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In Retail it is All About Location

Let’s get the elephant out of the room right away.

How can I write a blog about being a successful retailer when I closed my retail store? I can sum that up in three words…

Location. Location. Location.

Yes, we were having a tough time with cash flow. That’s the usual culprit behind any store closing. Much of that was due to our location.

Location Issue #1

The population of Jackson has been stagnant at best the last several years. The youth population, however, has shrunk considerably over the last several years as birth rates declined for all groups but teens, and school enrollment is down huge since 2007. On top of that, average household income in the city fell from around $35K per household to $27K per household (well below the national average of around $56K).

I have constantly talked about paying attention to your Market Share. To know your Market Share you first have to know your Market. Ours has shrunk over 40% since 2007. Fortunately, our share of that market only dipped a little. We still had our piece of the pie, but our pie had turned into a tart.

Location Issue #2

We own and occupy a large building on the north edge of downtown. We have been a large toy store for decades, carrying toys, hobbies, baby products, sporting goods, scouts, and more. When the market could bear it, we had a ton of inventory, but scaling back inventory to match the needs of the community meant less efficient use of space and less of the “impact” of being that large store that had everything.

We discussed converting to a smaller store, more in alignment with the population and income, but that would have led to many long-time customers lamenting that we just weren’t the store we used to be or the store they remembered. Better to close while the memories were still positive.

Location Issue #3

I am a big believer in downtowns. Call me naive but I still believe downtown shopping districts can be successful. It takes dedication from the shop keepers, the landlords, and the city leaders to make it work. It takes smart policies, united fronts, and strong relationships to make it work. We have some of that in Jackson, especially among the retail owners. We also have a city council dedicated to improving the streets and sidewalks and green spaces in our downtown. Unfortunately, that also means a ton of disruptive construction. Two years of it! (and counting.)

Our city leaders are not retailers and don’t understand how construction affects retail. They saw an opportunity to get roads fixed and attract new development (all good things), but didn’t see the consequences to the existing retailers and restaurants. When you are trying to dig out of a cash flow hole, having the busiest street in town – the one that goes right by your building – be restricted from three lanes to one with backups that stretch for blocks for an entire spring and summer is not a good recipe for success. At one point we had so much construction downtown that one detour actually led you to another street closure dead-end, and only if you had local knowledge would you know which alley would get you back to open road.

In a couple years, our downtown is going to be new and fresh and repaved and ready for business. But the last two years were pretty tough on the businesses already here, especially for us as our market declined.

Yeah, Amazon is a deal-changer for many retail categories. Yeah, our own vendors are making decisions that hurt the indie retail channel. Yeah, customers are as fickle as ever and have power like never before. None of those are insurmountable. You can still compete. Even as we closed, we were holding our own for our market. We just didn’t like the direction our market was heading.

If your market is your problem, you can do one of four things, Move, Close, Change or Wait. We chose to close.

Now you know.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS I’ll discuss the other three options and what would make them attractive in future posts. Right now I have to go let the big elephant in the room out to roam the savanna.

Friends With Benefits

Align yourself with charity. Pick one or two local organizations (or more if you’re up to it) that you feel strongly about. Do something special for them. Help them out. Be their friend and ally.

You’ll both benefit from the friendship.

Santa Paws 2015 #1

This is a picture of the Cascades Humane Society doing their annual Santa Paws event – pictures of your pet with Santa Claus. They called me a few weeks ago looking for a space to take the pictures. I have a stage. I love dogs – especially rescued dogs. I said yes.

They coordinate getting Santa here. They hire the photographer. They set up the backdrop. They sign up and schedule the photo shoots. They work the tables. They get the profits.

We get the traffic. We get the goodwill. We get the customers telling us how nice it is that we are doing this for them. We get the social media exposure. We get exposed to everyone on their mailing list. We get our name mentioned in their press releases (and non-profit press releases get picked up far more often than for-profit press releases).

Our friendship with them brings benefits to both of us.

When you partner with a charity, you expand your reach. You get exposure to a crowd of generous people who love to give to charitable causes (can you think of a better demographic for the independent retailer?). You get touchy feely goodwill because you are helping out. You don’t just look like a greedy merchant. You strengthen your community (the better the non-profits do, the better everyone does).

