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HomeRetail's revolutionaries: The names that changed how we shop

Retail’s revolutionaries: The names that changed how we shop

Much has changed over the past 25 years when it comes to retail, with nearly every step in the process reimagined and reinvented from the portions of the business that face consumers to the backroom inventory systems.

Pioneering those changes are the people who have shaped what we buy and where and how we shop.

CNBC has compiled a list of 200 individuals from around the globe, across all sectors of business, who have made the biggest impact, and tasked the beat reporters to pick our favorites, and note those who just might have been overlooked. What makes the list fun is that there are no clear-cut answers, and opinions can get heated as we debate who mattered the most.


It was hard for me to pick my favorites from the many retail and fashion names on our contenders' list. There are many big names from Mickey Drexler to Bernard Arnault and Jim Sinegal to Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank.

(Read more: Who mattered & who didn't over 25 years)

So how did I pick my favorites? I thought about the individuals who reinvented a business function, category or created a valuable, iconic brand. For me, those qualifications helped narrow down the list to three standouts.

Amancio Ortega, Ingvar Kamprad and Ralph Lauren.AP (L) | Getty Images (C) | Getty Images (R)

Amancio Ortega is the richest person in Spain, and the third-richest person in the world, according to Forbes' 2013 rankings, thanks to the global success of fashion retailer Inditex.

Although he shies away from media coverage and public appearances, he can't hide from his impact on global retail. Ortega stepped down from the chairmanship in 2011, but still owns about 60 percent of the company's stock.

Ortega and his then-wife Rosalia Mera started Zara, the company that would eventually become part of Inditex, in the 1970s. Zara introduced the concept of "fast fashion" to the world, and is envied by competitors for its ability to quickly create, produce and deliver new designs.

(I should credit a handful of professors at New York University's Stern School of Business for this pick. In three separate MBA classes—leadership, operations and retail strategy—we studied the various aspects of the Inditex business model, why it's unique, why it works and why it's so hard to replicate.)

Ingvar Kamprad is the man behind your Ektorp sofa, Komplement dresser and Expedit shelving unit.

Although the Ikea founder may also be the source of countless fights between couples and roommates around the world who are frustrated in their attempt to assemble furniture, he is also the one who reimagined the home furnishing category, and allowed young people to be able to purchase a sofa, albeit in pieces, for under $400.

(Read more: Harry Potter author influential? Nah)

Although the Swedish home furnishing retailer's brand may illicit nostalgic memories of a first apartment or the first time you put together a dresser entirely backwards, it's as fun as it is frustrating, and it is as category-changing as retailer can get.

Meanwhile, while fashions may come and go, Ralph Lauren's influence on the industry stretches across decades, categories and oceans. Though Lauren's Polo brand was established more than 40 years ago, it has swelled to be more than a brand, but a concept. There's hardly anything more "American" than Ralph Lauren's merchandise. After all, he is the official designer of the U.S. Olympic Team's uniforms.

Lauren, and the company that bears his name, serve consumers across multiple income brackets, across product categories and in various retail outlets and offerings around the world.


Many hours and much discussion went into compiling the top 200 list, so most of retail's biggest influencers are on the list. However, there are some that should also be considered, not for the top 25, but perhaps for the top 200.

(Read more: Why Ebbers and Lay should be on this list)

Michael Kors likely still has room to run when it comes to making an impact in the world of both fashion and retail. His namesake company has been public just two years, but the share price has swelled nearly 200 percent. His products are taking market share from veterans like Coach and Ralph Lauren, and the brand is becoming more desirable with consumers around the world.

When it comes to fashion, Kors himself has had a visible role in television shows like "Project Runway," garnering fans from tweens to baby boomers and beyond. Maybe he'll make the list in 2039.

Giorgio Armani is another fashion icon that should have made the list. Armani's empire stretches across industries beyond clothing and perfume, but also household goods, hotels and restaurants. Within its core offering, the Armani brand offers a wide variety of apparel from haute couture to clothing items for under $100 at Armani Exchange stores.

The famously tanned Italian designer began his fashion house with men's suiting and gained popularity in Europe before truly making a splash in America in the 1980s with wardrobes for Richard Gere in the movie "American Gigolo" and the TV series "Miami Vice."

In addition to being an innovative designer, Armani has been credited as a talented executive as well, successfully buying and entering other businesses without diluting the powerful, and carefully crafted namesake brand.

Kevin Plank may not be as impactful as Nike's Phil Knight—yet—but, I would argue he is quickly moving in on the competitive athletic-wear territory. Plank founded Under Armour in 1995, creating the first product, a moisture-wicking shirt, in his grandmother's basement.

Plank used his experience as a University of Maryland football player to create products that better serve high-intensity athletes and the business has grown into a formidable competitor to Nike, and even Lululemon as it sets its sights on taking market share in the women's athletic-wear category.

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.comPatrick Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Biggest retail disruptor

I'd be remiss if I failed to acknowledge the enormous impact Jeff Bezos has had on retail—just one of the many business sectors he has disrupted. Bezos is perhaps simultaneously the most revered, and feared, person in business today.

Amazon has fundamentally changed the retail game for both businesses and consumers alike. Even without brick-and-mortar storefronts (at least, not now), it has disrupted retailers that have been in business for more than a century. Retailers from J.C. Penney to Wal-Mart Stores are scrambling to offer what Amazon offers, but have a long way to go.

(Read more: It comes down to this: Jobs vs. Gates)

Amazon now offers nearly any product you can imagine, often for a lower price, and delivered in some cases overnight for little-to-no shipping fees.

Bezos has built a company that Wall Street continues to reward. The company's shares are up 511 percent in five years, even though its profits are minimal. Traditional retailers don't get the same rewards from investors if higher and higher profit can't be delivered.

Amazon is the 800-pound gorilla in every retail boardroom around the world, and Jeff Bezos is the mastermind behind the company that will forever change the way retail is done.

—By CNBC's Courtney Reagan. Follow her on Twitter @CourtReagan.


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