Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A rare and pertinent thing...

Now here's something that's rare.

A business article that actually speaks to me. That actually addresses my small business concerns. That is actually something I've thought long and hard about, but never seen anyone else write about.

A new piece of info. Something that might actually make me change the way I do things.


"Clutter In The Aisle? It's There To Get You To Spend." Bulletin, 4/8/11.

Actually, I'm probably already doing what they talk about here -- through sheer accumulation of stuff, some of it is spilling over onto the floor. Just a little, mind you.

But maybe I should lighten up a little about the straightening up. Both Linda and my stores try really hard to square everything away. My feeling is, we have so much material, that things will quickly degenerate if we don't keep up.

On our trips, you've heard me complain about how "messy" other bookstores are. How easy it would be for them to straighten up.

But maybe those other stores have been benefiting from that clutter. Maybe, they instinctively know that they need to have a bit of mess to intrigue people.

I know this will be a hard sell to Linda. She hates clutter in her business (her office at home is a whole nother thing...).


Later: I wrote the proceeding at home, after reading the article.

Ummmm....walked in the door of my store, and immediately thought, no problem. Clutter is not ever going to be something I need to strive for.

Basically, my current "Fight the Entropy" strategy is correct, because no matter how hard I try, things are going to be misplaced, set back in the wrong spot, knocked askew.


"...it turns out that lots and lots of stuff piled onto shelves or stacked in the middle of store aisles can coax a shopper to buy more..."

Describe my store, why don't you?

I once had a neighbor from across the street complain that my window was "too cluttered." (This from a woman who had spiky pink hair and day-glow letters in her windows...).

But see, I had learned that a nice, artistic window looked good -- and did nothing for business. Whereas a window that had a sampling of all the different types of product I carried, pulled people in.

"They loved the experience," says the article about Walmart's makeover into a sleeker look. "They just bought less. And that generally is not a good long-term strategy."


You have to watch what customers Do, not what they Say. They'll always say they want neat, tidy, wide, and artistically designed aisles. Always. But that doesn't always translate into sales.

My instinct has always been to fit as much merchandise in my 1000 ft. sq. space as is humanly possible. Not only do I have more merchandise to sell, but it gives the consumer the message that I'm thriving, that I'm engaged, that I'm really, really into my store merchandise.

I ain't stinting. I ain't scraping.

And I've always HATED the question: "Is this all you got?" I think I was permanently scarred by being asked that in my first few years of business when I had limited inventory and even more limited money to buy inventory.

In fact, the history of my store has been a constant leveraging of my resources to get more material -- which left me constantly vulnerable to downturns. One of the reasons that my store is more stable now is that I finally got to a point where I need only to bring in replacement product and make incremental improvements -- which is a much easier thing to do.

"As it turns out, the messier and more confusing a store looks, the better the deals it projects. 'Historically, the more a store is packed, the more people think of it as value...'"

Well, I don't know about messy or confusing -- but I do think that having tons of product intrigues the customer.

"One of the ways to improve productivity is to get more things out on the floor and to show the product in a better way...."

I have to constantly remind the employees at the Bookmark that we want as many books out on the floor as possible, and not in the back room. Fit them in!

The article makesthe case that because they aren't expanding anymore, the chainstores are putting more product into the existing stores. Well, that's also a decision I made long ago.

"Think of shelf heights as air rights, if yo will -- it's easier to raise the shelf height than expand the footprint of the store."

Again, in my store, the merchandise starts on floor level and goes to the ceiling. I have so far left the ceiling alone, though I joke about it...


O.K. Not all clutter is bad.

But not all clutter is good. Not when it reaches the level of messiness and chaos.

I think maybe the trick is to be casually, and artistically, cluttered. Which requires a certain "design" sense --which I doubt the mass market can learn to do, or can be done by fiat. I suspect it will tip one direction or the other too much.

One of the advantages of a small store is the owner can constantly monitor the look and feel of his store from an aesthetic viewpoint. Hard to see how chainstores will be able to mandate that.


