Unsung merchants

WHEN I READ THAT a retail icon named Nancy Talbot recently died at 89, I figured she must have had something to do with the women’s apparel cataloger/retailer The Talbots. (She did — Talbot and her husband, Rudolph, founded the company.)

So how come I’d never heard of her?

It can’t just be that Talbots was founded a long time ago. Sure, the first Talbots store opened in 1947 and the catalog was started in the early 1950s. But then, I know who Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck were, and they date back to the late 1800s.

Nancy Talbot, who died Aug. 30 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, retired from the company in 1983. It’s a shame that her legacy is not more widely known today, because she and Rudolph were certainly retail pioneers, and they were multichannel before it was trendy.

Maybe the classic clothing company just got too big and too corporate (the Talbots sold it to General Mills in 1973 for $6 million), but nobody today associates Talbots with a real person — one who apparently loved color and had an eye for timeless design.

Will other master merchants be forgotten?

Most of us know the story of Lillian Vernon starting her mail order purse-belt business from her kitchen table using her wedding-gift money in 1951, and how Michael Dell founded his computers direct company from his college dorm room in 1984. Let’s hope these stories and memories of industry legends stay alive to inspire a new generation of merchants and entrepreneurs.

Speaking of merchandisers, Andrea Syverson points out in “Sneak peek merchandising surprises” that more retailers are bringing their product pros into the spotlight. J. Crew’s creative director Jenna Lyons is fast becoming a star in her own right, as everyone wants to know who’s behind the designs that have captivated First Lady Michelle Obama.

Employing — and showcasing — a seasoned and talented merchant is a great competitive advantage to have. Especially now, when marketers need all the help they can get.

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