Fighting the Big Boxes

Some one pointed me to this video today and I thought I’d share it with you along with a few thoughts. The film isn’t new. It’s been around for a few years. But it’s worth watching if you haven’t seen it before.

Independent America

Independent America

One thing that concerns me a bit is the lumping of big-box stores and franchised fast-food places together. The 3/50 Project which MTS has supported almost since the very beginning does this too. If my neighbor owns the local McDonald’s franchise, I don’t see why I should boycott Big Macs. Granted, some of the restaurant’s revenue goes to McDonald’s corporate, but the bulk of it stays right here. That’s a far cry from he huge share of revenue from the local Wally World that ends up in Bentonville, AR.

The other thing that disturbs me a little is the tendency to bash the big boxes rather than pumping up the local merchants. It reminds me of walking through the woods. If you don’t watch where you’re going and you step on a snake, there’s a good chance the snake will bite you. If it happens, don’t blame the snake. He’s just doing what snakes do. Same for the boxes stores. They’re the most predictable of competitors. They’re going to do what they always do. Don’t play into their hands.

I’ve covered this before, but it bears repeating. Don’t try to compete with the chain stores on price. You can’t win! With their deep pockets they can lose money for a while, just long enough to put you out of business. Avoid going head-to-head. Find your niche and stick to it.

Most important of all, rather than fighting to keep a national chain out of your market, fight to keep your local government from subsidizing the big box with your tax money. There are enough small-town and even big city governments desperate for tax revenue that they’ll do whatever it takes to get the chain to locate within their boundaries. They do this by direct tax breaks and by indirect tax breaks. (We’ll widen the street and put in traffic lights at city expense.) As a taxpayer, scream bloody murder about this nonsense. Using your tax money as an incentive to bring a competitor into your marketplace should be cause to terminate the local government at the next election.

To me, there’s nothing quite as ridiculous as a local government who whines about the deteriorating downtown area while they pump your tax dollars into an infrastructure that encourages people and businesses to move to the outskirts of town.

Finally, adopt the “serenity prayer.”

“Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change, the courage to change the things I can change, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The Marts and the Depots aren’t going away anytime soon.  Remember that every one of them started out with one store, just like you did.  What can you learn from them?  Study their operations.  Read anything you can find about their operations.  Then, do it better than they do.

They have greeters.  At your store make sure they’re greeted by the owner.

They have a liberal return policy.  If you have a sign that says “no refunds” or something like that, get rid of it!   Offer loaner programs.  Make sure your vendors back you up as well as they do the chains.

They have convenient hours.  Most likely you can’t afford to be open 24/7, but you do have to be there when they need you.

You have a number of advantages over the national chains.  Find out what they are and use them to your advantage.

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.

I Can Do Without the Glamour Shot

OK, I understand that our elected employees never go out of campaign mode.   At the very moment that the newly-elected employee places his/her hand on the Bible the reelection campaign has begun.  I get that.  But how much is too much?  How much of their reelection process are we, the taxpayer/employers supposed to pay for.

Case in point.  I just received a notice that it’s time to renew my business name registration.  (Actually it doesn’t expire until next April, but I guess the state of Missouri needs my seven bucks to keep the doors open.)  Anyway, I wonder why the renewal notice has to feature a photo of our grinning Secretary of State on its cover?

The photo in question is similar to the one that graces the SOS home page, though it is different.  I guess one official photo, paid for by the taxpayers, isn’t enough.

You may be thinking, “Wait a minute!  Your smiling face has a prominent place on this page.  How’s that different?”  It’s different because this is a private site, paid for by yours truly.  No one is forcing you to visit or pay for the site.  It’s also different because I’m a relatively unknown quantity.  If you’re going to put any stock in my commentary, it may be helpful for you to know that I’m not just another pretty face.

If politicians want to promote themselves, let them set up a personal web site, at their own expense.

I hate to start the week with a curmudgeonly rant, but these little things that add up.  Like most of you, I’m getting increasing frustrated by the antics of our employees in Washington and in our state capitols. Turning an official state document into a campaign flyer hardly seems like the best way to spend our money.

9/11/2009

TERRORIST ATTACKSEight years ago today, I was on my way to the dentist’s office  (not my favorite place to be) when I heard on the radio that a plane had struck one of the World Trade Center towers.  At that point no one really knew what was going on and the crash was being viewed as a horrific accident.

