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Be the First to Raise the Bar

It had to be my most favorite conversation with a customer ever. It was sometime in the fall of 1994, one year after Toys R Us had opened in our city.

“Phil, I have to tell you this. I went to Toys R Us last Christmas.”

Yeah, they were the new store in town. A lot of people went to check them out.

“But let me tell you what happened. I think you’ll get a kick out of this. I went in and looked around. They didn’t have quite as much stuff as you do. And I couldn’t find anyone to help me on the floor. So I took my cart up front and told the gal at the register I wanted to put it all on layaway. She said, ‘We don’t have layaway.’ So I said, that’s okay, I’ll just get it gift-wrapped. ‘We don’t do gift-wrapping.’ Well then what the hell am I in here for?

“If that’s your competition, you’re gonna be just fine.”

I was reminded of that story a few days ago. A new pizza place opened in town, a pizza and tap house. I only knew because I drove by it. I haven’t heard anything about it good or bad. No buzz. No excitement.

Image result for klavons pizza
The stuffed pizza at Klavon’s

Part of their problem is that another pizza joint opened up a full-service restaurant and bar serving pizza a few years ago. That restaurant is amazing, featuring indoor-but-can-become-outdoor-in-a-New-York-minute seating, classy stonework and decor, fireplaces, big screen TVs, and a killer menu (I had to go for lunch once just to order the cheeseburger that was getting all the raves because at dinner time I always get the pizza.)

This first restaurant raised the bar incredibly high. Anyone coming after them has to do something they didn’t do to get any buzz or excitement.

That’s the power of being first to raise the bar. If you raise it high enough, no one else is going to get any buzz just for copying you. Back in 1993 being “new” was enough. In 2018, being “new” only counts if you actually do something no one else is doing.

At the same time, here is your warning. If you haven’t raised the bar, you’ve left the door wide open for someone else to come in and clean your clock, eat your lunch, steal your chickens, or whatever metaphor you want to use for getting kicked to the curb.

Wanna play a fun game with your staff? Ask them this question …

If you were going to start a new store to compete with my current store, what would you do differently to have a competitive advantage?

Ask it of your staff. Ask it at the next networking event you attend. Ask it of your friends and family. Then listen to the answers. Any idea that isn’t simply cutting prices or offering more discounts and deals is a potential open door for a competitor to waltz right through.

Don’t wait for someone else to raise that bar. Be first. And raise it so damned high no one else would even think of trying to compete in your space.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS My second favorite conversation with a customer happened back in 1980. I was only 14 years old. I still get choked up thinking about it. I even turned it into a radio ad that propelled our 2005 Christmas season to record heights. I’ll tell you about it later if you’d like.

Protecting Yourself From Your Biggest Threat

I’m in a precarious position. My job is to help you succeed by teaching you the stuff you need to learn. My job is to know what you don’t know, be the expert you can trust, and help you see things from a perspective you haven’t seen before.

My other job is to protect myself from the Dunning-Kruger Effect. (DKE)

According to Wikipedia, “the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein people of low ability have illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their cognitive ability as greater than it is.”

People who suffer from this cognitive bias don’t know what they don’t know. They believe they have all the answers. They come across as arrogant, pushy, know-it-alls that annoy the heck out of true experts in that field.

As an author, business coach, and public speaker, I’m supposed to have all the answers. I’m supposed to know it all. Yet, how do I prevent myself from getting caught in the trap of illusory superiority?

Image result for stacks of booksThe simple answer is Read. 

“The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.” -Mark Twain

“Write to be understood, speak to be heard, read to grow …” -Lawrence Clark Powell

I subscribe to blogs and read books regularly, looking for new answers. Sometimes what I read challenges what I believe. I worry about my cognitive bias, wondering if the author knows something I don’t. Reading keeps me on my toes by presenting new ideas and opening me up to new worlds of thought.

The next best thing to do is Question everything you believe.

  • Why do I believe what I believe?
  • Where is my evidence?
  • Do I have the most up-to-date information on this topic?
  • Have I tested it?
  • Is my information relevant to today?
  • Are my sources up-to-date and staying current?

If all I ever did was give you information based off my own experiences running Toy House, then I might suffer from DKE. If all I ever did at Toy House was try to learn from my own mistakes without looking outside myself for help, then I most definitely suffered.

Yet isn’t that what so many business owners do? Especially the veterans who have been running their stores for years? They use their own experiences as the basis for everything and never try to learn from others.

