EP 168: Talking Shop with Marshall Kay
Guest: Marshall Kay
Topics: Consulting, brick-and-mortar
Chris Ressa 0:00
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 am joined by Marshall Kay Marshall is the founder and CEO of RFID Sherpas, a retail consulting firm. I’m excited for him to be here. Welcome to the show, Marshall.
Marshall Kay 0:33
Thank you. It’s great to be with you today, Chris.
Thanks. So Marshall, why don’t you tell everybody a little bit more about who you are and what you do?
Sure. Thank you. So I am a management consultants have focused on retail for over 20 years. And 15 years ago, I founded a retail consulting firm called RFID Sherpas that helps retailers and brands at any stage of their journey putting to use this interesting technology called RFID stands for radio frequency identification. A lot of what we do is classic retail consulting, I began my management consulting career at at Kearney and then spent some time at a global consultancy called Curt salmon associates before launching RFID Sherpas. I also do advisory work for private equity firms and other firms with a financial stake in retail. And then on top of that, I wear another hat too. I write articles for Forbes, as a member of their global team of retail contributors for forbes.com. There are about 50 of us worldwide.
Excellent. Well, thanks excited for you to be here. What are you working on today? What do you been working on these days?
The better question is What am I not working on these days. So I’m getting pulled in a lot of different directions. Actually, the team, our team at RFID Sherpas is getting pulled in a bunch of different directions, because RFID is all about having a perfect precise view of the inventory in your store. And that, of course, is very relevant to your ability to operate profitably. And so as you can imagine, as the worlds of online and brick and mortar have converged. The need for that is more acute than ever. And so we’re working on projects for some very large companies, one in the wireless and telecommunication space. And we’re working for a very prominent athletic apparel and footwear brand. And we’re working for a large national sporting goods chain and some smaller, smaller businesses to including direct to consumer digitally native. So, you know, really a handful of different projects. And that’s what makes consulting Interesting.
Well, what’s unpack that a little bit, you spend a lot of time in RFID. And you mentioned retailers knowing precisely what’s in their store. So what is RFID?
Great question, you can think of it as a smarter version of the barcode, the barcode needs to be seen to be scanned, it’s called line of sight. And then also with a barcode, you could have five of the same item, all sitting there, each with the same UPC, but the system actually doesn’t have a distinct serial number for each of them. RFID uses radio waves. And so it allows a retailer to take a full inventory of its store in under an hour, in fact, often much quicker than that, the type of inventory count that they typically would only do once a year, because it’s expensive and cumbersome. They can basically have that, that precision, pretty much 365 days of the year. And not only that, it gives them a different a separate view of what’s on the sales floor compared to what’s in the stock room. And that of course is very very helpful to the team working the store to make sure that the sales floor always has out for purchase exactly the products that you would want out and in the right quantities for each of them. And then also the corporate systems, the IT systems, the power so many of the decisions that need to be made by the company that that information is so much cleaner than it ever used to be. So this isn’t common for all types of retail. You know don’t don’t expect this in hardware stores. You know, that’s not where it’s it’s really taken root it’s it’s quickly taken root in stores that sell clothing and footwear, including department stores, mass merchants like Target and Walmart. And it is starting to proliferate into other consumer categories as well.
Do most retailers well, how to retailers? I would assume that most retailers have an idea of what’s in their store and what they’ve sold through. How are they tracking that today? If they’re not using RFID?
What I’ll tell you, and it’s probably best to isolate the discussion right now on retailers that sell clothing or footwear, or both. It’s the easiest for us to, and I think for the listeners to get their head around. There’s a tremendous amount of inaccuracy. It’s persisted. For decades and decades, it’s almost been like a dirty little secret within retail. So when we talk about inventory inaccuracy, we’re not saying that, you might think that you have 10,000 pieces of clothing in the store, but you really only have 9000 pieces of clothing. That’s not what we’re saying. What we’re saying is that at the SKU level, and SKU as you know, stands for SKU or stock keeping unit at the SKU level. So for example, a blue t shirt sold at Banana Republic in size medium men’s t shirt. That’s a SKU. So how many of that blue t shirt is are sitting on the sales floor, how many are in the stock room? Basically, retailers aren’t able to correctly I’ll say estimate, but basically, retailers don’t have a correct view of the precise quantity that’s in the store a surprising number of times. So for every 100 skews, typically a retailer in a clothing business operates with only 60 to 70% accuracy, meaning that too, for 30 to 40 of those skews, the amount in the store of that SKU is different than what the retailer’s systems are telling the retailer it actually has, usually they have less, sometimes they have more.