As I sat in the waiting room watching the coverage on television the second plane hit the second tower and it became clear exactly what was going on.  This was no accident.  As the story developed we learned that there were at least two more planes under the control of terrorists.  Would there be more?  We didn’t know.

As it turned out there were only four.  Only four?!  How could this happen?  Where was airport security?  Was this the beginning of the end?

In the days that followed, the citizens of the United States became united in a combination of emotions, mostly fear and anger.  Republicans and Democrats joined together to search for survivors.  There was no partisanship, only patriotism.    It seemed that the terrorists had underestimated us.  Instead of bringing the USA to its knees,  it appeared that we would emerge from this crises stronger and more united than ever before.

That was eight years ago.  Today, as we remember that day and mourn the thousands of people who died in the attacks, we’ve regressed.  In fact, we’ve fallen further into disunity than we were prior to September, 2001.  Politicians and their cronies on both sides of the aisle have used the War on Terror to further their own political agendas.  Frankly, things are a mess.

As we pause and remember the victims of that terrible day, including the brave men and women who rushed into the fray endangering their own lives in the effort to save others, as we pray for them, I’d like to suggest that we also pray for our country.  Readers in other countries, I’d like to ask for your prayers, too.  Pray that we might once again experience the unity that followed the terrorist attacks and that it doesn’t take another tragedy to bring us all together.

I generally try to separate my online secular writing from my religious writing.  However, in this case, I’ll make an exception.  I delivered a homily on this topic this morning.  If you’re interested, you can read it here.

Do You and I Really Have Freedom of Speech?

Interestingly, in yesterday’s post I wrote, “When small-business-damaging laws are being considered at the national and local level, we have to speak out.” In today’s local paper there was a story about John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods.  In a recent op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal Mackey offered his suggestions for health care reform.

Mackey’s comments have stirred up a firestorm because they have been perceived by some of Whole Foods’ liberal customers as being anti-Obamacare.  As you might imagine, a company specializing in organically-grown foods does attract a lot of liberal customers.  Some of them are threatening to boycott the chain.

I’m not going to dive into the health  care debate, at least not today, but you have to admire Mackey’s courage to offer a counter proposal knowing the make-up of his company’s customer base.  But, here are some things that I find interesting:

  • The President has solicited suggestions regarding health care reform.  Mackey’s comments seem to be answering that call.
  • Proposing a different plan from the one that’s currently on the table doesn’t seem to be such a terrible thing, especially in a democracy where the right of free speech is guaranteed.
  • Mackey may be CEO of Whole Foods, but his words don’t necessarily represent the company.
  • Do WF’s liberal customers really want to punish a company that seems to be so in touch with their views and life style?  After all, if the company were to go away, where would they find the same selection of organic and specialty foods?
  • I didn’t read all 4,000 + comments on Mackey’s blog, but if the first couple of pages are any indication, he has a lot of support.

Like I said, this blog isn’t a referendum on health care reform but as I wrote yesterday, don’t business owners and executives have a right and a responsibility to speak out on subjects that are important to their companies?  Obviously Mackey feels strongly enough about the subject to put his name on an article in a national publication.  As a responsible CEO you have to believe that he feels an alternative to the current health care reform bills floating around on Capital Hill would be best for his company, his employees, and his customers.

Where does that leave small business owners?  Don’t we have the same right and responsibility?   Should we back off on important issues for fear of adverse customer reactions?

Personally I think Mackey did the right thing.  What do you think?

Here are some other points of view:

What can John Mackey and Whole Foods learn from publicizing their views on health reform?

“Health Care Stirs Up Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, Customers Boycott Organic Grocery Store” from ABC News

Land of the Free?

I’ve noted here before that I don’t want Mining the Store to turn into a political blog.  We’re here to help you grow your business.  But you can’t run a business in American today and not be concerned with what’s happening in Washington D.C. and in your state capital.  Case in point:  the current debate over health care.

You may have seen this on your national news, but in case you haven’t, our local congressman, Russ Carnahan (D, MO), held a “town hall meeting” here in St. Louis last night.  I put “town hall meeting” in quotes because my understanding of the term is that it’s an open forum for people to discuss the issue at hand.  I also question the term because this meeting was one of the area’s best-kept secrets until news of it leaked out on conservative blogs and talk radio.

In this particular case, the congressman answered three pre-approved softball  questions then snuck out the back door with no further discussion allowed.  The event was held at a local elementary school.  My wife and I tried to go, but hundreds of people, possibly as many as one thousand, were denied admission.  Some “town hall meeting.”

