Nearly every aspect of the American shopping experience can be traced back to one second-tier city in the Midwest.
The Abercrombie & Fitch headquarters is composed of roughly 16 buildings set among 500 forested acres, which, during a late October visit, explode in fall colors. Security guards at the gate sport crisp blue button-downs from the brand. Banks of scooters let the 2,600 employees zip between meetings held in a series of massive, corrugated metal structures that look a bit like high-fashion barns. The grounds are filled with meandering paths, tree-lined walkways, and even firepits. The entire campus exudes wholesomeness, like a corporate wellness retreat that lasts all year.
“It’s a really lovely place to work,” says Clare Drummond, Abercrombie’s senior global PR manager, as she leads me past the company cafeteria, currently offering quinoa bowls and fresh juice. “We have a big roaring fire every morning, which is very lovely to come into at 7 a.m. There’s a really nice, communal feeling to the buildings.”
The facility has been a hive of activity the last few months, as the company revamped its catalog for the holidays, part of a larger brand refresh. Nearly every aspect of the business happens here, from designing the lines to storing inventory in gigantic warehouses. In one basement, photographers are shooting product images for the website. In another section, designers play with denim, using a bank of washing machines filled with rocks and pebbles in a quest to achieve the perfect fade. In another building, a full-sized mock store is being adjusted, altered, and tested to determine the right way to merchandise the latest collection.
The models in the new catalog were actually photographed in Maine, but pretty much every other aspect of the company is dictated and controlled from this idyllic-looking campus in New Albany, a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. Why, of all the cities across the country, would a multinational fashion brand set down roots in the Rust Belt, in a town best known for Buckeyes football? A second-tier city in the Midwest can seem like a surprising choice until you examine just how deep Columbus’s retail influence runs.
“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.
“A great portion of what you see in a mall or shopping center in the United States was designed or based off of ideas that came from Columbus.”
A series of surprised articles followed in its wake. Drummond, the Abercrombie PR head, captures the national impression of the city’s fashion scene when discussing her move to the city nearly two years ago: “I didn’t think anything of it, because I didn’t know anything about it. When people found out about the move, they asked me, ‘Why?’”
As Drummond and many others discovered, big brands attract lots of talent, one of many factors behind the city’s recent resurgence. “It doesn’t feel like the Midwest,” she says, and like many locals, she gushes about the dining scene, boutiques, and cultural attractions that have blossomed in neighborhoods like the Short North.
The city also happens to be a leader in transportation, market testing, and retail design, guiding the logistics and look of countless stores. The modern American shopping experience owes a lot to a city that has been derisively nicknamed Cow Town, USA.
“A great portion of what you see in a mall or shopping center in the United States was designed or based off of ideas that came from Columbus,” says Aaron Spiess, executive vice president of Big Red Rooster, a local retail design firm. “Folks don’t even know retail design is an industry, and consumers don’t see our names. But we have a big reach.”
Columbus has a history of being underestimated and overlooked. It’s a bit insulting for a city of more than 800,000 people — more than double that of Cleveland or Cincinnati — to almost always include the state name in any reference, as if the speaker may be thinking of a different Columbus, not the 15th biggest city in the country.
A famous cover from Columbus Monthly with the headline “Columbus’s Inferiority Complex: Are We As Weak As We Think We Are?” depicts the city as a scrawny entrant in a bodybuilding contest, surrounded by more buff and exciting metropolises from across the country. During a brief stay to shoot the 1980 film Brubaker, actor Robert Redford dryly noted that Columbus was “into lawn mowers.”
Part of that lack of identity may have to do with the city’s origin story. After Ohio was granted statehood in 1803, leading politicians feuded and bickered so much about the location of the capitol that, to deny any potential favoritism, they created one from thin air. Former hunting grounds at the intersection of a few major rivers were dubbed Columbus in 1812. Both a transportation hub and government center, it was purposely built to be in between other places.
“I’m not sure if the story is true or not, but supposedly, when politicians created Columbus, a few of them went over to a pub in nearby Franklintown,” says McDonald. “They had the land and didn’t have a name. One of the men in the room’s heroes was Columbus, so that’s now they got the name.”
It may be boring, but that location would prove to be fortuitous for a variety of industries. The city’s central position within the Midwest and proximity to the Northeast made it a prime location for factories and warehouses throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as a transport center. Once known as the buggy capital of the country (some even say world), Columbus was also home to the Curtiss-Wright airplane plant during World War II, which attracted skilled labor, which in turn made the area attractive for post-war factories, magnets for local manufacturing jobs.
