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.