A retail genius unmasked: the Zara story

How does a man whom poverty drove into work at the age of 12 and who is now the fifth richest man in the world think? And what can you learn from him?  Amancio Ortega is worth $31 billion according to Forbes but The Man from Zara, Covadonga O’Shea’s often brilliant story of his business career unpicks his retail secrets.

There are two reasons to read this book:

  • Firstly if to be inspired by a retail genius
  • Secondly to imitate his ideas on being a successful leader.

O’Shea structures the book around a series of interviews with Ortega and many of his key staff. A highly secretive man, Ortega commands loyalty from all who know him well. O’Shea writes clearly and layers detail across the book so that you need to engage with every chapter. Doing so is worthwhile as you build an understanding of how to be successful.

Ortega’s career was sparked by a grocer refusing his mother credit when he was a child at her side. Humiliated, he went to work, found employment in a clothes shop and went on to launch first a textile business and then after he was 40 the Zara retail empire, now with 4,000 stores worldwide.

There are so many retail and management success secrets in the book that it is hard to know where to start.

“The first thing that people want is to like what they want to buy,” says Ortega. “The product has to be right. That is the key.”

The next secret is to get them to buy every time they visit. Zara renews its stock twice a week. On the one hand this means shoppers will find something new every time they visit. On the other they also know that they have to buy or they won’t see the garment again. This increases the rate of sale. Shoppers visit 17 times a year instead of 3.5 times for other chains.

It is the consumer who determines which shops are successful, Ortega says. Retailers must get to know her, the way she acts and to spoil her. Add to this the fact that Ortega is a great listener and has an instinctive feel for what will sell.

Prior to Zara, fashion had two major seasons and goods were priced high at the start of the season and sold cheap at the end. Now, fashion is about constantly meeting people’s desire for novelty. Prior to Zara, fashion was expensive. Now it is available to everyone.

But Ortega is a great leader too. One store manager of 20 years spends her day “greeting and farewelling the shoppers coming and going, because they were already her friends.” Ortega’s six rules for staff are:


1.     Always wear a pleasant expression

2.    Smile at the cash desk

3.    Have a pen in your hand

4.    The manager is the person who should be attending to customers the most

5.     The changing rooms are an important point of sale

6.    Everywhere in the shop: patience.

There is so much to read. And there’s magic too. You know that Ortega worked hard to be a success. When he went to visit his first Paris shop in 1990 this happened: “When I tried to walk into that first shop, I couldn’t make my way through the solid barrier of people queuing in the street. I stood there in the doorway sobbing like a kid.”

Treat yourself. Inspire yourself. Enjoy the book.


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