Seed Peoples Market won an Outdoor Retailer Innovation Award in January 2020, but when I visit the Costa Mesa, California-based shop, I don’t walk out with anything I saw in the aisles at that Show. Instead of a recycled polyester Patagonia jacket or a technical headlamp, I leave with a beautiful set of wooden knives. This isn’t because the store failed to do its job—instead it made me discover something beyond my outdoor brain. I had, after all, wanted a set of knives like this for cheeses, but I never would have found them, or bought them otherwise. And this all went down exactly the way Shaheen Sadeghi planned it.
Former Quiksilver president Sadeghi left the big corporate world in 1992. He wanted to explore a massive cultural shift he saw happening, to create the type of authenticity consumers were demanding, to build the type of community-focused retail center we now see as the hip norm. Seed People’s Market, which opened in 2013 in a spot once occupied by an Adventure 16, is the cornerstone in The Camp, Sadeghi’s green ecosystem of shops standing out in the bland sameness of SoCal strip malls. “Products with Purpose” is the shop’s mantra, written on the wall on a chalkboard—and that is what shoppers will find in the space here that feels like a mashup of World Market and Adventure 16 in its heyday. It’s a bazaar of sustainable, local-made, hand-made, and eco-conscious items and classic outdoor offerings that keep customers engaged. It’s also the culmination of Sadeghi’s vision of retail as a place of connection as well as commerce, the anti-mall. Oh, and it works. When I talk to Sadeghi later on a Zoom call, I notice a Gibson Les Paul (the guitar played by the likes of Jimmy Page and Slash) displayed behind him. Indeed, Sadeghi is a musician with an album coming out this month. He’s also the original retail rock rebel (the Wall Street Journal dubbed him “retail royalty”), who understood way back in the 1980s that malls needed to listen to and attract the “mall rats” that management wanted to kick out. After he left the corporate hamster wheel, he opened a new retail concept, THE LAB, aka Little American Business, a shopping center that encouraged real community and culture as opposed to the same old soullessness served up at the big malls. Since then, his retail development projects have spearheaded a drive to rethink commerce. Here’s what he had to tell us about the state of retail now—and in the future.
PHOTO AND VIDEO BY LAUREN DANILEK
What was the genesis of Seed Peoples Market? Community, culture, commerce, and consciousness: These four Cs are the foundation of all my projects. We built The Camp [in 2002], the first green retail center in the country, and it was so hard. I couldn’t even get the contractors to build me a grass roof back then. I had to get somebody in Florida to come to California to build it. And nobody would warranty any of their work. I had to pay them directly. My bank wouldn’t pay for a grass roof. And we created a percolation system in the parking lot back then—all water gets percolated in my parking lot, nothing gets washed to the oceans—and nobody told us to do that. Within a short time period, this cultural shift happened and people went out and started buying Priuses. All of a sudden, the mentality of that customer and how they spent their money changed. It didn’t go away, but the customer who shopped at The LAB and bought $300 jeans each week came across the street to The Camp—and they now would spend $20 on a vegan salad, and spend $30 on hot yoga. They started spending their money differently. Then the organic food and sustainability culture kicked in in America. This was a massive cultural shift. Most of the outdoor stores are very dude-oriented. I wanted to add a female side to this thing. My mission included, but also went beyond, simply servicing women customers. The man of the future also has to have a soft side; he has to have enough balls to go and buy candles. And it’s amazing what happened—the guy goes and buys this gear and then he walks around and says, “Well, this is a handmade candle. I want to buy this for my girlfriend.” But it went beyond that. The really fascinating part for me was when I saw men naturally gravitate towards all of the organic soft products that we have in the store and women gravitate towards the gear. What did you learn from your corporate retail experience? People in South Africa surf; people in Indonesia surf; people in Newquay, UK, surf; people in Brazil surf; people in Australia surf; people in Florida surf. All of these people globally connect to surf. That’s how I learned about community. It’s the same in the outdoor industry—people connect through the outdoors—and there’s a magic happening here. I also realized that most innovation and newness and risk come from smaller brands and young entrepreneurs. Growing up in Michigan, I recognized that America is built on small businesses. The fact is the bigger we got, the crappier we got, the sloppier we got. It becomes a proposition about mass production as opposed to the individual products that touch people. So it becomes a numbers game and not a product or a cultural game. And I think when you cross that line—and I’m not saying that’s wrong, many people do it—you just really have to understand where you’re going or what you wanna do with your brand. Then once you get there, it’s really hard to come back. Look at a public company doing $2 billion a year, the darling of Wall St. Using simple math, you have to have 15% to 20% growth to stay the darling of Wall St. That means every year you have to put $400 million on the bottom line, $200 million every half year. When you start doing the math, it’s like every time you wake up and shave and go to the office, you have to put $1 to $1.5 million to the bottom line—forever. When you really look at that, it’s not about people or the culture anymore. You are under so much pressure just to get this crap out the door—so you start making goofy decisions. And then, there’s a cultural dichotomy that happens. You take this authentic, global community of a brand that your community has supported and turn it into a financial game. What does retail need to do to make itself relevant? You need to build a relationship with your local community. This is something the national or big retailer cannot do. The small local dealer is where you connect with people and have a conversation. I call this social equity and cultural equity. Create the intrinsic value. Most mass retailers—or even national retailers—do not put social and cultural equity on their balance sheets. Your shop needs to be the new civic center, a place of gathering for your customer, the bonfire. There