Make friends with a charity or two. You’ll reap the benefits.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS Your charity doesn’t have to be aligned with what you sell. We don’t sell pet toys or pet food. Pick charities based on a few different factors such as…

  • Do they have an active base of followers?
  • Do they want to “partner” with you (or simply have you do all the work)?
  • Do they align with your own personal core values?
  • Are they well-respected in the community?

Those are all good reasons for making friends.

You Aren’t as Well Known as You Think

Back in 2005 we hired a Statistics Class at a local university to do a study for us. They determined how to get a random sample size that would accurately reflect Jackson County and then called people to ask them one simple task…


“Name all the places you can think of in Jackson County that sell toys.”

The students would write down every store mentioned. Then they would say, “You mentioned…” and repeat the list back to the person. They would then ask, “Can you think of any more?” and repeat this until the person had thought of everyone.

Here are the results of how often the top six stores were mentioned.

  1. Toys R Us 84.1%
  2. Meijer 82.3%
  3. Wal-Mart 69.5%
  4. Toy House 64.8%
  5. K-Mart 59.1%
  6. Target 45.2%

Interesting that 35% of the population of Jackson County could not think of us even though we had been here 56 years at the time of the survey.

More interesting was that Wal-Mart had only just opened a few months before this survey was done. Was that 69.5% too high or too low seeing that they had just received about four months of wall-to-wall news coverage prior to opening?

Even more interesting was that less than half of our population thought of Target as a place that sold toys even though Target, nationally, is only behind Wal-Mart and Toys R Us in overall toy sales.

Most interesting of all was that not one single store broke the 90% (even with the 4% margin of error).


One takeaway from all this is the reminder that you have to keep marketing and advertising your business. You are not the Field of Dreams. People will not come. Mainly because they don’t even know you’re there.

35% of my hometown did not know that an award-winning store with one of the largest selection of toys in America was located right downtown in a brightly colored building for over 50 years.


Another takeaway is that no matter how hard you try, there will still be people who haven’t heard of you.

35% of my hometown could not name the toy store that runs radio ads every day, gets mentioned on TV every day, makes monthly appearances on radio and TV, is all over social media, and gets coverage in the local newspaper all the time.

35% of my hometown could not name the toy store whose logo is on the shirt of the guy who attends networking events, teaches classes at the local hospital and even wears his colors on his jacket all winter long.

Heck, even 15% couldn’t name Toys R Us despite them spending billions on advertising.

You could sum it up simply as…

  • Always be farming for more customers
  • Not every seed planted will sprout

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS This post took a turn after I started it. It was supposed to be about the importance of Networking, especially as a low-cost marketing method. I’ll get to that soon enough. In the meantime, download my FREE eBook Main Street Marketing on a Shoestring Budget for six other ways you can get the word out about your business at little or no cost.

PPS The cool thing about the survey was that I quickly knew what the people of Jackson thought when they needed to buy toys. I knew where I stood and where everyone else in the market stood, too. That is some powerful information.

Give Them Something to Talk About

Roy H. Williams told you that to get Word-of-Mouth you have to do one of three things…

  • Over-the-top Design
  • Over-the-top Customer Service
  • Over-the-top Generosity

This falls into that first category.

Huge kudos to Kristina Smith, who made all the signs (that’s her in the photo). Notice that we positioned this so that when you take a photo of your kid next to it, you get the big Toy House sign in the background.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS Roy says there are three, but I’ve discovered two more ways to get customers to talk about your business. Check out my free download Generating Word-of-Mouth.

PPS Yes, this is also a form of Branding. If you remember, two of our Core Values are Fun and Educational. Not only are the signs fun and interesting and whimsical, they also point in the right directions (almost) and they have miles on them.

The Mortar Between Your Bricks

They call us Brick & Mortar stores. Physical locations where you go to pick out and pick up your goods.

But many stores are simply Brick stores – no mortar. Those are the stores being Showroomed.

Bricks are the products. Bricks are the items you choose to put into your store. Bricks are the items you buy, hoping to sell for a profit. Bricks are the reason you believe customers will beat a path to your door.

Oh, but you would be wrong on that last one.

Sure, you better have some nice bricks. But everyone knows that just stacking a bunch of bricks will not build a sustainable structure. Anyone can come by and knock it down.

Mortar is the glue that holds the bricks together. You need a good mortar.

Mortar is the staff you hire and train. Hire the right people and train them well. Give them autonomy to do the job they are capable of doing, mastery to do it better each successive time, and a purpose greater than themselves that will motivate them to do their best.

