Sunday, November 28, 2010

Don't Panic

You're at sea in the middle of a storm. Waves are pounding you from all sides. First from the right, then from the left, then two more from the right. You never know where the next wave will hit. You brace yourself for whatever impact will come and hold on tight.

The only way out of the storm is to keep a steady hand on the helm and keep the ship pointing in the same direction.

Okay, captain?

Economic Storm
We are in an economic storm right now. Ups and down without any predictable pattern. Customers spending more, customers cutting back. Positive and negative news from the media. Positive and negative signs at the register. Sales up big one moment, down big the next. promotions that work and promotions that fall flat.

Want an example from the weekend?

Black Friday I put out some doorbusters - really good sales on some of last year's Step2 kitchens. Even had a $10 coupon from the company to sweeten the deal. Didn't sell a single unit all day! Customer count was exactly the same as last year, but average ticket was down 8%.

Fast forward to Saturday - Small Business Saturday as promoted by American Express. 5% decrease in customers but 10% increase in average ticket. You might think the Amex promotion helped. Yet we had less American Express charges that day than a typical lazy Tuesday in August!

Stay the Course
Some businesses, after a weekend like that, will start twisting and turning every which way thinking that they need to chart a new course with every passing wave. But doing that will never get you out of the storm.

Keep a steady hand on the helm of your business. Adjust the sales as necessary, but always keep heading in the direction you have plotted for your success.

One thing we have learned in sixty years of retail. Smoother seas are always just beyond the storm. You just gotta stay on course.


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Rocked My Week!

It has been a fun week here and it just got better...

Not only are we just moments away from Black Friday - the real point when the Christmas shopping season begins... (no matter how hard some stores try to push the holidays)

Not only are we just hours away from my last day off for weeks... (I'll only be at the store for a couple hours Thursday, I promise:)

Not only are we closing in on one of my favorite meals of the year... (it's actually creamed turkey on Sunday at my mom's house)

But I just got two bits of news that have rocked my week, so forgive me for doing a little tooting.

Entrepreneurial Vision
The Greater Jackson Chamber of Commerce just named me the 2010 Entrepreneurial Vision Award Winner for helping entrepreneurs and businesses in Jackson County.

Coolest thing about the award is it has nothing to do with what I do for the Toy House, but everything to do with how I share that knowledge with you.

Running the Jackson Retail Success Academy, working with the FasTrac start-up businesses, doing workshops for the Chamber, doing leadership and teamwork training for other local businesses, speaking at the Michigan Downtown Conference, writing this blog, publishing my book has all been a labor of love for me. Being recognized is just icing on that delicious cake.

More importantly, the award spotlights the importance of helping out other businesses, using the skills that have made us successful to help others reach their success. I just love that the Chamber has created such an award, and honored to be this year's recipient. Cool!

Highlights for Hiring & Potter's Wheel Book
The second thing to rock my week was an online interview I did for Business Info Guide. The book is getting rave reviews, but this interview will help me open it up to a whole new (bigger) audience.

If you haven't read it yet, there are excerpts here on this blog. And if you are responsible for hiring and training, it is a book you definitely should read. Heck, at $19.99 it makes a great Christmas gift.

So I'm having a good week. How about you?


Monday, November 22, 2010

Black Friday Deals - A How To

Okay, you're gonna venture into the murky waters of Black Friday with some doorbuster specials at your retail store. You better know what you're getting into. Do it right and you'll see your registers ring. Do it wrong and you just might be borrowing trouble.

Here are some tips to help you navigate the seas of this retail extravaganza.

First answer this... Why are you having Black Friday doorbusters? Is it to draw traffic? Grow market share? Move out some slow sellers? Because your shopping center makes you?

Knowing this makes all the difference in the world.

Going After Market Share
If you're trying to grow market share and draw in new traffic, you have to have a really good deal on a whole lot of good stuff. And you need to share that info with the whole marketplace, not just your fan base. Email and Facebook won't help you grow traffic and market share. They are only preaching to the choir. You're going to need a flier in the newspaper or an ad on radio or TV. And that deal better be a killer deal because you're up against a whole bunch of killer deals from a whole bunch of deep-pocketed retailers.

Still not afraid? Good.

Now you need to make sure you have enough product to keep the momentum going. Run out of your best deals in the first few minutes and the rest of the day is sunk. You need to have enough merchandise to last the first couple of hours minimum, otherwise you'll send away far more unhappy people than happy ones - not a good marketing plan this close to Christmas.

