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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Do We Need More Neanderthals?

Not long ago, I attended a three day marketing conference. While they can be tiring, I always enjoy running into old friends and acquaintances and seeing what others are doing in media, advertising, promotion, and marketing support.

This one was no exception. After the second morning of big presentations with virtually all attendees present, they had an afternoon slated with smaller breakout sessions on an individual topic. One was concerning local marketing efforts for stores in multi-unit retail. I have been doing that for more than 30 years, but thought I might pick up something new by attending.

Only about 50 people showed up in a room that could hold maybe 125. The moderator said it might work better that way as we could have more interaction than with a larger group. She opened with a wonderfully succinct little speech about how times are changing and local marketers need to embrace some of it to continue to grow in this challenging economy. Sadly, as it turned out, she gave way to a couple of young Turks who were going to show us all how to make the cash register ring.

I knew we were in trouble when the early slides on the power-point were so loaded with verbiage that all rules of presentation effectiveness were abandoned. A fellow next to me, very alert and a bit older than I, began to squirm uncomfortably.

They then began a litany of things to do that were as boring as the IRS tax code. When they concluded to no applause, they asked for questions. None. I tried to think of one but in a rare moment of restraint, shut up. Any comments? The gentlemen next to me raised this hand and said, “Some of this stuff is fine. But in retail what you really need to do locally is clean up your stores and train you staff better than the competition.” Neither of the presenters commented and the session ended.

I shook the man’s hand and asked him what business that he was in. It turned out that he owned several units of two fast food concepts, plus a few franchised car repair shops. We talked for a few minutes until the moderator, who recognized me, came over to say hello. As the two young presenters were packing up, I overhead one say “Can you believe that Neanderthal? Clean up your stores and invest in training? He is clueless.”

The next day at breakfast I ran in to him and we got talking. Eventually, we walked the perimeter of the golf course at the resort (we did not play unfortunately) and talked for what turned out to be four hours. It was engrossing to say the least.

He peppered me with questions about media and advertising and I talked to him a lot about retail in a terrible business environment. He did not always know the proper marketing terms but his instincts were terrific. For 35 years, he had met payrolls and never missed a debt payment. Nowadays, he said it was a great time for him as he was buying more stores with cash at distressed prices. He said that he had never seen such bargains in a lifetime. His opportunistic buys were summed up with “When you pay cash as I do today, your worries are limited. I can thumb my nose at both deflation and inflation.”

His point from the session came up again and again. Recently, he had purchased a few units of a food chain from a bankrupt franchisee. On the first day at the worst store, he noticed a kid behind the counter. The young lad refused to accept a coupon from a woman easily in her 80’s. He stopped her before she left and gave her a free lunch and a few new coupons. When he questioned the young man, the kid said “but the coupon expired two days ago.”

He closed the store that Sunday and his two sons grudgingly painted the place. He and his daughter conducted training for all employees who were paid that day at time and a half. “I told everyone that we are not McDonald’s. We cannot turn anyone away. If they have a coupon for Tide, accept it. But no one leaves the store without a purchase.”

Two months later despite a weak economy, the newly painted store with a more motivated staff was showing a profit.

He was open to new ideas and had just concluded a mobile test with a coupon company. Volume was lower than he had hoped but it paid out for him and brought younger customers in to his locations.

My point is not to trash the young presenters with their endless list of tactics. Some were terrific ideas badly presented. But, what my new found friend alerted me to once again is that to win the game you have to concentrate on the basic blocking and tackling that are required to execute well. Have a clean place that people want to come to and a sales/wait staff that is welcoming.

If my friend is a Neanderthal, American business needs more of them.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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