Here Come the Big Boxes

If you want to get the attention of the local business community, just start a rumor that a big box store is coming to town.  Like it or not, the arrival of Wal*Mart, or Target, or Home Depot in Smalltown, USA is going to change the business landscape forever. 

If you’ve been following along in your Mine Your Own Business workbook, you know that one of our goals is to offer you the tools you need to compete in this brave (?) new world.  Creative promotions, variable pricing, excellent service, and finding your niche are just a few of the things that will make you competitive with the big guys.

But, just in case you’re located in a community that hasn’t felt the sting of the big box, then here’s a web site you might find interesting.  The Institute for Local Self-Reliance offers a variety of tools to help you keep local business local.  It includes a "Big Box Tool Kit" that shows you how to use a variety of legal means to keep a box store out of the community.  There’s a link to a new book called Big Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses" which describes the effect that chain stores have had on communities across the US.  There’s an article concerning a speech given by the book’s author here.

Unfortunately, competition from national chains is pretty much a fact of life for most of us.  If you’re lucky enough to be in a position to stop, or at least delay their arrival in your town that’s great.  For the rest of us, keep watching MYOB for tips and tools to help you compete on a more level playing field.

On Protecting Personal Information

There’s an interesting article on PC World.com about a provision of the 2008 federal budget that would require on-line businesses like eBay and Amazon.com to collect personal information on their customers and turn it over to the IRS.

Here’s the thing:  The Treasury Department is concerned that it’s losing tax revenue because of unreported sales over the online services.  If it passes, the new regulations would require the services to collect and report sellers’ information including name, address, tax payer ID, or Social Security number.  This information would be turned over to the IRS only if the seller conducted 100 or more separate transactions worth $5,000 or more.

Trouble is that there’s no way for eBay or Amazon.com to know, in advance, how much business a seller is going to to so most likely they would collect the information on every seller, regardless of their sales volume.  Since so many on-line sellers are individuals, not commercial enterprises, they don’t have tax payer IDs.  That means the creation of gigantic private databases of people’s Social Security numbers.   

Obviously it’s not a good idea to have such a huge underground economy of people selling merchandise on-line and not paying taxes.  It’s bad for the government and it’s bad for competition.  On the other hand, the fewer places my personal information is stored, the better. With so many stories of hackers getting into sensitive databases lately, there must be a better way.

Spring Cleaning for Your PC

Spring_cleanup
Thanks to Brooke Blattner, one of our Help Desk experts for the following information which appeared this month in our Tacony Newsletter:

Now may be a good time to think about doing a little spring cleaning on your PC.  There are a couple of easy tasks that everyone can complete to help speed up their PC.

Disk Cleanup

  • Double click on My Computer on your desktop.
  • Right click on your Local Disk (usually C:) and select Properties.
  • Click on the Disk Cleanup button and the Disk Cleanup dialog box will appear and you will see it calculating space on your hard drive.  (Notice the pie graph that shows how much free space you have.)
  • Disk Cleanup for (C:) will appear and will list files to delete.
  • We recommend that you put a check mark in the Temporary Internet Files, Recycle Bin, and Temporary Files boxes.  If any others are checked, uncheck them, because deleting other files could cause some problems to programs.
  • You will get a box asking, "Are you sure you wish to perform these actions?"  Click yes and the files will be deleted.

Disk Defragmenter

A defrag cleans up fragmented files on your hard drive.  These fragmented files come from installing programs, uninstalling programs, and just over time accumulate on your hard drive.  It is a good idea to run a defrag at the end of the day.  It will probably take an hour or more.

  • Click on Start.
  • Select All Programs
  • Select Accessories.
  • Select System Tools.
  • Select Disk Defragmenter.
  • Click on the Defragment button in the bottom left.

Finally, and this is from your humble blogmaster, DO A BACKUP!   Please refer to the earlier post, "Learning From Others’ Mistakes".

The Relentless Rush to be Mediocre

It’s time to check in with our friend Seth Godin.  Seth has a new book out called "The Dip".  The Change This web site has published a short manifesto (which is really a way to get you to buy the book) called "Pushing Through the Dip".  Seth says that his new book is about "the relentless rush to be mediocre", or put in a more positive way it’s about becoming the best in the world.