“It is hard to read the label from inside the bottle.” -Roy H. Williams

Your biggest threat isn’t Amazon or the economy or the weather. It is in thinking you know all the answers and cannot be taught something new.

I fear this in myself. I have the confidence (arrogance?) to believe I have answers to pretty much any question about running an independent retailer. I guard myself against DKE, however, by reading and questioning everything I think I know. I did the same running Toy House. Didn’t know how to market and advertise? I turned to Seth Godin and Roy H. Williams. Didn’t know how to merchandise? I turned to Paco Underhill. I learned from them, tested it against what I thought I knew, and grew from the experience.

I know I’m preaching to the choir here. You’re out there reading and learning from others (otherwise you wouldn’t be reading my posts). Sometimes, however, we need that reminder to keep vigilant and protect ourselves from our own DKE.

Sometimes we also need permission to go out there and remind our fellow retailers there is a world of information available, and the strength of your individual business will rely on how much of that information you acquire and use.

(Yes, that is a request that you share this blog and the other stuff you read with others.)

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS One other way to keep DKE at bay is to be in a constant state of learning. Some people believe “training” only happens to new staff. Teach them what they need at first and let them go from there. Some people instead create a culture of learning not only for themselves but for their staff. One way I fostered that culture at Toy House was to give each of my staff a $150 budget each year for taking a class or attending a workshop. It didn’t have to be retail-related. It only had to keep them in a mindset of learning new things.

“Everything Cheaper Somewhere Else”

I used to hate anonymous commenting on news articles and blog posts. It is so easy to hide behind a pseudonym and take unsubstantiated potshots at people and businesses, spread rumors, and even spread downright lies.

As a retailer, I took every negative comment and review of my business personally. Some of them hurt, especially when they weren’t true. The misunderstandings were one thing but the outright lies were the worst. They cut to the bone.

I remember one day in the infancy of online news when a fellow downtown business owner alerted me to comments posted on an online news story that attacked both my store and me personally. He warned me not to read them. I didn’t heed his warnings.

One person had taken it upon him or herself to just rip the business up one side and down the other, calling us, among other things, price-gougers who were just out to destroy the little people in town. This person claimed that he or she could find everything we sold in our store cheaper online.

I took offense to the first part. The person posting the comment had no idea what I paid myself or my staff or our profit margin or what we gave to charity or what causes we supported. I am a forgiving person, though. I will forgive them their ignorance.

The second part, however, was pretty much true. Not only could that person show you the items cheaper, I probably could, too. After all, I had Internet access. I could also show you sites and stores where just about everything we sold was more expensive than our prices. That exists, too.

In fact, if prices weren’t fluid across different channels, Retail would look a whole lot different and be a lot less fun. Everyone would pretty much do the same thing and charge the same for it. Yawn.

Image result for valueRetail is a game, and the game can be boiled down to this … Find the Value you can give the customer that will make it worthwhile for them to pay the price you wish to charge.

At the ballpark they charge you more for a single beer than you would pay for a twelve-pack at the store. You buy it because you want to drink a beer during the game. There is enough Value in enjoying that beer while watching the game that makes you pay the price. (Don’t want to pay their outrageous prices? You can eat before you go to the ballpark. Most people can handle 3-4 hours between eating. You can also drink water for free. They have to provide it to you.)

People call them price-gougers all the time. It doesn’t stop them from raising their prices and making money. They offer you the Value of being at the game and watching the action in person.

The real question you need to ask yourself as a retailer is … What Value are you adding to the equation and will that Value be enough to get people to pay your prices?

You can add Value in several ways. You can:

  • Offer services other stores don’t have (i.e. layaway, free gift-wrapping, assembly, delivery)
  • Curate the selection to help customers get only the best solutions
  • Align your business with a social cause
  • Offer follow-up services (such as the free 30-day riding tuneup that we used to offer with every bike we sold)
  • Build relationships to the point that the customer feels as much ownership in your store as you do.

Any one of those is a way to “play” the Retail Game. Play more than a few of them and you’ll never worry about how someone can find “everything cheaper somewhere else.”

Were we the lowest priced game in town? Nope. Never tried to win that race to the bottom. But in a 2007 survey of Jackson County residents about stores that sell toys in Jackson, we were rated as having the highest “Value” ahead of Walmart, Target, Toys R Us, Kmart, and Meijer (all whom love to advertise their “lowest prices”.)

