Ann Dale

August 5, 2022

What I Wish I Knew On My First Day at The GAP

The Early Days of a Retail Empire or My Life with Mickey Drexler.

Retailing is a mix of art and science - the art of the human experience and the science of business.  Sounds straightforward but striking the right balance is difficult - and essential to healthy growth.

Modern retailing, in my view is using the science to unleash the art.  Knowing your customer deeply, allows for a direct, personal relationship which is enabled by the ability to collect data.  The challenge is there’s too much.  Brilliant curation is the unlock - just as it is when it comes to the product you offer to your customers. 

Today, I work at EDITED on a mission to “Modernize Retail” and transform some of the world's biggest brands.  I’ve seen the pendulum swing from the “art” to the “science” and clearly see the challenges that each end of the spectrum presents.  

The magic is in the middle.   

This is the first installment of a three-part series, “Embrace the Human” based on my career in retail, which has shaped my personal and professional life for the past 25+ years. 

Part One: My Life with Mickey (Not the Mouse)

Although I’ll be talking about Disney in a later piece, this story is about the second most famous Mickey in the world, at least to me.  Mickey Drexler was on my radar when I was in college and he was President of Ann Taylor.  The brand always had the “next perfect thing”, that was new, fresh and with an unexpected twist. Mickey was making amazing stuff happen. 

Fast forward….I had a killer buying job at Bloomingdale’s when I received a call about an opportunity at The Gap.  At the time, it was a business without a winning formula.  When Gap opened in 1969, it was a brilliant idea started by Don Fisher who, as a former collegiate swimmer, couldn’t find Levi’s long enough and slim enough to fit his athlete’s physique.  But, how to get people into his store in 1969 when there were dozens of places selling denim?  Put a record store in the front. Go figure.  

That concept grew until like many, it didn’t.  After 20 years it needed a rescue.  After several failed attempts, Don hired Mickey.  One might be inclined to say the rest is history. It was the beginning of a LOT of hard work, passion, commitment, and vision.  I said yes to the recruiter and Mickey was the first person I met.  When I walked into the interview, I told him no matter what happened, meeting him and having a conversation would have been enough for me.  I could never have imagined what was ahead.

Screen Shot 2022-05-24 at 3.37.14 PM
Marco Verch Photo


"Make Gap Cool"

I got the job, and started as one of 10 merchants he hired to “make Gap cool”.  This was the late 80’s, shortly after Mickey started - the stock price had gone from 75 to 17.  My dad thought I was crazy.  

We started to build.  With a small team and a big vision, the next 12 months were a blur.  We had two designers, so there was a lot of DIY going on but the group effort made things better.  Only the BEST products deserved space in the store because our customers deserved the best  -  in style, quality and hipness, which we delivered at a surprisingly low price.  Each item had to elicit the response, “Wow! I love this, it’s amazing quality and it only costs $xxxxx”.  If it didn’t get that response, it ended up on the floor.  The entire women’s division was composed of fewer than 50 styles.  How we got there would fill a novel.  For now it’s a blog.

Everything we did was to delight our current customers, attract new ones and create a buzz.  Democratizing good design was our mantra and we were the first to execute that as a strategy.  Our narrow assortment allowed us to get incredible pricing – we bought narrow and deep, with no insurance policy but for the high product standards we held.  We built the business doing things that people today wouldn’t dream of doing, but we were right. We knew it all along.

Jackie O

One idea became the “famous Gap twinset." Make the classic “Jackie” style cool.  No longer prim and proper, but subtly hip.  Producing that type of knit was expensive and machinery was owned by small, exclusive knitters.  Acquiring the production was a lesson in supply chain.  We went from buying a few thousand, to a few million, then, when we landed on the front page of the NYT magazine with Sharon Stone wearing the black Gap twinset with a cream Balenciaga silk taffeta full length skirt, it became the new high/low ball-gown. So, we bought even more. Sounds risky, but we built that business by doing things like that - from 500mil to many billions - we made a lot of money along the way. 

That was history – but I’m here to talk about the future.  There was a lot we did that was right in growing that business, and a lot of wisdom in extending our democratization of good design for the whole family in creating Old Navy.  We held our customers in high esteem and ourselves to high standards.  Product was at the center of everything we did, which we delivered in a way that exceeded our customers expectations in design, quality and price.  Value was a conversation we had every day.  This approach is as relevant today as it was back the early 90’s - still the key to the kingdom.  

So, lots of lessons learned from “The Other Mickey”  over these many years - here are my big four:

  1. Curation is key - people are paralyzed by unlimited choice 
  2. Value wins the day - good taste, good style at the right price
  3. Listen to everyone -  including your instinct, and be curious.  It ALWAYS takes a team
  4. Control your destiny with excellent product - never underestimate your customer’s appreciation of good design - and never underestimate your customer, PERIOD

Quotable Mickey

“Data is important, but you have to read it in an emotional way.  If you look at a selling report, there’s an emotional trend to what’s selling. You learn and then edit, edit, edit, because there’s a lot of junk in your head.”

But at the end of the day, my favorite Mickey quote:

“Simplicity is very difficult to achieve - Try to ask someone to make a really good roast chicken.”

I have to say, I make a really good roast chicken.

See you next time for,  Marvin Traub and “The Role of Theater” in retailing (Bloomingdale’s)

Then, My life with “The Other Mickey” (Disney)

 

Ann Dale is the Senior Strategic Sales Executive at EDITED.

 

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