Twenty-Five Leaders With Expanded Spheres of Influence

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Preparing “best lists” is an American obsession. From the earliest Best Dressed list from Blackwell to ratings of the best universities and hospitals by

Chain Store Age has been a willing, if not sometimes eager, participant in this national frenzy. Annually we recognize the High Performance Retailers and the Entrepreneurs of the Year. Of course, those lists are derived from objective financial criteria.

But we’re not above preparing the subjective list. Next month we will spotlight the winners of our 26th annual Retail Store of the Year design competition. For the last five January issues, the editors of Chain Store Age picked the Rising Stars of Retailing—40 executives under 40 who were changing retailing in the 21st century.

This year we decided to illuminate 25 of the most influential people in retailing, a reprise of a compilation last undertaken in September 1997. Just five of those individuals of a decade ago made this year’s list: Millard “Mickey” Drexler of J. Crew, Howard Schultz of Starbucks, Stan Sheetz of Sheetz, Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com and Steve Burd of Safeway. Only Drexler, who was CEO of Gap in 1997, is working for a different company.

To be selected as an influential, an executive must have a sphere of influence beyond his or her respective organization. That’s the case with Maxine Clark, whose vision and passion for an interactive retail experience for children not only has propelled Build-A-Bear Workshop to international recognition but also has spawned adaptations by other merchants such as Ridemakerz and RobotGalaxy.

Many doubted Internet retailing could successfully sell high-touch products, merchandise such as jewelry and shoes. But Tony Hsieh of Zappos.com has convincingly demonstrated it can be done. In the process he raised the bar for customer service not just for e-retailers but for land-locked retailers as well.

Ten years ago pundits predicted the supercenter onslaught would send the supermarket to retailing’s Boot Hill. Safeway, in particular, was considered vulnerable, as was Food Lion and the rest of the Delhaize America stable of brands. But Steve Burd and Pierre Beckers, respectively, proved there is life in more-focused supermarkets.

Ten years ago Apple was, if not a rotting company, a company with little reason to believe it could have an impact in the computing field or in retailing. Fiscal 1997 produced a second straight year of losses, more than a billion dollars. But Steve Jobs had a plan built around innovative products and stores. He launched the iPod in October 2001, five months after opening the first Apple stores. Shall we say the rest is history? At the end of fiscal 2007 on Sept. 29, Apple had 197 stores with sales of $4.1 billion (27% over 2006) and operating income of $875 million (a 46% increase). Average store revenue: $23.1 million. Sales from iTunes and related services brought in another $2.5 billion. Overall, Apple’s sales hit $24 billion with net income of $3.5 billion.

Regrettably, our list of 25 influentials is populated by few women, the same disappointment of a decade ago. Perhaps it’s a reflection of our selection bias. Perhaps it’s a deeper reflection of the industry’s continuing lapse in elevating women to positions where they can have a real impact on retailing.

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