And lastly, you have to make sure your staff is ready for the challenge. Do you have traffic flow under control? Is everybody up to speed on the deals and how to ring them up? Is everybody okay with the new hours? (especially if you're opening up extra early) Are they trained for dealing with unhappy customers, unruly customers? It's a given that you'll have at least one or two.

That's a minimum of what it will take to attempt to grow market share on Black Friday. (And there's no guarantee it will work. The competition is pretty savvy.)

Moving Out the Dogs
Maybe all you need to do is get some slow movers off the shelf, make those dogs bark. You can give the appearance of having a Black Friday type event without all the expense and risk, just by marking down some merchandise that you were probably going to mark down anyway.

First, this is a good day to start those markdowns. The Transactional Shoppers are out in force and looking for a deal. Second, you won't have as many unhappy customers, seeing that it was older, closeout merchandise in the first place.

Plus, you can advertise that kind of sale purely to your fan base and make them feel even more special because they knew what was happening before the general public who has to show up Friday to see what is on sale.

Doing Nothing At All
Then again, you don't have to do much of anything to make Black Friday special. Put out a pot of coffee for those early risers. Dress up the store in your best Christmas spirit. Make sure your shelves are fully stocked & straightened. Put your happiest smiling faces on the sales floor and let them do their magic.

The day after Thanksgiving has always been a strong shopping day, and it wasn't the discounts that always drove the traffic. Only in the last couple decades have we seen this day become the who-can-open-earlier-and-sell-it-cheaper event that it is. You don't have to join that fray to be successful.

In fact, if you take the hands-off approach, make sure you staff your store stronger in the afternoon and evening, and be ready for another big rush Saturday. There are a lot of customers choosing not to fight the long lines Friday. To them, no deal is worth the hassles of long lines, unhappy people and early mornings. They'll be out in force later and don't want to deal with those been-up-since-three-don't-bother-me sales people.

This Black Friday, whatever you decide to do, do it consciously and do it right!

Happy Thanksgiving!


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Love is a Given

Tiger Woods was on ESPN radio this morning and mentioned a lesson his father, Earl, taught him.

Love is a given. Trust and Respect have to be earned.

That is true not only in people, but in businesses too.

You have customers who love you. We all do. Sometimes it is just the nature of our store. Heck, who doesn't love a toy store? But have you earned your customer's trust?

Earning Trust
You can earn their trust a number of ways...

By always doing what you say you will do. If you promise to call someone back with information, you better call them back with that info. If you promise delivery at a certain time, you better deliver at that time.

Sure you might slip up along the way. We all do. but if you can't do what you said, you better be upfront and honest with why you didn't perform. When you make a mistake, admit it quickly and apologize profusely.

By always being consistent in who you are. If you stand for quality, you have to drop the products that don't meet your standards and stand behind the products you do sell. Whatever your principles, you have to show that you are willing to give up some of your profit to be consistent with your values.

By always looking at your business from a "what's-in-the-best-interest-of-the-customer" point of view. Is your cash wrap set up for quick and easy checkout? Does your return policy favor you or the customer? Are you willing to do what is right by the customer even when it costs you money?

Earning Respect
To earn respect you have to be respectful. Do you always have a positive outlook or are you a skeptic who sits back and take potshots at everything? Do you join in on the solution or just talk about the problems? Do you help out others or only look after yourself?

Your attitude goes a long way towards your ability to earn your customers' respect.

We all have customers who love us. But if you want to grow your business, you have to earn their trust and respect. And you have to earn it anew every single day.


Monday, November 8, 2010

Preaching to the Choir

This morning I gave a presentation to my staff that was the same one I've given three times in the past week to customers. It was a 30-minute presentation on Smart Toy Shopping.

My staff already knows this information. Some would say I was merely preaching to the choir.

And they would be right!

Sometimes you have to preach to the choir to get them to sing. Sometimes you have to remind your staff about the stuff they already know. Two quick advantages to preaching to the choir.
  1. The choir gets to refocus and get their eyes back on the ball.
  2. The choir feels good about themselves for knowing the answers to the questions you're about to ask.
Can we agree that both of those outcomes are worthwhile?

Don't ever discount the notion that you're only preaching to the choir. Sometimes the choir is the most important group of people who need to get your message. And in retail, they are the ones in direct contact with your congregation.


PS If you have a group of toy shoppers in this area, the talk is free, the lessons timeless. (It's the same presentation my grandfather was doing over 50 years ago.)

PPS If you are a toy store owner and want a copy of the PowerPoint - send me an email at

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Why You Should Care

Saturday, November 13th is Neighborhood Toy Store Day - a day to celebrate the wonders and delight of your neighborhood independent toy stores.

