retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

On Wednesday, I got a request from a friend of mine. A local independent bookstore in my town, Barrett Books, was hosting a Thursday night event to celebrate its 80th birthday - a Battle of the Books.

The premise was this. James Mustich, author of "1000 Books To Read Before You Die," would be hosting a contest of sorts in which five local residents would each have five minutes to talk about a book that he or she loved before an audience of about 100 people. The only caveat was that it had to be a book not on Mustich's list. One of the people who had promised to participate had come down with a health issue and could not make it; would I be interested in pinch hitting?

I'm always happy to help a local and independent retailer, so I agreed … but I only had about 10 minutes to choose a book (and I was not allowed to know what books had been chosen by the other four participants). I had to think fast, and so I chose a book that I love, but also - since I believe in always taking advantage of teaching moments - that I thought would relevant to the evening's events: "Crowning The Customer," by Feargal Quinn.

I thought this morning I would share with you what I said:

"Crowning The Customer," by Feargal Quinn, may seem like an odd choice for an event like this - it is a combination business book and memoir, by someone I'm guessing nobody here ever has heard of. But it struck me when I was asked to do this that this not only is a book that had a profound effect on me, but it was by an author who did as well … and it also is a book that seems highly relevant in terms of what we are doing here tonight.

Feargal Quinn was a remarkable man and being Irish, boy did he know how to tell stories. That comes across in "Crowning The Customer." He was the iconic Irish food retailer, someone who only had two dozen stores at his peak. But those two dozen stores were remarkable, and anyone in food retailing who wanted to be better during the three decades of the 60s, 70s and 80s would travel to Dublin to see what made those stores so compelling, so relevant, and so resonant. (These are different things - relevance appeals to the head, resonance appeals to the heart.)

Feargal would tell people the same thing that he writes in this book - that the key to creating great retail is to put the customer's needs and wants - sometimes even before the customer knows them - at the core of every decision, every strategy, every tactic. In doing so, Feargal created stores that were utterly differentiated for the time, each one reflecting his outsized and joyous personality. You could find him on any given day in any of the store's departments, or packing groceries at the checkouts, or helping shoppers to their cars, all the while charming the adults and entertaining the children.

And when you think about it, this approach to retailing is even more important now when the alternative is a faceless algorithm on the other side of a screen. That's why we are here in this bookshop tonight - not only celebrating an 80th birthday, but also participating in an event designed to differentiate the business and do something that the online competition cannot and will not do.

This relentless and obsessive focus on the customer persisted, by the way, in Feargal's post-retail life, when se served a number of terms in the Irish Senate, and he made his constituents - who are, in fact, customers - at the core of his decisions there. Wouldn't it be nice if that were every politician's approach?

Let me tell you one quick story from the book. Feargal always said that he learned the essence of customer-centricity from his father, who ran a holiday camp in Ireland where families would come for a week or two. People would pay for their visit at the beginning, and there was nothing over the period of their visit that they could pay for - there was no way to upsell them, to get any more money from them. The only way to gauge success was when, as the families left, a parent would say, "Mr. Quinn, we had a grand time, a lovely time, and we'll be coming back next year." Feargal called it "The Boomerang Theory," and said it was the core of his success - working to make sure that every customer leaving the store would at some point return.

Feargal died last April, and I can tell you that it was one of the great pleasures of my life and work that over the years we became friends … and I learned how important his precepts were even in my own business as a writer and speaker about retailing - because it is critical for me to be differentiated, relevant and resonant in a way that brings readers and audiences back again and again. I miss him a lot, but his work and spirit live on in this wonderful book.

My book is "Crowning The Customer," by Feargal Quinn, and I cannot recommend it enough.

The event was great fun, and I'm happy to say that we sold a bunch of books last night. (We also sold a few copies of "The Big Picture: Essential Business Lessons from the Movies," and "Retail Rules!" Yippee!)

It occurred to me during the Battle of the Books that this could be a model for food retailers, who could sponsor and feature recipe contests with customers, even cook-offs that could bring in a crowd. I'm sure there are some retailers out there doing this, but there ought to be a lot more.

I would be remiss if I did not tell you the other books that were discussed, a fascinating mix of fiction and non-fiction, all of which I now want to read:

• "The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains," by Nicholas Carr.
• "A Prayer For Owen Meany," by John Irving.
• "The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America," by George Packer.
• "A Little Life," by Hanya Yanagihara.

I hope that I was able to channel a little Feargal Quinn last night, open a few eyes, and do my thing for an independent retailer. And I hope he'd be proud of me.
KC's View: