A Farewell to Marvin Traub: The Retail Genius Who Changed How You Shop

Bloomingdales shopping bag
Bloomingdales shopping bag

You might never have heard of Marvin Traub, but the former CEO of Bloomingdale's (M), who died this week at 87, forever changed retailing.

Revered by his industry peers as a merchant king, Traub brought a panache and romance to product displays that redefined how retailers merchandise their stores.

Here's five ways he altered the way Americans shop.

1. He Invented 'Retailing as Theater'

During his 41-year career at Bloomingdale's, Traub created what came to be known as "retailing as theater."

In the 1960s, Traub devised the store's fabled country promotions, staging majestic product presentations of everything from fashion and beauty to apparel, curated from around the globe.

It was a tactic unheard of at the time, raising the bar for how retailers showcased their products, while transforming Bloomingdale's into the tony, high-end store it is today.

But the store wasn't always so high brow. Back in 2004, Traub told me a funny story about Bloomie's not-so glamorous beginnings.

It took place during the 1950s, long before his 14-year stint as CEO of the chain, when Traub ran Bloomie's bargain table, selling 49-cent hosiery.

Around that time, Larry Lackman -- later to become CEO of Bloomingdale's -- was at a swanky dinner party in New York.

A woman seated next to him asked what Lackman did for a living. He proudly replied, "'I've just been made treasurer of Bloomingdale's,'" Traub recounted. " 'Very nice,' the woman responded. 'I buy my maids uniforms there.' "

Traub would change that image a decade later, starting with the launch of Bloomingdale's first country promotion in 1960, bringing a new look to the furniture department with the Italian extravaganza, Casa Bella.

Marvin Traub and Lee Traub on January 31, 2010. (Getty Images)
Marvin Traub and Lee Traub on January 31, 2010. (Getty Images)

Those enticing room settings you see today at Crate & Barrel and IKEA that make you want to redecorate your home? You can thank Traub for those.

The elegant and elaborate clothing departments you find in department stores today? The mood lighting and dramatic staging of mannequins decked out in upscale fashions? Those are all reflections of Traub's influence.

2. He Brought Imported Goods to A Mainstream Audience

These days it's commonplace for retailers to pepper their mix with what they market as exoticism, such as Macy's current Brazil store promotion. Pier 1 Imports (PIR) has built its entire store concept on the theme of global finds.

But in 1959, it was Traub -- then vice president of Bloomingdale's home department -- who pioneered the concept of American retail buyers trotting the globe to unearth unique products.

"I developed the system of having whole teams of buyers travel," Traub once told me.

Those sojourns sent his people everywhere, from Scandinavia and Spain to Portugal and Italy, and brought international merchandise back to U.S. shoppers.

So when you shop for mirrors from India or tribal-patterned frames at Pier 1's stores today, credit Traub's inspiration.

3. He Elevated Stores' Marketing Acumen

Traub's marketing prowess not only cemented Bloomingdale's standing as a tony department store, but also shaped the practice of image-making and creating brand buzz among retailers.

Bloomingdales shopping bag
Bloomingdales shopping bag

Traub's store promotions, often launched with big galas attended by famous names, and included over-the-top marketing campaigns.

For the launch of "the "Come to China at Bloomingdale's" promotion in 1980, he created a splash by stocking 14 branch stores with enough food and fashion to serve 11 million shoppers.

He also conceived Bloomingdale's famous designer shopping bags. They featured an ever-changing array of designs by different artists, and became so closely identified by shoppers with the upscale department store, that Bloomingdale's frequently left its name off the bags.

Today, Traub's DNA can be found in Target's (TGT) iconic, trendy advertising -- the quirky television spots and print ads that have burnished the discounter's image as the nation's only mass-merchant couturier.

4. He Mentored Executives Who've Run Retail, Consumer Products Giants

Traub groomed executives who would end up running the nation's biggest retail and consumer products companies. Among those he trained were the now-iconic Millard "Mickey" Drexler, CEO of J.C. Crew and former CEO of the Gap, as well as Andrea Jung, the former longtime chief executive officer of Avon, who was also the beauty company's first female CEO.

Marvin Traub and Ralph Lauren in 1993.  (Getty Images)
Marvin Traub and Ralph Lauren in 1993. (Getty Images)

5. He Helped Create the Cult of the Designer

Traub was a big champion of designers, whose in-store fashion and home shops are now a staple in department stores.

He launched the career of Ralph Lauren, who started out selling ties to the department store, and now markets everything from fashion to home and accessories in Lauren-branded shops.

Indeed, Traub "was a big proponent of the designer shop-in-shop," Warren Shoulberg, publisher and editorial director for Home Textiles Today, and editorial director for Gifts & Decorative Accessories, the home furnishings trade magazines, tells DailyFinance.

"Marvin Traub created, in Bloomingdale's, a world-renowned platform for which talented designers and manufacturers would do anything and everything for an opportunity to play a part," said Mark Cohen, a professor of marketing at Columbia University's business school, who worked with Traub when he was CEO of Lazarus Department stores.

On a personal note, Traub was a trusted source for me over more years covering retail than I'd like to admit. He was one of the most endearing characters, a lovable promoter of retail and self promoter, who was always accessible, ready to offer a wise quote, and always asked how I was doing, imparting a warmth and graciousness with every exchange. He will be missed.

Bye-bye, Marvin.