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Hug Your Customers, Embrace Your Data and Have Fun: A Gensler Interview with Jack Mitchell 

As CEO of the Mitchells Family of Stores, which is one of the country’s most respected upper end clothing store chains, Jack Mitchell and members of his third generation family--nine of his family members are actively working at the company--have created a unique business philosophy in which top-tier customer service and strong relationships with your employees are valued above all else. That may seem a bit clichéd at first, but it has helped the Mitchells build a business in which 70 percent of the transactions are conducted at regular price as opposed to at a discount.

Today Jack continues to be very involved in all of Mitchells/Richards/Marshs/Wilkes Bashford endeavors, and along with his team he has pushed the company to use robust data collection to better understand the needs of customers. For example, the company can track every single sale made since 1989 by stock-keeping unit (SKU) number.

A company that prioritizes the needs of people while simultaneously embracing data analysis may seem a bit like an oxymoron, but that’s just one of the qualities that has allowed the Mitchells Family of Stores to be successful in both good times and bad.

Jack will be giving the keynote presentation at the ICSC’s 2011 CenterBuild Conference, for which I am on the planning committee. His presentation will be based on his bestselling book Hug Your Customers. Gensler is also currently working with Jack’s son Russell on the renovation of the Wilkes Bashford department store in San Francisco.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with him about his approach to business, the continued importance of personal customer service…as Jack likes to call it, and the ways design helps reinforce their company values. Our interview continues the conversation about centers of experience—places designed with premiere customer experience at the core—which appears in the latest issue of Dialogue magazine.

MB: Why did your father and mother start Mitchells in 1958?

JM: My dad was a real merchant and entrepreneur, and for many years he was frustrated with his career. He always wanted to have his own business. He was up and down the corporate ladder in New York City and rode trains from Connecticut to Manhattan for over 25 years. He didn’t love the people he was working with or the values they brought to their work, so he finally decided to start a small mom and pop business with three suits, a coffee pot and a dream in an 800 square foot store in Westport, Conn. My Mom hadn’t worked since college, but she managed the books and made the coffee. My grandmother was the first seamstress tailor.

My mom and dad were simply nice and wonderful people, and they believed in the saying “Once a customer always a friend.” That tradition has carried on to this day, and we continue to bring family values such as integrity, pride, hard work and respect into a business setting.

MB: You’re known for the phrases “hug your customer” and “hug your people." You even wrote two books with those titles. Why are those two philosophies so integral to your business?

JM: At first it sounds corny and folksy that we are in the people business and our business stresses “hugging our customers.” This is obviously a metaphor, however often we do literally bear hug our clients. But the feeling behind the sayings is very real and very genuine. We like to personalize our relationships. We meet and greet and talk to customers as if they are our friends or neighbors. We invite them through our front door and strive to develop personal-professional relationships with each and every customer.

When I share our business culture with men – the hugging culture - the concept can be a bit hard to grasp at first, but when I get to the bottom line they are able see the merit in this type of approach. I like the fact that we’re profitable, and I’m proud of it. The loyalty of our customers has helped us be successful in the clothing business, which is very competitive, and we’re probably now the largest family owned independent upper end clothing store in the country.

MB: On the cover of your Hug Your Customers book, Warren Buffet is quoted as saying, "I wish everyone at Berkshire would follow his (your) advice." How is your approach to business applicable to other industries?

JM: I think our approach is imperative for any business that has customers. It’s the great people who will make a difference in the long run as opposed to just a great product. I know Warren invests in companies where he believes in the management of the company, and this makes sense. Wouldn’t you prefer to invest your money or to buy a car from somebody who takes a personal interest in your life and your affairs? The whole idea at the core of our business is to personalize the experience so that it’s fun and exciting for the customer. I know that I want to buy services from people who view me as a real person, so we enable our associates to take a personal interest in each customer.

Most great stores focus on product and price, whereas we focus on customizing customer service and attracting and retaining great employees. It’s not like we don’t have great products. We most certainly do and I’ll put our clothing up against any of our competitors, but what separates us is that we put more of an emphasis on our associates and our customers than many other retailers.

MB: You also believe in the importance of data. How did a company that promotes a customer-centric business philosophy learn to embrace data collection?

JM: We use data to better understand what our customers want and what they prefer to buy and who they are and what they do and what’s important to them. We measure everything. This is a fast moving business, and you have to be able to understand things at a moment’s notice, so by collecting data and understanding what it means for our business allows us to quickly adapt to forces that are outside of our control.

MB: How does the design of a store help you make customers feel welcome and excited to be shopping with you?

JM: The goal is to create an environment that’s exciting for customers and that makes customers feel good and comfortable about the products they are buying. So much has been written about Steve Jobs and how he made Apple products attractive and enticing in addition to being functional.

Retail environments are the same way. We want our products and the environments in which we sell them to convey that sense of aesthetic pleasure. We want the merchandise to be the message within an environment that’s exciting, energetic, and fun to be part of. Our family likes to have fun and to create a fun environment like we do in our own homes. We also don’t want our stores to feel like a museum and have people to be afraid to get close to the merchandise. We want everyone to have a hands-on shopping experience because that way they will end up being happy with their purchase.

The secret to our success is synergy of the passion we have for our people, our associates and customers and our passion for the special products we offer.

Maureen Boyer is co-leader of Gensler’s global retail centers practice and a senior associate in our San Francisco office with over 25 years of experience in design, project management and construction management. Maureen focuses on reinventing and redeveloping retail environments, with a balanced emphasis between architecture and interior design. Through her continuous research of ever-changing consumer behavior and shopping trends, Maureen executes a uniquely customized, integrated multi-channel solution for her clients and their customers. Contact her at maureen_boyer@gensler.com.

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