The city also became a popular test market, the place where Wendy’s hamburgers, Starbucks drinks, and Tide detergent underwent trials to see if they would play to the masses. A 1962 New York Times article, reflecting on the city’s role as as an arbiter of everyday taste, explained this “typical American city often pays no heed to style leaders” and instead charts its own measured, reasonable course. It had become famous for being so average.
Columbus’s biggest asset was that its demographics closely mirrored the rest of the US, according to Shashi Matta, a clinical associate professor of marketing at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. Numerous consumer marketing firms and consultancies, such as Illuminology and Lextant, sprung up to help capture and analyze shopper sentiment.
It had become famous for being so average.
“Columbus does have an advantage in that we’re never out of touch with middle America,” says Joanna Felder, vice president at Chute Gerdeman, a Columbus firm that specializes in retail design and branding. During a conversation at her office in the Brewery District, fresh cookies are laid out on the table. That’s part of the pitch, she says. We’re as sophisticated and savvy as other companies, but we have a direct connection to consumers that keeps our concepts grounded in reality.
“We can actually see how an idea works with a regular customer, not just a New York shopper or tourist,” she explains. “We’re not cluttered with opinions and attitudes in Columbus, so there’s a lot of make-or-break market testing here.”
If innovations that take root in Columbus have a great chance of scaling up nationwide, it makes sense that a pair of retail visionaries who made their mark here in the ’60s and ‘70s would help transform the way Americans shop.
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.
By the mid-’80s, the Limited was selling more women's clothing than any other merchant in the world, including big department stores like Sears and J.C. Penney.
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.
After expanding locally, Wexner took the business public in 1969 and saw unprecedented national success. By the mid-’80s, the Limited was selling more women's clothing than any other merchant in the world, including big department stores like Sears and J.C. Penney. (Like other mall-based fashion brands of its era, the Limited has struggled in the current retail environment. It was spun off of and sold to Sun Capital in 2007, and last week announced it will close all its stores.)
“He was inventing the face of fashion and speciality store retailing,” says Denny Gerdeman, a store design expert who worked with Wexner and would go on to co-found Chute Gerdeman with his wife.
Wexner was, however, careful in how he grew his company.
“He always said be a fast second; pioneers get arrows in their back,” Gerdeman continues. “You can spend a lot of money trying to be that cutting-edge guy. But if you pay attention, learn, and improve, that’s where the big win is.”
Wexner’s data-driven approach would make billions and lead him to institutionalize numerous methods that have become commonplace in the fashion industry. He took regular scouting trips overseas to pick up on European fashion trends and would bring back items to test in select stores before rolling them out nationwide. He was one of the first to move into Asia, acquiring Mast Industries, an importer and contract manufacturer, to quickly produce and ship new product; by 1986, three 747s were crossing the Pacific with Limited merchandise each week.
He astutely acquired new companies, turning around fading old-school firms such as Abercrombie & Fitch, a traditional sporting outfitter that filed bankruptcy in 1976, into one of the country’s largest retailers, or scaling up small businesses, such as Victoria’s Secret, a small San Francisco–based chain, into global powerhouses. At one point, stock analysts had a “Wexner Watch,” waiting to act on the impresario’s next move. He likened himself to Howard Roark, the self-important architect in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, and like Roark, wanted to “do it his way.”
“We test to manage risk,'' he told the New York Times. ''A lot of people in the fashion business shoot in the dark. You can't just decide that purple is going to be big in the fall. Then you're a kamikaze pilot.”
A homegrown titan now worth more than $7.8 billion, Wexner showed Ohioans, and everyone else, that it was possible to grow — and keep — a massive retail company in Columbus. During the early phase of his expansion, Wexner took a map of the United States and a compass and drew a circle showing how much of the country was within a two-hour flight of Columbus. That circle contained 70 percent of the US population.
Wexner’s growing conglomerate became as much about retail design and real estate as it did clothes. Gerdeman, who worked with Wexner on stores for high-profile locations such as Chicago’s Water Tower Place, says the experience was like getting a Ph.D. in store design: “At the time, other stores were traditional, brown and beige. His idea was bright and shiny, polished mirrors, stainless steel, mirrors everywhere, upbeat and up-tempo and cutting-edge all around. Young female baby boomers were on fire to get that merchandise.”
