Perhaps not so coincidentally, it was a sense of romance that pushed Dick Hayne onto the road to retail supremacy. The year: 1970. The place: West Philly. The people: Hayne, his then-new bride, Judy Wicks, and Wharton student Scott Belair, a classmate of Hayne’s from Lehigh, each of them the ripe old age of 22.
Hayne, the son of a financial executive and grandson of two general-store owners, grew up in rural Ingomar in Allegheny County. In the fifth grade, his baseball skills caught the eye of Wicks. Straight out of college, the ballplayer and his fan married and spent a year in Alaska as VISTA workers before returning home, loading up their Volvo, and driving 315 miles east to meet Belair, then a student at Wharton who needed help on a project for his class in entrepreneurship. They thought it would be fun to open a store. Hell, it might even get Belair an A.
So the trio pooled their cash — $4,000 in all — rented a small storefront at 4307 Locust Street, next to Koch’s Deli, and gathered merchandise: used clothes, cheap records, hand-dyed long underwear, which they displayed atop rummaged crates and sawhorses. They named their fledgling enterprise the Free People Store. (Remember, this was a year after Woodstock.)
Something about the venture clicked with Hayne. Even the next year, when his young marriage ended (Wicks went on to found, own and operate the nearby White Dog Cafe) and Belair split for a New York job in finance (he continued to consult on future stores, remains a member of Urban’s board of directors, and got the A, by the way), Hayne stayed at Free People. He’s not sure why. At the age of 23, in 1971, he did what felt right. “We really just did what we thought was appropriate for us — what we would want,” he says now.
Hayne never attended business school — at Lehigh, he’d majored in … anthropology. He used common sense and shoe-leather research to feel his way to the top, developing a keen eye and a solid gut for what women want, both in retail goods and the experience of shopping for them. In his second Urban Outfitters, on Harvard Square in Cambridge, he noticed a part-time salesperson, a fresh-faced elementary-school substitute teacher named Sue Otto, arranging vintage Levi’s jeans according to size and polishing some glassware. Hardly revelatory marketing, but it was a first for Hayne — and it made the items sell. He approached her and asked for more input on merchandising. Twenty-seven years later, Otto remembers that moment vividly. “I was 21 at the time,” she says. “I’d worked at the Gap for a year, and I don’t think anyone there ever asked me what I thought, or what I would do.” Today, as the creative director for all 132 Urban Outfitters, she’s still responsible for all the employees who keep jeans displays neat and glasses clean. “Dick’s very good about asking his staffers, ‘Who is the customer?’” she says. “He’s also very good about training that person to be an observer.”
It’s a simple concept, really, but one rarely done well. When you yourself can’t figure your customer out — maybe because you’ve outgrown the demo, or you’re a 61-year-old man who’s preppy even by Chestnut Hill standards — you find productive, creative, plugged-in people who can. And then, most of all, you encourage those people, your employees, to tell you what they really think, to find creative solutions for improving on The Experience. In other words, learn the customer, encourage the staff, and watch your company grow. And grow. Into a beautiful … terrain.