What Value are you adding to the equation?

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS I have a good friend also named Phil who also ran a toy and baby store in the other Jackson (MS) who never liked MAP (Minimum Advertised Pricing) because it made everyone price their goods at the same price. He said true merchants have no problem with the undercutting of prices on the Internet because they know how to offer Value and make sales at higher margins. As much as you hate to admit it, he’s right. MAP only protects you at the margin the vendor thinks you should make, not the margin you deserve for all the value you offer.

PPS As for anonymous negative comments online, if they are an attack on your character or the character of your business, ignore them completely. Your actions speak louder than your words. Use your actions to prove that person wrong. If the comments are simply something misunderstood, you can respond for clarification, but only if you can substantiate your claims without putting down the person who made the comment. More often than not, however, it is best to ignore anonymous comments, period. I’ll talk about how to respond to Reviews in a future post.

PPPS A few of those ways to play involve the skills and training you give to your front line staff. As I pointed out before, that is probably the easiest way to add the kind of Value your competitors are not adding to their equations.

Here is What Winning Looks Like – Sweetlees Boutique

Sometimes it is easy to talk about the mistakes retailers make and simply caution you to not make those same mistakes. I’d like to share with you a story of an experience that went right. A long-time Toy House customer, my boys’ piano teacher, and dear friend Jen sent this to me. In her words …

“Well, the basic story was this…. you know where it’s going right?

Image result for sweetlees boutique mason miI went to a small locally owned (in Mason, MI) women’s boutique, Sweetlees Boutique. (Because I will tell everyone about how amazing it was, and where to find them—160 E. Ash St, Mason, MI 48854.) The workers were so attentive offering to find you sizing, suggesting things they thought would look good on your body. They were fitting both my mom and I who couldn’t be more different in that department, and they did a fabulous job, asking questions, and pulling pieces for us to look at or try. Amazing experience. Both my mom and I purchased something. It was our first time there and we will definitely go back again.”

Let’s unpack that to see what they did so right.

“The workers were so attentive …”

How many times have you been in a retail establishment where you couldn’t even find an employee, let alone one who seemed remotely interested in helping you? The Wall Street Journal just wrote Monday about the dearth of employees in retail stores. Macy’s has cut 52,000 workers since 2008. Think about that number when you’re looking for someone the next time you visit a department store.

Think even harder about that number when you’re making out the next schedule for your store. Are you making a schedule to minimize payroll or maximize sales? If you think of your staff as your greatest expense, you’ll do the former. If you think of your staff as your greatest asset, you’ll do the latter.

“… suggesting things they thought would look good on your body.”

At one time this was the norm in a women’s clothing store. It was the expectation. Anything less and you would be writing a different review. Today it seems new and different and special.

That’s the one good thing you need to understand. The overall bar for customer service has been lowered so far that just doing the things you’re supposed to do will make you stand out in the crowd.

A properly trained and properly motivated staff can do wonders for the way your store is viewed compared to the competition. While everyone is all worried about high-tech this and omnichannel that, going old-school will win the day more often than not.

“… they did a fabulous job, asking questions, and pulling pieces for us to look at or try.”

Once again, a properly trained staff makes a huge difference. This team knew that by asking questions they could get to know the customer better. Getting to know the customer better allowed them to pull better pieces that more closely matched the customers’ needs.

Every customer that walks through your door is there to solve a problem. The problem might be as simple as killing time. It might be as complex as buying the perfect series of gifts for the hardest person on your list. You don’t know the problem until you ask. (And you won’t get the answer you need if you haven’t first made a connection.) This doesn’t come naturally to everyone. You need to train your staff by showing them how, role-playing it, and practicing it. The stores that do that best are the stores that are winning.

“Both my mom and I purchased something.”

You have a lot of hurdles to overcome to get a sale from a first-time visitor. You have to make her feel comfortable. You have to figure out the problem she is solving. You have to present her with a valid solution. You have to overcome her hesitations and objections. You have to make her want the solution more than she wants her money. All of those are actual steps in a process. One misstep and it’s a no sale.

We call it browsing because many times customers want to go into a new store just to get a feel for the place. No pressure to buy, just a scouting trip to see if they like it. Sometimes you get lucky and they fall in love with a product by accident. That isn’t selling. That’s clerking. Anyone can do that.

If your sales team is waiting for the customer to come up to you, many of them won’t and you’ll have lost out. If your sales team hasn’t made a connection, unless she falls in love with a product by accident, she won’t be back, either. That’s on you.