The genesis for this day comes from the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association (ASTRA).

Yes, it is a contrived celebration, not unlike the Hallmark holidays like Bosses Day and Sweetest Day. Yes, it is a marketing ploy designed to get shoppers into these local toy stores ahead of the Black Friday fiascoes. And yes, it is a lot of work for these toy retailers to plan activities, run promotions, and market themselves.

There are pretty much three responses from toy store owners on events like this:
  1. Some are going to ignore it and decide it isn't worth the effort. They figure it won't move the needle much and won't be around for long so they won't get sucked into the hype.
  2. Some are going to go half-ass and do just enough to say, "Yeah, I did something, but it didn't work out for me."
  3. Some are going to embrace it fully, plan wonderful events, inspire their staff to get excited about it, inspire their customers with their own creativity, and make this one of the most special days of the year.
Which of the three do you think will reap the most benefits?

The big difference is PASSION. When you show passion in your business, those around you cannot help but be sucked in by it. Your staff will mirror it. Your customers will embrace it. And your sales will show it.

So embrace those moments where you can let your passion for business shine through. If your industry creates a special holiday, put some passion into celebrating it. Your customers will notice and react accordingly.


PS We are celebrating in style on the 13th with one of the biggest Playmobil Play Days we've ever had! The staff is excited. The buzz is building. Yeah, it's going to be an awesome day!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

It Just Isn't Fair!

There's an uproar in the toy world and I want to give you my take on it - be sure to read the whole article.

One of my major vendors, a long time player in the specialty toy industry, just gave a whole bunch of exclusives to Toys R Us. Many independent toy stores are understandably upset. Not only does it cut into our margins, it makes us no longer look like the experts - one of the factors we use to compete against the big box stores.

Someone asked my opinion on it. I figure I'd share it with you, too. It's pretty simple.

S**t happens...

Yeah, it was the specialty stores that helped build this brand in the US. So what? Yeah, it was a major difference between us and our big box competitors. So what? Yeah, it was a huge customer draw for us. So what?

If I had a dollar for every toy that used to be exclusively sold in specialty stores that eventually found its way onto the shelves at TRU, Wal-Mart or Target, I'd be retired by now.

Unhappy Customers Equals Unhappy Store?
No, it's not fun when a customer comes in wondering why the "school" you're selling is almost twice as much as the "school" at TRU. She doesn't care that their school is smaller and doesn't have all the accessories. She also doesn't understand why you can't get all the other stuff she saw at the other store. And she really doesn't care that some of the price difference is because of their buying power - heck, that's reason enough for some customers to go running from your store immediately.

All she knows is that she has a problem and you're not being part of the solution.

But like I said before, this happens all the time. And there are pretty much only two reactions I can have.

  1. Be pissed and angry and let everyone see how unhappy I am with my lot in business (life).
  2. Accept it as part of doing business as an independent retailer and put a smile on my face while trying to show the customer what I do have and what I can do.
Of course you are going to choose #2. That's what the smart retailers do.

Not Their Fault
It isn't the vendor's fault. The vendor needs to make money. Selling to the big chains is one method of doing that. And you don't know what is driving their actions. Maybe the indie stores haven't supported them enough. Maybe there is pressure from a silent partner or parent company. Maybe there is enough demand that going big is a necessity.

Whatever the reason, it happens all the time in the toy and baby industries, and I would guess it happens in your industry, too. It just isn't worth getting your panties in a bind.

Take the High Road
You can choose to drop that vendor. Just don't think it will show them any lessons. If anything it will embolden them that they made the right choice going mass.

You can choose to evaluate the vendor financially. Are they still drawing customers and making you money? Then keep 'em. If not, drop 'em.

You can choose to tell your customers what a horrible company they are in doing that to you. You might win some sympathy, but you might also come across as sour grapes. Remember that it is about the customer and her problems, not you and yours.

The better approach is to see if what you have will fit her needs. Focus on solving her problem with what you have, not what you don't. Focus on what you can do, not what you can't.

Bottom Line
In the end you have to take care of your own bottom line. That means first and foremost taking care of the customer, making sure she has a positive and rewarding experience in your store and that you do whatever you can to solve her issues and make her happy. No matter what a vendor does, there is no excuse for a poor attitude from you.

It also means evaluating your vendors from a strictly financial sense. Is their product still drawing customers and making you money? Good. Don't let your emotions get in the way of a proper evaluation of a potential profit center.

At some point a vendor's actions will not be in your best interest. Rarely do those actions cause major damage to your business. Your reactions to their actions are usually the culprit. So take control of your actions now, and reap the benefits later.