Mortar is the way you service and take care of your customers. Build policies around your Values. Build policies around the Feelings you hope to give your customers. Build policies around Delight, around going above and beyond what your customers expect.

Mortar is the way you invest in your community. Mortar is the charities you support, the issues you champion, the involvement and commitment you make to the greater good.

Mortar is the special touches you offer. Mortar is turning off the overhead music when an autistic child enters your store because you know it bothers him. Mortar is carrying the heavy item out to the car – even though it is parked hundreds of feet away – so that mom can manage the stroller and the toddler who wants to walk. Mortar is calling that customer who really wanted your sold-out, discontinued science set because somebody returned one the next day. Mortar is saying Yes! when everyone else says No.

The stronger your mortar, the stronger your store, regardless of which bricks you use.

Bricks are everywhere. The bricks that make up your store can be found online, in hundreds of other stores, all over the place. They can be found right in your customer’s pocket, one click away. If you want to make it in this retail climate, you need some incredibly good mortar.

Tell me what is your mortar?

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS Mortar is also your financial strength, your ability to manage your inventory and cash flow, your ability to manage your expenses and cost of goods. The best retailers find ways to strengthen their mortar everywhere they can. If you are in the Jackson area and want to strengthen the mortar in your store, sign up for the Jackson Retail Success Academy class starting in January.

Call Me Farmer Phil

A toy store in December. Time to harvest the crops. Time to gather the rewards from a long year of planning and preparing for this moment.

Yet here we are still planting seeds.

Check out this FB post from a customer…

We’re always impressed with customer service at the Toy House, but yesterday was over the top. Our family was there because our son was picking out a gift for our daughter’s birthday. He asked me about a ride-along horse which I told him was fine, and he raced off, I assumed, to tell my husband. The next thing I knew a Toy House employee was asking me if I was XXXX’s mom. I said, yes, and she said that my son was asking if they could wrap the toy for his sister’s birthday. She wanted to know if it was okay, and they would go ahead, remove the tag, and wrap it for him, and we could pay when we were ready to go. I appreciated them taking the time to interact with my son (and tracking me down) instead of just brushing off his desires to get something for his sister. Thanks again, Toy House, for the continued hard work and great customer service!”

Planting the seeds for the next generation of Toy House shoppers.

If you are in a retail business like mine, where your primary target outgrows you, you have to always be farming, always be planting seeds for the next harvest.

I have to grow a new crop pretty much every year, so I am always in planting mode. You should be, too. Here are some ways to plant seeds.

Treat everyone in your store the same wonderful way, regardless of how much money they spend. Today’s small spender might be on a tight budget, but might know some friends and relatives who are not. She might also find her luck has changed next year.

Treat everyone in your store the same wonderful way, regardless of how they behave. You don’t know the journey they are on or the troubles they are facing. Have compassion and kindness. Understand that this is just today. Tomorrow will come and tomorrow will be different. It always is.

Pay attention to the memories and feelings you are creating. We are emotional beings. We remember feelings long after we forget the facts. Design your policies, choose your staff, and build your store around the feelings you want people to associate with your business.

Call me Farmer Phil. I’m off to go plant some more seeds.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS Here is a seed worth watering… If you are a retailer in the Jackson area and you want to take your business to the next level, check out www.JacksonRetailSuccessAcademy.com. A new class is starting in January.

Buying Word of Mouth Part 2

I bought people talking about my store for only $418.

This next project cost about the same – and I didn’t have to pay for it!!

Candy Chang started a project down in New Orleans by turning sheets of plywood into interactive works of art by asking people to finish this sentence – Before I die, I want to…

The interactive chalkboards have become a worldwide phenomenon.

I first learned about the project back in the spring and was kicking around the idea when a local artist approached me, wanting to use the side of our building for this project. She applied for a local grant of $500 and the board you see pictured is the result.

This picture was taken the day after the board was installed. You can see that it was already two-thirds full. The success of that board has prompted us to put up two more – My Favorite Toy… and the original Before I Die…

Now we have people talking and writing (and showing up)!

After the boards are up, we’ll install the webcam (for both novelty and security).

