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Different Eyes See Products Differently (And That’s Okay)

I got a new laptop. While I was preparing to transfer files from the old laptop, I figured now was a good time to purge. I went through all the document files one by one, deleted all the duplicates, consolidated all the pictures, and opened up files I haven’t seen in over 10 years.

One of them was a staff meeting idea. The concept was to flash certain words on a screen and have everyone write down their own definition of the word. Some of the words would be applicable to our situation like “service”. Others could be words that have dual meanings to begin with like “experience” (noun or verb?). The point of the exercise was two-fold. First, we would see how different people interpret words differently. Second, I would see how the members of my team interpret important words like service.

We all come from different backgrounds with different life experiences, so we see and interpret things in our own unique way.

Never was that more apparent than at Toy Fair last week.

My retail customers came in looking at our brand new offerings. For everything I showed I had some retailers who loved it, some who hated it, and some who just said, “Meh.” Not everyone who loved it, loved it for the same reasons. Nor did those who hated it, hate it for the same reasons. In fact, I had one retailer give me a reason for loving an item and another gave me the exact same reason for hating an item.

Just because the first customer who sees your new offerings hates them doesn’t mean they are bad.

Just because the first customer who sees your new offerings loves them doesn’t mean they will do well.

I missed one of the biggest fads of the last two decades in the toy industry. It was Webkins. I loved the toy. Loved it so much that when it was first introduced, I bought the display and the TV monitor to show the video of how it worked. Got it in August. By December 1st I had only sold 2 of 144 pieces. That night I clearanced them all at 50% off.

Do you know when the craze hit? December 2nd. The first customer of the day walked in and asked, “Do you have any Webkins?”

She bought six. By the end of day on December 4th we were sold out. I never reordered and never looked back.

Some of the negative feedback we got in the booth was really good. It was constructive criticism of things we can (and will) change. Some of the positive feedback was location-specific to the person and store giving us the feedback. Knowing the difference and knowing how to decipher the feedback you get goes a long way.

“You are not a hundred dollar bill. Not everyone is going to like you.” -Meg Cabot

We all see the world differently. When you look through the other person’s eyes, however, you see things in a whole new light.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS Normally I like to give you something concrete to do in these posts—an action step or two. This post does not. But it does set up the next couple posts where I’ll try to show you what happens when you look through someone else’s eyes. It will transform your marketing & advertising, your customer service, your staff training, and even your merchandising. Stay tuned.

Making the Most of Trade Shows

In two weeks the world of toys will be on display in New York City for the International Toy Fair. All the vendors will be there showing off their new products. Retailers from around the globe will be there to take a peak.

New York City is a fun place to visit. Oh sure, February might not be the optimal time. I trudged through three 12″ plus snowstorms over the years and braved wind chills that matched the polar vortex of the last couple days here in Michigan. (Unfortunately I missed the unseasonably warm 2017 where temps got into the 60’s.) But with all the fine dining and top-level entertainment, it is fun no matter the weather.

My friends outside the industry would hear our tales of fine dining, bar-hopping, and Broadway. The partying was legendary.

The work was legendary, too.

We just never shared those stories.

There are countless articles about how to prepare for a trade show including tips that tell you to …

  • Run reports
  • Map your course through the show
  • Bring comfortable shoes
  • Don’t forget your business cards

There aren’t as many that tell you what to do at the trade show. Here was my approach …

WALK THE FLOOR

I rarely ever made appointments at the big shows. I didn’t want to be crisscrossing a large floor and adding a couple extra miles to my day.

Instead I chose one end of the floor to start and walked the whole showroom aisle by aisle, stopping in at my regular vendors as I passed them by. When I had to make appointments (LEGO wouldn’t let you in without one) I tried to make them either first thing in the morning or last thing in the afternoon so that I could walk as much of the floor as possible without interruption.

LOOK FOR NEW

The main purpose of a trade show is to find new items. You don’t need to see the stuff you’ve already seen, bought, and sold. Included in that “new” is new vendors. You should plan to visit several new vendors at any trade show.

This is where my affiliations with industry associations paid off handsomely. As a member of American Specialty Toy Retailing Association (ASTRA) I would look for new vendors who were supportive of ASTRA. ASTRA also had a special meeting one night at Toy Fair called Share the Fair where several retailers gathered to highlight the cool, new stuff they had seen. Those resources alone more than paid for my membership.

Every year you should be replacing your bottom 20% performing merchandise with something new. Trade shows are one of the easiest ways to find those new items.

