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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Two bicycle specialty stores closed in Metro Detroit this year. Three more suddenly changed “ownership” in November on their way to eventual closure.

On the national scale, Advanced Sport Enterprises, parent company to Performance Bicycle and Bike Nashbar, filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy last month.

After decades of failure to adapt, Southeastern Michigan bicycle retail is in a brutal phase of enforced transition. Despite an overall economic boom many bike shops are a bust. Southeastern Michigan bike store closures and hasty ownership spin-offs that precede further closings confirm that.

The questions are; how did this happen; how can it be avoided and what will the industry look like once the rules of business exact their toll?

Like most significant shifts in business there is no singular cause.  A conspiracy of factors combines to weigh heavily on traditional bicycle retail. The reality that the industry has ignored these factors for so long manifests itself in this crisis.

Not every bicycle retailer is in crisis though, and some old-skool bike shops not only survive but are capitalizing on the increasing failures of retailers who thought they knew it all but had neither solid financials or enough vision to adapt in the changing retail landscape.

Southeastern Michigan bike shops like Jack’s Bicycle and Fitness, Roll Models in Allen Park, Michigan, Brick Wheels in Traverse City and Wheels in Motion in Ann Arbor are still there, still doing business and quietly surviving and growing as the others collapse around them.

In the renaissance of downtown Detroit, a new generation of bike family businesses has emerged on the shoulders of men like Jon Hughes of Downtown Ferndale and Downtown Detroit bike shops. Hughes also leads the family effort to grow the Lexus Velodrome and launch a new demi-empire in media and cycling in post-recession Detroit. He comes from a dynasty of bicycle business that stretches back three generations to Mike Walden and the formation of the country’s second oldest cycling club, the Wolverines. Even Bob Akers, who runs the decades-old, dingy, crumbling International Bike Shop in Garden City has survived as the shiny newcomers who thought they knew it all have tumbled.

Why do some shops survive while others fail? One factor common in the surviving Michigan bike retailers is they own their own real estate. But the ingredients for success, not just survival, are more complex than just owning your building.

Harvard MBAs don’t start bike shops. Bike shop owners don’t have business degrees. They start bike shops because they love bikes or have no other opportunity. They’re hobbyists. Not businessmen. The barriers to entry are low. Got $100K? You can open a bike shop. You’ll never tell a bike shop owner he doesn’t know business. As far as bicycle retail store owners are concerned, they are experts at retail. The crash of Michigan high-end specialty retailers proves otherwise.

I was this guy.  I lost my own store after 17 successful years during the recession. Then, like a scene from a movie where the plot repeats again and again, I went to work for two other retailers around the U.S. who, like me, thought they knew everything and couldn’t be told anything. They’re gone now too. More will follow.

Failure is only failure if you fail to learn. But in bicycle retail, no one listens. The first bike shop I worked for when I was 15 years old went out of business because the owners failed to adapt. The last bike shop I worked for four decades later did exactly the same thing. The owners refused to adapt. In a repetitive pantomime, I tried to convince the owners of the last shop I worked at to move the cash register to facilitate better customer traffic flow. It was a minor change that may have resulted in a minor improvement. I tried for a year. They never moved it. They went out of business months after I finally quit in frustration and left to work in another industry.

I take some small satisfaction in knowing the store that lasted the longest was mine. But business is pass/fail. You can run a successful business for 6,205 days like I did, but if you fail on the 6,206th day, you are a failure.

The first lesson I learned in losing my own store is you have to own your failure. Mine was my fault. While there were factors including a global recession that contributed to my 17-year-old store failing, I could have moderated them. Others did. I wasn’t smart enough or humble enough at the time. Some people pay college tuition for an education. I paid in bankruptcies and a modern day “Grapes of Wrath” by losing everything. While the second way may be a more durable education, it’s also more painful.

I went on to work for two more bike retail owners who made exactly the same mistakes I did while ignoring the changes that could have saved them. But bike shop owners don’t listen.

