Racked.com has a great look at how Columbus dominates the retail experience in America (we’ll ignore the “second tier city” cheap shot):
“We’re the middleman behind the industry,” says Kenny McDonald, president and CEO of Columbus 2020, the regional economic development agency. “For everything you need to do well in retail, there are people here who can do that. There’s a big Columbus footprint out there.”
Some of the country’s biggest brands are hometown companies: the Limited empire, now known as L Brands, which currently includes Bath & Body Works, Victoria’s Secret, and Henri Bendel (and used to include Abercrombie & Fitch and Express), as well as other mall giants like DSW. But it took a much-publicized 2012 study that noted the city and its surrounding area employed the third most fashion designers in the country (518), behind perennial powerhouses New York (6,825) and Los Angeles (3,641), to really get the city on the national radar.
Retailing titan Les Wexner’s origin story is discussed:
Leslie Wexner didn’t have the pedigree of a globetrotting retail titan. His initial exposure to the fashion industry was through the store his parents Bella and Harry opened in downtown Columbus in 1951. Like most clothing stores of its time, it sold a little bit of everything: coats, dresses, sportswear. Wexner worked at the store after graduating from Ohio State and credits the experience with teaching him to pay attention to detail and cater to his customers.
Wexner couldn’t figure out why his father worked so hard yet barely turned a profit. During one of his father’s vacations, according to Forbes, Wexner began analyzing the store’s performance, tallying up profits from each item and running through a stack of invoices to see what was and wasn’t selling. He concluded that big-ticket items such as coats, while expensive, didn’t make much money because they didn’t turn over fast enough and lingered on store shelves. All the money came from pants and shirts, which rotated much more quickly. That led Wexner to his breakthrough idea: Create a store that just sells sportswear, which could be quickly stocked and restocked to mirror trends and new ideas in the marketplace, and profits will soar.
Wexner brought his idea to his parents, who felt it was a nonstarter. According to Forbes, his dad actually told him to get a job. Undeterred, Wexner, then 26, took out a $5,000 loan from an aunt and started his own company at the Kingsdale Shopping Center in nearby Upper Arlington. Named the Limited, the store only sold basics like skirts, sweaters, and shirts and proved to be a quick success.
If you’ve spent most of your adult life in Columbus, it can be a bit surprising to visit a mall in other parts of the country. Compared to Easton Town Center, you can be forgiven for feeling like you’ve stepped into a time machine. But that’s temporary – Easton specifically has become the blueprint for the mall experience in America going forward.
The article doesn’t go into the startup scene as much, but clearly the deep seated Columbus competitive advantage in these areas has helped companies like Homage thrive (example: Homage recently took a $10 millon investment from Columbus headquartered Express.)
This all goes beyond the consumer experience, as fashion and retail design are major Columbus job producers and also function to draw talent from other regions.
What Les Wexner has done ultimately sounds very midwestern:
Columbus may have ultimately succeeded by getting the boring stuff right. As shopping has evolved, the game has become as much about the mechanics as the merchandise. Columbus may rightfully be said to excel at retail, which makes fashion possible. Take it from Leslie Wexner himself. Styles may come and go, but good business is forever.
“Do I believe in retail?” he once told Women’s Wear Daily. “Yeah, because for as long as there’s been recorded history, people have gone to the marketplace because they wanted to be with other people. We’re pack animals … whatever it is that will get people to the marketplace will probably benefit rascals like us.”
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