TAKE NOTES

I learned this from my father. He would always ask for a catalog and two price lists. The first price list he used for notes. As he walked through a booth he would scribble notes on the price list next to each item. He had his own system. Mine was easy. I would star things I liked, circle things I knew I wanted to buy, cross off things I wanted to avoid, and write down short, descriptive words of the new items to remind me later what I thought of them. (Too small, price?, copycat, super cute, etc.)

Every night I would sort through all my notes and write down my thoughts on each vendor I visited. I would then sort the catalogs and price lists into two piles. One pile was going home to look at later. The other pile was for lines I might possibly write orders while at the show.

SAVE ORDER WRITING FOR YOUR LAST DAY

At some trade shows I brought orders I had already created. As easy as it would be to simply drop those orders off as I walked by the first time, I always held them until my last day. I wanted to see everything before I made any decisions.

More than once I added to an order because I loved all the new stuff the vendor was showing. More than once I canceled an order because I saw something I liked better from another vendor.

As soon as I finished my first walk-through of the trade show floor I found a table to sit and process my notes. I had three criteria for which orders I would place at the show and which ones I would take home to write later.

  • Show Special – if the show special was a good one and only was good until the last day of the show, that vendor went into the write pile. (Note: sometimes I would write at the show even if the show special was extended because I knew I wouldn’t see my sales rep before the deadline.)
  • Excitement – if I was really excited about a product and wanted to get it in right away (or feared there would be limited quantities), that vendor went into the write pile.
  • Sales Rep – if I had a lousy sales rep that I didn’t trust would see me soon enough to get the order placed, that vendor went into the write pile.

I knew I would be busy with all the other aspects of running a business as soon as I got home. Writing orders often went to the bottom of the To-Do List. I relied heavily on my sales reps to get in and help me write orders. My great reps knew that and always stopped in to see me right after a show.

The rest of that day was about plotting the second walk-through.

USING THE MAP

Every vendor would remind me their booth number in the multiple emails they sent before each show. I never cared until that last day. If you’re on the showroom floor, I’ll walk by you at least once.

My second walk-through, however, was plotted. I made a list of every vendor I needed to see a second time. Some of those second visits were to write orders. Some were to ask questions and get clarification. Some were to help decide between two competing products.

This is where the trade show maps come in handy. I always made my list by booth numbers. It minimized my walking and maximized my visit time. The list also made sure I saw everyone I needed to see. I circled all the vendors on that list where I knew I was writing an order. That way, if time got short, I had my priority list.

At our peak, we were buying product from over five hundred vendors. Trade shows were critical to our success in finding the right products, staying on top of industry trends, and building the relationships with our vendors that mattered.

This system served me well for close to one hundred trade shows. And when done right, it made the partying even more fun!

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS The “partying” served a purpose, too. That’s when I would meet up with other store owners and share all the new stuff we saw. That’s when I would go out with some of my vendors and build stronger relationships. Find a restaurant or bar that is not so loud that you cannot talk. The evening will be much more fun, and as long as you drink lots of water, you’ll feel much better in the morning.

Self-Diagnosis Tool #4 – Inventory Management

I used to like math. It lost me when it added the timber industry into the equation (logs and natural logs and all that calculus stuff). I got jaded because I could never figure out how to derive those trees into the answer the professor wanted.

I found, however, all that algebra I had to learn to get to calculus has actually been quite useful.

Today we’re going to put it to use to diagnose how well you are Managing your Inventory. Fortunately it is simple algebra, stuff your POS system might already do for you, and stuff you can easily program into an Excel spreadsheet once and not have to do it all the time.

Stick with me, because the numbers are fascinating.

First, here is the list of numbers we’re going to calculate:

  • Profit Margin
  • Turn Ratio
  • Gross Margin Return on Inventory (GMROI)
  • Accounts-Payable-to-Inventory Ratio
  • Current Ratio
  • Cash-to-Current Ratio

Here are the numbers we need to find from our reports to calculate the above numbers.

  • Gross Sales – This can be found on your year-end Profit & Loss Statement (also called an Income Statement)
  • Cost of Goods Sold (COGS) – This can be found on your year-end Profit & Loss Statement
  • Total Current Assets – This can be found on your year-end Balance Sheet
  • Total Current Liabilities – This can be found on your year-end Balance Sheet
  • Cash on Hand – This can be found on your year-end Balance Sheet
  • Accounts Payable – The money you owe to your vendors. This can be found on your year-end Balance Sheet
  • Current Inventory at Cost – This can be found on your year-end Balance Sheet
  • Average Inventory at Cost – You will likely have to calculate this unless your POS system has a report that will give you this number. Take your Current Inventory from each monthly Balance Sheet, add those twelve numbers together and divide by twelve.