I can imagine how human error would be involved. But how are the system systems off?
Well, you know, systems are only as good as the data that that are fed into them. And so, you know, in clothing businesses, there are lots of reasons for this. It’s not just error within the store. And that happens. shoplifting is part of the problem. But it’s to say it’s the primary driver is incorrect. Often, what gets sent by the factory and received at the distribution center, and then ultimately arrives in the store isn’t what the retailer had ordered, or believes to be in the carton, so to speak, lots of reasons for this substitution, even theft along the way, all sorts of errors. So by the time an item gets to a store, it isn’t economical for the store, literally to do a piece by piece count of every piece of merchandise that ever gets delivered to it from the distribution center. And so they typically assume that what was supposed to be sent is sent. That doesn’t mean they have no reconciliation, but they don’t do it at the piece level, typically. And then there’s further inventory distortion that happens. Here’s the best way of thinking of it. Chris, when inventory gets sent from a distribution center to a store, it is essentially released into the wild that the retailer loses visibility into exactly what’s in the store at any moment in time. And the store is essentially a black box. That’s been a situation and a challenge for retail for decades. But RFID has solved that problem and harmonized retail where stores and the online business need to work in concert has made this level of precision. Absolutely essential. And I’ll give you an interesting statistic from McKinsey. They do a report every year called the McKinsey Global fashion index. And what they do is they track over 350 publicly traded companies and they looked back as far as 2010. And they and for the McKinsey Global fashion ended index it is not just apparel and footwear and handbags, it’s also watches, luggage and, and things like that. And what they found is in 2010, about 70% of companies were able to generate an economic profit 10 years later, by 2020, only about 30% of publicly traded companies in the space, were able to generate an economic profit. And one of the things that speaks to Chris is that it’s harder and harder to operate profitably in this era of harmonized retail are what some people call the omni channel era. If you don’t know what you have, where it is, and you don’t have the tools to access that inventory efficiently.
You make sense. So in your worlds, are with the consulting you do? Are you consulting retailers? How to onboard an RFID system?
It’s one of the things we do. Sometimes our clients turn to us and say, Hey, we realize we need to upgrade our inventory, accuracy and inventory management capabilities. We know that there are different software solutions out there, there are different types of tags, there are different types of devices and what we call hardware in different ways to do this. What should we be thinking of? How should we be doing it? Which companies should we be buying these things from? And how do we make it happen in a way that is practical and cost effective? And oh, by the way, the payback is typically under 12 months for these investments. And I’ll also tell you, Chris, that this has been a necessary upgrade, and has been on the table for years and years and years. Clothing, businesses, apparel retailers, and several other retailers, who are only starting to think about this now are very late to the game because many of their most successful competitors made these improvements years ago, but it’s been a quiet revolution within retail.
Yeah, it has been quiet, you don’t read a lot about RFID.
And it’s not really it’s not what people think it is either. You know, it’s there’s much more to it, it really does touch every aspect, every facet of a retail enterprise. It’s very cross functional. It really is something that properly belongs on the CEOs desk, or part of their mandate.
