He Was Mad as Hell 34 Years Ago

Here’s an interesting video.  Keep in mind that the words are from the movie “Network” which was released in 1976.  Sadly, the only thing that’s changed is that the threat from the Russians has been replaced by the threat from the Middle East.

April 15-The Real April Fool’s Day?

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Here in the heartland of America it’s a beautiful day.  As I sit here in my palatial office (actually a spare bedroom) I can hear the birds singing and almost hear the buds popping open on the trees.  All is well!

OK, maybe all isn’t well.  It’s April 15, sort of like April Fool’s Day on steroids.  As I prepare to send off a five figure check to the IRS, the beauty of the day seems to dim a little.  Maybe the birds aren’t singing.  Maybe they’re laughing at me.  It’s hard to say.

I don’t mind paying my fair share, I really don’t.  But my fair share was withheld from my IRA distributions throughout the year.  Yet, I still owe almost twenty grand because someone at my former employer didn’t feel the need to inform me that there would be a huge tax liability at the end of the year.  “Oops.  Sorry.”

It’s quite a hit for someone who didn’t actually earn a dime in 2009.

Then there’s my second son.  He owes $1,000.00.  That may not seem like a lot to you and me, but this young man made less in 2009, working two jobs, than I paid in taxes.  Like his old man, his tax liability is the result of someone at one of his employers dropping the ball.  In spite of his several requests, they failed to withhold taxes from his salary.  “Oops”, again.

I know many of you have similar nightmares and I guess having a blog gives me the opportunity to rant once in a while.  Here’s the thing, $1 billion of the “stimulus” money is going to hire thousands of new IRS agents.  Why?  Because a lot of us have had it up to here with a government that thinks our hard-earned money is somehow their money.  Because all of us, especially small business owners, feel like we contribute more than enough to Washington, our state capitals, counties, and municipalities.  Face it, most of us don’t trust the government.  By hiring thousands of additional IRS agents, the feds are making it painfully obvious that they don’t trust us either.

We’re shocked that the word “million” seems to have almost vanished from the national vocabulary to be replace by the word “billion” (1,000,000,000).  [Note:  “Millions” of Americans are out of work.  That seems to be the only place the “M word is still in wide usage.] Trillion (1,000,000,000,000), a number so big that most Americans can’t even comprehend it, is thrown around ever so casually by a government that acts like there is no limit to what you and I can be forced to pay.

I don’t mean to get all political on a business blog, but whatever we contribute to the government is money that we can’t use to build up our businesses.  And if we can’t build up our businesses, where are we going to find jobs for the millions of our friends and neighbors who are out of work?  Besides, this isn’t a liberal or conservative issue.  Both sides treat our paychecks like Monopoly money.

But, take heart, Tax Freedom Day occurs at about the same time as Tax Filing Day.  That means that everything you’ve made so far this year will go to pay the various taxes but what you make from now until the end of the year is yours.

Is it a coincidence that our tax day falls on the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic?  I don’t think so.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day

Gosh, I can’t believe it’s been so long since the last post!  Mea culpa!

I’ve been wrestling with some personal things and I know that I’ve been remiss in my duty as your favorite blogger.  But a whole month!  I’m shocked and embarrassed.  While it’s sometimes difficult to write every day,  you deserve more and I apologize.

On a happier note, Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! When I see the crowds who attended the big parade this past Saturday and the throngs of people gathering today at their favorite watering holes, I realize that people are still spending money.  One out of ten Americans may be out of a job (Personally I think it’s more than that.) but that means that the vast majority of us are receiving some kind of paycheck.

The trick is to offer them something of value, something they really want or need, and getting them to buy from you.  Of course that’s easier said than done, but I know you can do it.  Think of the story of today’s patron saint.  Born in England, he became a slave in Ireland, escaped and returned to England.

He returned to Ireland which was essentially a pagan land and converted thousands to Christianity.  He must have been some salesman!  If this former slave was able to convince the Irish to convert, how much easier is it for you to sell your product to your potential customers?