Interesting that the chainstores are coming around to my way of thinking: I think they were expanding so fast and so crazy it was all about footprint growth. What I've always thought of as a Ponzi scheme.

Having expanding into four stores and seen my sales soar into unexpected heights -- and making no money from the experience, I'm not too surprised that the mass market is learning some of the same painful lessons.

But...if they retreat into smaller stores, or quit expanding, that just makes them Stores. Store---Stores, like the rest of us. That's a different challenge -- and I'll bet there are some painful lessons for them to learn.

And doesn't having a Store -- Store just make the same as the rest of us? They'll have to compete on the same playing field -- instead of just being so overwhelming big they squash us. You know, things like knowledge and service. Maybe even -- if their Ponzi schemes are finally coming to an end -- maybe even PRICE!

I welcome the challenge.


H. Bruce Miller said...

Dunc, I would say you have met the challenge of achieving clutter.

The cluttered look evidently works well for some kinds of merchandising, but some stores take the opposite approach, displaying each item in isolation, like a jewel. Sharper Image comes to mind as one example.

Duncan McGeary said...

Yeah, what I like about the article is that I was being told over the last decade or so that doing what I was doing was wrong -- at the same time that my bottomline was telling me I was right.

I have come to doubt much of the business advice I hear...

H. Bruce Miller said...

What you're doing is right for your business. It might not be right for others. Advice about business (or anything else) that takes a one-size-fits-all approach is almost always wrong.

RDC said...


You really cannot equate the lessons from you business model to a mass market store.

Mass market is about inventory turns and product velocity. As long as they can do inventory turns (1 per month or better) they do well and are quite profitable. If their velocity slows down below that rate then they have severe problems.

I would be surprised if you can much more then 1 turn a year with your business model.

What works for yours would be a disaster for theirs and vice versa.

Duncan McGeary said...

Yes, and part of what I'm saying is that when the "mass market" starts talking about smaller stores and other changes, they are talking about becoming closer to my model.

Why did they become big boxes in the first place -- wasn't it the vast inventory they could carry under one roof?

Wasn't the volume discounts?

I keep saying, another word for smaller big box is "store."

They can dress up the language all they want -- but if they get smaller then they have less inventory (filling a store with 'clutter' is something the smaller stores can and have been doing...interesting, is it not, that the big boxes want to try to copy that behavior?)

Duncan McGeary said...

What if the big boxes are the cultural artifacts.

When I first started at Pegasus, downtown was half empty and the big indoor malls, Mt. View and Bend River, reigned supreme.

They've been torn down or changed from indoor, and downtown is going strong.

What if the big box stores were a moment in history -- cheap goods from China, naive zoning laws, a lackadaisical labor ethic? What if they end up rotting on the edges of towns the way drive-in theaters did?

As long as people want to sell something -- people will open up stores.

The massive infrastructure of cheap labor and cheap goods and cheap energy -- which seems more certain in the long run?

RDC said...

While the big box store had a larger selection in their target area then did department stores or general retailers (though the term big box store has gotten a bit corrupted from its original meaning. It was originally referring to stores that were category specific such as Home Depot (compared with the hardware stores of the day), Circuit City or Best Buy compared with the local appliance store. Basically instead of a department in a department store they were a large store with a tight focus. Now the term is basically applied to any large store.

The key is that to be profitable you need to get a return per square foot and that means getting the inventory turns across the stores complete inventory. That requires X amount of cash to be flowing through. If the cash is not flowing through you either need to shrink the inventory and store size (along with capital investment and variable costs) or you have to adopt a slower turn model. The slower turn model does not work, unless you are willing to accept very poor returns on your overall capital investment.

Retail always changes. More then just about any other business it changes. The big box model was good for 20 years. Now the no box model is growing the fastest.

THe business with the lowest margin, but highest inventory turns (I guess you could say the real original big box stores are chain grocery stores).