The premise is that even though we all say we’d like to be the best in the world, most of us won’t make the effort to actually become the best.  "Sure, conceptually it makes sense to be the best in the world.  And if the best-in-the-world fairy came down and blessed you, well that would be great…. But the reason that being the best is worth so much is that few can do it."

The "Dip" is that long time between the start and becoming the best.  But as long as the dip is, it’s the quickest way to become the best. 

One final quote, Seth says "The harder it is to get through, the better your chance of being the only one to get through it."

Check out the manifesto.  It’s a short eleven-page read.  It might even make you want to read the book.

Learning from Others’ Mistakes

Examples of bad customer service are so easy to find that we could have a separate blog just to tell horror stories.  But a regular diet of that kind of stuff would get boring.  That’s why I hardly ever do that kind of post.  But there’s an exception to every rule and this one’s bad enough that it’s worth repeating.

My wife and I recently decided we needed a new mattress.  We headed over to our neighborhood furniture store to check them out.  The salesman, Greg, was obviously well-trained.  He knew his merchandise and knew how to close.  He wasn’t pushy, but we still ended up buying one of the more expensive models.  It was a very good shopping experience and I made up my mind that when the promised customer survey arrived that I would give him very good marks. 

One of the things that influenced our decision was that this particular mattress/box springs set was in stock so we could have it "early next week" (We bought it on a Friday evening.)  We paid extra for delivery and removal of the old bedding.  Greg promised us that someone from the delivery department would call us Monday to set up a delivery time.  Guess what?  Didn’t happen.

On Tuesday my wife called them.  The earliest they could make the delivery was the following Tuesday, a full week later.  So much for buying the more expensive model because it was in stock.  The delivery person promised that they would call "at least three days in advance" to let us know what time they would be there.  The promised delivery day was today.  The call came last night at 6:00.  It was a recorded message left on our answering machine, with the time garbled, making it impossible to understand.  All that came through was "PM".

Again, my wife called them and was told the delivery would be between noon and 2:00 PM.  They came at 1:45.  Once the mattress and box springs were in place, my very patient bride reminded the driver that he was supposed to take the old ones with him.  "Oh no,"  he said.  "I don’t have room for them on my truck.  Someone else will have to pick them up."

Now, I’m no expert in the area of delivery, but it you remove a new mattress and box springs from a truck, doesn’t that leave a mattress and box spring sized space unless the rest of the truck is full of sand or gravel?  Sadly, my less-patient-by-the-minute wife didn’t think to ask that particular question.

The driver promised that someone from the warehouse would call within the next half hour to arrange the pick-up.  Do I have to tell you that the call didn’t come?  I didn’t think so.  Anyway, my now seriously-impatient wife, who’s been sitting at home all day, called the delivery number.  Of course they knew nothing about our problem.  The driver hadn’t called.  But, good news!  They can have someone pick up the old stuff sometime on Friday!

By now, the wife has lost any little bit of patience she ever had.   Not only are we supposed to live with an extra set of bedding sitting in the middle of the bedroom floor for three days but she can’t give an expected delivery time.  Another day of sitting around waiting for them to show up?  They don’t know my wife very well.

Obviously, there will be more to the story.  What you’ve just read is current as of a few minutes ago.  After venting to me, my bride was going to call the store manager. 

But the real issue here is how something can be going so well and then completely break down.  From the time we walked in to the store, until we left with our paid receipt, the shopping experience was excellent.  The store was neat and clean.  The selection was good.  The salesman and everyone else in the store was well-trained and professional. 

But the total failure of the delivery process and the nagging doubt that the salesman may have lied to us about the company’s delivery policies has left an extremely bad impression with both of us.  Even a mediocre delivery process would still have ensured that we would return to the store for future purchases and recommend them to others.  Now I’m not sure if there’s anything that they can do that will salvage the situation.

The lesson is obvious.  Every person involved in a sales transaction, from the person who washes the windows and sweeps the floors to the person who drives the delivery truck has the potential to damage your reputation.  No matter how hard everyone else works to ensure the customer a positive experience, just one slip-up can cause the whole effort to be wasted.  In this case, apparently it’s the entire delivery process that needs work.

