Favorite books on the history of the retail business
I’m a bit… obsessed with business histories. Abstract business theory often tells clean case studies that don’t reflect the reality of operating a business, and miss the details and accidents that define the products, marketing, and team. I want to know the tactics. And I want to know what made that moment special.
I’ll try to read a memoir from an early employee paired with a founder memoir. Founders tend to write decades later and have repeated the same founding myths so many times that it obscures the truth. For example, I’d pair Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog with Swoosh (1993 history of Nike written by an early employee).
My business history ‘majors’ are venture capital, tech broadly, and retail (for whatever reason). Although I also enjoy reading about hot sauces, Brazilian manufactures, Japanese conglomerates and well, pretty much any weird business.
Below are some of my favorite books on retail:
Sam Walton: Made In America. History of Walmart. A classic. Success in retail can take decades and relentless iteration. Demographics are king, and don’t ignore small markets as a way to build power. Execution and information technology was key to scaling Walmart in the 70’s and 80’s. 5/5
Sol Price Retail Revolutionary & Social Innovator – Fedmart was the most important retail company in the U.S. you haven’t heard of. Fedmart was a wholesale membership for federal employees – with Sol Price blatantly copying the concept from a Los Angeles outlet to San Diego. Sam Walton liked Fedmart so much he copied the name for Walmart. And Jim Sinegal, founder of Costco, trained under Sol Price and blatantly borrowed from Fedmart’s successor Price Club. Nearly all retail concepts are borrowed. 3/5
The Big Store History of Sears written in 1988. Written as a comeback story for how Sears survived crisis, but nearly 30 years later it’s a reminder of how dominance in retail is short lived. Jim Sinegal once said to me: “Everyone complains about competition but it's the best thing for you. If you don’t have competition you will get lazy and you will die. That’s what happened to Sears. No competition. Started raising prices. Quality slipped. And then we clobbered them.” 3/5
Becoming Trader Joe: How I Did Business My Way and Still Beat the Big Guys– one of my favorite business history books ever, and the only book on this list that might make you laugh out loud. The founder has an incredible recall for all the details, and on display is interplay between supply side innovation, employee experience, and customer experience. Lessons on marketing, pricing, and so much more. If you read one book on this, make it this one. 5/5
Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald's. Another classic. Ray Kroc was the ‘second founder’ of McDonald’s, responsible for the McDonald’s we know today. Ray didn’t franchise his first McDonald’s until age 52. An inspiring story of execution and hard work. 5/5
In-N-Out Burger: A Behind-the-Counter Look at the Fast-Food Chain That Breaks All the Rules– a sycophantic history that is largely not worth reading. It’s a good reminder of the importance of demographics: In-N-Out, Carl’s Jr, Taco Bell, and McDonald’s were all founded within 60 miles and ~10 years. 1960s Southern California was a great time for some drive through. In-N-Out is owned by a notoriously secret family, so we’re unlikely to get a better account. 1/5
Copy This!: Lessons from a Hyperactive Dyslexic who Turned a Bright Idea Into One of America's Best Companies. Enjoyable memoir from the founder of Kinko’s – a brand still referenced nearly 15 years after it was officially sunset. Kinko’s was a set of nearly 150 local partnerships that acted like a franchise but gave each location more authority. As a fellow dyslexic, I always enjoying learning how other dyslexics compliment themselves to build on their strengths. 4/5
Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business– the classic book on ‘hospitality’, a customer driven delivery of service. Once you’ve understand Meyer’s hospitality, you’ll think about it everywhere. (I just wish Meyer upheld the same standards at Shake Shack.) 5/5
Be Our Guest: Perfecting the Art of Customer Service. A detailed look at Disney’s customer approach from their leadership institute. The experience starts when your sneaker presses against the ground. The springy, fun push needs to feel different from the concrete parking lot. 3/5
Built from Scratch: How a Couple of Regular Guys Grew The Home Depot from Nothing to $30 Billion One of my favorites. Following Sol Price’s lineage from Fedmart to Walmart to Home Depot – big box hit the hardware store. The original concept was to build it for the pros and make it accessible to everyone. Great details on intentionally scuffing the floors, how to build employee knowledge, and more. 5/5
The Makings of Blockbuster Written in 1997 – I love reading histories that are so clearly out of our time because you get a better look at the assumptions of the era. The Blockbuster’s founder had previously founded Waste Management, a public company, and built it out through significant national acquisition. He used the same techniques to build Blockbuster quickly. 3/5
Made From Scratch: The Legendary Success Story of Texas Roadhouse Written by Texas Roadhouse founder shortly before his death. A lot of great lessons on leadership and managing oneself, but I wish there had been more on the restaurants themselves. Figure out who you are and do that. 4/5
Wild Company: The Untold Story of Banana Republic Fun quick read of stumbling in to the creation of Banana Republic and losing control. Lots of great little details of hustle. 4/5
Let My People Go Surfing Classic memoir from the founder of Patagonia. Great lessons on integrating culture, brand, and values in to your product and company. 4/5.
One Buck At a Time History of Dollar Tree, which like many great retail businesses, was a direct copy of another dollar store concept. The founders of Dollar Tree previously ran a chain of toy stores, developed a direct relationship with suppliers in China, which copied the dollar store concept with superior execution. A great reminder (like Trader Joe’s) on the relationship between supply side innovation and customer experience. 4/5
Is there anything else you think I should read? Shoot me a note.