It sounds like the you said there’s a 12 month payback typically, or under 12 month under 12 months. Yep. give some context around that. Where are where are people losing the money? So like, where do they get paid back from what areas of the business? Yeah,
typically, in terms of the business case, you are, you’re driving revenue growth, you’re driving what’s called full price sell through, which is the percentage of units you sell, they’re sold at full price or closer to full price, you’re squeezing more dollars into the same number of units. It’s also you’re able to operate your stores with less inventory in each store in your store fleet we’re, we’re often often able to, to look to a benefit of over 10% in terms of getting leaner, which is consistent with what retailers want to do as well. You’re benefiting from speed to customer too, because you’re able to leverage store inventory to fulfill online orders, when and where that makes sense. And reducing the number of orders that get cancelled or turn into split shipments. Because store a can’t find all the items on on its pick list that it needs to pick and pack. And the order gets split amongst multiple stores. And then of course, you’ve heard of something called Papas or dopest, depending on how you pronounce it. I say Bogus. Got it, we can still be friends. I say both is too. But that’s a real winner for for retailers. And for property owners. It drives traffic to the stores. And when you have the ability to know what you have in each store, and the ability to fulfill those orders effectively and quickly. That’s a real winner. Also there’s something called the attachment rate when someone comes into a store to pick something up about 30% of the time they buy something else as well. And that’s what the attachment rate is all about. A key thing I haven’t mentioned is that because retailers who don’t use RFID typically don’t have confidence in their own inventory data, what they end up doing is hiding, both from themselves and from their customers a significant percentage of the inventory that actually is sitting in stores, they basically will have a business rule, saying that unless our system tells us that we’ve got, let’s say, three units of this item in stock, we’re going to act as if we have none. Because we’re not confident that we even have a single one of them. And even if we did, we’re, we’re not confident we could actually find it within the store. And so as a result, you have a significant percentage of your working capital tied up in inventory that isn’t being fully productive for you or for your customers.
Wow. I had no idea about that business rule. So a lot of information there. Let’s take a step back. What? How does RFID actually work? How does it do all these great things that you’re saying you can do?
Got it? Great question. So I’m holding up in front of me, you can probably see on this zoom call what looks like a typical price ticket. This is from Target. This is one of their great private brands called Goodfellow. And it looks just like a regular paper price ticket, except on the inside, it has a microchip, that microchip has all of the products information, and a serial number as well. This microchip within the tag within the price ticket can be read for many feet away, you know, up to 30 feet away. Basically what happens is when employees take an inventory count using a device that looks like a barcode scanner, or mobile barcode scanner, they walk around the floor of the store. And you can have multiple employees doing this at once. And some people say it’s like they are wanting the floor. Basically, the scanner wakes up the microchip inside this ticket and the microchip communicates back it’s information. It’s just, it’s just the license plate number, basically. And on the backend, the system understands what that license plate number represents what the product is its size, color, style, and the serial number two. And so for the employees in the store, This streamlines their work tremendously. Because now the store always has a clear picture of exactly what quantities of that stock keeping unit SKU are on the sales floor, what’s in back stock, so you have a streamlined tool for directing employees to pick from the backroom, what’s truly needed on the sales floor and what’s in not what isn’t needed on the sales floor. Also, you’re eliminating instances where employees are being directed to look for items in the backroom of the store that aren’t even there. The net net the net win for the customer and for the retailer is that stores who use RFID are much better able to have the full range of product on display. So as a customer, when you walk in, you’re more likely to find what you’re looking for to begin with without needing to look for help. And also in the right quantity too. So that’s just one one when it you know if I’m if I’m a real estate professional, I realized that that’s that you live and breathe real estate. And I have real passion. And I’ve devoted a lot of thought and time over the last few years to the intersection between real retail and real estate. And basically, you have a whole bunch of retailers and a couple of retail tenants now who have made this important upgrade. You have a bunch of retail tenants who haven’t, but ought to have made this upgrade years ago. And some of them have already run out of time. Some of them are quickly running out of time. Most property owners number one aren’t even aware of this distinction between smart stores and stores that aren’t smart. Maybe we call them dumb stores, let’s just call them traditional stores aren’t even aware that the distinction exists. But secondly, even if they understand the distinction, have no idea which tenants fall into which camp and, you know, I’ve highlighted some of the benefits to a business and some of the elements of the business case. Also you have the ability to reduce theft and shoplifting. Not yet Just at the exit door in terms of stopping thefts from happening, but there are other ways to reduce overall shrink. And that’s an that’s a cost to the business that’s becoming harder and harder to swallow. There are ways to improve checkout speed using RFID. There are lots of different ways that this benefits the company. And so you have retailers, certainly in the world of clothing, certainly in the mid market, because we know with income disparity and polarization, those who serve those retailers who are more value oriented, aren’t in trouble, because unfortunately, there’s more and more need for those who can offer good good good merchandise said fantastic price points, those on the higher end of the spectrum in terms of luxury, and the bridge category. Those folks are in pretty good shape to in fact, that’s a quite good for some of them. But that whole midmarket, you have a lot of clothing brands and retailers who are quickly running out of time, they already have a lot of pressure on their businesses. And those pressures have been there for a while. Even before inflation, even before the supply chain crisis. These were pressured businesses. And now they’re trying to operate without these critical capabilities. I equate it to like a carbon monoxide leak, in the sense that you don’t know you have a problem until suddenly you’re dead. And that’s what’s going to happen within the next two to three years with certain retail tenants. And it’s, it’s not hard to see who some of those are. And, and there’s not going to be an autopsy apps after when some of them file for Chapter 11. Or completely liquidate you know, people aren’t going to say, ah, they started RFID too late. There won’t be an autopsy, but I assure you, this will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for many retail tenants. Interesting.
