New Coop President Struggles to Modernize Retail Hybrid

`Retail Cowboy' Changes Ad Strategy to Compete With Department Stores, but Students Bristle at High Textbook Prices

When new Harvard Cooperative Society president Jeremiah P. Murphy '73 returned to his office after lunch one afternoon last week, he found a customer looking upset and lost.

The man, wanting to know why the store did not stock a particular item, had happened upon Murphy's second-floor office. But instead of a cold corporate brush-off, Murphy beckoned the customer into the president's office for a 15-minutes private meeting.

"The changes that I'm trying to make are all about being more accessible to customers," says Murphy. "I have to be part of that myself."

The anecdote captures Murphy's personal commitment to moving the hundred-year-old store into the 21st century.

But customer friendliness, even by the Coop president itself, won't solve all the Coop's problems. It won't bring prices down or raise students rebates.


The Coop, some say, is the store that won't make up its mind; it's neither department store nor student bookstore. But Murphy says it can be both.

Murphy brings extensive experience in the management of mainstream department stores to the Coop. He says his most important task will be to strike a balance between expanding sales and keeping students happy.

Straight from Nieman Marcus in Dallas, Murphy is the retail cowboy who has already turned over a few tables in the saloon.

Since taking over this spring, Murphy has already embarked on an ambitious redesign of the store's floor plan. He's making changes that seem so simple that one wonders why they weren't done before.

Men's shoes are now in the men's clothing department. Women's intimate apparel found a new home in the women's clothing department. And he has widened aisles in the stationery area that once sent claustrophobics scurrying to the competition.

The Coop has also re-invented its advertising. Newspaper ads are being replaced by placards in the subway stops and radio spots on local stations.

"When we advertised in the newspapers with Filene's right there, no one noticed us. We were getting lost in print," says Murphy. "Our constituency is Cambridge-based. A lot of customers ride the subway and a lot music."

"There have been others who have tried to emulate what the Harvard Coop has been able to do, but they have not had great success," says Jon B. Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts.

"They have a unique niche," Hurst says.

But students would rather see fewer subway placards and more textbook discounts. For some, the Coop has become too much department store and not enough student co-op.