“… we will definitely go back again.”

That, my friends, is what winning looks like. Bravo to Sweetlees Boutique. Bravo! Thank you, Jen, for sharing that story with us all.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS In the same message, Jen told me about another retail experience that didn’t end so well. I’d rather leave on a high note and save that tale for later. If you have story of someone doing it the right way, please share. Send me an email or find me on LinkedIn.

Hire Me to Be Your Coach

I played the role of Father in The Nutcracker Suite on stage at the Michigan Theatre. I was in eighth grade. It was part of our LEAP class (Learning Experience for Academic Progress). It was a play more than a ballet, although we did have a dance troupe come in and do some dance numbers. I don’t remember much of anything about the play itself. I couldn’t tell you anything about the story, the other characters, or even my performance. About all I remember was I played the role of Father and I loved being on that stage.

Panorama of Phil Wrzesinski speaking to a large crowd
Phil Wrzesinski speaking to a packed house in Grand Rapids, MI

I’ve never really been afraid of standing on a stage in front of people. Oh sure, I had a kaleidoscope of butterflies fluttering in my stomach moments before I took the pulpit to do a guest sermon at church. But those butterflies settled down the moment I began to speak.

Whether it is a crowd of 500 at a trade show conference, a group of screaming kids in the dining hall at camp, or a room full of revelers at a brewpub, I love to perform.

That’s why when I began building Phil’s Forum I focused on speaking and presenting, doing workshops and seminars and webinars. That’s what brings me the most joy (and people said I was pretty good at it.) 

But my real goal, my true focus of Phil’s Forum is about YOU. Your success. That’s all that matters.

That is the reason behind all the Free Resources for you to download. That is the reason behind writing over a thousand blog posts for you to consume. That is the reason behind offering all those classes, presentations, workshops, and webinars for you to attend.

That is the reason why you’ll find a new page on my website.

Many of you have contacted me about private, one-on-one consulting and coaching. While I often said yes, I didn’t have a plan in place for how to handle and structure those requests. Nor did I have a firm concept for how I felt I could best work with you.

Until now.

Coach /kōCH/ (noun) An instructor or trainer. A tutor who gives private or specialized teaching.

A Consultant is someone you consult for advice and opinions. A Coach is someone who teaches you how to do what you need to do to be successful.

I am chock full of advice. I give it away freely. You can shoot me an email with a question and it is highly likely I will answer it (for free). If you read this blog regularly then you can probably guess my opinion on a topic before you even ask. Lots of people get paid for their opinions. It always seems a little disingenuous to me. If you make your living that way, you always want to keep your client in a position of needing your opinion. There is almost a built-in need for keeping a client partially in the dark so that they don’t form opinions on their own.

A Coach, however, knows that his role is to teach you something so that you can do it yourself. A coach puts you in the best position to succeed.

I know this is mostly semantics. There are amazing consultants out there who really are more like coaches. They teach. They instruct. They help you grow. They never hold back.

Words, however, are important. Choose the right words and your advertising messages will sparkle. Know which words make up your Core Values and your business will attract the right people. I needed to know which word I wanted to use and why before I could be of best service to you.

I chose the word Coach.

If you want one-on-one, private, specialized instruction to learn how to:

  • Hire Better
  • Train Better
  • Serve Your Customers Better
  • Market Yourself Better
  • Manage Your Inventory Better
  • Manage Your Staff Better
  • Manage Your Cash Flow Better

Let’s get together for an exploratory meeting.

The first meeting is FREE. In that meeting we’ll discuss where you are, what problems you’re facing, what tools you might need to solve those problems, and how best I can help you. After that I’ll send you a few different proposals explaining what I will do, what it will cost, and how we’ll measure success. From there the choice is yours as to how much coaching you want.

While my love is still the stage and I hope to spend as much time there reaching as many people as possible, coaching is the next best way I can help you find your path to success.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS Yes, I do coaching remotely. We’ll use phone and email to get the job done. (Or if you want to fly me out to meet face-to-face, I’ll let you do that, too. The best way to get me to town is to convince your local Chamber or DDA to hire me for a presentation and have them pay my way.)

PPS One thing I will ask of any client who wants my coaching services is for you to know your Core Values. You can download the new, updated worksheets here.