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The as we’ve seen, one of the things that is true though, I will say is it’s really hard to take down a retailer look at
Sears, you know, it’s funny, I use that example all the time too.
It’s really hard to take down a retailer
did this will seem like a strange reference, but I’m gonna reference the Simpsons, because what the heck, why not? Okay. homers in the Kwik e Mart and and the and the the owner of pousse says as Homer tries to squish a Twinkie, silly customer, you cannot kill a Twinkie?
Yes, yeah, in the some of the if they you know, some of the retail, obviously, there’s clearly margin to be gained by what you’re talking about from inventory management. A lot of retailers, though, have made this a priority. I have, you know, when you look at I don’t know about RFID. But they talk about inventory management. And one of the things that the one of the things that happened in the pandemic, especially in q4 of 2020, they had less goods to sell. So they were able to maintain margin and sell at full price. And there was a huge benefit and we keep talking about will, will we keep going back to discounting, you know those products because they order too much. And which is always you know, a problem. And, you know, which they didn’t have because they couldn’t get too much. And I think a lot of lessons were, you know, learned through that process, especially in apparel we’ll see, you know, you know, I know I’ve heard some CEOs talk about, you know, they they’re not going to reduce prices back down, they’re going to maintain margin. And that certainly helps with inventory management. You mentioned before that this is really focused, actually, let me back up. The one thing you talked about was the unknown when they get the carton at the store. So the RFID tags RFID tags are they put on at the distribution center,
they’re typically put on at the factory, the factory that produces the merchandise, essentially, is putting on a smarter label, I showed you the example of a ticket. But I also could have shown you an example of a sticker actually like the one I have, right here as well. So basically, these factories are receiving smarter versions of the tickets and labels that they were applying to begin with. So
does that mean, does that solve the problem of not knowing what I get at the store? Or is that even with RFID? Is that still a challenge?
No, basically, RFID provides you with the opportunity to rapidly confirm what you receive, what you receive what you receive, and some brands and retailers are using RFID even in the distribution centers to to validate the contents of a carton when the received to for some of the merchandise. But, but for a retailer. Yeah, you have the ability to understand exactly what receipt what was received at the store. That’s a big win. It’s a huge win.
You mentioned that it’s the real opportunities in apparel and footwear.
or it’s that’s where the most I don’t know how you worded it. How did you born?
Yeah, and sorry, I shouldn’t have interjected so quickly. I apologize. Go tell me how you learned it. apparel and footwear is where RFID took root quickest. And many of the world’s most successful and most prominent brands and retailers of apparel and footwear embraced RFID over a decade ago, when certainly within the last eight to 10 years, some over a decade ago. So let’s talk about Nike, Adidas, Under Armour. Those are the three biggest apparel and footwear, athletic brands, all of whom are tagging virtually all of their apparel and footwear, and increasingly other merchandise as well. You have in specialty apparel. So mono brand pureplay specialty apparel. You have Inditex, that owns Zara, and then other brands, too. You have h&m and Uniqlo owned by fast retailing. All of those companies are using RFID.
Well, let me let me let me get back what I was getting at is you don’t think it’s as necessary or as or we will see this quiet revolution in grocery or hardware you mentioned, you know, it’s not necessarily for the hardware store. What were you trying to get the distinction between apparel and footwear versus that?
