Blog / Jun. 16

Attics of My (Retail) Life: What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

Dave Bruno

As I made my way up the coast of California for a long late-May weekend in San Francisco, a couple of random thoughts crossed my mind as my flight prepared to land in the City by the Bay:

  •  “Long Strange Trip,” the highly anticipated documentary about San Francisco legends The Grateful Dead, was due to be released in just a few days, and despite not being a true Deadhead, I was excited to binge on the four-hour epic.
  • It dawned on me that June 16th would mark the 25th anniversary of the day I began my career in retail technology.

I have to admit, I was trippin’: the anniversary had snuck up on me. Lately, whenever people ask me how long I have been in this business, I always “round up” my answer to an even 25. So actually facing that milestone made me feel like I have been on this road for far more than 25 years.

I gotta say, that’s heavy, man.

I took advantage of the relative quiet of the airplane to do what any self-respecting wannabe Deadhead would do, and I reflected. I took a look back on my own long, strange trip in retail technology…

Shakedown Street: Comeuppance for a Cocky Kid

I will never forget the morning of June 16, 1992 when I walked into the offices of GERS Retail Systems for the first time. Decidedly ready to begin my career anew, I was nervous, to be sure, but I definitely wasn’t a square. In fact, I was even perhaps a little bit cocky.

The classified ad I answered (remember those?) said they were looking for retail managers to use their experience to design “retail systems of the future.” And, no lie, I was pumped. I mean, how hard could that be, right? I had been working in retail since I was 14 years old, and by June of 1992 I figured I knew more about retail than most people had forgotten. You dig?

Oh, how wrong I was.

New Speedway Boogie: The Internet Quickly Changes Everything

Everything I thought I knew about retail was about to become irrelevant…the pits.

Because mere months before I started at GERS, Tim Berners Lee made the first web browser publicly available as a service on the Internet. At the time, I didn’t pay any attention to Lee or his “internet” for that matter. HTTP was a drag…built for programmers, and I was a designer cat!

Soon, however (and forever more), I would pay LOTS of attention to that internet thing. Because three short years later, Amazon sold its first book online and a broken laser pointer became the first item sold on eBay. Then, in 1998, Stanford graduate students Larry Page and Sergey Brin created a software program that they claimed made internet searches easier and better.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Unbroken Chain: Retail’s Constantly Shifting Sands

The history of the internet in retail is, of course, intertwined with my own personal history. When I started at GERS, in an attempt to make some scratch, I started designing distribution lines on a purchase order. Less than ten years later, I was designing customer order lines on an online order.

The retail business model was evolving at an unprecedented pace. eCommerce quickly became multi-channel commerce. Multi-channel commerce became cross-channel commerce. Cross-channel became omni-channel. And omni-channel became, well, retail.

As technologists, we tried not to flip our wigs as we worked to stay ahead of this relentlessly shifting market. We built eCommerce technology, and then we added mobile apps. Soon thereafter we created technology to embrace other new channels as they emerged, and then we created technology to connect those channels that persisted. We created technology to make the web experience more like the store experience.

Then one day we realized we needed to invent technology to make the store experience more like the web experience. And we set to work on that task.

Except this time, technology alone wasn’t enough.

Hard to Handle: Experiences Must Evolve

Experiences – as well as technology – had to evolve in order to differentiate the store from the digital channels. And as an industry, we were slow to adapt. We just didn’t take full advantage of all those stores…all those built-in outposts of differentiation. In the eyes of the shopper, store visits became largely unnecessary. We had inadvertently created an opportunity for the digital giants to eat our lunch.

And now they are feasting.

In the last few years, more and more retailers have closed more and more stores. Sure, costs have been saved, but at what cost?

Every store we close is competitive territory that we expose to Amazon. And in turn, Amazon spends literally billions every year capturing more and more of that exposed territory.

For many, sadly, it has been a losing battle from the start. In short, it’s been a total drag.

Promised Land: Stores Amazon Can’t Beat

But there have also emerged many retailers whose stores are seemingly impervious to Amazon’s advances. Stores that deliver experiences that can’t be easily duplicated online. National chains like Ross Stores and their off-price treasure hunts are thriving. As are many one-store enterprises as well. Local stores like Encinitas Hydroponics and their super-powered earthworm tea have created compelling experiences that keep Amazon at bay.

My long tenure in the industry has taught me to take note of retail successes of all sizes, because if you pay close attention, there are always valuable lessons to be learned, even from the smallest of mom-and-pop retailers.

And so it was with this mindset that I stumbled upon Chocolate Covered during my recent weekend in San Francisco. And I do mean stumbled upon it. To be honest, I almost didn’t even see the place. Not because of any illicit activities typical of the Grateful Dead (and other hippies in the City by the Bay), but because their storefront is tiny – really tiny. The store can’t be more than 800 square feet. Nonetheless, there remains plenty of room for their star attraction: chocolate. The two long (okay not really long, but long…ish) walls are lined with chocolates, from top to bottom. Somehow this tiny little shop manages to house thousands of chocolate bars from countries all across the globe.

A Long Strange Trip to Chocolate-Covered Heaven
The tiny storefront of Chocolate Covered (Photo Courtesy Janice Marie Foote

It’s totally outta sight. My friends and I were in sweet-tooth heaven.

Candyman: Jack (or is it Jerry?) Casts a Magical Spell

At that point, however, we didn’t know how much trouble our (sweet) teeth were in, because we hadn’t yet met Jack, the proprietor, who in addition to running this tiny store, also – I swear – happens to look a lot like Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead.

Despite being nearly dumbfounded by choice, we began exploring all those chocolates in earnest. And as each of us in turn would pause to inspect a particular bar that caught our eye, Jack would bellow from the checkstand in back to tell the tale of each bar. Jack was one righteous chocolate seller. He knew the country of origin, the growers, the chocolate makers, and the ingredients. And he knew how those ingredients would taste when combined together in each one of those 800 varieties.

A Long, Strange Trip with Jerry and Jack
Proprietor Jack and Jerry Garcia: separated at birth?

Jack knew when a chocolate came from a bean-to-bar company. He knew which bars were vegan and which were made of camel’s milk (yes, camel’s milk). He told us stories of the chocolate makers themselves, including one who abandoned his life as a monk to make beautiful chocolate truffles that Jack has now been selling for almost 20 years.

As he spoke, we were transported from this Noe Valley neighborhood shop to the mountains of Brazil. We traveled from a fig tree grove in Italy to a monastery in Spain, and we visited a 200-year old chocolate factory in Paris.

Our taste buds were tantalized by Jack’s magical spells (also reminding me of Jerry Garcia, albeit a spellcaster of a different sort). And as he talked, we bought, and as we walked out of Jack’s store, we all realized that we had spent more money on chocolate than we ever had before.

Our collective sweet tooth had been sated, and in the process Jack had taught me a valuable lesson.

Here Comes Sunshine: I Can’t Wait ‘til Tomorrow

So, what did I learn from Jack that day, as I approached my 25th anniversary in this business? I learned that differentiating from Amazon is not only possible – it’s exciting. And I also learned that it doesn’t always take a village. Sometimes all it takes is passion, expertise and 800 square feet. And finally, I learned that even after 25 years in retail technology, from GERS to Escalate to RedPrairie to JDA to Aptos, I feel so lucky to be right here, in this time, in this place, as together we embark on a journey to reinvent retail once again.

And as Jerry Garcia himself might have said, I can’t wait to see what a long, strange trip it will be.