Go get those numbers. I’ll wait.

PROFIT MARGIN

Profit Margin is your profit as a percentage of the retail price. The formula looks like this:

Profit Margin = (Gross Sales—COGS)/Gross Sales

Do this math and your results will likely be between 45% and 55%. That is a typical range for an indie retailer.

Obviously the higher the number, the better. If you are at or above the higher end of this range, good for you! There might be some room to push that margin a little higher, but for the most part, that area of your business is in good shape.

If your number is at the lower end of that range—and your rent/mortgage costs for your building are at 10% or higher of your Gross Sales—then we need to seriously look at how to raise that Profit Margin. Otherwise you won’t have enough money to properly pay for things like Payroll and Marketing.

I developed a simple, intuitive, easy way for any retailer to be able to raise their prices in the right way—one that doesn’t kill sales, but actually maximizes them. Most stores who adopt this pricing strategy see both increased Profit Margin and increased unit sales at the same time. Download the FREE Pricing for Profit eBook and see where and how to raise those margins.

TURN RATIO

Turn Ratio is simply a number that tells you how often you turn over your entire inventory in a calendar year. To do this calculation, you only need two numbers. The formula looks like this:

Turn Ratio = COGS/Average Inventory at Cost

The range for this number varies quite widely from 2.0 to 8.0. If you are a seasonal business such as a toy store, a garden center, or a gift shop in a summer tourist town, your number is often quite lower (2.0 to 5.0). If you are a store without a true season such as a pet store or baby goods store, your number will likely be higher (3.5 to 6.0). If you are a commodities store (i.e. grocery) your number will be much higher (5.0 to 8.0).

This is a tricky number to use by itself for diagnosing your business health. For instance, just being at the high end doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing well. You might be losing potential sales because your inventory is too light. One misplaced order or one vendor who is out-of-stock could cripple your next month’s sales. Being at the lower end of your range isn’t necessarily bad, either, if you are able to get favorable terms from your vendors.

Often we’ll look at this number in conjunction with another number. For instance, if your Profit Margin is low, you can offset that by turning over your inventory faster (make it up with volume).

GROSS MARGIN RETURN ON INVENTORY

One number often used in conjunction with Turn Ratio is GMROI. GMROI tells you how much money you made for each dollar you invested in inventory. The formula is:

GMROI = (Gross Sales x Profit Margin)/Average Inventory at Cost

A typical indie retailer is likely going to have a GMROI between 200% and 400% meaning for every dollar you invested in inventory, you made $2 to $4 in return.

One reason we look at this in conjunction with Turn Ratio is because of Profit Margin. If your Profit Margin is really high, that lowers your Turn Ratio, but increases your GMROI. So if GMROI and Profit Margin are healthy, we know your Inventory is probably okay, even if your Turn Ratio is a little low. But if GMROI and Turn Ratio are both low, something needs to change.

There are only three ways to affect GMROI:

  • Increase Gross Sales (without decreasing prices – you might want to revisit Self-Diagnosis Tool #3 Customer Service)
  • Increase Profit Margin (see above)
  • Decrease Average Inventory at Cost (see “Dead Weight” below)

ACCOUNTS-PAYABLE-TO-INVENTORY RATIO

(Also called “Payables-to-Inventory Ratio”)

This is an interesting number to throw into the mix because it tells you how much of your inventory is already paid for, and how much is being financed by your vendors. The formula looks like this:

AP-to-Inventory Ratio = Accounts Payable/Current Inventory

A typical indie retailer will likely have an AP-to-Inventory Ratio between 20-35%. The higher this number, the more favorable the terms you are getting from your vendors. Being at the lower end of this ratio means either you have unfavorable terms (or no terms at all—common in certain food service industries) or too much dead weight in your inventory. If your vendors are all offering Net 30 or better terms and your Ratio is low, then it is definitely dead weight in your inventory.

One interesting phenomenon this number helps point out is when terms are incredibly favorable. For instance, some of my vendors would offer me December Dating. I could stock up heavily in January and not pay until December 1st. The upside was getting my large store stocked quickly and thoroughly. The downside is that my Average Inventory at Cost would be extremely high, putting me at the lower end of the range for both Turn Ratio and GMROI. But my AP-to-Inventory Ratio would be outstanding!

(Note: if your industry does not offer terms, you need a higher Profit Margin and Turn Ratio to offset this.)