PPPS Yes, you can hire me to do stuff for you, too. I’ll run a Team Building event. I’ll write your Hiring ads. I’ll write your advertising messages. I’ll teach your staff how to sell. I’d rather teach you how to do those things yourself, though. That’s what serves you best in the long run.

When to Take a Political Stand

I did something a little out of character for me last night. I made a political post on Facebook. I’ve made comments and joined political debates over the years, but I have never made a political post of my own. It was scary to hit that Post button. I had said enough to offend both sides of the aisle equally. I wasn’t sure how people would react. Much to my surprise, the comments were amazingly respectful and surprisingly supportive.

I never would have made that post while I was still running the store. I didn’t believe politics and retail mixed well back then and I really don’t believe they mix well now.

Image result for donkey and elephant free clipartThere is a landmine of politics out there waiting to blow up in your face, even when you try to stay out of it.

Just look at all the people angry with FedEx when they wouldn’t discontinue their program discount with the NRA. FedEx’ stance was that this program is available to all companies regardless of their political beliefs and had nothing to do with politics, yet I read several posts of people on the left encouraging folks to boycott the shipping company.

Delta took a different approach, discontinued a special offer for flights to the NRA convention, and the Republican Governor of Georgia threatened to pull the subsidies they were offering to get a new Delta hub in Atlanta. Fortunately calmer minds prevailed and he backed down.

It is scary.

Sometimes it feels like you’re damned if you do or damned if you don’t. So when is it right to take a political stand?

  • When the cause you’re standing for (or against) is perfectly aligned with your Core Values.
  • When the cause you are standing for (or against) is critical to your success as a business.

That’s a pretty limited window. If the cause is aligned with your Core Values, your customer base will applaud you and become stronger. Plus, you’ll attract more people who share your values. If the cause is critical to your success, no one* is going to question your willingness to stand up and be counted.

Anything else and you run the risk of being on the wrong side of the equation. Anything else and you run the risk of alienating the people you are hoping to serve. Anything else and you run the risk of being pigeonholed into a political category you don’t necessarily belong.

In my Facebook post I shared my beliefs, some of which are heavily left-wing, some of which are heavily right-wing. I can surprisingly check several hot-button check boxes on both sides of the political spectrum.

One of my friends asked my thoughts on Citizens United, the ruling that allows corporations to pay for their own political advertisements. In the case of Citizens United, it was specifically to address whether this conservative corporation could advertise during the presidential primaries in 2008 a documentary it had produced bashing Hillary Clinton. The far-reaching affect of the ruling is that it now allows corporations to do their own political advertising.

Having been a corporation, I can understand the desire to be able to use your corporation to sway political thought, especially if the cause is critical to your success as a business. But I can see how the ruling has opened the door to wealthy people creating “corporations” purely to influence elections. That’s the quagmire that is politics.

What you need to know is that ruling does allow your business to enter the political arena. It doesn’t mean, however, that you should.

When should you, as a business or as a business owner, take a stand politically?

Only when absolutely necessary and only when the cause aligns with your Core Values and/or is critical to the success of your business.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS *By the way, when you take a stand for a cause because it is critical to your success, be prepared for some criticism that you are only being self-serving. Well, duh. Of course you are being self-serving. It is a stupid criticism, but one that will be laid at your feet nonetheless.

PPS Don’t ever pigeonhole your friend, your neighbor, or a business because of one of his or her beliefs. My goal of my political post on FB was to show just how complex and across the spectrum we all typically are.

How Long Do You Want to Be in Business?

I don’t think my grandfather ever envisioned Toy House being open for 67 year, 7 months, and 1 day. I’ve looked through all his notes and never found anything that stated how long he planned the store to be open. I know from an interview I did with him about twelve years ago that he knew he wouldn’t be in retail all his life.

“Retail is a young man’s game.” -Phil Conley

Phil Conley, working the register in 1958 at age 39.

You can argue all you want about that last statement. I know a lot of people who either started in retail at a later point in life or worked retail late into their lives. But that was my grandfather’s view.

At the same time, my grandfather had one other point he liked to drive home with his kids and grandkids.

“Plan for success.” -Phil Conley

When he founded Toy House, he did it on a rock solid set of Core Values and business principles. (His core values of Fun, Helpful, Educational, and Nostalgic matched mine perfectly!) He set the business up to succeed not just today but every day long into the future. In fact, there was only one “mistake” he felt he made in setting up Toy House for the long run.

