Where are all the merchant leaders?

          Laura Heller

The passing this week of Crate & Barrel's long-time president and CEO Barbara Turf gave me pause and cause for reflection on the changing role of the merchant within a retail organization and the power of teamwork.

Turf joined Crate & Barrel in 1967 and rose through the ranks from part-time saleswoman to CEO following the retirement of Founder Gordon Segal in 2008. In all, she spent 47 years with Crate & Barrel.

Together, she and Segal grew Crate & Barrel from its original incarnation—a bare bones home goods store that displayed hand-picked goods on top of the shipping crates and barrels they arrived in—to an international operation with more than 170 stores and multiple brands.

Today, Crate and Barrel is a privately held company owned by the Otto Group of Hamburg, Germany that specializes in online retail, proving you can teach old dogs and great merchants new tricks. But there seems to be a real shortage of those great and forward thinking merchant leaders in retail today.

Perhaps I'm just getting old and crotchety, but before we chalk this up to a "kids today!" moment, let's review.

Turf and Segal made a great team. His energy and enthusiasm for the home goods sector was infectious. Shoppers felt it when they entered a store and she executed the business side admirably.

At a media event for the chain's first CB2 store in Chicago, Segal was busy pulling placemats off shelves and unrolling table runners, encouraging everyone to feel the woven vinyl material.

"Have you ever?" he asked. And at that time, I hadn't. Segal and his team were among the first to carry what is now a ubiquitous product at a great entry-level price point.  

Whether or not Crate & Barrel can retain that level of merchandising expertise and the kind of enthusiasm that seeps into stores remains to be seen. It is, after all, the brass ring of retail.

Plenty of other venerable retailers are reaching for this ring right now, but lack the proper leadership to give it a leg up. It leaves me wondering if being a great merchant is enough. Being a merchant leader today requires a skill set that is rare in a single executive.

Target is now rudderless following the departure of former CEO Greg Steinhafel. Steinhafel himself was unable to carry his earlier merchandising success as president of Target stores into his role as CEO, and Target's treasure hunt of a shopping experience began falling flat. Shoppers felt it and sales have since suffered. Target's search for a new CEO is proving quite difficult.

JCPenney hired a merchant but failed to execute then CEO Ron Johnson's strategy. Volumes have been written about why (too fast, not tested, too arrogant) but could it be that Johnson would have had a chance of success with a strong partner in the executive suite? After all, he honed his merchandising prowess at Target under Steinhafel and CEO Bob Ulrich to great success. And alongside Steve Jobs he managed to create and execute arguably the most successful retail operation in memory.

Maybe it's not enough to have just a strong merchant or someone who excels at operations. Perhaps this notion of the CEO as a singular source of success is all wrong. Maybe we need a new kind of merchant leader.

Clearly there needs to be chain of command, checks and balances and someone to be the face of an organization. But one individual can hardly fill both roles, not today and not in a large multi-channel organization.  –Laura