Saturday, November 28, 2020

53 Days to A Fresh Start: The Loss of a Retail Entrepreneur, Tony Hsieh of Zappos

 Sometimes news of the day jumps right off the page or screen and stops you in your tracks.

I was cleaning up some emails Saturday when an item from our neighborhood news service froze me—“Tech Entrepreneur Tony Hsieh, 46, Dies From Injuries In CT Mansion Fire.” 

Thirteen years ago Hsieh (pronounced shay) graced the cover of Chain Store Age’s December issue dedicated to Retail Entrepreneurs of the Year. Hsieh was the primary force behind, a revolutionary online shoe and apparel retailer founded in 1999. He retired as CEO of Zappos in August. Amazon acquired Zappos in 2009. 

When Hsieh took control of the company in 2000, it had sales of $1.6 million. By 2006 sales hit $597 million. Sales today exceed $1 billion. 

Hsieh made online shoe buying a no-risk endeavor. Shipping to and from Zappos was free. To insure fit, customers could get without fear multiple sizes of the shoe they sought and simply return the unwanted ones.

As I leaf through pages of bound volumes of Chain Store Age when researching stories on the retail industry I come across many companies that, sadly, have succumbed to competition or, this year, the malignant forces of COVID-19. The loss of Hsieh, however, struck a more personal note.

The New York Times obituary provided a flavorful review of Hsieh’s management style ( Not surprisingly, I prefer the profile senior editor Connie Robbins Gentry wrote. Here are some excerpts:

“If you visit the Zappos headquarters in Henderson, Nev., chances are you wouldn’t find Hsieh sitting behind a desk in the corner office. More likely, he would be at the karaoke machine in the cafeteria participating in a Zappos Idol moment … Performing is not a prerequisite for employment, but a passion for having fun is the unwritten requirement in everyone’s job description … ‘We actually want people who like to have fun and be a little weird at times.’” 

“In the world of e-commerce, the next step for customer service, suggested Hsieh, is for the retailers to help its customers feel a personal, emotional connection with the company.

“‘That connection is hard to make when it’s next to impossible to find a phone number on most Web sites,’ he added.

“The Zappos phone number is on the top left corner of every page on its Web site, because Hsieh explained, ‘We don’t view the contact as an expense, we view it as an investment. It’s a branding opportunity for us and gives us the opportunity to deliver great customer service in a very personal way.’”

Thirteen years later the Zappos phone number is still at the top of every Web page. Go ahead, try to find it at any of the Internet retailers you patronize. Of 10 companies Gilda and I buy from—Target, L.L. Bean, Burpee, DHC, Walmart, Plow & Hearth, Wayfair, J. Jill, Lands’ End and Amazon—only Lands’ End posted its customer service number at the top of each page. Keep in mind that even Amazon, Zappos’ parent company, does not. 

Though not an active retailer since August, Hsieh’s passion to make life’s everyday activities better for everyone, as exemplified by his commitment to revitalize downtown Las Vegas, will be missed.