Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst of the NPD Group, was born for the retail industry; after all, he started working in his father’s store selling sheets and towels in downtown Manhattan at eight years old. This is where Cohen developed skills that he took with him at each step along the way to become the retail analyst to top manufacturers and retailers today.
At the family store, EZRA COHEN Corp, Cohen learned how to merchandise the sales floor, redefine the merchandise and even more importantly, how to size up the shopper. “Learning how to understand what the customer wants and needs was ingrained in me from an early age and has proven to be valuable even now,” said Cohen.
Cohen played team sports through college and was a standout, not just for his long hair, his speed or even his flashy shoes, but also for the way he sized up the competition. He knew when to steal a base or throw behind a runner to catch him off guard. He studied the competition and knew just how to be one step ahead of them. While playing baseball and basketball for American University, Cohen integrated creativity into his game play, much in the way he develops creative strategies for retailers to improve their businesses today.
Timing is (Almost) Everything
Finding ways to do things differently was always Cohen’s key to success, but timing was just as important. On a hot summer day in college, he drove his girlfriend to a Bloomingdale’s opening in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia. Instead of waiting in the sweltering heat of the parking lot, he stepped into the store in hopes of some air conditioning. Upon entry, he was told that only employees and applicants could enter prior to the store opening in a few weeks. This didn’t present a problem; Cohen asked to fill out an application just to wait in the AC, but had no plans to actually interview.
Lo and behold, he was called into an interview room where the head of Bloomingdale’s human resources offered him a job on the spot after hearing about his background in his family’s store. He was assigned a position in what was called Saturday’s Generation, the jean shop inside the men’s area. As a college student, he thought it would be nice to work a couple of nights and fold jeans all while listening to music. While his background working in his family’s store always aligned him with retail, the part time gig at Bloomingdale’s would spark a long road of success.
Making His Mark
In true Cohen fashion, while setting up the store for opening day, he was asked to put together the sweater wall in the men’s department, the premiere focal point as customers entered the area. Having spent his childhood folding towels and making them look eye popping was the prelude to this now legendary sweater wall. Taking all the inventory from the boxes, he folded them to perfection, using a clipboard to ensure that every sweater was exactly the same width (this was before the folding boards of today). The results were striking. Managers from departments all over the store were bringing their teams over to look at this sweater wall to establish a new set of standards for the store.
When then-Bloomingdale’s President Marvin Traub did a walk-through of the store prior to opening day, he stopped in the men’s department and stood for a minute in silence. Nerves were on full alert as everyone waited with bated breath for Traub to speak. “Who did this?” he asked with an alarming sound in his voice. “Who is responsible for this sweater wall?” All heads turned to the long-haired young man standing off to the side by his post in Saturdays’ Generation — and who fully expected to head home in about five minutes. Instead, Traub approached Cohen, extended his hand and said, “This is what Bloomingdale’s is all about! Who are you?”
Cohen then spent the next decade working his way up from part-time salesperson to merchandise manager in men’s, women’s and even children’s — but throughout, only known by Traub as “SG Man” (for Saturday’s Generation). From that sweater wall extraordinaire in Virginia to roller skating contests down the signature “b-way” in the Manhattan store, Cohen made his career as a true merchant. His goal was to make the retail experience “like no other” and instilled that philosophy in others that he trained.
Taking the Next Base
Running out of growth opportunities at Bloomingdale’s after having been promoted so often and at such a young age, Cohen sought to move on from retail. He found his way to working for designer Willi Smith. Once again, Cohen took on the task of reinventing a business and industry by taking Willi Wear from a Junior resource to creating looks to grow with its customer rather than introducing the line to new customers every few years.
He partnered with Norma Kamali, Leon Max and other businesses to create a new department for young women seeking contemporary looks. Utilizing his Bloomingdale’s connections, this group of brands developed the new business of Contemporary Sportswear, “Young East Sider” (YES) at Bloomingdales. Other department stores followed suit, and a whole new market was launched.