The specifics on what is killing some of Michigan’s bicycle retailers is a fascinating case study in the evolution of business that could fill a book. Bike shop owners and bike shops are, in many ways, indicative of the American economic condition. They are the epitome of small business America. As the small, independent bike goes, so goes all of small retail- good and bad. Small restaurants, pet stores, book retail, independent jewelers and all small retail can learn something from the enforced evolution and bizarre non-evolution of bicycle retail.

Small bicycle retail has been quick to scapegoat the big, ugly mega-retailer and the .com as the reason for their bust. That is a lie. In the broad sense, bicycle retailers are killing themselves by failing to adapt and innovate. They do it in hundreds of small ways every day they continue to do the same tired things over and over and over. Even the bicycle retailers who have survived could do better. For most of the survivors a major reason they still exist is they own their own real estate and remain impervious to swings in the volatile southeastern Michigan economy. But even their future is increasingly in doubt as forward-thinking innovators understand new opportunities in the age of Amazon One-Click.

What will happen to Michigan small bicycle retail? One thing is certain: it will continue to change at a rate that outpaces the ability of most shop owners to adapt. That means we’ll see more southeastern Michigan bike shops closing. Unless they learn from someone’s mistakes the cycle of failure in Michigan cycling retail will continue.

 


 

Tom Demerly is a 42-year bicycle industry veteran who owned his own business for 17 years. Today he is a defense and aviation analyst for several international publications including TheAviationist.com published in Rome, Italy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com (originally published in 2004)

The weather report said the sun would go down today at 7:49 pm. And it did.

Now it is dark.

In the street there is a sporadic, somber procession. It is a black and white picture. There is no color, no pageantry, and no grandeur. The grace is gone and now and it is down to gritty reality.

It is the time of The Strugglers. 11:18 pm, Taupo, New Zealand- the 20th, 2004 Anniversary Bonita Banana Ironman Triathlon.

The Pros are asleep. Their stomachs are full, their muscles are massaged. Their performances are a matter of record now. They are done. Have been for quite some time. They finished in the sunlight in the front of cameras and microphones racing for paychecks and trophies.

It’s easy to understand why they race. They should race. They look like they should. Lithe and toned and buff and tan and serious, the Pros and the other talented athletes reap the generous gift of genetic athletic abundance, meticulous preparation and clear-cut motivation. They are here to kick ass. It doesn’t take a psychologist to decode their motives. They’re athletes, and this is the big show. It’s what they do.

The pros’ time is over. Now it is time for The Strugglers.

There are no levels of performance for The Strugglers. You either are or you aren’t one. If you haven’t finished by now and you’re still out under the lights you are a member of this vaunted fraternity, The Strugglers. Just as the stark street lights leave either harsh illumination or black despair for The Strugglers this is a matter of finish or not finish, victory or defeat, do or die, pride or humiliation, success or failure. It is all the chips on one square, all the cards face up on the table, and all the aces have already been dealt today. The Strugglers play high stakes with a bad hand.

It may never have been pretty for The Strugglers. Most of them may not be athletes in the sense that they spend hours and hours every week training, but they line up nonetheless to do this race. The downtrodden, the meek, the ones with something to prove or something to defeat. Whatever it is they bring it here and beat it into ugly submission over 140.6 miles, each one a full 5,280 feet. The Strugglers earn every inch of every foot of every mile.

In a day so daunting and fearful they line up on the beach as if bravely facing the gallows. A cannon sounds the beginning of their trial and there is little known at the onset about how matters will be resolved, except to say it will be hard and uncomfortable and then downright painful. That may be the most frightening part: The not knowing. Some will find absolution, some will teeter and wobble and fall. There will be polite acknowledgement of their ambition, but ultimately, for The Strugglers the only thing that matters is Finishing. It’s what they’re here for.

So for The Strugglers, this is a huge gamble. Hero or failure. No in between.

And struggle they might, against awful odds and distance and poor conditioning and genetic poverty, but in bravery they are absolutely peerless. Without equal.

The Strugglers know it will not be pretty. They know it is not a sure thing. They do not have the luxury of prediction or past performances or experience. This is not their aptitude. But this is their choice and their bold dream.

