Tag Archives: Business and Economy

By The Numbers

Foodie Friday at last! I went out for breakfast this morning and as I watched my server typing my order into the Point Of Sale system, I wondered what was coming out the other end. No, not if my order had been captured correctly or if the ticket would print out correctly. I wondered if the owners of the place actually used the data that had just been gathered. Restaurants generate a phenomenal amount of data although I’d be willing to wager that a minority of them actually look at, analyze, and employ it to improve their business. Then again, I’d be willing to bet that many non-food businesses suffer from the same omission.

Think about it. A restaurant gets information from their POS system – what’s selling and how much does it cost. They see if something is more popular at lunch than at dinner. They can look at their reservation system to know when they’ll be busy and their seating record to know how many covers they’re selling. Smart ones look at how many parties of which size were kept waiting (maybe we should turn the 6-top into a 4- and a 2?). They know what drinks have been ordered. Their suppliers have data for them – what’s available and what does it cost? Then they have their own internal accounting – labor costs, etc. Each of those things relates to the other. But there’s more.

What’s posted on social media? Whats the most-photographed dish? What’s liked and shared? How many reviews and are they positive? What are they about? There’s a lot of data to collect from a multitude of sources – OpenTable, Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, TripAdvisor, Foursquare, Urbanspoon or Instagram. All of the former data is very structured and it tells you “what.” The social stuff, along with any loyalty data you might have is unstructured and it can help you to understand “why”.

Maybe if you overlay the daily weather during service hours you can infer a causal effect on any of the above. You can adjust what’s displaying on your drive-thru board when it’s busy to show the menu items that may be lower-margin but quicker to prepare in order to speed the line. If you collect emails (your reservation system does!), you can use Facebook or some other data provider to build out profiles so you can know your customer and better target your marketing.

My point is that every business has a similar capability these days. We might not have reservation systems but we do have online commerce or websites or apps. We need to be less intimidated by big data and more proactive with respect to learning about our customers and how they interact with our offerings. Does that make sense?

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Filed under Consulting, food, Reality checks

Woebuck

Sad news about Sears today. An American institution, they filed for bankruptcy in order to restructure the company. They will close 142 unprofitable stores near the end of the year. Liquidation sales at these stores are expected to begin shortly. This is in addition to the previously announced closure of 46 unprofitable stores that is expected to be completed by next month.

The press release says that “The Chapter 11 process will give Holdings the flexibility to strengthen its balance sheet, enabling the Company to accelerate its strategic transformation, continue right-sizing its operating model, and return to profitability.” I guess the question I’d ask is what the heck has taken so long? When I was a kid, the Sears catalog was a 500-page wish book. Everything from clothing to tools to appliances and damn near anything else was in the catalog or the store. At one point you could even buy a prefabricated house kit. They sold great appliances (built by Whirlpool) and even better tools (also built by others). They did very smart things like label grades of product “good” “better” and “best” using brand names.  They were Amazon long before Amazon was a gleam in Jeff Bezos’ eye.

So what happened? Well, technology did but that’s only part of the story. This is a perfect example of what can happen when any of us fail to recognize the fundamental changes happening in business – all business. Obviously, online commerce happened but Sears was in decline in the early 1990’s as Walmart took over the title of largest US retailer. Then the little wave became a tsunami, as consumers fundamentally changed their behavior, becoming more price sensitive, doing more research and shopping online, and the shift away from the mall sped up.

You might not remember this, but Sears was an investor in Prodigy, one of the original online services. They jumped out of the digital service in 1996, however. One can only wonder what might have been had they stuck with it and learned from it. Even though walled-garden services died as the internet grew, there was a lot to learn. Remember that Amazon didn’t begin to sell beyond books until around 2000. Why did they bail? To get back to what they knew best – retail (they also sold off their interest in brokerages and real estate companies they owned).