Apparently these meetings are being held all over the country with similar results.  This one has made the national news because a black man distributing “Don’t Tread on Me” flags outside the school was attacked and beaten by a group of men, some of whom are alleged to be paid Carnahan supporters.  [Watch the video.  Warning:  X-rated language]

Now I don’t care what your politics are.  You can be as far to the left or to the right as you want.  It’s none of my business.  But when American citizens show up at an event called by one of our elected employees and end up in the Emergency Room after being beaten senseless by a bunch of thugs for passing out flags, then we’d all better start worrying.

What’s next?  Blacklisting?  Boycotting honest business men and women for their political views, or worse?   We’re on a slippery slope, folks, liberals and conservatives alike.

Here’s a quote from a recent post on the White House blog:

There is a lot of disinformation about health insurance reform out there, spanning from control of personal finances to end of life care.  These rumors often travel just below the surface via chain emails or through casual conversation.  Since we can’t keep track of all of them here at the White House, we’re asking for your help. If you get an email or see something on the web about health insurance reform that seems fishy, send it to flag@whitehouse.gov.

If this doesn’t scare the hell out of you, I don’t know what will.  The President of the United States is asking us to turn in anyone who posts something “fishy” i.e. contrary to his positions.

Here’s the video.  Make up your own mind.  And if you want to turn me in to Big Brother, be sure you spell my name right.  We’ll see if my taxes get audited.

Have a great weekend.

What the @&^#*?

I know you’ve heard a lot about the “Cash for Clunkers” program recently.  The idea, of course, is to get consumers to trade their gas guzzlers for new, energy efficient cars.  The idea is to (1) get the guzzlers off the road and (2) to stimulate the auto business.

IMHO, the porogram asks more questions than it answers.  For example:

  • Why is there no similar program for refirgerators; or lawn mowers; or speed boats; or vacuum cleaners; or anything else?
  • Is it really necessary to destroy all these vehicles, especially when there are so many small business owners who could use some of the vans and suvs being turned in as work trucks?
  • How many people are taking advantage of this program to finance new cars that they aren’t going to be able to pay for?
  • Doesn’t this bailout discriminate against the poor since they may not be able to afford a new car, even with the $4,500 incentive?  And, doesn’t this program take cheap cars off the market that the poor can afford to buy?
  • Where is the government going to get the money to continue the program given that it was supposed to run for months and it’s out of money in a matter of days?
  • But here’s the thing that really gets my goat.  As I was riding my bike yesterday is passed a Toyota dealer with a huge “CASH FOR CLUNKERS” sign.  Why the $#^@ is the government spending our tax money to get people to buy foreign cars?

Am I missing something here, especially given the government’s recent investment in General Motors and Chrysler?  If the idea is to stimulate the economy (Can a mere two or three billion dollars really make much difference?) shouldn’t the objective be to create American jobs at American car plants?

I’m just saying……

July 4, 1776

americanflag-circle-200

IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776.
THE UNANIMOUS DECLARATION OF THE
THIRTEEN UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.

WHEN, in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s GOD entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the Causes which impel them to the Separation.

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their CREATOR, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.  Click here for the full text.

Two hundred and thirty-three years ago fifty-six brave men signed the Declaration of Independence knowing full well that they might be signing their own death warrants.  In fact, several of them were killed.  Some lost family members, some lost all their property.  But not one of them, even under threat of death, ever recanted or disavowed the Declaration.

Notice that the document did not demand man-made rights.  All they were asking for were  rights that were ” endowed by the Creator”.

History tells us that this “grand experiment” was successful, at least so far.  But 233 years is a blink of an eye in the history of the world.  Great nations have come and gone.  All men and women of good will must work together to maintain freedom for all.

Here in America, July 4th, Independence Day, is a time to reflect on just where we started, where we’ve come, and where we want to be in another two centuries.

Rush Limbaugh, Jr. (No, not THAT Rush Limbaugh.  This is his dad.) gave an excellent speech on the signers of the Declaration of Independence, called “The Americans Who Risked Everything“.  It’s worth a look, even for our non-American friends.  It puts a lot of things in context.

Memorial Day 2009

Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, Memorial Day, 2008 flickr photo by Hjelle

Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, Memorial Day, 2008 flickr photo by Hjelle

I feel very fortunate, my church backs up to the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.  Every time I go to church, and believe me, I’m a frequent visitor, I’m reminded of the brave men and women who have fought and died so that I can go to my church, or write this blog.