So, as we celebrate the famous Irish saint,  why not think of him as an inspiration as you go about your daily business?

Meanwhile, have a happy Saint Patrick’s day and celebrate responsibly.

Retailers, What to do about the Internet?

I’ve been following a conversation on another forum that was started with my recent post, “Are Your Suppliers Letting You Down on the Web?”  You may recall that the original article was about manufacturers who don’t use the web effectively to communicate with their dealers.  Like most on-line conversations, this one has morphed into a discussion on how independent retailers and manufacturers should handle Internet sales to consumers.

We know that there are price-only shoppers who will come into your store, get all the information they need, then go to the web to buy the item at the lowest price they can find.  On the other hand, there are customers who do their research on the web then buy the item locally.  The question is, which group is bigger?  My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that more consumers fall into the second group.

Maybe I’m not a very good shopper, but I’m in the second group mainly because I (1) prefer to support my local merchants and (2) I’ve yet to find anything on line that I couldn’t buy at the same price, or close to it, locally.

Here’s the thing.  If I can buy an item for, say $200.00 on line and I can buy it for $210.00  or $220.00 locally, I’ll buy local every time.  Basically, I’m a mechanical idiot.  It’s worth it to me to spend an extra 5-10% to have somebody close by to hold my hand when I can’t figure out how to make something work.  I’m not alone.  Based on the statistics, a lot of people feel the same way.

Case in point:  I just bought a new cell phone.  The instruction book wasn’t in the box.  Today I’ll go back to the store and get it.  If I had bought the phone on-line, I’d have to send an email and wait for a response.  Assuming they get back to me, I’ll then have to wait for the instruction book to come in the mail.  Meanwhile, I have a $179.00 phone that I can’t use properly.

To me, the key to competing with on-line merchants is to let the customer know how much your service is worth.  Granted, some people just don’t care.  All they’re interested in is getting the lowest price.  Chances are those people aren’t your customers anyway.  If there were no Internet, they’d either buy from the big box store, or they’d be searching the ads in the back of the magazines.  Either way, you don’t get the sale.

There’s a lot of hype about on-line merchants.  The media love them!  Price shoppers think they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread.  (I wonder what the greatest thing was before somebody invented sliced bread?)  Anyway, the facts don’t necessarily support the hype.  Depending on the industry, web sales still represent a small piece of the total pie.  According to the US Department of Commerce, 3rd Quarter 2009 on-line sales represented 3.7% of all retail.  Obviously the percentage varies by industry, but overall, nine out of ten retail dollars are spent at brick and mortar stores.

e commerce stats

Big on-line merchants like Amazon.com are doing very nicely, thank you.  But there’s still a huge market out there for your store.  Rather than chasing sales that you’re never going to get, in 2010 your brick and mortar customer should be your major focus.

Granted, on-line sales are growing, 4.7% in the third quarter of ’09 vs. 4.3% in ‘o8.  Today’s strategy may not work in the future but carpe diem,  seize the day.

Meanwhile manufacturers will continue to wrestle with the question of how best to market their products.  That 4.7% is worth more than $30 billion, hardly chump change.  Like I said in my last post, brick and mortar independent retailers should support suppliers who support them.

Here’s a post that I wrote in 2006 on Your Business Strategy that you might find interesting.

Chinese Imports, again

I must have ESP (or some other cable network).  Yesterday I mentioned that US government-imposed restrictions on Chinese products might have consequences.  You may recall that I suggested a more grass-roots approach to the problem of cheap Chinese goods.  Lo and behold, our government did just what I suggested that they not do yesterday.  (Big surprise!)

The government has imposed new duties on Chinese steel pipe.  Chinese pipe manufacturers have been taking advantage of subsidies by their government to dump low-priced pipe on the US market, costing thousands of American jobs this year.  It’s hoped that the tariffs will slow down the flood (pun intended) of low-price, low-quality steel pipe and restore lost American jobs.  Stay tuned to see how the Chinese respond.

I promised yesterday that I’d give you a little insight into the process of sourcing Chinese goods, from a manufacturer’s perspective.  Here goes.  For the last year before my “retirement” I was involved in purchasing new items for my former employer, specifically small electrical and furniture items.  It was a very frustrating and disappointing task.