Imagine being sent to do something, something beastly difficult. You know in your heart of hearts you are not prepared, maybe not even suited for this. You know the stares of others less brave and more envious fall heavily on your effort. They want The Strugglers to fail. For every Struggler who crosses the finish line it is a failure for those who never dared try. For every Struggler who sadly and reluctantly succumbs to the distance before the finish line and is carried off the course it is a victory for those who never started. They take sick pleasure in that. Shame on them.

Those who never had the courage to try have no right to cast judgment on The Strugglers.

The Pros are comfortable and resting. But the Strugglers have not left their sacred vigil. They soldier on, unswerving in their oath to finish, No Matter What. People marvel at the Pros performance, but I say The Strugglers are the real athletes. Explorers on the terrible frontier of self-doubt, fear and potential embarrassment on a grand scale. They bring less to the start line and they do more. Longer, harder, more painful: It is a different race for The Strugglers.

It is a parade really. A parade of people so brave and tough and fearless that they don’t care if it might not work. They bank on the fact that it could. They don’t back away from the possibility of failure. Imagine their performance as set against the backdrop of the very best in the world and they are not self-conscious about their version of the very same dance. Ask yourself, would you take the stage at the Kennedy Center after Barishnikov or Pavoratti? Are you that brave?

The Strugglers are.

Their performance is tedious and grinding. It is utterly relentless in its duration. The distance, the time, the struggle cannot be compromised. The Strugglers know this, they accept it- embrace it even. And they never succumb. Under the street lights, through the cool air, in filthy clothes streaked with their own discharge of minerals and fluids and sometimes even tears and blood.

The Strugglers do a different kind of race. A harder one. And they are Elite. It takes longer. It is less practiced. It seems to never end, and it does more damage.

Decode their motives if you will. But I decode yours as trying to explain more why you didn’t try than why they are. Instead, I respectfully suggest, salute them. Unless you have walked with The Strugglers until midnight on the Ironman course they stand above you in the athletic arena. Struggle as they may, they mustered the courage to try.

 

 

Tom Demerly has been doing triathlons since 1984, still does them (but slower and fatter now) and just completed the Detroit, Michigan GORUCK Light event. He worked in the triathlon industry since it began, and the bicycle industry from the age of 15, over 40 years. Today he is a correspondent for TheAviationist.com in Rome, Italy.

 

 

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By Tom Demerly

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The greatest fear I had going into Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was that it would be a sad eulogy to Tom Clancy’s genius. I’m pleasantly surprised to be wrong.

Director Kenneth Branagh did his homework and borrowed subtle and successful elements from each of the Jason Bourne, James Bond, Mission Impossible and Tom Clancy franchises to weave a surprisingly good story thread that is visually well done.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a tight and snappy spy thriller. It’s well written, tightly shown and quickly paced. Camera, sound and production techniques are tasteful and pay homage to its influences. Very little is over blown. Even the sets are well dressed and chosen.

Writers David Koepp and Adam Cozad used Tom Clancy’s character Jack Ryan with reverence for Clancy’s original vision of Dr. Ryan, the nerdy analyst turned reluctant but capable action hero.

Jack Ryan gets his first kill James Bond style, in a bathroom.

Jack Ryan gets his first kill James Bond style, in a bathroom.

Chris Pine as Jack Ryan is fantastic as is Kevin Costner as Thomas Harper, his CIA boss. And because no great spy film is a success without great villains, it is a pleasure to have Kenneth Branagh as the dangerous Russian, Viktor Cherevin.

The plot hits ominously close to home, literally and figuratively, with a story line that weaves into the little known world of economic warfare. Villains originate from Dearborn, Michigan in the shadow of Ford World Headquarters. The plan is to crash the stock market in a combined terror and economic attack; a scenario everyone hopes will remain fiction.

But Tom Clancy’s fiction has an ominous way of weaving its way into the headlines.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit never sags and builds well to a strong climax. There are a few corny moments but remember, this isn’t a strict Clancy plot. It weaves influences from every corner of the spy thriller genre, and does it with respect and tribute to each. While these stories do become somewhat cookie-cutter this one is flavored uniquely and with enough craft to make it a snappy 105-minutes. And yes, there is a sequel planned that hopefully continues with this fine cast in the upcoming Without Remorse.