CURRENT RATIO

This number comes straight off your Balance Sheet. The Ratio shows whether you have enough Current Assets to pay off all your Current Liabilities. The formula looks like this:

Current Ratio = Current Assets/Current Liabilities

Depending on when you do this calculation, your number will vary. If you are a 4th Quarter store and you run this number on January 1st, you’ll likely have a Current Ratio in the 2.5 to 3.5 range. other times of year it might be down around 1.5.

Most banks use that 1.5 as the bellweather mark. You need to be there or higher to be considered healthy.  Anything below 1.5 is too low because even the banks realize you won’t be able to liquidate everything in a pinch.

This number by itself is only part of the Inventory Management analysis.

(Note: if your Current Ratio is too low, you can look at a couple options to make it better. First, raise your prices and sell more goods to pay off those Liabilities. Your Current Assets include your inventory at cost, not at retail. Second, look into a long-term loan to pay off some of those Current Liabilities.)

CASH-TO-CURRENT LIABILITIES RATIO

Your Current Assets include two numbers—Cash and Inventory. This Ratio is similar to the previous one, but only looks at your Cash in relation to Current Liabilities. The formula looks like this:

Cash-to-Current Liabilities Ratio = Cash/Current Liabilities

Again, this number varies widely depending on time of year. If you just finished a successful Christmas season and are loaded with cash, your Ratio might in the 70-80% range. If you ran that same number on December 1st when your Inventory and Current Liabilities were at their highest, that number could be 10-20%.

Think of those two ranges as goals to shoot for depending on the time of year and your season. (Note: if you are in an industry without a “season” you’ll likely always be closer to the 20% mark and that’s okay.)

The key to this number is to look at it in conjunction with the Current Ratio. If your Current Ratio is good but your Cash-to-Current isn’t, then you have too much inventory. If your Current Ratio is bad, but your Cash-to-Current is good, then you don’t have enough inventory.

If both are bad, we have some serious work to do.

IDENTIFY THE “DEAD WEIGHT” AND THE “MUST-HAVES”

All of that math is done to help you understand whether your inventory is in balance or not. Retail is a balancing game. If you have too much inventory, you don’t have enough cash. Without cash you cannot pay your people to sell your excessive inventory. If you have too much cash, you might not have enough inventory to make the sales you need to continue your growth and keep your customers happy.

Most inventory problems happen when you are unable to manage the two ends of the inventory spectrum—the fastest and slowest moving products.

DEAD WEIGHT

Your “dead weight” in your inventory is the stuff that isn’t moving. You’ve paid for it, but it isn’t making you any money. It just sits on the shelf and sucks the life out of you. You have to find it and turn it into cash as quickly as possible.

Think of it this way …

If you spend $60 on a product and put it on your shelf, that space on your shelf has now cost you $60. That shelf space needs to make you money. Right now, however, it is costing you. The hope is that you’ll sell the product for $120 and make $60 for that shelf space, but the longer it sits, the more you stay in the red. Once you realize that item isn’t going to sell, mark it down to $60 and get back to even. Then find something else to put in its place that will sell and make you money.

You need a system for identifying these slow movers. I used the following criteria:

  • Didn’t sell through by Christmas
  • Hasn’t sold in 3 Months
  • Damaged box
  • Old style packaging
  • Don’t like it
  • Have a better version coming

That was the stuff I needed to move out. Every year in May and June my team and I would pull all these items off the shelf, mark them half-price, and then have a HUGE sale on the third Thursday in July. Turn it into cash.

Whatever system you choose to use, make sure you have one that identifies the dead weight and turns it into cash quickly.

MUST-HAVES

The other end of the inventory spectrum is the “must-haves”, the stuff you never want to be without.

  • If customers come in asking for the product by name, it is a must-have.
  • If your store is known for selling this item, it is a must-have.
  • If you sell more than one a week, it is a must-have.
  • If the item is something you always sell and the customer needs it right now, as in they’ll drive all over town until they have it, it is a must-have.

When cash flow is poor, this is where the inventory dollars need to go. Don’t worry about profit margin. Worry about keeping your core customers happy. If you are constantly saying “No, we don’t have it,” your customers will eventually stop asking.

There are several models for what percentage of your inventory should be changing to new product each year (or season). Rather than worry about percentages, let’s just put this into priorities. When you are looking to place orders, your priorities should be:

  1. Must-Haves
  2. New Products
  3. Everything Else

The vast majority of your customers are going to ask for two things:

  • Do you have a specific item?
  • What’s new?

Inventory Management is about making sure you have a positive answer for both of those questions.