This is an excellent summary from Investopedia:

It would be easy to read this story as a triumph of e-commerce, or to reflect on the irony that Sears was a first-mover when it came to online shopping, with its proto-internet joint venture Prodigy. But even recently, Sears has been ahead of the curve in that area. According to Bloomberg, Lampert “showered” the online division with resources while the rest meleed over a shrinking pie.

Nor did competition with Amazon alone precipitate Sears’ decline. When sales and profits began to fade, in the mid-2000s, other big box retailers—particularly Walmart—were thriving. In 2011, the year Sears lost over $3.1 billion, Walmart made $17.1 billion.

Perhaps the might-have-been next Warren Buffett should have listened to the original, who told University of Kansas students in 2005, “Eddie is a very smart guy, but putting Kmart and Sears together is a tough hand. Turning around a retailer that has been slipping for a long time would be very difficult. Can you think of an example of a retailer that was successfully turned around?”

This is a story of a series of failures. It’s also a cautionary tale to any of us who live and work in these changing times. Brick and mortar stores still make up the vast majority of retail sales in this country yet the country’s largest retailers failed. Greed? Ignorance? Stupidity? What are your thoughts?

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Filed under Huh?, Thinking Aloud, What's Going On

It’s Not Fair

This Foodie Friday sees the opening of the North Carolina State Fair. Until I moved here, I had no idea that state fairs were such a big deal. I mean, I knew that we had them up north, but they always seemed to take place in some remote part of the state and I don’t recall ever having attended one.

Image courtesy NC St. Fair/Facebook

That changed when I headed south. This fair is a big deal and it’s right here in the middle of the state. Last year, over a million people attended and the day I went, it was jammed. While some of the folks there are interested in the giant vegetables on display or the prize hogs being shown, many more are there for the food, and that’s our topic today.

The NC fair seems to be a coming out party for many foods that I can only classify as lab experiments. Many of the foods for sale are normal things such as Cuban Sandwiches that have been “enhanced” by deep frying. Deep-fried Key Lime Pie? You bet! Others are the sorts of things one might dream up in college while in altered states of consciousness. Unicorn Bacon, which is Bacon-on-a-Stick dipped in glaze and rolled in Fruity Pebbles cereal. Then there’s Jalapeno Cheetos Bacon: Bacon-on-a-Stick dipped in jalapeno nacho cheese and rolled in Cheetos. You catch my drift.

Here’s my issue. We have an obesity problem in this country along with an epidemic of diabetes. I don’t think people would have a heck of a lot of fun eating salads as they stroll the midway, but there’s also no limit on how much of the nutritionally horrible stuff one can consume. Before you jump on me, let me point out there the fair does limit how much beer or wine you can buy. In fact, they only started selling beer and wine last year, and you can buy 6oz of wine OR 16oz of beer or cider. Period. One time only, and it’s sold in only one place. In part, it’s to maintain a family-friendly atmosphere but it’s also because the powers that be think alcohol isn’t good for you. Is limiting unhealthy food consumption that different?

There’s a lot of education at the fair. There are demonstrations and exhibits of just about everything represented there. There isn’t, however, any education about healthy eating nor about what a burger held between two Krispy Kreme donuts does to your system when it’s consumed after Candied Bacon S’mores and a Shrimp and Cheddar Cheese Grits Eggroll (that sounds pretty good, by the way). Throw in a sugary soda or two and it’s pretty easy to see why there’s an obesity issue. I know people don’t eat this way all the time and every so often, it’s fun to treat yourself. The problem is that many folks really do eat this way much of the time.

None of us in business can afford to kill our customers. In this case, educating the customers about what they’re putting in their bodies might help keep a few of them around a little longer so they can indulge for many years to come. Do I think the vendors are being malicious or deceptive about what they’re selling? Not a bit. I just wish they, like all of us in business, thought about what impact their products have on their customers and the environment before they pushed them on the public. The rides at the fair have signs explaining that some people shouldn’t ride and that the ride is a health risk to others with back conditions, high blood pressure, etc. Maybe the food stalls need something similar?