Got it? So okay, apparel always made a ton of sense. There were other categories that it’s always been known RFID can add value we’re seeing with consumer electronics, and the wireless category as well. So smartphones, tablets, all related cords, cables, accessories, consumer electronics, not just TVs, ex boxes, stuff like that. Home Goods. So not just the soft Home Goods category is like towels and bedding and linens were targets been doing that for about five years and Walmart has made it a requirement in the US for all of their suppliers, not just of soft Home Goods categories but all home goods categories. There’s tremendous opportunity for RFID to add value there with sporting goods with toys in supermarket It’s and food, and food by food, I include restaurants like QSR. You have exciting stuff going on right now. So you have Chipotle, who recently announced that they’re doing a program with 200 of the restaurants in the Chicago area and a distribution center. I know of another very well known global fast food QSR chain that has ordered 10,000 of these handheld devices. I mean, big programs are being rolled out. And it’s not just those two,
but so you focused on apparel and footwear. And I guess my question is, why is it less important in other areas? Is it harder to do in other other sectors? What’s what you you focus on apparel and footwear? I’m just getting to the why they’re
sure. You know, it’s a great question. And, and it’s, it’s, it’s good to probe there. So with apparel and footwear, you have a lot of SKU diversity, and it’s, it’s been hard to maintain that accuracy, and precision. And also, these are I’ll call them ecosystems where it’s been comparatively easy to, to generate. What to get tagging at source at scale, that’s really what I’m getting at. There are, it’s not as simple to to coordinate with the largest consumer electronics manufacturers in the world who have their own retail businesses to it’s a longer, it’s a different conversation. It’s taken many years, and it’s exciting where we are right now. For for some of these other categories, too, you don’t have the the seasonality that you see with apparel, you don’t have the fashion nature of certain apparel as well. From a price point perspective, Apparel has always made a ton of sense, are we gonna see RFID on a can of soup? Probably not. And, to your point, certain types of product are easier to tag, because of the nature of those products. RFID can be used on items with liquid RFID can be used on items that have a lot of metal, but you just need to be a little more a little more thoughtful in terms of how you tag it, where you tag it, stuff like that. That’s why some of these categories have taken a little bit longer to open up. But But things have really changed in the last 12 months.
So just for everyone has context, why would I probably not see it on a can of soup?
Sure. Number one, you would, you would need a special label. for that. Also, the business problem that you’re trying to solve isn’t necessarily as acute as it is, you might only have to have a two or three have a particular size medium of an article of clothing in a store. And it’s important for that item to be where it needs to be, you know, if it’s on the sales floor on the sales floor needs to be packed up for an order packed up for an order. If you’re dealing with cans of soup. There are other ways to tackle that problem. And, you know, RFID isn’t to hammer in search of nails, meaning like a solution in search of problems, given the price point of the soup. And given the fact that there are other ways to tackle the problem, I wouldn’t expect it and given the fact it’s not the simplest of items to tag. I wouldn’t expect it there. But from a price point perspective, an item doesn’t need to cost more than a can of soup in order for it to make sense to have an RFID tag, for example. It all depends on the business use in the context.
Makes sense? What haven’t we talked about about RFID? That we should?
Great question. I’m just gonna look I scribbled a couple notes before we started. I would say this that retailers certainly in the apparel and footwear space who have been operating their businesses for decades, with SKU level inventory accuracy, hovering in the 60 to 70% range, now have the opportunity to be operating their businesses 365 days a year in the 97 to 99% range. And that isn’t to say that the technology isn’t 100% accurate. It is but there are always factors like was the product tagged for I just said, is the tag, still in good shape, stuff like that, that and human human process considerations. But basically, a number of retailers and consumer businesses made this transition a long time ago. But it never got a lot of attention that this is a step change. When you think about commerce. There once was a time when every business operated just with pen and paper, not with computers, then computers became a thing. And then barcodes were invented, and then became commonplace, then the internet was invented. And then ecommerce became a thing. And then smartphones are RFID for certain segments of retail. And I’ll start first with apparel and footwear has been a game changer on par with that, over time, it will have a very large impact on many other types of retail tenants that a property owner would be interacting with. But that’s the type of change that we’re talking about. And there’s a tremendous thirst for data to power an organization, and machine learning and AI. And all of that is great. I would say y’all, you also need to look at the quality of the data that’s driving your organization.