Tom Clancy would have loved Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. It is tight, quick and nice looking. This is a pleasant surprise after the painful loss of a great author and storyteller who created these characters. That new writers are able to execute on Clancy’s vision confirms their talent and reverence for his mastery.

Taking to the streets with a nod to Bourne franchise in "Shadow Recruit".

Taking to the streets with a nod to Bourne franchise in “Shadow Recruit”.

By Tom Demerly.

Cmdr. Brian W. Sebenaler, commanding officer of Naval Special Warfare Basic Training Command (BTC) speaks to members and guests during an establishment ceremony for the command held at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado. BTC reports to the Naval Special Warfare Center and is charged with the basic training of all naval special warfare forces, including both Navy SEAL and special warfare combatant-craft crewman (SWCC) basic training programs, which include the BUD/S course and SEAL qualification training for SEAL candidates, and basic crewmen training and crewmen qualification training for SWCC candidates. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kevin S. Beauchamp/Released)

Cmdr. Brian W. Sebenaler, commanding officer of Naval Special Warfare Basic Training Command (BTC) speaks at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kevin S. Beauchamp)

52 years ago today President John F. Kennedy signed into law the formation of a new special operations unit called the U.S. Navy SEa, Air and Land” or “SE.A.L Teams”; the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Teams, the Navy SEALs.

No military unit is more misunderstood, misrepresented or misquoted. The Naval Special Warfare Teams are also justifiably celebrated as one of the most vigorous, capable and successful combat units in the entire U.S. arsenal.

Over the past 30 years I’ve been occasionally privileged to work and socialize with members of the Naval Special Warfare community. I’ve never failed to be impressed by their internal standards, training and capabilities. And by their humility.

The history books tell you the Naval Special Warfare Teams were born from the Underwater Demolition Teams, the “Frogmen”. Since then their mission and capabilities have expanded to include intelligence gathering, direct action, rescue, security, reconnaissance, technical and operational development and a host of other missions so diverse it has presented major challenges to these units.

(left) Athletes participate in the Navy SEAL Fitness Challenge in Dearborn, Michigan. (right) Naval Special Warfare Operator Mitch Hall wins the annual SuperSEAL triathlon in Coronado, California. (Photos by Tom Demerly).

(left) Athletes participate in the Navy SEAL Fitness Challenge in Dearborn, Michigan. (right) Naval Special Warfare Operator Mitch Hall wins the annual SuperSEAL triathlon in Coronado, California. (Photos by Tom Demerly).

Another great challenge facing the Naval Special Warfare community is the media’s love affair with them. Officially and unofficially the Navy has fed into this, with everything from support of Hollywood film projects to unsanctioned technical support of computer games and thousands of books.  In 2008 and 2009 Naval Special Warfare promoted a national fitness competition called the “Navy SEAL Fitness Challenge”. Naval Special Warfare has supported an annual triathlon called “SuperSEAL” and “Superfrog”.  Naval Special Warfare also sponsored the Ironman World Championship along with several triathletes who are active members of The Teams.  Next week a new Hollywood movie, “Lone Survivor”, joins over 40 popular movies featuring Naval Special Warfare operators as diverse as “G.I. Jane”, “Transformers” and “Act of Valor” that featured cast members from the Naval Special Warfare teams.

In the past decade there has been tremendous growth in the Naval Special Warfare community.  The last time I visited the Phil Bucklew Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, California during 2007 there was a construction project underway to house new Basic Underwater Demolition School students and expanded administration activities.

Naval Special Warfare has also seen its share of controversy.  In 2010 a west coast Naval Special Warfare operator and instructor was arrested for trafficking weapons smuggled from Afghanistan and sentenced to over 17 years in prison.  In 2013 Esquire magazine ran a feature story alleged to be an interview with a Naval Special Warfare Operator who claimed to have killed Osama bin Laden during a U.S. raid on Pakistan. The interview was sharply critical of treatment of Naval Special Warfare veterans.

