Know thy Customer

By Carol Tisch Photography by Lori Sax November 30, 2011

Keith Monda - "[CUSTOMERS] EVOLVE AND CHANGE, AND THEIR NEEDS AND THEIR WANTS CHANGE. YOU HAVE TO CONTINUE TO TRY TO ANTICIPATE THEM."Type A executives never really stop working. They channel their energies in new directions, as Keith Monda has done. From 1998 to 2008, Monda led Coach, one of the top fashion accessories companies in the world, from $400 million to $3.5 billion in sales. During his decade-long tenure as president and chief operating officer, Coach reinvented itself from a purveyor of quality handbags with classic styling to a fashion powerhouse setting global trends. Now living most of the year in Sarasota (he and wife Linda summer in New York City), Monda applies his business and leadership skills to philanthropy, both locally and on a national level. We discussed his “retirement job” and asked him to share useful insights for local retailers.


What motivated your move from the business world to philanthropy?

I loved my job, but when you’re the chief operating officer of a fashion company, you’re just devoted to work. I really believe that people who are blessed have an additional obligation to do what they can do to give back. My motivation for retiring was to have a broader impact

on society.


What is the scope of your charitable work?

Our philanthropic stool has three legs: education, conservation and children. Linda and I contribute to the Sarasota food bank and are involved nationally with Feeding America. I’m on the New College board of trustees and, outside of Sarasota, I’m on the Foundation Board of The Ohio State University. I also chair an advisory committee for the executive dean for Arts and Sciences at The Ohio State University, and I’m on the New York board of the Nature Conservancy.


What led to the growth at Coach during your time there?

When I started with Coach, it was relatively small, but had a great reputation. A lot of women really liked it, but it wasn’t a very fashion-oriented company; basically, it sold well-made brown leather bags. Then in ’97 Lew Frankfort, the chairman and CEO, hired Reed Krakoff, the creative director and inspiration behind the new product direction [chic new logo prints and fashion colors] that reinvented the company. They hired me to be the president and chief operating officer, and under my leadership we reinvented the supply chain that allowed us to create this product in a timely manner and to put it into the store environment. The creativity has continued, and Coach has continued to grow.


What are the parallels between Coach and local retailers?

Coach sales are now close to $4 billion, but the approach has always been so incredibly consumer-centric. That is the single most important reason Coach is successful. Small retailers have to try to understand the consumer, because if they don’t, they’re not going to be successful. It’s also important to make your customer feel comfortable.

If you go into a Coach store, you don’t feel pressure to buy. The sales help is there to inform you about what your options are. Everything within the Coach environment, especially the retail environment, is aimed toward that consumer—and not a static perception of the consumer.


How do you keep your perception of the consumer from becoming static?

By anticipating their ever-changing wants and needs. Coach probably interviews more than 100,000 consumers individually a year. They do all kinds of market research, for the U.S. consumer, the Japanese consumer and now the Chinese consumer, because they are different consumers. Whatever the size of your store, know your consumer and know that he or she is not static. They evolve and change, and their needs and their wants change. You have to continue to try to anticipate them.


How can local retailers compete in today’s business climate?

At the end of the day we all struggle with relevance: How do I create a distinctive proposition where I offer some value that my customers can’t get somewhere else? A big part of this is brand building. You have to build a brand image that people are attracted to, even at the local level. Otherwise you’re just selling stuff, and somebody’s going to figure out how to sell it cheaper. If you create a distinctive proposition with an image unique to you, you can continue to grow a business. You have to create a reason for them to come into your shop. It takes time and energy and commitment, and a real desire to provide something special for that consumer.


How would you advise local store owners to approach the Internet?

You ought to provide your customer with a shopping experience no matter what venue she wants. Clearly, there are now additional alternatives, so the market share of brick and mortar will go down over time. But I think brick and mortar will be around forever—women like to shop, they like a store environment if it’s inviting.

Using Coach as an example, even when they see something on the Internet, they’ll copy that page, print it, and bring it into the store because they want to try it on to see how it looks.

To me the Internet is all about creating brand image. Because what you can do on the Internet you can’t do even within your own store environment. Today Coach couldn’t have a store big enough to hold every single product it sells. And it wouldn’t want to, because the store wouldn’t have a point of view any more. But within an electronic environment, you can really do a lot of image development, brand-understanding development, and educate the consumer about the breadth of your offering. Absolutely that’s important. And if people want to buy there, that’s terrific, too.


Any final advice about branding?

Always play within the boundaries of your brand. Local retailers can definitely create store brands. Everybody starts off small. As your brand grows you can expand [the boundaries], but you can’t confuse your consumer. If you do, she’s going to say, well, why do I want to invest in that? It could be something else tomorrow.

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