You can get word-of-mouth when you do over-the-top things in and around your store. Heck, you can duplicate this one quite easily.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS We used 1/4″ sanded plywood primed and painted with chalkboard paint. You could also use black flat paint if you’re on a tight budget. Doesn’t erase as well, but it still works. The borders are made with 1″x2″ poplar boards – the hardwood will last a little longer and hold up a little better. But just a simple piece of painted plywood will do the trick, too (but use a thicker plywood). The words are painted on (you can use a stencil or freehand it or even leave the board blank except for the header).The sidewalk chalk is in a 6″ cube acrylic box with a hinged lid.

The two other boards also have received funding through generous grants. See if there is money for art in your community.

Prepping the boards for mounting.

You can see the border – simple carpentry.

The chalk box.

Maggie, the artist behind the project and Dave, the carpenter.

We Need More Rock Stars

Not just any Rock Stars – we need Retail Rock Stars. You know the stores I’m talking about. The ones you would be most disappointed if they closed. The ones who always seem to have traffic and buzz and excitement. The ones you think should probably be in a book or something because of how they merchandise the store, how they treat the customer, how they participate in the community.

Retail Rock Stars change the landscape of a community. They become the focal point of the shopping center, whether downtown, in a strip or in a mall. Retail Rock Stars attract customers, but they also attract other retailers. People want to be around winners.

The best way to grow your business is to decide right now that you are going to be a Retail Rock Star in your community. You are going to be the retailer everyone wants to be like, to locate next to, to build a community around.

How? Decide what a Retail Rock Star store looks like and do it.

Merchandising? Yes! Displays that are fresh and ever changing and new and eye-catching.
Staffing? Yes! A friendly, helpful staff that will bend over backwards to delight your customers. And I mean BEND OVER BACKWARDS.
Products? Yes! The latest products, the newest innovations, the fresh-hot-off-the-presses stuff.

The Retail Rock Star does not have peeling paint on the side of the building, an old sign, a tired window display. The RRS does not have old lighting, faded carpets, and a tired, boring staff. The RRS does not have merchandise older than the store’s pet dog.

The RRS is a learning store, learning new techniques for marketing and merchandising and training. The RRS is a trying store, trying new things, measuring and tweaking.

These are the kinds of retailers I want to help build. These are the kinds of retailers this economy needs to get out of the current funk. These are the kinds of retailers your community needs to grow and attract people and business. Yes, your community needs you to become an RRS!

That is the goal of the new and improved Jackson Retail Success Academy.


Six years ago Scott Fleming, then director of The Enterprise Group in Jackson County challenged a full alphabet of organizations with the task of supporting and keeping indie retailers in town. From that meeting the Greater Jackson Chamber of Commerce (GJCC), South Central Michigan Works (SCMW), Jackson DDA, Jackson Local First (JLF), Midtown Association of Jackson, Small Business Technology & Development Center (SBTDC), City of Jackson Economic Development, and The Enterprise Group developed the Jackson Retail Success Academy (JRSA).

JRSA was designed to help start-ups and new retailers with less than five years under their belt get the tools they needed for retail success. For the last five years we have been doing exactly that. Well, kinda…
A number of retailers that took the class closed. They found out while doing the math that their business model was flawed from the get-go and there wasn’t enough market in Jackson to make it. Others were just too deep in trouble to dig out of it. A handful of class members took it to the next level, but for some, the next level was to merely go from struggling to surviving.

Most importantly, we weren’t accomplishing the real goal – to turn Jackson into an indie retail haven, a place where indie retailers would not just survive but thrive. We kept looking for struggling retailers to take the class, super small retailers, the minnows in our pond. We were hoping to grow them into fish.

We were focused on the wrong crowd. Winners attract winners. We needed to spend more time trying to grow whales, not fish. We needed to create more Rock Stars.

Time to refocus.

The new and improved JRSA is starting over with a new focus. We are looking for the whales, the established indie retailers who want to go from surviving to thriving. The curriculum is pared down to the essentials of Rock Stardom. The instruction is updated to include thriving in this most challenging new era of retail where all the rules you knew before have changed.

This is not to say that start-ups and newbies are not welcome. They are. Gladly. The information is only as good as the effort you put toward using it.Anyone willing to put forth the effort will get the results they want. But my focus for JRSA will be to go whale-hunting.

The bait is pretty good.

-Phil Wrzesinskiwww.PhilsForum.com

PS The beauty of the new and improved JRSA is that it is easier to take on the road.  If you have a handful of retailers in your town that are on the verge of Rock Staardom, but just need that push to get over the edge, get in touch. I can cram all 20 hours of instruction into two days that, if your head doesn’t explode, will rock your world.