What I’ve learned from the Naval Special Warfare Teams and their members is that they are human. While they are exceptionally dedicated, incredibly well trained and maintain an impressive level of proficiency in a vast array of skill sets they still suffer the fallibilities of the common man. They have difficulty in personal relationships like the rest of us and struggle with divorce and emotional challenges.

(left) At the Phil H. Bucklew Naval Special Warfare Center for SuperSEAL triathlon. (center) On board an 11-meter RIB off Coronado Island. (right) With Naval Special Warfare Development Group original member and author Chuck Pfarrer

(left) At the Phil H. Bucklew Naval Special Warfare Center for SuperSEAL triathlon. (center) On board an 11-meter RIB off Coronado Island. (right) With Naval Special Warfare Development Group original member and author Chuck Pfarrer.

One of many things that makes them exceptional is they do all this set against the backdrop of a necessity to maintain operational security and rarely disclose their true challenges among non-military relationships. This makes their tremendous burden even greater.

Naval Special Warfare is a community worthy of effusive praise and recognition. They have shouldered a mighty share of the burden of the Vietnam Conflict, numerous “peace time” actions, Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Global War on Terror and other conflicts while maintaining a level of inter-unit quality almost unmatched in the world.  On their 52nd birthday it’s worth acknowledging their contribution.

Authors Note: If you are a fan of books about the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Teams you may find my review for MILTECHREV.com of Greg E. Mathieson Sr. and David Gatley’s impressive new book, Naval Special Warfare here of interest. It is the definitive work on Naval Special Warfare available to the public:

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By Tom Demerly.

Photo Credit: Collin Rodefer via Viral Nova.

Photo Credit: Collin Rodefer via Viral Nova.

The year I was born, 1961, journalist John Howard Griffin disguised himself as an African-American man riding buses through the segregated south. He chronicled the racism, discrimination and bigotry he experienced in the masterwork, Black Like Me.

Fast-forward 51 years and our country has made significant progress in all areas of equality.

Mostly.

I’m a 52-year old Caucasian male. Several months ago I left a good full time job as a writer in California to assist in a business a friend opened. Before the new business became fully operational my plan was to get another full time job in retail management, writing or other field I’ve had success in. I have a college education, a good work history and a strong resume in two different industries.

I filled out over 100 online applications that asked my name and other basic information. The questions included, as an “option”, my age. Most also asked me if I would answer optional questions about race and ethnic origin. I always did. I figured the more complete my application, the better my chances.

I got one interview. They weren’t interested.

In reviewing my experience, qualifications and accomplishments and also counting the demographic of the staff in a few of the businesses I was applying for I realized something. I am now a member of a new undesirable demographic, the white, middle-aged male.

My experience does not compare to the brutal racism and discrimination of African-Americans in the Deep South during the 1960’s. It does not. I have never been refused service in a restaurant, relegated to poor seating on public transportation or threatened with lynching.

Quite the opposite in fact. Because I am a well-spoken white middle-aged man everyone assumes I am well off. I get good seats in restaurants; great service and young people treat me with respect. They assume when they see me that I own a car, a house, have a good job. They pre-judge that. I have none of those things.

What I do have is a new appreciation for the type of silent, antiseptic discrimination afforded by online job applications and data-sorting algorithms. They compare key words and “optional” responses to a predetermined desirable profile of the best hire. Regardless of my experience, results, qualifications or talent my key words may not match their key words. So, in a competitive job search something in my key words on an automated job application is kicking my applications out.

Something. I wonder what that is…

I now have the slightest notion of what being discriminated against may be like. I don’t pretend to understand the full gravity of discrimination in our historical context. But, I couldn’t help but reflect on the Nelson Mandela quote, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

If we claim to have made progress against discrimination in the United States then any mechanism that facilitates it based on age, race, national origin or ethnicity is wrong. That an online job application can even query this data as an “option” is wrong.

