Practicing What You Preach

Apologies for the long gap between posts. I’m afraid it’s been a very busy few weeks.

One of the basic premises of Saint Benedict’s Rule for living the monastic life is consistency. It’s also a good rule for running our businesses. Obviously what we believe is important, but it’s even more important to be consistent in our beliefs.

There’s a running battle (Maybe battle’s too strong a word, disagreement may be more appropriate.) between the lovely and talented Mrs. B and your favorite blogger over the topic of Wal Mart. As a small business czar, I find her shopping for groceries at Wally World to be problematic. We’ve compromised on her alternating between the local grocer one week and Wal Mart the next.

It’s not a perfect solution, but for now it’s the best the Irishman and the German can do. It’s an uneasy truce. Sometimes spouses can influence everyone except each other. (She’s a weight-loss counselor. I’ve obviously remained immune to her arguments. Another standoff.)

I thought about this recently while I was trying to catch up on my podcast listening and watching. Andrew Lock does an excellent weekly video blog called “Help, My Business Sucks!” Recently he praised Hertz Rent a Car for their marketing strategy involving built-in GPS units in their vehicles. Hertz has long been at or near the top of the rental car industry stressing quality over price.

Then, just two episodes later Andrew tells us that he rented a car from Thrifty and that he had a number of problems with both the car and the company’s service. Andrew, buddy, you’re not being consistent.

This blogging stuff isn’t as easy as it looks. Oh, yes, it’s easy to sit at the keyboard or the microphone and offer good advice to others. But when the rubber meets the road, sometimes we have to make hard choices. “Buy American” I type on my Thailand-made keyboard. I pontificate “Buy local” while I munch on my White Castle burger. Andrew tells us to emulate Hertz but rents from Thrifty.

Sometimes we have no choice. As far as I know, there are no American-made keyboards and White Castle doesn’t play fair. Their burgers are addictive. If there were a local restaurant with an equally-delicious sandwich, I’d eat there in a heartbeat. (At least until their burgers clog my arteries to the point where I have no heartbeat.)

Here’s the thing. Mike Buckley, and Andrew Lock, and you must be as consistent as possible. I’ll keep trying to get my better half to buy her groceries from the local chain. I pointed out Andrew’s inconsistency in a blog comment. And you, my independent business owner friend, must patronize local business as often as you can.

If you’re a retailer, please don’t let your customers see you coming out of the warehouse club with a cart full to overflowing. Sometimes we have no choice, but when we do, the long-term success of the business is more important that saving a few cents on a box of soap powder.

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.

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.

Undercover Boss; “must see TV”

I just finished watching an episode of Undercover Boss, a new series on CBS.  The premise is simple.  CEO’s go undercover to do the front line work of the companies they run.  The episode I just watched featured Dave Rife, the owner and CEO of White Castle.

Rife, and the other CEOs that have been featured learn very quickly that it ain’t as easy as it looks.  Leaving a trail of slider destruction in his wake, he (and the viewers) see that the job of making the little hamburgers requires a lot of hard work by a lot of people and that things don’t always go as planned.

Every episode that I’ve seen ends with the boss developing a whole new respect for the people who do the actual work.  I wish every CEO in America would watch this show and learn some valuable lessons.  But even if you only have employee, there are some good lessons to be learned.

The show airs on Sunday evenings on CBS and you can watch past episodes at the CBS web site.

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.

Seasonal Marketing

We all know that the weeks before Christmas are the busiest shopping days of the year.  Other holidays, real (Easter) and manufactured (Valentine’s Day) can bring out the shoppers as well.  But, what can we do to stimulate the shopping gene in those times between major holidays?

Why not have some fun with the more obscure festivities like National Embroidery Month or National Snack Food Month  (February) or Random Acts of Kindness Day (February 17).  To get you started, here’s a web site that lists all variety of occasions, both monthly and daily.  Add a little imagination and you can liven up the last week of February with a big Polar Bear Sale (February 27th).

These off-the-wall celebrations can be a lot of fun and you have little or no competition.

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.

Are Your Suppliers Letting You Down on the Web?

If, as I suspect, you’re a web-savvy entrepreneur, (If you’re not, how did you find this post?) it’s in your best interest to find the manufacturers who think the same way that you do.  The fact that you’re a blog reader tells me that you know how to find relevant information and that you know what to do with it.

Whether we like it or not, (and we should like it) the way business is done in the US and in the entire world is changing.  You can pretend that you’re customers can’t find the lowest price on anything with just a few minutes of web surfing, but you’d be sadly mistaken.  You can assume that your customers have to leave their homes to shop, but you’d be very wrong.  Maybe you don’t think that eBay and Craigslist are your competitors, but I promise you that they are.

Wise manufacturers are working with their dealers to provide them with the best, most up-to-date tools and information.  We’re in the midst of an economic crisis yet many retailers are thriving.  Often, but not always, these dealers are supported by like-thinking vendors.  Some dealers thrive in spite of their vendors, not because of them.

By way of disclaimer, I don’t claim to be the most knowledgeable person on the subject of social media, but I have been a blogger, podcaster, and forum administrator for quite a while.  Between this blog and its predecessor, I’m approaching my 900th post.  I regularly follow dozens of blogs and podcasts.  Obviously I’ve invested a lot of time and effort in providing information to small business owners.  I guess that, since you’re reading this, you must find some value in the content of Mining the Store.

Sadly, there seem to be a lot of manufacturers who just don’t get it.  Twenty-first century business owners want and need help.  The climate is just too hostile for each of us to reinvent the wheel every day.  Likewise, very few suppliers have all the answers.  (even if they think they do)

The key to success in the year 2010 is community; communities of people with common interests who get together online to share information.  Whether it’s politics, sports, health matters, or business, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can find communities of interest where any question can find its answer.

A wise supplier will get involved in the communities that affect his/her market and become a contributor.  Simply lurking, seeing what people are saying, is critical but it’s far from sufficient.  The days of a company looking down at its customers, considering them necessary evils, are over.  There are too many other vendors who treat their dealers as partners in the supply chain.  They will be successful.  Make no mistake, the same rules apply to retailers and their communities.

The bottom line here is that you have to hold your vendors feet to the fire.  Demand that they give you the help that you need or you’ll take your business elsewhere.  I don’t want to generalize too much, but there are vendors whose sales are down who actually blame their dealers.  They have such a perfect product and such infallible marketing programs that the problem couldn’t possibly lie with them.  Therefor the fault must be yours.  One sales manager actually wondered on an industry forum why “the better dealers” aren’t participating.  Maybe it’s because “the better vendors” aren’t participating?  I’m just sayin’…….

I’m not advocating for insurrection here.  But I am suggesting that you insist that your suppliers give you the help you need to move the product through the marketing chain to your/their customers.  History has shown, even with the help of the Internet, that it’s very difficult for a vendor to go directly to the consumer.  They need you more than you need them.  If they aren’t giving you what you need, they’re not doing their job.

Now These are Funny!

OK, it’s Saturday and I thought we’d have a little fun.  Here are two pictures emailed to me by a friend.  I’ll let you insert your own captions.