“If I had only placed the building twelve feet farther north on the property, there would have been eight or ten more front parking spaces.” -Phil Conley

I bring this up because over the next few weeks we’re going to discuss advertising. There are two main types of advertising.

  • Short-term (Events and Sales)
  • Long-term (Branding and Awareness)

Too many businesses think that a string of short-term advertised events and sales is a “campaign.” It isn’t. It is an addiction.

You run a series of ads highlighting a sale. You get a lot of traffic for the sale. Everyone feels good. The ads and sale end. The traffic ends. Everyone feels bad. You run another sale.

You take a hit of a drug. It feels good. The drug wears off. It feels bad. You want another hit of the drug.

See the similarity?

Branding campaigns are different. First, they are long-term. It doesn’t matter when you start (to paraphrase a Chinese proverb, the best time to start a branding campaign is twenty years ago, the second best time is today) as long as you start and keep at it. You change the ads, just not the underlying message. The goal of this campaign is to make sure you are the first place someone thinks of when they finally need your service.

The beauty of such a campaign is the long-term effect. The longer you run the campaign, the more residual effect it has on people’s memory. It’s kinda like when your car runs out of gas. You put your shoulder into it and it barely budges. Eventually it starts to roll. The longer you push it (as long as you aren’t trying to go up a steep hill), the easier it gets until you barely have to put any effort into it at all.

These two campaigns are completely different, so it is important to know which campaign you are running. Some media are better suited for one more than the other. Some can do both, but you plan it differently.

My grandfather planned for success by building a business that would outlast him. His timeline was longer than he planned to be around. You make different decisions when you think like that. I know he did. When it comes to your advertising, you need to be thinking long-term there, too.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS Some people call it playing the long game, knowing that what you do today is positioning yourself for something farther down the road. Amazon is playing that game. All those “profits” they didn’t show for many years was because of the money they reinvested into the company for R&D and infrastructure. Unfortunately, many publicly traded companies look no further than next quarter’s results. If you want to be in retail for the long run, play the long game. You’ll be surprised how effective it can be even in the short-term.

Indie Retailers Best Poised for New Retail Model

A few years ago I went to lunch with a fellow toy store owner. I had wanted to see his store, so we made plans for me to visit and then go get lunch. Since we were in his town, I left it up to him to pick a place for lunch. What he said next I still cannot believe.

“Well, my favorite lunch place is out because I went there yesterday. A couple of our city council members stopped by and took me to lunch to ask me if there was more they could be doing for my business.”

Jaw meet floor.

That kind of respect for a local independent business is a rare bird in the world of government. Instead we see communities falling all over themselves to throw money at Amazon, not realizing that even if they don’t get an Amazon HQ or DC, they are still “giving money” to Amazon as local tax revenues are lost while local independent businesses struggle to survive.

For most indie retailers, even the government is slanted against us. You pretty much have to be a chain store or opening a mega-store for government to throw you any kind of bone.

In spite of all that, local independent retailers are starting to see a surge.

In a recent article discussing the problems plaguing Walmart, the author said, “Selling products to strangers doesn’t cut it anymore. To succeed in retail today you need to start with the customer, not the product.”

The article went on to talk about how several eCommerce sites are expanding into brick & mortar to better serve the customers.

Do you know who is best-suited to take advantage of this it’s-about-the-customers-more-than-the-products era of retail? You guessed it! Local independent retailers.

Believe it or not, it hasn’t been about the products for indie retailers for over a decade. It used to be that if you invented a new product you had to pitch that product to existing vendors or go into manufacturing yourself and pitch it to a handful of indie retailers to get started. Then, after the product gained traction and had sales history, bigger vendors might take interest. Once the bigger vendors got their hands on it, the product could make its way to the masses.

That model is gone. Now if you have an idea, you crowdfund it and launch it online until the big guys swoop in and buy you out.

Local indie retailers have had to build relationships with customers and offer them curated selections of great items they’ve likely never seen before to succeed. Fortunately, that model works. According to the article, that’s the new model of retail. According to me, that’s also the old model of retail.

Fostering relationships with your customers and building loyalty through something other than a frequent purchase discount never goes out of style. 

The simplest way to do that is:

  1. Figure out what she desires, needs, and expects.
  2. Give her more than she desires, needs, and expects.

I call that the Simplest Business Success Formula Ever. This is what the companies in that article are doing.

