I purchased in a store was a furnace humidifier. The old trying to find a plumber to install for under $800 only paid $175 for the humidifier.
Where did you get that item?
Lowe’s. All right. Last question. Sandy, if you and I went shopping at Target and I lost you what I would I find you in you’d find
me in their ruts exercise product area. They’re their homegrown brand, which is done incredibly well. And in fact, I just wrote about this morning when I did a piece for for Forbes that has been a go to for me while we were all you know in our rest sweats over the last last year. So
that’s that’s the aisle you would find me in I guess we wouldn’t be getting lost. Yeah. All right, Sandy, this was great. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
Thank you Chris. It was an honor and a delight to spend some time with you and your your listeners.
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