DOS AND DON’TS

If you’ve made it this far, I’m going to leave you with some simple tips that will help you improve your cash flow.

Here is my Do List:

  • Do measure those numbers above. Together they tell a story. What gets measured and managed improves.
  • Do ask for Extended Terms from your vendors (but be sure to reward those vendors by paying those bills on time).
  • Do buy less but buy more often. Smaller orders placed more frequently will always improve cash flow. If a vendor has great terms at a trade show, see if they’ll take your huge order and split it into two or three ship dates to spread out your payments.

Here is my Don’t List:

  • Don’t buy anything you don’t want. Never pad an order with something you don’t fully believe in selling. It never works out well.
  • Don’t run out of the Must-Haves.
  • Don’t out-buy your terms. If it is Net 30, try to buy 30 days worth of product (not always possible, but incredibly effective when you do it right).

Whew! We’re at the end of this Self-Diagnosis Tool. Realistically, however, this is just the tip of the iceberg for Inventory Management. There are some more details in the FREE eBook Inventory Management for 4th Quarter Stores. (I also have one specifically for the Pet Store Industry.) I also recommend you look at Merchandising Made Easy. sometimes it is your displays that are turning good merchandise into dead weight.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS If the math is driving you crazy, find a high school kid getting all A’s in Calculus. Show him this. He’ll find the math to be incredibly easy and can set up your Excel Spreadsheet so that all you have to do is plug in the numbers.

PPS Sell off your seasonal merchandise. Don’t carry it over. Without going into all the details, you’re better off marking down your seasonal merchandise at the end of the season and turning it into cash than carrying it over into next year. The math says it is the right thing to do.

PPPS One last number I might look at is Shrinkage—the amount of inventory that disappears, unaccounted for. If you’re using a POS system, your shrinkage is the discrepancy between what your computer thinks you should have in inventory and what your physical inventory actually shows. Read those FREE eBooks on Inventory Management for more info on what causes shrinkage and how to control it.

The Thirty Questions to Find Your “Silver Bullet”

I got suckered in once. Long before the phrase “fake news” came into existence, back in the days when Norton and MacAfee were the only names in anti-virus protection, my computer started slowing down.

Then up popped an ad for a free diagnostic test of my computer, guaranteed to clean it up and take it to speeds the factory settings never could. I downloaded it and immediately all these warnings came flashing on the screen telling me I was infected and needed to download this fancy, official-sounding fix right away before I lost critical data.

Yeah, you can probably guess the rest.

I took the computer to a local shop who cleaned several viruses and Trojans off the hard drive and got me back to my normal, plodding, limited-by-my-service-provider-not-my-computer speeds.

We’re all looking for that quick-fix, aren’t we? That guaranteed, take-you-to-the-next-level tool that will transform your business? That’s why scams like that computer virus one worked so well. We all keep thinking there is that one silver bullet we’re missing that will make all our ills go away.

Here is where I’m supposed to tell you there isn’t a silver bullet. Eat less and exercise more, right?

The truth is there is a silver bullet. And a bronze one. And a gold one. And a titanium-plated, platinum-infused, diamond-encrusted, gold-leafed, emerald-cut, space-aged aluminum, time-released-capsule one.

The problem is that every business needs a different bullet. In retail there is no one-size-fits-all bullet.

You might be struggling with cash flow while your neighbor down the street needs help with a better marketing message. The store on the next block has a customer service problem, while the store across the street is in a market with too many competitors.

What retailers really need is a good diagnostic tool to help you identify the true problem(s). Unfortunately your business isn’t like an automobile where you can plug it in and see what’s wrong.

You can hire a consultant, but unless they have a background in understanding independent retail, they might not be able to diagnose your true problem either. You can try to do it yourself (I gave you a few Measuring Cups to use in an earlier post), but it is often hard to read the label from inside the bottle.

Since I am the DIY guy of retail, though, I want to show you the approach I would take to diagnose where your business needs work so that maybe you can find the demon holding you back. If you were to hire me, I would look at your business in this order …

  1. Core Values – Is your business aligned with your Values? If not, how and where can we change things?
  2. Market Potential – Where do you stand in your market? Who are your competitors? What is your share of the market? Is it shrinking or growing? What local factors influence your market presence?
  3. Customer Service – How much of your business is Repeat and Referral? How much training do your front line people have? What skills do they have? How well do they greet, meet, and interact with customers? How are their “closing” skills? What services do you provide? Do your services lean customer-friendly or business-friendly? Do you meet and exceed expectations?
  4. Inventory Management – How is your cash flow? What is your Profit Margin, Turn Ratio, Accounts-Payable-to-Inventory Ratio, Cash-to-Current Ratio, etc? What are the “must-haves” and how was your stock position on those items last year? Where is the fat that needs to be trimmed from the inventory? What systems do you use to keep from over-buying?
  5. Marketing & Advertising – What is your Marketing Message? Is it consistent across all platforms (including the in-store experience)? How can we make that message more powerful and effective? Where are you spending your marketing money? Are there cheaper, better alternatives for reaching the people you want to reach? Are there collaborations that make sense? Are you harnessing all the free publicity available to you?