This is how you compete in today’s retail environment. You can’t control what product fads will be hot. You can’t control what vendors will stab you in the back (pro tip: every year at least one vendor goes back on his word about a product or product line he promised to keep exclusive to the indie channel.) You can’t control what products you will actually get shipped. On top of that, you can’t control what happens to the local, state or national economy. Nor can you control Mother Nature.

But you can control the experience someone has in your store. You can control the type of people you hire and the training they receive to be able to figure out those expectations and exceed them regularly. Do that and you’ll control your destiny as well.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS Your local government would do well to understand the formula, too. If they would create an environment where the needs and expectations of indie retailers were met (and exceeded), they would see tax revenues begin to rise. Indie retailers typically have more staff and a higher payroll per sale than the chains. Indie retailers typically use less land and less local services (police/fire etc.) than the big chains. They also create character, draw outside traffic, and give local communities their charm. Yet, in the last twenty-five years, that opening story is the only time I have heard firsthand about a government trying to exceed the expectations of their most profitable “customers”.

What to Do With the First Quarter Blues

I went for a walk/jog down the Falling Waters Trail a couple days ago. It was sunny and in the mid-50’s. My dog, Samantha, and I enjoyed getting out of the house. There is something about those early spring days when you get that sense of renewal, that rebirth of energy. Of course, today, I stare out at five inches of snow courtesy of our bipolar vortex. Just when you think you’ve turned the corner on winter, Mother Nature smothers you with another blanket of white. So much for that rebirth of energy.

It’s easy to get the blues.

Image result for cabin fever clip artEspecially if you’re a fourth-quarter retailer. January feels like a relief from the exhausting marathon of Christmas. But by February, when the bills have all been paid and it doesn’t seem like any new cash is coming in, it gets to be a drag.

If you’re a jeweler or florist, you get Valentine’s Day. If you’re a toy retailer or candy shop you get Easter. But that isn’t a lot to carry you through the First Quarter Blues.

Here is a list of different things you can do during the quiet times to combat the blues.

  • Paint the store. A fresh coat of paint brightens the mood and lifts the morale of the staff.
  • Re-do all your signs. Print new ones, change wording, make them more fun and in alignment with your Core Values.
  • Work on new selling techniques. Hold trainings, do role playing, practice new techniques.
  • Make displays for out-of-your-category gifts. For instance, January-March are big baby shower months (no one wants to hold them in November/December because of the holidays). Put together an endcap of great “baby shower” gifts – even if you don’t sell baby products! A hardware store could do a display of “build your nursery the right way”. You could also do “gifts for the mom/dad-to-be.” Get creative. The same is true for weddings. The bridal shows are January-February. Bridal showers are March-June. Put together “bridal/wedding gifts” like board games if you’re a toy store (the family that plays together, stays together), or tool kits. I got a drill as a wedding gift from a thoughtful friend.
  • Get creative with your social media. Post often about a wide variety of things (not all related to selling your products). Have a contest among your staff. Make them all admins. Allow them two posts a day. See who can get more comments and shares in a week. Pay the winner $20. Do it for five weeks. It will be the best $100 bucks you spend on social media this year because you’ll see what kind of posts move the needle.
  • Have a contest of some kind. Maybe a raffle for charity. Maybe a “taste-test” where you put two competing products side by side. (I can see this for tools, for toys, for shoes, for cleaning products, for foods, for strollers …) Maybe a competition. We did a five-week March Games Madness where we pitted four games against each other for four consecutive Friday nights. The game voted the best each week made it to the final four. The fifth week we crowned the champion.
  • Spend more time networking. Send everyone on your team to different networking events.
  • Rearrange the floor layout. Stand at the front door and look around. See what catches your eye. Redesign the store so that your customers can see farther into your store. And make sure something cool and compelling is in those sight lines.
  • Clean and fix everything. Everything.
  • Make your bathroom cool. When George Whalin wrote Retail Superstars: Inside the 25 Best independent Stores in America, he mentioned the really cool bathrooms for 14 of the 25 stores.
  • Make a list of your top 50 or 100 customers with phone numbers. Assign them to your staff to call each person and personally thank them for shopping in your store. No sales pitch. Just a simple, “I want to thank you for being a customer last year. We truly appreciate your business. Have a great day!”
  • Make a goodie-bag for those same top 50 or 100 and personally deliver them. Free. No questions asked. (Thank you Brandy & Eric for this idea!)

The customers will be back soon enough. You have new products rolling in. Take this time to plant the seeds for future sales by refreshing the store, training the staff, and getting creative with your marketing.