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Filed under food, Thinking Aloud, What's Going On

Mounting On The Right

Let’s begin this week with a question for all you folks who like to ride horses. In fact, if you’ve ever been on a horse, you can probably try to answer it too. Here we go: on which side of the horse do we ALWAYS mount and dismount? Now that’s pretty simple, right? It’s the left side. In fact, you’ll almost always see the horse being led by someone on the left side as well. The real question is why, and that’s where things get interesting for your business.

No, there isn’t a physiological reason we do this. Most horses aren’t blind on their right sides so we’re not going to spook them. Basically, we mount from the left because it’s traditional. Unlike some traditions, this one has a practical reason for existing. Many of the people who rode horses hundred of years ago also were wearing swords, which were generally worn on a person’s left side so they could grab it with their right hand. If you tried to mount a horse from the right, the sword you wore on your left would get in the way, and no one wants to impale either themselves or their mount.

Those days of swords are long gone for most of us but the tradition of mounting from the left continues. Is there really anything preventing us from training a horse to accept mounts from the right side? Not really – we just don’t. That answer is probably applicable to something you’re doing in your business as well. Reports that get cranked out week after week or meetings that get held without fail. Maybe those things had a very good reason for existing when they began (maybe back in the days of swords!) but don’t really now.

The point is that we need to constantly be asking ourselves why things are the way that they are. Circumstances change constantly. Markets change and so do customer needs and preferences. It might just be time to ask yourself if it’s appropriate to try the right side, don’t you think?

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Filed under Consulting, Thinking Aloud

Your Best Steak Forward

It’s Foodie Friday and we’re back to our regular nonsense here on the screed. Today I want you to think back to that time when you ordered takeout and it was not very good. I’m sure you’ve had such an instance: we all have. Maybe you ordered some fried dumplings that showed up as soggy as your recently washed laundry. Maybe the pasta dish you ordered had aggregated itself into a small object better suited for football than eating. Maybe you ordered a steak frites to go and it didn’t travel well. No one likes soggy fries and a cool steak doused in cooling, congealing butter.

For many restaurants, takeout has become a critical part of their business. Life today often leaves little time for cooking at home, especially during the week. Think about how many places you know that have only a few tables but do a ton of takeout. The growth of delivery services and apps has accelerated the trend while actually decreasing profitability (the services take a cut of the bill and in many cases, it’s close to the entire margin on the order). I’m not sure, however, that many restaurateurs put enough thought into putting their best products out there for takeout. Why sell something that you know won’t travel well?

Putting your best steak forward, so to speak, is something that every business should do. The most customer-friendly takeout situations have a separate counter to speed customer service. They might have a menu that’s priced a little differently since the costs of servicing a customer are different. They pack hot foods apart from cold foods and they take care to make sure that condensation in the hot food doesn’t make it soggy (vent holes, people). As with any customer encounter, how you present your brand matters. I wouldn’t even offer to sell a customer a product that I know won’t travel well. If they’ve enjoyed it before in my place, they’ll be disappointed. If it’s their first time, they won’t be back. We see this in businesses that take on jobs for which they’re ill-suited. I’ve turned down many opportunities over the years to build people websites since my ability to design and to code is not up to my ability to perform other tasks. That’s not my best steak.

Is that something your business is doing? Are you gathering data and keeping records of every customer interaction? Are you constantly looking for feedback so you can adjust your menu? Are you putting your best steak forward each and every time?

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Filed under Consulting, food, Helpful Hints

Big Announcement – Please Read

A little self-indulgence today, and I promise not to make it a habit.

As you probably know if you’ve read this blog over the years, much of my consulting has evolved to a focus on startup businesses. That’s why, in addition to running my own practice, I’m a partner in a global venture catalyst that helps commercialization of startups post the idea validation stage through to sustainable profitability or a liquidity event. I also advise startups through my work at the First Flight Venture Center.