I don’t like to do this, but I think I’m gonna ask question or the answer to it. It’s as impactful as the smartphone on retail, which is a bold statement. Why do we not read about this in headline news ever?
You know what? That’s a great question. I’ve written a series of articles in Forbes. Many of my articles discuss RFID in one way, shape, or form, some of them don’t. But I’ll tell you, part of it has to do with the fact that RFID got its start in retail in the mid 2000s, when it was first, an initiative that wasn’t about tagging individual pieces of merchandise, but was about just putting a smart sticker on the outside of a pallet containing a bunch of cartons of merchandise, it became a pallet level and carton level initiative or was perceived that way. And the initial program that Walmart rolled out way back then went sideways. So RFID was viewed as a technology. At first that got out of the lab a little too quickly, or was viewed as a supply chain technology about getting stuff from factory to store with greater visibility and accuracy. That’s not really what it was about. RFID has always been an item level proposition. And what was obscured was this very powerful item level proposition. So RFID, there was this, there was this fog. And then the other thing I’ll say is that it probably isn’t viewed as particularly sexy. And so sometimes some of these very, very important enterprise initiatives and programs don’t get the attention they deserve. Because they’re not perceived as buzzworthy or sexy, even though they’re immensely important. You know, the chairman of Nike on Wall Street call call with investors in 2019 said that RFID was giving his company the clearest picture of of their inventory that it’s ever had. And he said RFID was quickly becoming the most important tool in Nikes arsenal to align a customer’s demand with the company’s supply. I’m paraphrasing a bit, but that’s basically what he said. Part of it has to do with whether a journalist believes that their editor will have interest in a story they may they might want to pitch to their editor. I think that factor has worked against RFID for several years, too. So you ask a really good question. There is not a simple answer. I have a couple of
reasons why. But I’ll give you the core answer. Very simple. The answer is the consumer already specs that the retailer knows exactly what’s in the store and how much they have. And the most consumers already thought they’ve already known this for a long time. And the fact that there’s not in they might think there’s like a 5% You know, variability, but the fact that it’s like 30 to 40% variability is the reason is this is already expected, whereas the capabilities of a smartphone and consumers interaction with the store is one was not expected to it is a direct interaction, whereas like RFID is very different. This impacts my experience in the store potentially, right. Much like if I had a touchscreen in the store, that would be that, like, did something you know, in for me, that would be more impactful in my head and therefore, gets more headline news, I think that is the biggest key is that the consumer expects that this is the case already. And I think they’d be with the exception of when you go to the store, and some retailer says they have something online and you get to the store. And it’s not there, with the exception of that. But I think consumers feel in general for their favorite retailers, that that’s the exception, not the rule.
I think consumers would be amazed at the number of retailers who are still operating with I’ll say, versions of technology that really were best suited for the 1990s and haven’t really been, yeah, radically since then. You’d be surprised at the number of retailers who, who don’t have the tools in their stores to allow their store employees to do what’s needed to be done. As the demands have changed.
So consumers might, I wouldn’t, because I’m a business operator. And evolving your tech stack is not easy. And especially if you’ve got 1000s of locations international conflict that that’s just it’s not easy. So I wouldn’t be surprised with that. But I understand your point. Okay, running out of time here. I want to take us to the end of the show. I got three questions for you, Ben. Great. got ready for three? Sure. Okay, question one. What extinct retailer Do you wish would come back from the dead?
Tower Records? Your music guy and I used to love walking through Tower Records.
Do you still listen to records?
Occasionally, not as often as I’d like to?
Do you have a nice record machine?
I don’t. At all. All you need is someone who does.
To share. Question two. What is the last item over $20? You bought in a store? A hockey
for you or your kids? For my daughter? Okay. You’re from Toronto hockey is big. Hockey is big. All right. Last question. Marshall. If you and I were shopping at Target, and I lost you what I’ll when I find you in?
Well, as I said before, I like they’re good fellow brand of private label clothing. And so I guess you’d find me in the menswear section where I’d be looking for a new flannel shirt.
Perfect. Well, Marshall, this has been great. I really appreciate the time. Thank you so much. And let’s stay in touch man.
Sounds great. Thanks for having me, Chris.
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