If we’re going to rest on the laurels of reduced racism and improved equality it means we favor no one, exclude no one, either in person or through an antiseptic, automated system. I don’t think we’re there yet. That means we need to improve our standards of equality in all areas, including job searches and candidate screening.

Until we do, we’re simply trading one version of discrimination for another.

By Tom Demerly.

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Random Notes and Key Things I’ve learned so Far:

1. Life:

  • Friends and community are more important than we realize. Much more.
  • My Mom was right; travel really is the most opulent luxury.
  • I am not like other people. When I try to be, I am sad and look foolish.
  • Be gentle with people- both people who are kind and people who are mean to you.
  • You will have enemies. Don’t let it bother you. If you weren’t trying, you wouldn’t be making some people mad.
  • Most people who don’t like you envy your courage and are afraid themselves.
  • Be understanding of those people, their fears are real to them.
  • Difficulty can make you a better person if you decide to let it.
  • One of the smartest people I ever met, my friend Kim, told me “successful people are usually just the last to give up.” She is right.
  • It’s true. You will fail.
  • Failure sucks.
  • Not trying is worse than failure.
  • Try again.
  • Never stop learning, never lose the “beginner’s mind”.
  • If you know you are right about something and try to convince someone, but their own beliefs prevent them from listening, don’t force it. Let them be.
  • Make good choices but do make choices. Don’t be paralyzed by indecision.
  • You think you are the only person suffering when you suffer. You aren’t.
  • You can learn a lot about a person by how they treat animals and children.
  • Two key quotes:
    • “We each create our own reality” Arthur C. Clarke.
    • “Between stimulus and response is our greatest freedom; choice.” Steven Covey.

2. Love:

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  • You are lucky if you have one true love, you will also likely lose them, but you are always better for having had them.
  • Always treasure the people who have brought true love and beauty into your life. Be a respectful friend to them forever. Revel in their new relationships and happiness. Stay friends with them unless they are cruel to you, in which case, just let them be.
  • When you truly love someone the thing you want most is for her to be happy and safe. You want that more than your selfish desire for them.
  • Have the courage to walk away from a relationship that is bad and never look back. Never be afraid to be alone.
  • It is better to be in a good relationship with yourself than a rotten one with some one else.
  • Great sex is about way more than the physical act.
  • Take a good, close look at her; she is more beautiful than you (and she) realize.
  • Beauty has almost nothing to do with looks.
  • The greatest luxury in a relationship is staying in it simply because you want to be there, no other reason.

3. The Military and Conflict:

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  • Never underestimate the human capacity for cruelty. People are the most dangerous animals.
  • There are three important truisms in the military; 1. Your training will keep you alive. 2. In the military world, your comrades are your first priority. 3. When your enemy is subdued, treat them with dignity and humanity.
  • Train relentlessly and realistically. Your training will save your life and insure the success of your mission.
  • Do not dwell on the awful things you’ve been through. Hold them at arms’ length, let them go, forgive them and yourself.
  • If you live in a safe place, protect that. It is rare on this earth.
  • Learn the skills of war, hold them as precious, but do not flaunt them or revel in them. They are an ugly but necessary set of tools.
  • When an enemy dies, do not celebrate. Instead, pray for them and ask forgiveness.
  • The least painful way to learn is from history. History is a free lesson, a way to learn from the suffering and loss of previous men. Never stop learning, studying and analyzing history; its cost was high but it is free to keep.
  • Be kind and respectful of people who have a disdain for the military.
  • Being a soldier, a guardian of peace, is one of life’s highest honors.
  • Wars fought over money, resources, politics and territory can be resolved. Wars over religion never end until one side is completely annihilated and their history erased.

