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Thank You Merci

From time to time you meet inspiring people. I have the chance to meet many entrepreneurs coming from very different horizons and with various backgrounds. Although they are all special some of them show world-class expertise and skills. My encounter with Jean-Luc Colonna d’Istria will certainly remain as one of the most inspiring moments of 2013. The marketing director of Merci, the now world-famous concept store of Boulevard Beaumarchais in Paris was kind enough to give me 2 hours of his time on a Saturday to share with me his vision of today’s retail.


The beginnings of Merci and the initial vision

Merci was born in March 2009 from the vision of Marie-France and Bernard Cohen, the founders of Bonpoint. Marie-France’s vision was to gather rather than separate, be it for objects or people. Merci claims to be a place where all kinds of people are mixed to discover a wide range of objects accross a wide range of price. The other leitmotiv of Jean-Luc is that shopping for the sake of shopping is passé. The time is long gone when women spent whole afternoons doing nothing but shopping.

With the “gather rather than separate” motto, the vision is there: assemble different objects and people in one place where the overall experience supersedes the mere act of shopping.


How the vision was translated

Jean-Luc translated this vision into a store. One year was necessary to the birth of this 1500m2 store, the 6 last months being dedicated to the transformation and renovation of this former “papier peint” manufacture. 12 months of hard work with a very high risk of failure. The place is indeed not the most trendy one, the initial investment was high and done almost without help of the banks. The concept store is articulated around one store which realizes 90% pf the revenues of the whole group and 3 restaurants (one tea room, one quick restaurant othe ground floor, and one more classical restaurant in the basement). A team of 60 people is needed this highly complicated business where very different activities are gathered under one umbrella without the possibility to leverage economies of scope (except between the 3 restaurants). Despite this, Merci reached break-even in 2012 thanks to what Jean-Luc depicts as a low-cost cash management strategy.

The baseline of the store is that all products should be equal and that no one should be treated with more privileges. The product is King and “little” money was spent on expensive materials in the store itself. Rather money was spent to recruit outstanding buyers.
The result is an amazing figure of 5000 visitors per day (1 million per year) with almost no seasonnality pattern.


The results

This project reached break-even in 2013 already with 15m€ revenues, i.e. less than 4 years after launch. It is now a profitable project although, Jean-Luc admits, it was a big bet. Upfront investments were huge and this project could not have been launched by entrepreneurs with little money. You had to have deep pockets to allow you such a freedom (which banks don’t like by the way because of the risks associated and the difficulty to predict the future).



Advice for you marketing strategy

Before starting with the lesson learned I’d like to thank Jean-Luc again for his time. My meeting with Enric Ruiz Geli was the highlight of 2012; meeting Jean-Luc will certainly rank high in my 2013 agenda.

The main lesson learned is that you should stick to your initial vision. I was impressed to see how deeply anchored Merci’s vision was and how it could be so clearly articulated by Jean-Luc. I can humbly say that I meet many entrepreneurs but very few of them are able to clearly explain what their vision is and why it is valuable. Entrepreneurs usually start from a need, a small idea, a minor improvement. Seldom do they have a global (and feasible) vision of how life can be changed.

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Dr. Pierre-Nicolas Schwab is the founder of IntoTheMinds. He specializes in e-commerce, retail and logistics. He is also a research fellow in the marketing department of the Free University of Brussels and acts as a coach for several startups and public organizations. He holds a PhD in Marketing, a MBA in Finance, and a MSc in Chemistry. He can be contacted by email, Linkedin or by phone (+32 486 42 79 42)

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