That’s how you beat the First Quarter Blues.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS I would love to hear your suggestions for additions to this list. I know there are some really good ideas out there. Help me share them with the world.

Collecting Information the Right Way – Brainstorming

(Note: this is a continuation from the blog post “Why Have a Meeting in the First Place?”)

Back in 2011, after seeing me do the presentation Main Street Marketing on a Shoestring Budget at the 2010 Michigan Downtown Conference, I had a corporate sponsor sending me to do the same presentation for several downtowns across the state. It was during one of these presentations where I learned the acronym STP.

Same Ten People.

As the Main Street Program was being developed and launched in several Michigan communities, one element that made it attractive was how it involved several people to make it work. Most communities had the STP’s that did all the work, served on all the committees, and were the most vocal about everything that was happening. The Main Street Program got more people involved which gave more feeling of ownership to the community as a whole.

You can probably name the STP’s in your town.

Your team has STP’s, too. Same Two People (or three if you have a bigger team).

Every time you go looking for feedback in a meeting, these are the people who dominate the conversation. These are the people who either have the ideas or shut the other ideas down. These are the keepers of the flame who love to say, “But that’s not how we did it last time.”

It is because of these STP’s that you roll your eyes at the idea of brainstorming. “It doesn’t work. I’ve tried it. We didn’t get any good ideas. We couldn’t stay on track.”

Brainstorming, however, can work wonders if you do it right.

Plus, it can be a fun activity for the staff because they get to actively contribute and be part of the meeting. They get to share and shine.

Here are three tips for making your brainstorming sessions more effective:

  1. Post the meeting time and topic at least 24 hours in advance.
  2. Focus on quantity, not quality.
  3. Understand that your best idea will come after the brainstorming session, not during it. (But you need that session to get to the best idea.)

POST IT

When you post in advance that you are going to have a brainstorming session about a certain topic, your introverted staff will have some time to think about the topic. Extroverts talk to think, but introverts think to talk. Give them advance notice and they’ll be much more willing to contribute ideas at the appropriate time. Your STP’s are extroverts. This is one of the reasons they dominate. You didn’t give your introverts enough time to prepare.

QUANTITY

When you make quantity your goal, you keep the STP’s from shutting everything down. They are the ones who say, “That will never work.” They shoot down every idea as it comes or at the very least start discussions on each idea which leads to fewer ideas being shared. There is a time and place for discussing the merits of each idea. That time is NOT during the brainstorming session.

Here are some techniques for getting quantity …

  • Have individuals write their ideas down. This makes sure everyone gets a chance to share.
  • Share ideas in a rapid-fire session. Allow NO discussion of the merits of each idea. Just blurt them out and write them down.
  • Share ideas in a round-robin where everyone gets a turn.
  • Have smaller groups do their own brainstorming and give them a number of ideas they need to generate. (Make it higher than they have time so that they don’t get bogged down in discussion either.)

The goal is to get as many ideas as you can without filters or discussion. In fact, when you go into a brainstorming session, have one or two really crazy out-of-the-box ideas of your own. You’ll be surprised how having those “seed” ideas can get the juices flowing.

FOLLOW-UP

Once you have a good quantity of ideas, assign different people to take those ideas and before the next meeting answer these questions:

  • What would it take to make this happen?
  • What would be the expected result?

Not only does that keep the brainstorming session from getting bogged down with too much discussion and filtering, it also keeps the STP’s from dominating the discussion. When you assign the ideas, ask for volunteers. No volunteers? No one thinks the idea has enough merit to waste their time. Move on to the next one.

The true value of the brainstorming session happens in the follow-up. You’ll find your team collaborating with each other on their own to finish their assignments. You’ll find them asking questions, getting more ideas, and looking for ways to improve on the ideas from the brainstorming session. When your team presents their answers at the next meeting you will find that several of the ideas have taken a new shape or form, one that will likely be incredibly beneficial to your business.

Oh, and there is one other secondary effect …

You get more people involved so that the STP’s no longer dominate everything.

To learn more about how to make brainstorming sessions more effective, I recommend you read this article by Brianna Hansen.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS If you have time at the end of your brainstorming session, another quick, democratic way to see what ideas people want to explore is to give everyone six gold star stickers and have them “vote” with their stickers. They can put the stickers all on one idea or spread them out. The ideas with the most votes will be the ones you assign.