This morning my wife and I along with one of our sons and his wife drive through the cemetery.  There was a line of traffic to get in.  I wonder where all these people are the other 364 days of the year, but still it’s gratifying to see that there are people who equate Memorial Day with something other than  a long weekend.

Yesterday local Boy Scouts carried out an annual tradition that was begun here in Saint Louis and has spread around the country.  The Scouts parade into the cemetery, take part in a ceremony around the big flag pole and then place flags on each of the 170,000 + graves.  It’s  something to see the entire cemetery sporting red, white, and blue in an operation that takes about five minutes.  More than 4,000 young men can do the job amazingly quickly.  Doing the math, it’s about 42 flags per kid.

As a business blogger there are a lot of lessons that I could draw from this; lessons about leadership, planning, motivation, etc.  But today I’m going to take off my business hat.  In fact, I”m going to place my hat over my heart and just say “thank you” to all the men and women  who have served, and who are currently serving in the Armed Forces of the United States of America.  May God bless you for your service.  If not for you, who knows where we would be?  There are a lot of issues with our government and our society that need to be fixed.  But even on our worst day the USA is still one country  in the world where illegal immigration is such a major problem.

People aren’t trying to sneak out, they’re trying to sneak in.  Keep that in mind on this Memorial Day.

The 912 Project

Mining the Store is a business blog, not a political blog.  But it seems that lately I’ve been writing about politics more often.  Obviously the political situation, especially the economy and efforts to fix it, are crucially important to all of us trying to make a living.

We humans are complex creatures.  We have differing views on a number of things, and to suggest that these views can be shoved into convenient boxes in our minds and only be brought out one at a time is just silly.

My views on politics affect the way I run my business.  My religious faith (or lack thereof) affects the way I run my business and my political views.  My love for my family affects everything I do.

So, while some might say that expressing political thoughts on a business blog is a sure way to alienate some readers, I would hope that we all look at one another as a combination of views and values and don’t let disagreement in one area affect our sharing of ideas in another.

Having made this lengthy disclaimer, I’d like to say that I’ve been very concerned for a long time about the way that we (that’s you and me) have given up our Constitutional rights.  The government, made up of our elected representatives, the people we chose to represent our interests in Washington, D.C., and our various state and local government centers, has become a political machine operating on the principal that if something is popular, then it’s OK.  This  “government by popularity poll” has gotten us into the mess we’re in today, and doesn’t seem capable of getting us out of it.

[Sidebar:  Some of you reside outside the United States.  You may have the same discomfort level with your politicians as well.  If not, congratulations!  But I think the problem is universal enough to be of interest with most of our readers.  If not, please bear with me.]

For a country that began with a rebellion against the powers-that-be, we’ve gotten awfully complacent.  We’ve lost our trust in government, the financial markets, banking, the election process, and any number of other things that our grandparents trusted without question but there doesn’t seem to be any outrage.  When King George did this stuff to us we went to war.  What the heck happened and what can we do about it?

912_project

Political commentator Glen Beck has started something called “The 912 Project“.  The premise is to restore the unity and the resolve we all felt on September 12, 2001, the day after the terrorist attacks.  Remember?  We were all Americans that day; not red states and blue states; not Democrats or Republicans.  We’d been sucker-punched and we didn’t like it.  We were willing to do anything to preserve and defend our country.

Obviously Beck is a conservative, and the 912 Project web site leans a bit to the right, but I wanted to call your attention to the 9 Principals and 12 Values that the site promotes.  They should guide all Americans regardless of race, political persuasion, or anything elst that divides us.

I’m going to let you check out the site and evaluate it for yourself.  But I believe the project is valid and valuable for all of us.  The idea of getting together with your neighbors to discuss what’s happening in America (and the rest of the world) is valid regardless of your set of beliefs.  In fact, if liberals and conservatives would sit around a kitchen table, drinking coffee and calmly sharing ideas, instead of yelling at one another, we might make huge strides in restoring the America where most of us grew up.

As entrepreneurs we have the greatest stake of all in the country and the economy.  We can lead the way for our fellow citizens by getting involved locally in efforts to move the conversation forward.  Check out the 912 project for yourself.

Forgive my excursion into the political arena.  But it could be worse.  Tomorrow there’s a 90% chance that this space will be taken up with a tribute to St. Paddy’s Day.

Have a great week!