Cohen had a few other successes in the manufacturing side of the apparel business, such as president of Stanley Blacker Sportswear and the launch of Adrienne Vittadini men’s and women’s sport, leading him to partner with some colleagues from Bloomingdale’s several years later. This partnership bought out several chains of specialty stores, jewelry, accessories, athletic sportswear and even hosiery stores from coast to coast. This national specialty retail experience in mall-based and urban locations helped round out Cohen’s portfolio and understanding of retail, big and small.
“Retiring at age 40 was tough for me,” Cohen admitted. Selling his marketing company that he founded with his partner and close friend from Bloomingdales, he realized after six months, retirement wasn’t for him. He needed to stay engaged. He formed a marketing company that once again transformed the industry. He created what he called “Brand Extensions” — taking big name brands and building products that were adjacent to the brand’s essence. For example, automobile companies design and build cars, but what do they know about accessories? Cohen would have his team design, build and, for some companies, even distribute their branded products outside of their core business to function as great advertising and create a lifestyle brand rather than a one-dimensional brand. This elevated the brand licensing business to a new level.
Success in the marketing business led Cohen to exploring a new path. Answering an ad in the local paper, Marshal began working for a company, NPD, an amazing data resource. When he started at NPD, he found himself looking at the wealth of information and seeking a better way to collect it and deliver it. Within weeks of accepting this part-time position, he was promoted to the co-president of the apparel division after writing a letter to the CEO that outlined some of his ideas to progress the company. With amazing teamwork, NPD transformed the collection of selling information from mail-in surveys and point-of-sale data to a more 21st century method of utilizing online consumer surveys to learn who the shoppers were, what they bought and how to project it up to represent the entire market.
As the chief industry analyst, Cohen brought NPD to the forefront of retailers and manufacturing through delivering powerful industry data analysis to clients in a digital format. Learning how to take the data and turn it into actionable steps to grow the business became the key to making the data meaningful. So many businesses today use data, but what do they really do with it? Do they learn how to grow their business, what they missed as an opportunity? What more can they do to service their customers? Having the sales data from not only your own business but from the rest of your market and beyond can help one grow their business. Learning how to use data to understand the shifts and opportunities in the market is not as obvious as one would think.
Cohen and his team educated the market through trade shows and the media, appearing frequently on morning shows and business channels. NPD became the standard to report on how the retail industry was performing and the best resource for general merchandise industries. From the Wall Street Journal, The NY Times, CNBC and Bloomberg News, Cohen found a way to help elevate the awareness of successes and opportunities for businesses and investors alike. He has written multiple books on consumer behavior and market research, including “Why Consumers Do What They Do” and “Buy Me! New Ways to Get Consumers to Buy Your Products”. He has given guest lectures at several universities, including the Wharton School of Business at University of Pennsylvania.
Merging and Re-emerging
Today, NPD has partnered with Information Resources Inc. (IRI) to make the consumer picture even more clear by merging its information on general merchandise retail sales with consumer packaged goods, food and beverage.
“Making the retail community smarter with the complete view has become so important today. Just look at how much of an impact retail overall has on consumer spending today,” said Cohen. “As prices elevate at record levels for food and beverage, we find the consumer making trade-offs for general merchandise. Understanding just how much the consumer has changed since pandemic-lifestyle consumption patterns have emerged and are ever evolving remains the key to success.”
Helping clients understand the opportunities so that they can adapt to the challenges of the future has become his latest pathway to success. You will find Cohen mining through the data, working with great teammates, finding storylines and, ever so importantly, speaking in stores to consumers and staff to learn just what works and what does not. Helping clients learn what they need to know and what they don’t know has made Cohen one of the most sought-after researchers in retail.
No one can predict the future in retail, but with the data at hand, an understanding of the consumer and a creative mind, finding growth is a valuable tool all retailers and manufacturers need, making research-based predictions even that much more relevant. How will retail perform, transform and reform as we navigate the next dynamic in retail where 2023 will establish a whole new set of paradigms for businesses and consumers?