Notice the order of things. Most businesses come to me saying they need help with their Marketing because they aren’t getting the traffic they want. Yet sometimes the problem is their business isn’t aligned with their values so they aren’t attracting the right types of customers. sometimes the problem is there aren’t enough customers in their market to sustain their business. Sometimes the problem is their service is so bad, those who do visit are telling friends to stay away.

Better Marketing won’t fix those other problems or help the business.

If you want to run your own diagnostics, there are several hyperlinks to articles and blogs related to the thirty questions posed above.

If you want to hire me to run your diagnostics, I’m going through that list in that order until we find the first problem.

There is no single silver bullet to fix any and all retailers, but there is a bullet to slay the specific demon holding you back. I encourage you to run your diagnostics on your own to see if you can isolate your problem. When you do find it, send me an email and I’ll help you brainstorm several solutions to solve your problem on your own or with help.

There is a bullet for you, but it’s buried in the haystack next to the needle.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS I hired a consultant once. He compared my Turn Ratio to Walmart’s and told me my problem was inventory control and that I needed to go to “just-in-time” inventory where I had at most a one-week supply of inventory on hand. My dad hired a consultant. He compared our prices to Kmart and Toys R Us and said our prices were too high and then pitched a total revamp of our sales floor into a circus theme (not sure what that had to do with prices). If you’re going to hire someone, make sure they have extensive experience working with indie retailers. Make sure they have a list like this one, too, that spells out what they’re going to evaluate.

PPS Sorry for the mixed metaphor at the end. It sounded good in my head.

Invest in Your Education

Yesterday I gave you seven things you could do with your money when you have a windfall because of a better-than-expected season. Here is one more thing to do with that extra cash …

Invest in Your Education.

Invest in making yourself and your team smarter and better. Invest in training to equip your team with better tools for selling. Invest in classes that teach you more about advertising and marketing. Invest in programs that help you better manage your money.

“Always invest in this thing (your brain).” Darius Foroux

If I were to put “Invest in Your Education” in the priority list from yesterday it would solidly be #3 right behind Cash Reserves and Pay Down Your Debt.

My real recommendation, though, is that this should be a fixed part of your yearly budget. You and your staff are simultaneously your largest asset and your biggest expense. Whether you look at this as the former or the latter will make the difference whether you are truly a customer-first business winning the race to the top or not.

If I were to prioritize where to spend the time and money on training, the list would look like this …

  1. Selling/Customer Service: You’ll reap the benefits of this right away because your staff starts converting more of your current traffic into sales.
  2. Hiring/Training: You’ll see quickly who is cut out to be a retail sales clerk and isn’t when you up their game. Next it is time to up your game and find better people.
  3. Marketing & Advertising: I’ve heard many business owners lament, “If only I had more traffic …” First learn how to better take care of the traffic you have. Then, when you spend your money to learn how to get more traffic, you’ll reap twice the rewards.
  4. Managing Your Money: Good sales and a growing market cover a lot of sins. Those sins get exposed at the first downturn. Make sure you are measuring and managing the right numbers to protect yourself for the long run.

In a few days the dust will settle on 2018. As you set your priorities for 2019, keep this list in mind. I’m sure you can probably think of a few retailers (cough, Sears) that didn’t (cough, Toys R Us) invest in (cough, Kmart) becoming better at (cough, Bon Ton) what they do.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS I will be rolling out some new training programs based on the list above. Last fall, if you recall, I launched The Ultimate Selling Workshop designed for working directly with you and your team. Next month I will have newly revised programs, some designed specifically for working with business owners, some to work with managers and assistant managers, and some to work with your whole team. The priorities you set for 2019 will dictate much of the success you reap this time next year.

Save It for a Rainy Day

In the summer of 1989 my parents did something quite unique for an independent, single-store retailer. They bought a fully-integrated IBM computer system including POS and inventory control. It was a state-of-the-art IBM AS/400 with three hard drives and almost a complete Megabyte of storage. The unit was larger than our copier machine. My parents had to build a custom countertop in the office to fit the beast, run a bunch of new wiring to our six new cash registers and five new workstations, and outfit the closet in the office to hold a dot-matrix printer that printed on green-bar paper.