You can’t be personally involved in every facet of every transaction, you just don’t have time.  But it’s critical that you have people that you trust to treat each customer as if they’re the only customer you have.  There’s just too much competition out there for any of us to do any less.

“Slow Days”

Rainy_day
We’ve had a LOT of rain in St. Louis this week and today’s no exception.  Being a creature of habit, I always eat lunch on Friday at the same restaurant and I try to get there before noon or else it’s hard to get a table.  I got there today a little before twelve and got right in but, funny thing, as the noon hour came and went, they didn’t get busy.  I’d never thought about it, but I guess people don’t go out to lunch as much when it’s pouring down rain.

So, I’m thinking while I wait for my kung pao chicken, what do you do when you expect it to be busy and it’s not?  One option is to send some people home.  But regular retail isn’t like the restaurant business.  Where a restaurant does most of it’s business during the lunch and dinner hours, retailers’ business is a little more evenly spread out.  What if you cut your staff and then it gets busy?

Even if it’s slow, you have to have a certain level of staff just to stay open.  So, I’ll ask the question again, "What do you do on a "slow day"?   There are a lot of possible answers, but  standing around complaining about the lack of customers shouldn’t be one of them.  A day like today is a great day to catch up on non-selling duties.  Stocking merchandise, cleaning up the place, updating signs and displays are all worthwhile ways to spend your time.

Better yet, if people aren’t shopping, where are they?  Maybe they’re at home.  Why not get out your customer list (or bring it up on the computer) and make some phone calls?  What’s new?  What’s special?  What can you offer to get them into the store?  Your approach could be as simple as "Mary, we’re not very busy today?  It would be a good day for you to come in and take a look at our new (insert product here).  I’ve got plenty of time to give you a demonstration."

Or, you may just want to spend time on the phone with your best customers letting them know you appreciate their business.  The important thing is, there are a lot of things that never seem to get done because you’re too busy.  When you do get a "slow day", that’s the time to get them done.

Don’t forget, though, that when that front door does open, that’s when you drop whatever else you’re doing and concentrate on giving that customer the best shopping experience she’s ever had.

Re-Careering

Manage Smarter, part of the Sales & Marketing Magazine family reports on the growing trend for older adults to "re-career" rather than retire.  This could be a real opportunity for small business owners.  In many cases, the desire to continue working is fueled by  boredom, a need to feel productive, desire for an intellectual challenge, insufficient savings, or a need for personal interaction.

Many of them are looking for part-time employment and because they don’t have child-care issues, school schedules, or other time-sensitive activities that can conflict with their p/t job, their available time can be very flexible.  Most of these people are highly intelligent.  They obviously have many years of work experience and can bring a host of new ideas to your business.

The Dow does it again

The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed today at 13,211.88, a new record.

Is it just me, or is the recent success of the market being largely ignored by the news media.  We all remember the boom of the ’90s.  The Dow first broke 6,000 in 1996.  It broke 7,000 in 1997, 8,000 and 9,000 in 1998 and 10,000 in 1999.  It was big news! 

Now, in May of 2007, the average stands at more than 13,000, an almost 100% increase in ten years and there’s barely a blip on the nightly news. 

Maybe we’re a little gun shy after the dot-com bust that drove the market back down in 2002-03, but personally, I like to celebrate our successes.  Granted, the DJIA probably has very little to do with your personal financial situation.  But, unless you’re in the news business, good news is better than bad news,

Good news drives consumers into the marketplace.  Good news puts people in a better mood.  Let’s enjoy it.

Your Chamber of Commerce

Lewis Green writes an article on the Marketing Profs: Daily Fix blog titled "Have You Hugged Your Chamber Today?" His point?  You should join and be active in your local Chamber of Commerce.  Assuming you have an active chamber in your area, he lists several good reasons for getting involved.

Your fellow chamber members are potential customers and an excellent source of leads.  Since most chamber members are business owners from your area, it’s a great place to make contacts and to exchange ideas. 

A less direct benefit, but one that’s very important is that chambers are the voice of local business.  They lobby local governments in support of legislation that will help you and your business.  Of course, by joining and being active, you get the reputation for being a concerned member of the community.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has an excellent web site that includes a search for local chambers.