For the most part, Chinese manufactures aren’t set up to supply quality merchandise.  In fact, it often seemed like a “foreign” concept to them.  While we may try to spec a premium item from them, they are geared up to produce “low price” items for the mass merchants.  When their production lines are set up to produce millions of “just good enough” items for the big box stores, an order for a few thousand quality items just isn’t worth their time.  Make no mistake, the big boxes and their big buying power are very much in charge of the products that are shipped to the US, even to other suppliers.

Here’s a typical scenario.  I would email a supplier asking them to send me a sample of an item based on my specifications.  A few weeks would go buy and samples would arrive that basically were nothing like I asked for.  Nine times out of ten they would fail our QC tests.

I would send the testing results to the manufacturer asking them to correct the problems and send me what I asked for in the first place.  A few weeks would pass and I’d get new samples, exactly like the first ones.  Strike two!

Keep in mind that we were paying high air freight rates to get these samples shipped to Saint Louis.

This would go on for several cycles and maybe, if we were lucky, we would finally get something close to what we asked for.  Sometimes we never did get what we wanted.

I spent over a year working on two particular items and never did get what I wanted.  Often the response was that such-and-such big box chain sold thousands (sometimes millions) of the inferior products and why was I so particular?

A simple process of building something that would pass minimal quality standards took months and often never did result in a salable product.  If I had hair, I would have pulled it out.

Bottom line, there is no motivation for  the Chinese manufacturer to build anything above minimal standards.  They flood the market with low-priced, low-quality merchandise.  American manufacturers can’t compete.  So, they either lower their quality to reduce the price, or move their operations off shore where labor costs and benefits are much lower than they are here.  Even then, they are going to face higher returns and damage to their reputation because the imported goods aren’t what their consumers expect.

Don’t get me wrong.  I have Chinese friends, including some who I’ve worked with as suppliers.  Because China is a totalitarian state, they are under a lot of pressure to tow the company line.  Language problems and a society where the Chinese people are accustomed to low-quality products often make it almost impossible to explain to them that we want good products.

The solution, as I pointed out yesterday, is for American consumers to demand quality and to be willing to pay for it.  Until that happens, this problem is only going to get worse and at some point it will be too late to fix it.

Christmas Eve Eve

Here we are on the twenty-third day of December, 2009.  We’ve almost completed the first decade of the twenty-first century and it’s certainly been a challenge.  The fact that you’re reading this is a sign that you’re one of the best of the best.  You’re a competitor and a survivor.  Congratulations!

No one knows what 2010 will bring but I suspect it will be interesting.  The current administration doesn’t seem to be a friend of small business in spite of their claims.  As I’ve said here many times before, small business is the engine that drives the American economy.  That’s been true in good times and in bad.

So, as we prepare to celebrate Christmas and the beginning of a new year, keep the faith!  Keep doin’ what you’re  doin’ and take advantage of the agility that only a small business can muster to beat the competition.  I have confidence in you.

Show Me Quality


Monday (December 7), the winners of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award were announced. And the winners are:

Notice anything about the winners?  Let me help you out.  Three of the five winners were from the state of Missouri.  I don’t like to brag, but it is my blog so I’ll brag if I want to.  Quality improvement is running rampant here in the Heartland of America.

It’s the first time in the history of the award that three organizations from the same state have won in the same year.  The three awards tie Missouri with Texas (a slightly larger state) for the most award recipients.

All three Missouri Baldrige winners are past recipients of the Missouri Quality Award.  Did I mention that I’m an examiner for MQA?

Congratulations to all five winners!

The Baldrige is no beauty contest.  It takes a lot of hard work by a dedicated team and committed management to win the nation’s top quality award.  But the trophy is secondary to the impact that the Baldrige process has on an orgaznization.  There’s a lot of good information on improving your processes and results on the Baldrige web site, the MQA site, or on the site of your local award program.  If you have any questions, please leave a comment here or you can email me.