“Retailing is a free form of entertainment.”
As Wexner told him, “Retailing is a free form of entertainment,” and the crowd always needed to be engaged.
“He had an opinion on what he did and didn’t like, and sometimes it was difficult for him to communicate it,” says Gerdeman. “I remember that we rebuilt the Water Tower location of the Limited a couple of times until he was satisfied. As a young designer, I was terrified I was going to lose my job. I’d never seen anybody tear down a store before.”
While Wexner was constructing an empire, an academic at Ohio State University was also challenging the way the fashion industry thought about how stores looked. Alton Doody was a progressive management and business expert who wrote for publications such as the Harvard Business Review, penned an iconic book about Ford Motors called Reinventing the Wheels, and even designed a more “friendly” way to sell caskets. But his most lasting contribution would be melding store design and strategy. In a 1967 article, he predicted e-commerce decades before Amazon, correctly assuming that “central distribution facilities would create an upheaval in mass merchandising.”
Doody found that strategic mandates from the boardroom often weren’t filtering down into retail locations. Retail Planning Associates, his consulting firm, and Management Horizons, where he worked with a variety of OSU professors, took a more holistic approach to fashion retailing, pushing what are in hindsight perhaps obvious lessons for stores.
Shoppers should have an accurate expectation of what to find in a store, be able to find it while there, and also see other things they want on the way to finding the thing they wanted in the first place. In addition, stores should be easy to reorganize when conditions or seasons demand. These might not seem like radical shifts, but they represent a big step beyond the thinking of the department stores and general stores of the time. Propelled forward by Doody’s focus on technology and extensive data collection (the company’s archives contained thousands of photos of vintage store layouts), these ideas became revolutionary.
“There’s a Columbus mafia. We’ll see each other at the airport and think, ‘Who’s going to which pitch meeting?’”
“He was one of the first guys to put the art and science together,” says Gerdeman. “He started sketching out customer journey pathways, how to position things in the store, the walkway for customers. He was all about the journey and was a real pioneer.”
Doody, who would go on to form the Doody Company in 1974, worked with Walmart to create what would become the big-box store model and consulted for Target and Montgomery Ward.
“He worked with all the big players,” says Gerdeman. “He started when some of these concepts were just fledgling. Now, there’s a huge shift in retail strategy, which he predicted, and it’s been fascinating to watch it unfold over time.”
Doody and Wexner’s ideas influenced their own companies but more importantly, inspired other entrepreneurs to build on their ideas.
“About 40 companies spun off of the Doody Company,” says Big Red Rooster exec Spiess. “The fundamental strategy, bridging the business and creative process together, has created a triangle of retail, consulting, and design companies in Columbus, Dayton, and Cincinnati.”
“There’s a Columbus mafia,” says Felder. “We’ll see each other at the airport and think, ‘Who’s going to which pitch meeting?’”
Big Red Rooster has done work for Home Depot and Under Armour and recently designed the Foot Locker flagship in New York’s Herald Square. Fitch, another heavyweight firm (unrelated to Abercrombie & Fitch) with a big office in Columbus, has designed stores for Adidas, Lego, H&M, and the Limited.
Columbus talent hasn’t just shaped the stores inside malls; it’s also set a template for how many modern mall complexes look. On the north edge of Columbus, Easton Town Center appears less like a grid packed with 240 shops and restaurants than a bustling, idyllic retail village.
Orderly streets of stores sport a grab bag of architectural details best described as quaint — one building has “Established in 1999” chiseled into its concrete exterior — and center around a faux train station to form a shopping destination that, with a billion dollars in annual revenue, ranks among the top 30 such centers in the nation. It takes progressive ideas of placemaking, sidewalk culture, and city layout with a focus on walkable, human-scale design revered by urban theorists such as Jane Jacobs and applies it to the retail prerogative. There are even baskets of free umbrellas in entryways that carry the slogan “Easton’s got you covered.”
“More than 25 million people come through here every year,” says Jennifer Peterson, chief executive at Steiner and Associates, which runs the mall. “The secret here is trying to surprise and delight the customer. I don’t think traditional malls are thinking about making the experience as great as it could be.”