Our version was over 3x this size!

All in all they spent about $180,000 on that system including the software and support. (That’s the equivalent of about $368,000 in today’s dollars!)

They had the money back then because A) they had been saving, and B) it was the 80’s and everyone was making money in retail at that time.

Let’s talk about A) a little more. Savings. Cash Reserve. Rainy-Day Fund. Do you have one?

By most accounts 2018 was one of the strongest holiday seasons ever. Several retailers have told me this year was “better than expected.” That phrase usually means more money in the bank to start the new year than usual.

You have several options ahead of you for what to do with that money including:

  • Expand your footprint: Maybe you have been eyeing a larger space or better location, or buying instead of renting.
  • Expand your inventory: You could buy more now to maximize spring and summer sales, expand into a new category, or to grow your store’s capacity overall if you feel like you’ve been under-inventoried.
  • Pay down your debt: Almost always the best option. Getting out of debt and getting rid of high monthly bills—especially during the slow months—makes a whole lot of sense.
  • Pay yourself: If you haven’t been paying yourself a salary, I would suggest that you start doing that right now. If you have been paying yourself a salary, you could use this for a bonus for you and the team.
  • Upgrade your systems: New registers, new software, new tech are all solid investments (and not nearly as expensive as they were back in 1989).
  • Upgrade your infrastructure: Is it time for new shelving fixtures or a new floor?
  • Save it for a real emergency or need: Maybe it is best to just sit on it for a while. Economic trends tend to go in cycles and we never know how long this cycle will last. Plus, you never know when a real financial emergency might hit.

These are all valid uses for the extra cash you earn in an up year. They are all easily justifiable, too.

If you’re in this predicament (a nice one to be in, for sure), can I offer you some suggestions? If I were to prioritize them, I would list them this way:

  1. Save it for a real emergency.
  2. Pay down your debt.
  3. Upgrade your system.
  4. Expand your inventory.
  5. Pay yourself.
  6. Upgrade your infrastructure.
  7. Expand your footprint.

Since Cash is King in retail, having cash reserves in the bank is the most critical element to your long-term success.

Paying down debt is good because it lowers your monthly payments and helps with cash flow month-to-month, but it doesn’t help you when something unexpected happens. You have to have some money put away with really strict rules on when and how you can spend it. After you’ve done that, then start whittling down that debt. Because of the cash flow, those two have to be your priorities. 

Of course, the old adage is true, too. You have to spend money to make money. You can swap #3 and #4 interchangeably, but with tech changing so fast, having mobile apps, tablets on the floor for quick checkout, and systems that take things like Apple Pay can all help you take care of your customers better. Both 3 and 4 should help you make more money next year. If you’re happy with your tech, maybe you look into expanding into a new product category.

If you’ve already done 1-4, then pay yourself. You’ve earned it—especially since you’ve already done 1-4! You can slap a coat of paint on one wall and get some new free racks from your vendor for a fresh new look for your store if necessary.

You’ll notice, however, that I put “Expand your footprint” last. Unless you’re in an absolute hellhole or have a landlord forcing you out through outrageous raises in rents and CAM, choose this last one carefully. It has far more long-term consequences (both good and bad) than the other six.

When my grandfather moved Toy House from its original location on First Street to the Mechanic Street location, he went from 10,000 square feet to 20,000 square feet. The one kicker, though, was that he could afford to make the jump because he could afford the new building with the level of sales he was already making at the old building. If you need an uptick in sales to make the new place affordable, then it isn’t affordable.

His advice would have been to NEVER expand your footprint because of a windfall from a very good year.

Only expand when your current sales are good enough to support the expansion.

Retail is fickle. Retail is full of surprises. No matter what you do with any windfall from a good year, first put some money away and then pay off some debt. That is the “eat healthy and get exercise” of the retail world that will keep you alive for years to come.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS I know retail has been tough and tight the last decade. I understand you have some rainy day fixes that you’ve been waiting for this windfall to get accomplished. Still try to put some of that cash away if you can. Tithe at least 10% of your earnings into your savings for the next rainstorm. You’ll thank me later.

PPS One year after buying that computer, Target opened in Jackson. Our business took a 15% hit that year after a decade of windfalls. It was an eye-opener for my parents and a quick lesson in how things can change so fast and why cash reserves are so important. Like I said, you never know what is right around the corner.