is tremendous authentic and powerful cultural currency here. Culture is the new currency. Very few big operators can pull this off, so it’s a wide-open road for the small local guy. What does retail need to do to make people care? Set itself up as a community that the customer would want to be a part of. It’s like religion. Most products can be purchased in many different places. Where you choose to make that purchase is the place that has made the love connection with you and meets your culture. It’s where the customers feel safe and trusted. They want to be a part of the store’s authentic community. It is no different than the needs of a romantic relationship. What have you learned over the pandemic? As much as it inflicted devastation and pain on people, COVID-19 was one of the most monumental cultural shifts in our country—so powerful that it stopped us all in our tracks. It made us pull off this 100-mph-on-the-freeway mentality and look at our life map. Most of us took the offramp. For so many, this was a force of nature that allowed the shift. It affected the entire world, and each region gained something from it. In this country, we needed the shift more than many other cultures in terms of re-focusing our mission to family, friends, outdoors, nature and re-connecting with the life clock. It forced balance. The other major shift that COVID-19 caused is that it wiped out most mediocrity—in retail, restaurants, and many other businesses. What is amazing to me is that after COVID-19, all the businesses that had a love connection with the consumer or the local community came back strong and kicked ass. The customer could not wait to get back into the local retailer or restaurant. What did not come back were the soulless, mediocre, national chains. No one was bummed that they could not shop at American Eagle or Pottery Barn. They did return to the local potter or candle makers, however.
What advice do you have for prospective retailers? The other massive cultural shift in our country has been localization. When I got into the industry, it became all about mass— mass culture, mass production, and the homogenization of chain stores and chain department stores. This all came about after World War II. The world was destroyed—Europe, Russia, Japan. The U.S. became the manufacturing arm of the world. If you needed goods, from refrigerators to cars, the chance was you purchased it from America. This is when and how we built the most powerful middle-class segment on the planet. When the middle class kicked in, we, as a country, became the biggest consumers in the history of the planet. We still are. Even today, we represent 4.5% of the world population but we consume 25% of all goods and services. This is the core of the homogenization and mass production that eventually sucked our culture of its soul. Homogenization is the enemy of culture. Mass culture is now broken in America. It has not dissipated; it has broken into many subcultures. These subcultures are the new world order and where the new entrepreneurs are coming from. I speak of this in my TED talks. It is global because of the Internet. The power of localization has created so many new opportunities for young upcoming businesses and retailers. Local retail is powerful because it can create an authentic connection and community with the locals as opposed to a national tenant in a freaking mall. That’s soulless. What do you personally enjoy, what engages you, when you walk in Seed Peoples Market? For me, it’s the passion of product and finding new makers. I love the maker culture—young and old people who look at retail and product through culture, art, and connection. It can be someone making pottery or a surf board or a pair of jeans. It does not matter. I call it the archeology of retail. That is what drives me. The other part, for me, is the curation of brands and products. This is where life, style, and the need for gear all come together. What worries you about the future? I embrace the future, mostly because I cannot do a damn thing about it in terms of global shifts. What I am excited about is the fact that the future is all about innovation, localization, and so many other opportunities of which we can now be a part. So many people tell me that retail is dead. But I think this has been the most amazing time for retail in my 45 years of being in business. We as a country are making things again. We are knitting. We are sewing. We use our hands. We make products with a soul. The Internet and online retail have also helped this community to be in business and grow. Growth and brand authenticity can develop locally—but sales can be global. What has changed is that, now, instead of having the chain store represent you and your product culture, you are in charge of your brand and culture. You can grow through developing a global likeminded community that will find and connect with your product because it is authentic. You now can find and ship to that like-minded person in Amsterdam or the North Pole if you wanted to; you do not have to be reliant on some soulless department store to connect you to the consumer. This is so freaking powerful. It is a game changer. This shift has also affected my business of real estate. No one wants to pay mall rates and sign a 15-year lease and get stuck next to a Gap or a Banana Republic and risk losing their brand identity. It has no value. It’s obsolete. What gives you hope? Micromanufacturing is the next wave of retail and economy in America. As I said, we’re making things again in this country. We’re making wallets; we’re making backpacks. We didn’t do that for a long time. All we were doing was consuming. The next generation is like “I don’t want to buy a guitar; I want to make a guitar. I don’t want to buy a pair of jeans; I want to make a pair. I don’t just want to drink beer; I want to make beer.” If it’s cool, then their friends and say, “Dude, you gotta make me one, too.” And this person, this creator, this new entrepreneur, this micromanufacturer is the future and the community builder. They can do it out of a warehouse. And as long as they create the opportunity to connect, create the love, and have a campfire, have a conversation with their consumer, the consumer doesn’t give a shit where that happens. So you create the community; you create the culture; you create the authentic connection. And people come and when they come, they might see that jacket. They like it and they’ll buy that from you. Authenticty cannont be bought. It has to be earned.
I love the maker culture—young and old people who look at retail and product through culture, art, and connection.
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