Using History to Overcome Retail’s Modern-Day Hurdles

The retail industry is in a state of transformation. Thousands of store locations are closing as consumers migrate from brick-and-mortar shopping to e-commerce.

What are the next steps for retailers and the businesses that support them?

Panic? Close up shop? Put in a job application with Amazon?


Instead, today’s entrepreneurs should take a page from Columbus’ rich history of retail innovation, adaptation and profitability. That is, they should look forward, seize opportunities to learn, to try new things, and to avoid being paralyzed by fear of risk or failure.

Adrian Burns
Adrian Burns

This chapter is certainly burning away the undergrowth of old-style retailing, but there will continue to be incredible success stories in the business of selling products to consumers – just as always during times of evolving technology and consumer behaviors.

Central Ohio’s Bold Retail History

Many of the most notable pivots in retailing history happened right here in Central Ohio.

When the Civil War brought mass production to clothes makers, countless small shops went away.

But a man named Simon Lazarus, who had been running a tiny one-room shop in Columbus, seized on that change, adjusted his approach to embrace mass production and went on to grow a business that eventually became Macy’s. F&R Lazarus & Co. changed the landscape of retailing with innovations such as “one low price,” the use of escalators, air conditioning in stores, and the fixing of Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November – thus essentially creating the busiest retail day of the year known as “Black Friday.”

Upheaval threatened the industry again as more Americans began to move to the suburbs, farther away from general merchandisers such as Lazarus. It was a period of struggle for many traditional retailers. But not for Columbus’ Don Casto Sr., who pioneered the concept of strip centers – a large number of stores with a central parking lot – at new suburban shopping centers in Grandview and Whitehall.

While Lazarus had great success in selling just about everything in one giant store, the growth of the strip center and mall concept set the stage for another big change in retail – a more, ahem, “limited,” and thus, more focused, profitable and easily-marketed approach to stores.

Young Leslie Wexner didn’t let fear, risk or the idea of upheaval in the retail industry stop him. He was even willing to break away from his parents’ more traditional store Downtown, which closed soon after The Limited launched, as Wexner’s parents joined him in the new business. Wexner followed his gut, used the knowledge he had already cultivated, and took a stab at something new – and that something became what is now known as L Brands.

Change is Inevitable

So what’s the point? Change in retailing is nothing new. Not even on a scale that we’re seeing today. As technology has changed, and as consumers have evolved, so has the retail industry. I guarantee you that someday there will be yet another upheaval that we can’t yet imagine.

Those left standing when the smoke cleared – or those who emerged as big successes – all moved forward instead of being frozen by fear or risk. With every great change comes great opportunity. But change also brings the need to learn, to discover new trends and approaches, to network with the best of the best – and with the old guard too. You won’t find your blueprint just lying there amid those opportunities for intellectual enrichment, but you’ll be sure to find some of the ingredients in that mix.

And if you’re bright, hard working and a little bit lucky, you might take those pieces and parts and build them into the next success amid a time of great change. Somebody surely will. After all, that’s what Simon Lazarus, Don Casto and Les Wexner did.

Interested in learning more about Central Ohio’s retail climate? Join industry leaders at the Retail Summit, Aug. 9-10.

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