Christmas Quick Tip #19 – Pull it Forward

This is it. Your final quick tip of what I sincerely hope was/is a wonderful holiday selling season. I will not be posting again until after Christmas, so Merry, Merry to you. Thank you for reading these posts and sharing your success stories with me.

Here is tip #19 … (here is a link back to tip #1)

PULL IT FORWARD

Except for next day shipments, FedEx and UPS are done. You likely won’t be getting any major shipments of products in after today. Yet you still have three wonderfully busy days to sell, sell, sell.

But your shelves are looking a little bare and there is nothing left in back to bring out.

I call stocking the shelves this time of year “smoke and mirrors.”

Your job is to make your store look as full of merchandise as possible.

Here are some things you can do …

  • Pull everything forward to the front edge of the display/shelf
  • Remove shelves from the display. Three full shelves with gaps above and below looks better than four partially filled shelves.
  • Put excess merchandise in empty areas. We often would use large plush to fill major holes. Some of it sold from there, too!
  • Wrap large boxes to put on high shelves to advertise that you offer gift wrap services.
  • Remove free-standing displays and move items to shelves to keep fixed shelving full

If you make the store look “full”, your customers will have more confidence to buy.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS Merry Christmas my friends! May Santa be as generous to you as you have been to your customers and staff.

Christmas Quick Tip #10 – Move Stuff Around

For the holiday season I am keeping these posts short and simple. You’re busy. I’m busy.

Here is tip #10 …

MOVE STUFF AROUND

By now you’ve had a pretty good taste of what people want. You already know the slow movers, the stuff you had high hopes for but haven’t seen the sales. Now is the time to move it.

Here is how you sell that merchandise without heavy discounts …

  • Move it around
  • Put it in a better location
  • Give it a spotlight and a sign
  • Treat it like it is special
  • Talk it up to your customers
  • Talk it up to your staff
  • Give your staff a spiff for selling it

It is better to mark it down a little and move it now while you have a lot of customers than try to move it in January at really deep discounts when you don’t have the traffic.

You have from now until Friday to identify those slow movers and relocate them in the store. (On Friday the men start their Christmas shopping.)

Go!

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS Remerchandising should already be the busiest thing on your schedule as you constantly shift inventory to make the store look full.

This “Free” is Really Free!

I was looking at the Free Resources page on my website yesterday. There are nine eBooks on Marketing & Advertising, twelve on Customer Service, and five on Money. You can download any and all of them for free. No strings attached. No limits to how many or how often you can download them. No limits to how far or wide you can share them. I don’t even ask for your email address first, just credit for having written and produced them.

Yeah, pretty stupid to give it all away like that for free.

Free eBook Icon from Phil's ForumYet, if you read yesterday’s post, you would understand why I do it. Of the three questions and the fifteen answers I gave yesterday to why I am doing what I do, the last question about the problems I want to solve and the last five answers were the easiest.

Helping other businesses succeed drives everything. It is the starting and ending point. If these eBooks can make a difference, you should have them.

  • You’re more likely to download them if you don’t have to jump through a bunch of hoops.
  • You’re more likely to read them if they are short and to the point.
  • You’re more likely to share them if they are smaller files that you could even print if you wanted.

“A man who doesn’t read has no advantage over a man who can’t.” -Mark Twain

My sales staff got a copy of everything I had written about customer service at that time either through a staff training or by printing copies for their handbooks. (That included Generating Word of Mouth which is technically a Customer Service issue even though you’ll find it under Marketing & Advertising.)

My buyers all got copies of the Inventory Management and Pricing for Profit eBooks (the latter of which is the second most downloaded after Understanding Your Brand). 

While the stats counter shows how many times each gets downloaded, it doesn’t tell me how you’ve used them.

Would you do me a favor?

Drop me a comment on this post or an email and tell me which eBooks you’ve used and what, if any, difference they have made for your business. I’d like to know which ones have been most useful and which ones need to be revised, revamped, or removed for better content.

Thanks.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS The five newest eBooks are:

Those first four make up the basis of the new half-day workshop The Ultimate Selling Workshop. (They also stand alone as great Breakout Sessions!) Yes, the live event for any of these eBooks is a far cry better than the eBook, itself. You get more stories and examples. You get the whole presentation tailored to your specific industry or region. If it is a session with owners and managers, you also get tips and techniques for teaching it to your staff. If it is a session with the staff at your business, you get hands-on activities to really drive home the points. While I encourage you to hire me for a live event, please keep sharing and using this information. Together we can tilt the playing field back in your direction.

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
www.PhilsForum.com

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.