4. Business and Money:

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  • See: “War and Conflict” above.
  • The Arabic proverb, “Do business as strangers, socialize as brothers” is good.
  • Pride has no place in business.
  • Trust that if you do a good job and devote yourself, you will be successful.
  • Even when (not if) you fail, if you have done the above, you have a basis for a new beginning.
  • Don’t try to bend the rules; it will bite you in the ass.
  • Your ass is going to have some tooth marks.
  • Pay yourself last.
  • Treat your employees well. Pay them first. Protect and honor them.
  • Respecting your employees as important human beings is as important as paying them, sometimes more so.
  • A harsh reality is that money does buy happiness. You can use it to help other people, keep yourself safe and healthy, travel and help animals. In the human world money is security.
  • Don’t trust banks. They are a business, a necessary tool.
  • Don’t be mean to or distrust the government or the IRS. They are people trying to do a difficult and unpopular job with few resources and huge bureaucracy. Be empathetic toward them.
  • The smarter you are the more successful you will be.
  • Learn from your mistakes. You’ll pay for them, you may as well use them.
  • Every dollar has 100 cents in it.
  • Every business is a nickel and dime business. There are no “small” losses.
  • Treat every day as your first day in business, and remember it could also be your last.
  • Failure always arrives before you think it will and is always a surprise.
  • In retrospect, failure and success both seem obvious.
  • Always call your customers “Sir” and “Ma’am”. It sets and maintains the tone of the customer/business relationship. It says you are doing business.
  • Save more money than you think you will ever need. Money is a tool.

By Tom Demerly.

Slide07

Amazon.com has lead the online customer service race with their patented “One Click” buying system for web purchases. It is fast, convenient and respectful.

The single largest retail mistake is failing to make the customer experience the top priority. Every operational decision should emanate from customer service and convenience.

Modern retailers have fallen into four traps of subordinating customer service:

  1. The sales staff is very poor.
  2. The checkout process is too long.
  3. They offer repeated, hollow apologies.
  4. They try to collect too much information without a reward.

First: Retail is at the bottom of the job ladder in all but a handful of niche markets. The pay is bad, the hours are long and the work is not inspiring.  If retailers spent more time training staff personally, not through an automated curriculum, staff quality would improve and a basic human need for the employee would be fulfilled; the need for interaction as a valued person. The most demoralizing part of being an employee is feeling like a poorly maintained cog in a machine. Everything from automated job applications to slide show training sends a clear message to employees; they’re a commodity. Personal and recurrent customer service training communicates and maintains not only the standards of customer service but also the nuances like tone, posture and other forms of subtle conduct. Retailers need to invest time in personally mentoring their sales staff. Then sales staff will mentor customers into being loyal.

Second: In a race to collect data and maintain inventory retailers have adopted checkout systems that take too long. I wrote about this here. The checkout experience has become painful. It should be quick and respectful. Two key mistakes are poorly handled defects in the transaction and making the customer wait. Customers: It’s not your fault if a bar code scans incorrectly. If even five percent of customers walked out when a bar code or checkout error occurred the retail industry would change. Vote with your dollars. If checkout is cumbersome or protracted, don’t reward that with the sale. Shop elsewhere.

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The basics of retail excellence haven’t changed in a century: Courtesy, quick check-out, owning mistakes and compensating the customer for them and respecting the customer’s privacy and time.

Third: Sincerely apologizing for a customer service error is step one, but the pay-off is fixing it. Repeatedly apologizing makes the retailer look less competent. The best way for a retailer to say, “I’m sorry” is to quickly solve the problem. If an item is incorrectly priced the retailer should deeply discount the item on the spot to compensate for the mistake and as an incentive to return. The apology has to be tangible.  Five hollow “I’m sorry”s from a minimum wage Walmartian mean nothing.

“The best way for a retailer to say, “I’m sorry” is to quickly solve the problem.”

Finally: Retailers collect too much data. This is especially true of online retailers and service providers like cell phone companies. While collecting customer data is important in diffusing frustration from a bad experience (when the first three topics in this article are ignored) retailers miss two key steps in customer data collection: 1. Customers should be compensated for their data. 2. Customers should receive an acknowledgement that their data made a difference. It is frustrating to throw your personal information and opinions into a black hole and never know what happened to them.

This list is short but each of these items forms the foundation of building a loyal customer base. That is the key to profitability.

People shop at Walmart because they have to. People shop at Target because they like to. If you were a retailer, which customer would you rather have? If you’re a customer, which experience would you rather reinforce?