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Everything Everywhere, Nothing is Special (Except You)

If there is one universal truth in retail it may well be this …

The hottest product on your shelf last year will be on everyone else’s shelf this year.

Every year in my two-and-a-half decades as a buyer I would watch another vendor cross over to the dark side and start selling their goods in the big-box discounters and Toys R Us. Proud brands that had grown and flourished in the independent specialty channel were cashing in with the big boys, who would undercut our prices and ruin a fine brand.

This happened Every. Single. Year. And the reaction was always the same. A lot of crying, complaining and gnashing of teeth on the part of the indies while we scrambled to find suitable replacements.

I never took part in the gnashing. Maybe it was because I had seen it happen enough times to come to expect it. Maybe it was because I grew up in the industry before that delineation between mass and specialty product channels even existed.

Page 1 of the original Business Plan for Toy House, circa 1949

My grandfather had two utility bills at our building on Mechanic Street. He got that second bill so that he would have “proof” of a second address separate from the retail operations. He did that for one reason only—to set up a “distributorship” so that he could buy certain toys he wasn’t able to buy directly from the manufacturer. Back then you could only buy certain lines through distributors, so he became a distributor just to get products. He didn’t care who else was selling the product. If it was a good product, he wanted it in his store.

He knew he could sell it.

In the 80’s and 90’s that mindset changed. Indie retailers shied away from products sold in the mass-markets and created what we called the “specialty” market. Some of that was to protect profit margins. Some of that was because we bought for different reasons than the mass-market.

In my industry the mass-market bought toys for quick turn-around—toys that had name recognition, shelf-appeal, and were backed by advertising. We bought toys for play value—toys that spurred the imagination and creativity in a child.

Once the specialty market built up a brand into a recognizable name with enough money to advertise, the mass-market would swoop in and snatch them away, sending us off again in search of the next great “specialty” line.

Today, however, the lines are once again blurred. In the toy industry especially, with Toys R Us out of the picture this holiday season, all kinds of retailers are popping up with all kinds of toys. There is no differentiation between “specialty” and “mass” in terms of products or distribution. Nor will there be for the foreseeable future.

Everything is now sold everywhere. Nothing is “special” anymore.

The only thing “special” about the specialty stores is You. How you run your store, the people you hire, the relationships you build with your customers, the involvement you have with your community, the events you host, the teaching you do—that is the Special part.

I tell you this to remind you that pop-up stores are about to start popping—not just in toys, but in all categories. Some of them will have products you sell. Don’t fret about that. Here is one other universal truth in retail …

No pop-up store will ever be able to sell products as well as you can. 

Their staff doesn’t have the training. Their leadership doesn’t have the passion. Their business doesn’t have the connections. When you play up the parts that truly make you Special, you cannot be beat. (Hint: it isn’t the product that makes you special anymore.)

The best way to protect yourself from pop-up stores and the loss of specialty brands is to double-down on your training right now. Download the Free Resources on Customer Service. (There are several good ones in there.) Go over this stuff with your team. Role Play the scenarios and look at how you interact with new customers. Talk about how to be better at curating a selection. Learn the benefits of your new products and better ways to close the sale. Practice using new phrases to eliminate the deal killer phrases we all use.

The products come and go. The relationships build your business and make you truly Special.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS Some of you are going to have stellar years without any extra training. Don’t get lulled into a false trap. Every boat rises with the tide. Consumer spending is up. The economy is relatively strong.  But if you’re watching the news, you know a lot of shuffling is going on in retail. The stores with the strongest relationships with their customers will find the greatest success in the long run. Consider that another universal truth. Make you store truly Special this holiday season. The gains will last well into next year.

PPS Heck, simply teach your staff to do what my grandfather listed as the number three part of his Sales Plan—“Listen to customer until customer is clearly understood. Do not interrupt.”—and you’ll be doing more than most retailers out there.

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