Created via a partnership between Leslie Wexner and real estate developer Yaromir Steiner, it’s a classic example of a “fast second.” Inspired by the markets of his native Turkey and the south of France, where he grew up, Steiner had already built one such center in Coconut Grove, Florida. Wexner, who saw malls flounder in the ‘90s, believed he saw a vision of the future of retail and wanted to build his own in Columbus.
Easton has not only become a success but a model, heralded for bringing back urbanism and density in design and studied by developers around the country. It’s also a prime address for higher-end retail, boasting an Apple store, a Nordstorm, and the only Tesla dealership in the state. (Six charging stations can be found among the minivans in the parking lot.)
“If it can work here, it can work anywhere.”
“You could say that the period from 1950 to 1990 was an urban planning aberration,” Steiner told the New York Times. “We are finally correcting all of this.”
In replicating the idea of a walkable small town, Easton has become a community unto itself. Every few blocks, a pocket park or a faux town square where visitors can take yoga classes or shop at regular farmers markets breaks up the stores and restaurants.
“If it can work here, it can work anywhere,” says Peterson.
Everyone else in Columbus’s retail ecosystem seems to agree. Companies like Chute Gerdeman do consumer research at Easton. L Brands, the holding company for Wexner’s different retail brands, often tries out new retail concepts at the mall; lingerie store La Senza and a combination White Barn/Bath & Body Works location just opened there. Executives are excited to see how they perform during the “fall-iday,” Peterson’s term for the seasonal retail rush.
While fancy corporate headquarters and innovative malls may make the case that Columbus is a retail powerhouse, many of the most important aspects of the industry are much less public. Today’s fashion brands and shopping centers rely as much on data and logistics as they do on the latest trends, as Doody predicted. And when it comes to being the back office of the retail world, Columbus has many cities beat.
It starts at Rickenbacker International Airport, a former military base–turned–cargo airport about 15 miles south of the city that presents about as large a continuous plane of concrete as you’ll see east of the Mississippi. This facility, which receives around a dozen flights per week from Hong Kong for L Brands alone, is a key part of the pitch Columbus boosters make when trying to get companies to move here.
Tied to train networks and within striking distance of the entire Midwest and Eastern seaboard, the airport gives operators easy access to major markets. Concentric circles of new warehouse and distribution facilities ring Rickenbacker, and logistics companies and data analysis firms have taken root in town to help move and ship the continuous cargo containers of clothing.
“Ten years from now, will the brands and business models be the same?” asks McDonald. “Probably not. But if we have these businesses and companies here, we’ll be ready to go with whatever works.”
It’s hard to get excited by formerly empty fields filled with glorified storage sheds, even the ones that try to have a sense of humor about the warehouse business; the guard post at the Amazon fulfillment facility, a brown rectangle with angled overhangs, looked like a just-opened box. But in an increasingly fast-paced and digital world of commerce, these connections and delivery strategies are essential.
It’s these seemingly mundane factors, along with all the history and talent in Columbus, that keep many of the large brands in town. With a strong talent base in logistics and distribution, as well as a strategic location that reduces shipping costs, the region becomes a magnet for business.
Gap has a large customer service and distribution presence in the area. Lisa Lowman, senior vice president of design for Abercrombie’s Hollister brand, says the company’s entire operation is located in Columbus; it’s amazing to have so many resources here in town. Jenn McClain, former head of marketing at the Limited, says the same. The company had long-lasting partnerships in town, and with so many cost-saving advantages to working under the same roof and being close to shipping and distribution channels, chose to shut its New York office and bring everyone to Columbus.
“We decided as a company to change the way that we work,” she says. “We thought increasing collaboration and bringing design and production together would help us design the processes that we needed.”
It’s these seemingly mundane factors, along with all the history and talent in Columbus, that keep many of the large brands in town.
It makes sense that former L Brand companies would find a lot to like about a city they’re already comfortable in, but increasingly, other companies are seeking out the same advantages.
Zulily, the Seattle-based retailer, just opened a call center here a few years ago, after opening a distribution center in 2011 near Rickenbacher Airport. Now, it’s slowly building out logistics and operations teams in Ohio. Gwynnie Bee, a plus-size subscription clothing services, also expanded its Columbus distribution center to include customer service positions, while Ascena, a retail group that owns Ann Taylor, Lane Bryant, and Dressbarn, created a shared service center in nearby Pataskala.
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.”
Patrick Sisson is a news editor at Curbed.
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