There’s an old saying: Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach. Mark Cohen handily disproves it. He spent decades as a retail executive (his CV includes stints leading Sears, Lazarus and Bradlees), but in 2006, began teaching retail at Columbia Business School. Having closely followed the industry from both its trenches and the ivory tower of academia, Cohen is in a unique position to offer insight into the state of retail.
His observations, more often than not, are clear-eyed and bracingly honest. Speaking about department stores on the latest episode of the Retail Watch podcast, Cohen tells host Warren Shoulberg: “They rested on their laurels—they forgot who they were when they weren’t famous. They allowed their stores to be poorly assorted, … dated, dirty, shoddy [and] unappealing. They had built their bones on great service, and that went by the boards when the bean counters started cutting expense budgets. Department stores really are over and done.”
But it’s not all gloom and doom. Though Cohen readily acknowledges that COVID has gutted segments of the retail business, he also believes it will usher in a new era. “The vacuum that’s been created by retail enterprises that have failed opens up enormous potential for new business to emerge,” he says. “The analogy is a devastating forest fire that wipes out an enormous tract of land that looks like a wasteland for a couple of years—then, lo and behold, up come these new green shoots.”
On this episode of the show, Cohen also weighs in on Amazon’s plans; the endless dance between brick-and-mortar and e-commerce; and why customers tell the truth with their dollars, not their words.