Tag Archives: Business model

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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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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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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Burritos On The Brain

This Foodie Friday, it’s all about the humble burrito and what it can teach us about business and life. I’m sure you’re familiar with the burrito. As we know it here in the USA, it’s a rather large tortilla filled with meat, beans (usually refried), cheese, sometimes rice, sour cream, guacamole and often more. You need to be a “little burro” to carry all of that!

Here’s the thing though. Burritos in Mexico are a totally different matter. They generally contain one thing, usually a protein. Maybe it’s shredded pork that’s been cooked for hours in a mojo. Then a sauce of some sort is added and the meat is placed, with or without refried beans, into a tortilla, usually flour (corn tortillas are generally smaller and better for tacos or flautas). It’s much simpler but this simplicity does a few things.

Each ingredient must be perfect because the flavors of each is a point of focus as you’re eating. You can’t hide bad meat behind a lot of cheese and sour cream. Your seasoning must be aggressive or the dish will be bland. After all, it’s wrapped in a bland tortilla that can tend to deaden its contents. In short, the Mexican burrito mirrors some of the world’s great dishes – simple ingredients but complex flavors. Think cacio e pepe – pasta with cheese and pepper. Like the burrito, it’s not about difficult techniques or hard to find ingredients or even complex timing like a souffle. Instead, it’s about having the patience and skill to bring out the best in your materials and the confidence to present them to stand on their own.

That’s a great lesson for those of us in business. Too often we hide behind buzzwords or present materials in a way that hides the basic thoughts we’re trying to convey. How many powerpoints have you seen with 50 words saying what 5 could have said? We try to make what we’re doing exceptionally complex instead of trying to simplify it. We add the unnecessary toppings – not guac and cheese and sour cream but hard to read contracts and user agreements or black-box systems that add nothing but cost and marginal improvements.

The next time you’re in a meeting, think of the humble Mexican burrito. Keep it simple but make each piece spectacular. The ingredients of your business – the people, the business model, the systems – must all be the best and you’ve got to combine and season them to make them better. Not more complicated and not hidden behind unnecessary glop. Make sense?

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Everyone’s Got A Deal

A very wet Foodie Friday here but that won’t deter me from posting a few thoughts about what I think is a post-value world. What I mean by that is that value seems to be more of a given today that it did a few years ago. I also hope by now you’ve learned the difference between value and cost because your customers certainly have.

In the food business, you see this playing out in spades. Everyone has a deal, whether it’s $1 menu items or $5 foot long subs or free cheeseburgers from using an app to order. I suspect that many of these items are loss leaders. They certainly can’t be maintaining the margins which are already slim in the restaurant business. They’re designed to build traffic and that traffic will buy other, more profitable items.

The problem with this is the restaurant business is one where the supply has outstripped the demand. Chain restaurants are growing faster than the overall population and there aren’t enough hungry folks out there to support them all. Because deals are so prevalent, it actually frees the consumer to decide if they place more value on the price of the meal or if they value higher quality ingredients or better service or just the overall dining experience an establishment offers. More often than not these days, the price is less of a concern. Why? Because everyone’s got a deal!

What does this mean for your business? It means you’ve got to continue to get beyond thinking about cost in terms of how your customer values your product or service. The health of the business depends on more than a lot of customers. Fewer, more profitable customers seem better to me than a lot of slim-margin ones. Ask K-mart, whose profitability peaked in 1992,  if the low-margin, high volume strategy can work over the long term. Someone can always compete on price (Walmart).

The “deal” I try to offer to my potential clients is the highest level of value. That value is defined in THEIR terms, not mine. If all they’re after is a low price, I’m probably not going to be working with them. If what they want is a profitable result that advances them to their goals, well, that’s my deal. What’s yours?

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Pushing Addiction

Foodie Friday! I came across a piece recently that got me thinking. Even though it’s food-related (or we wouldn’t be discussing it today!) I think it touches upon a subject that is common across other areas of business. Let’s see what you think.

The article was in The Guardian and it seeks an answer to the question “why are we so fat?” The author had stumbled upon a picture from 1976. It showed beachgoers and the first thing he noticed was that there weren’t any fat people. He wondered why into his social media channels and every answer he got was wrong, much to his surprise. It wasn’t because we eat more or are less active (thanks, Internet) or due to antibiotic use or less exercise or even due to chemicals in our food. What seems to be the cause is:

While our direct purchases of sugar have sharply declined, the sugar we consume in drinks and confectionery is likely to have rocketed (there are purchase numbers only from 1992, at which point they were rising rapidly. Perhaps, as we consumed just 9kcal a day in the form of drinks in 1976, no one thought the numbers were worth collecting.) In other words, the opportunities to load our food with sugar have boomed. As some experts have long proposed, this seems to be the issue.

The main reason there is sugar in damn near everything (start reading labels more carefully if you don’t believe that) is that sugar is addictive. It defeats our natural appetite regulators. We aren’t eating more but we’re eating lower quality and getting more of our calories in the form of sugar and the food producers are doing this knowing that it will trick us into eating more than we need. They want us addicted and constantly hungry. We eat more; they sell more.

You think food folks are the only ones doing this? Tobacco manufacturers are cited in the article as doing pretty much the same thing. You might be doing it as well if you’re constantly focusing on “engagement”. The job of the product people at Facebook and others is to get you to keep coming back for another dish. All those little alerts on your phone are the digital equivalent of your gut saying “I’m hungry – feed me!”

If there is anyone in your business whose job it is to break down consumers’ self-regulation, you might want to think about if you want to be in the same business as a drug peddler. Many food companies are pushing an ultimately fatal addiction. So are many tech companies. Are you?

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Filed under food, Reality checks, Thinking Aloud

Pay What You Want

There is a new kind of restaurant that’s opened here and it’s our topic this Foodie Friday. It’s called A Place at the Table and here is the concept as reported in the local newspaper:

A Place at the Table puts its mission at the counter, inviting patrons to pay what they can afford: the suggested donation, a little extra, pay for someone else’s meal or pay one’s way through volunteering. Volunteer jobs could include sweeping, wiping tables and bringing food to guests.

It’s not fancy and it’s only open for breakfast and lunch, which of course will have the effect of keeping the total bill down anyway. In my mind, that makes it less painful for those of us who can afford it to in essence overpay. It’s an interesting business model, don’t you think? Apparently, they’re doing pretty well as well as doing a lot of good. They’re not the only ones doing this, of course.

As far back as 2014, there were many of these restaurants in business around the world. Now you might think that most people would try to eat for free but the opposite is really true. Most people tend to pay at least the prices listed on the menu and many pay more. In addition, these businesses are often supplemented by grants, donations, and free labor to offset their costs.

The restaurant business isn’t the only one where the pay what you can model is in place. Music has become another one, with several artists releasing albums and asking the public to pay them what they think it’s worth although some folks distinguish between pay what you can and pay what you want. In my mind, anyone who is willing to offer their product up for judgment and to allow the user to asses the value is operating under the same model.

We see it in software and video games. It’s even expanding to fashion and amusement parks. So here is my question for you today. How much would your typical user pay you if they were setting the price? Is it enough to cover the cost of the product? Enough for you to make a profit? Or do they find less value in what it is your offering than you’re currently charging them? If you think the last response is closer to the truth, you had better look around because it won’t be long before a competitor figures that out as well and undercuts you. If you’re already competing on price and you’re still answering with the last response, you had better spend some time on figuring out how to add value so customers will gladly pay what you’re asking.

Make sense?

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