Two of the things I’ve noticed as I worked with some folks who thought they wanted to build and run a startup were that their as yet unvalidated ideas were often not really scalable businesses nor did they have a clue as to how running a startup business was different from life in the corporate world where many of them had spent their careers thus far. Quite a few of the budding entrepreneurs I’ve met were in their late 40’s to late 50’s. They had some money to invest in their startup but not enough to retire on. Besides, they were too young to play golf all day, as lovely as that sounds.

OK, so what’s the big announcement? What I realized is that rather than doing a startup many of these people needed a business in a box – something into which they could buy and, if they followed the plan, be successful. In short, a franchise. Because of this insight, I’ve expanded my consulting practice into franchise consulting. I will operate under the name of Franchise-Source and I’ve linked to the website (this is a temporary site – a newer, nicer one will be up soon). I’ve hooked up with a wonderful organization that represents over 500 different brands in over 70 different industries. My new entity has pages on Facebook and LinkedIn (those are direct links) as well. I hope you’ll check them out.

I’ll be continuing my other consulting as well and of course, the screed will continue although I’ll veer into the franchising world from time to time. I hope if you’re considering owning your own business or franchise and aren’t sure where to start that you’ll call or email me. As with a realtor, the buyers don’t pay for my services. The sellers – or franchisors – do. The work has been gratifying so far in that I’ve already spoken with a number of people who are looking to change their lives and rather than taking a chance on an unproven idea they’ve worked with me to investigate a solution that works for their goals, their budgets, and their lifestyle.

Thanks for reading. I’d appreciate you letting anyone you know who might have an interest in a franchise that I’m here to help. Back to our regularly scheduled blog programming next time.

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Filed under Consulting

Learning From Ed Mitchell

I’m going to start the week with something a little unusual (for me, anyway). Although I’ve moved out of my little town in Connecticut I still follow the local happenings there via a couple of local blogs. One of the best is from Dan Woog, a life-long resident. One of his posts this morning really resonated and I thought it would be a great way to start the week here on the screed. You can read Dan’s entire post here and I’d urge you to do so. However, I’m going to summarize some of it below.

The subject is a local clothing store, Ed Mitchells. What resonated with me is how the store puts the customer first and foremost. In an era when the death of local retail at the hands of national chains and online giants is being screamed about in the business press, Mitchells demonstrates that its possible for any business to succeed if it follows a few principles we’ve often discussed here. They know their market and their customers and go way beyond whatever expectations whose customers have. Having shopped there myself I can tell you that this commitment is visible even to the infrequent customer such as myself. Yes, the store is very expensive. Yes, some of what it carries can be found in department stores at lower prices. But I’ll grab a few quotes from Dan’s blog to demonstrate how Mitchells has managed to overcome the challenges many businesses face through great service.

Their website encourages customers to email their personal style advisor, or call a sales associate. All emails are answered by real people…When the store is closed, a phone message offers an actual number to call in the event of a fashion emergency. Those calls are answered by an actual Mitchell family member. Immediately, the problem is taken care of…An unexpected funeral, and no suit. A business meeting, and a forgotten shirt. Things happen. A Mitchell family member will open the store on a Sunday for those issues. If needed, they send a tailor to a customer’s home.

Are those things you’d be willing to do for a client or customer? To demonstrate that this isn’t all store PR, here is one quote from the comments to Dan’s piece:

So here is a great Mitchells story. A friend of mine had to go to London for an emergency work week and dropped all of his suits off to be cleaned and it was Saturday night when he realized he had none of his suits. Here is your fashion emergency. He called Mitchells and they not only opened the store on Sunday for him for 30 minutes to get a few suits, but they had the tailor meet them there and alterations done by 3pm for his night flight.

If you want to be in business for 60 years and counter all the negative trends in your industry, Ed Mitchells is a great place for you to look for inspiration, don’t you think?

 

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Consulting