Someone Always Does it Better

No matter how good you think you are, someone is better.  No matter how strong you think your customer service is, someone is offering more.  No matter how good you think your staff is trained, someone is trained better.  No matter how well you think you merchandise your store, someone merchandises theirs better.  No matter how many awards you win, someone is doing what you do better (but just hasn’t been discovered by the judges).

So let me ask you.  Are you seeking out those retailers who do what you do better than you?  Are you learning from their ideas?  Are you copying their best practices?
Are you using their lessons to find better ways to do what you do?

You should.

Phil Tripp of Tripp’s Auto Shop & Collision Center was a panelist for the Jackson Retail Success Academy.  He runs one of the biggest body shops in the area doing far more business than the industry average.  Yet he had just returned from a trip to the Pacific Northwest to meet another body shop owner who had found a way to do even more business.

Phil figured if someone was highly successful doing something different from him, it was worth the investment to go visit and learn.

How much of your training budget is spent on your staff?  More importantly, how much is spent on you?

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS  The opening paragraph is something I remind myself all the time.  I love learning new “best practices” and trying to see how we can implement them in the store.  Some fit, some do not, but that doesn’t stop me from looking for ways to improve.  I hope you are doing the same.

What is Your Story? (Here’s Mine)

My first official day of work at the Toy House came the day after my 14th birthday. With work permit in hand, I joined the team in November 1980 and took my place behind the glass counter that housed all of our handheld electronic games.

Games like Simon, Coleco Football, Speak & Spell and others.

My parents figured if anyone could explain these games to parents & grandparents, it would be a kid like me. And I was good at it. So good that I could play all the games upside down and backward (that’s how they were to me when I showed them to you) better than most of my friends could play them right side up.

What a perfect job – paid $3.35 an hour to play with games!

The hot toy that year was Simon by Milton Bradley. The old Simon with the round black body and four colored lights on top. We owned one at home and I was the champ there, too.

We sold tons of Simon games, as many as they would send us. By early December we were sold out. We started a waiting list in hopes that Milton Bradley would ship some more. They did, but still not enough to meet the demand.

Every day I looked at the empty spot on the shelf where Simon had sat.

The Christmas season flew by fast. It was finally Christmas Eve, my favorite day of the year. We stayed busy until about 3pm when my mom started calling people with big layaways still here. You’d be amazed how many people forget about their layaways until the very last moment.

One guy had completely forgotten and had already gone out and bought a whole bunch of other gifts for the kids. He told my mom to cancel his layaway, he’d be in to get his deposit back after Christmas.

At 4:05pm, less than an hour from closing and too late to try calling people on our waiting list, my mom brought over a Simon game from his canceled layaway and laid it at my feet.

“See if you can sell this before we close,” she said.

I turned around a minute later and saw him. He was easily over six feet tall. In retrospect I figure he was in his mid-60’s but he felt so much older than that. The look on his face was tired and beaten. His shoulders were slumped in defeat.

He explained to me that he had left Detroit that morning because his six-year-old granddaughter he was raising only wanted one thing for Christmas. He had been to Ann Arbor, Lansing, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Battle Creek but no luck.

The gal in Battle Creek gave him directions to our store saying, “If anyone can help you, Toy House can.”

He pointed to the empty spot on the shelf and with a sadness in his voice said, “I suppose you don’t have any Simon games either.”

There are moments in your life when you know there must be some sort of greater power at work. Call it fate, call it destiny, call it Karma. Call it whatever you want, but I knew instantly I was in one of those moments. I felt it even before I leaned down to pick up the Simon game between my feet.

“Well, today is your lucky day!” I said as I handed him the last of our Simon games.

Thirty years of dust and defeat were shook off in that moment. He started crying, saying “God bless you, God bless you, God bless you.” He reached over the counter and gave me a bear hug.
I couldn’t help but join him in the moment. With tears now running down my own face we hugged and hugged as though we were long lost relatives. Still he repeated, “God bless you,” over and over.

As he left the store, he shouted “Merry Christmas!” to everyone within earshot, and I swear this old man had a dance in his step as he entered the parking lot.

I was fourteen years old at the time. Now I have thirty years of Christmas Eve memories at the Toy House. But none will ever replace that moment in time. I remember the details like it was yesterday.

God bless me?
Believe me, he already has!
Merry Christmas,