Retail or E-tail?

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As of this writing, the boom times that followed the Great Recession are still in full swing, with unemployment below 5 percent. Yet we see shuttered stores on Main Street. It’s as if our town never got the news. What gives?

E-commerce has transformed shopping habits, shifting attention from street-side retail and toward website e-tail. You can order nearly anything online — food, clothing, books and music, appliances and equipment — and have it delivered to your doorstep, no store visits needed, often for less than you’d pay at the mall. As a result, businesses have cut back on brick-and-mortar locations while Web retail surges.

Still, while it’s easy to order a dress online from JCPenney or Macy’s, it’s gotten harder to try it on first, as chains cut back on the number of outlets. The chief reason to visit a street store is to touch the merchandise; website images don’t quite get it. But lately some customers will visit stores, try stuff on, then go home and order the items cheaper from another company’s website.

As retail square footage shrinks and bandwidth expands, the tension between mail-order and in-store shopping opens up a window for e-tailers who can give patrons a real-world sense of product lines from a home screen. Brick-and-mortar retailers, too, are looking for ways to shift their stance in the new ballgame.

Online businesses have been innovating:

• Many clothing websites will send you items to try on at home.

• You can customize your order by size, color, features, etc., and thus access the entire product line — much more than a brick-and-mortar outlet can stock.

• Many e-tailers provide multiple views of products, and you can zoom in on the images for a more detailed examination.

• Online prescription eyeglass stores let you upload a photo of your face (or you can select an image of a face that resembles yours), click on prospective frames, and view them on the facial image to get a sense of how they’ll look on you in real life.

If you’re an online store owner or web developer, be sure to keep an eye on the technology as it evolves:

• 3-D computer and TV screens will become common, allowing you to replace flat product images with more lifelike ones.

• Some Virtual Reality headsets already allow customers to “walk through” online stores and examine merchandise in much more detail.

• Haptic (touch-sense) gloves will augment V-R headsets so your patrons can “feel” cloth, “heft” items to gauge their weight, and “touch” product surfaces.

• And who knows? Perhaps someday we’ll have “Smell-o-Vision”, along with humidity and temperature simulators, so we can enjoy the often-pleasing atmospheres of retail locations.

These technologies are burgeoning almost faster than we can write about them, so stay up with developments.

Meanwhile, if you’re a committed brick-and-mortar retailer, don’t despair. Advancing tech creates new opportunities for you as well:

• Empty stores mean lower rental costs, which reduces the price advantage of your e-commerce competitors. A shuttered store next to you is a chance to expand your retail operations simply by renting the spare footage and opening up a passageway between.

• Your retail store can promote your e-tail store. Some chains (Bed, Bath & Beyond, for example) encourage patrons to use store computers to order out-of-stock or specialty items directly from the chain’s warehouse. This protects the sale while getting customers into the habit of ordering from the retailer’s own website.

• Driverless vehicles will ease traffic, so getting to your store will be less of a hassle. These cars will need fewer parking spaces, reducing congestion while opening up acreage that downtown business groups can repurpose into, for example, parklike pedestrian avenues for shoppers.

• People like to meet and interact with other people in person, and your store can become a social locale when you add, say, a coffee bar or entertainment corner, or you can host designers, authors, and artists who conduct seminars, demos, and readings.

• Visiting your store becomes something of an event with a Virtual Reality system that teaches patrons how it’ll look and feel to use your products.

The world is transforming in ways we can barely foresee. Retail sales, too, will shift unpredictably. Shop owners and online vendors who keep their fingers on the pulse of that change — and who resist the temptation to sit back and rest on their laurels — will find ways to thrive. It won’t be easy, but it will be interesting … and, if you play it right, it’ll be profitable.

* * * *

UPDATE: Retail scene changing quickly

UPDATE: Retail outlet as shipping center (and shipping center as retail outlet?)

Women Who Put Out Fires

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Recently there’s been chatter on how women often become leaders during crises. A number of examples come to mind: Carly Fiorina (Hewlett-Packard); Mary Barra (GM); Marissa Mayer (Google, Yahoo); Margaret Thatcher (UK Prime Minister) and Theresa May (UK Prime Minister). All these women attained high leadership positions during major upheavals in companies or countries.

Why do crises and women leaders go together? Two reasons stick out: (1) the men screwed things up and don’t want to touch the problem with a ten-foot pole; (2) groups cast about for a fresh perspective, saying, “Let’s see what a woman can do with this situation.”

Of course, sometimes men on the outside are simply waiting for the problem to overwhelm the woman so they can claim, “See? She can’t do it! But we can!” and winch themselves back into power.

Thus women candidates for leadership may want to think twice before gambling on a position that could turn out to be a sucker bet.

It brings to mind an old joke: “Why do ducks have webbed feet?” … “To stamp out forest fires.” … “And why do elephants have flat feet?” … “To stamp out flaming ducks.” You don’t want to become a pile of ignited feathers squished by an elephant of a crisis.

Two approaches to this dilemma are likely to be popular:

1. Complain that “men are no damn good” and they only use women in blazing emergencies and then toss them under the fire truck when the going gets smoky.

2. Learn how to put out fires.

Number 1, above, may be partly true and therefore useful to know. But complaining does not a leader make.

Number 2 is where the money is. A crisis is a woman’s chance to demonstrate calm capability. To that end, prepare for the opportunity:

• Learn how to handle budget emergencies

• Learn how to cut red tape

• Learn how to lay off employees, especially men who will try to intimidate you when you hand them a pink slip

• Learn how to cut spending, especially pet projects that are squirting money like severed arteries

• Learn how to meditate (or anything else that keeps you calm and unflappable)

With hard work, smarts, and a bit of luck, a woman can save the day, convert a trap into a triumph, and rise from patsy to hero. At that point, she should make sure her future compensation reflects her excellent performance — and/or be ready to field offers from other companies desperate for a turn-around artist.

So, ladies: prepare for the job as if it’ll be a series of emergencies … assemble your fire equipment … and go put out some fires.


How to Multitask

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The multitaskers perceived that they performed better, because their brains were more stimulated, but in every single study they performed worse. — Chris Bailey

When you are in a hurry, you are in danger. — airplane pilot’s adage

There’s an old Buddhist story where a businessman visits a Zen temple and says to the Master, “I need to become enlightened. How long will it take?” The old Roshi answers, “A minimum of one year.” The businessman says, “That’s way too long! I have a company to run.” The Roshi replies, “In that case, it’ll take five years.”

Many of us are busy and harried, and we cast about for productivity tools to help us get more done in less time. One of the most tempting techniques is multitasking, or doing several things at once. Pretty soon we’re driving while shaving and talking on the phone and texting and grabbing quick sips of coffee. It’s exciting! We’re getting things done.

Except we aren’t. Our brains are poorly suited to thinking about more than one topic at a time. It may feel as if we’re accomplishing more, but in fact we’re performing worse.

Yet we’ve seen people do multiple things simultaneously with apparent success. And, after all, we can walk and talk at the same time. Brush our teeth and listen to the news. Play the piano with both hands.

The piano: you read the music while managing keys simultaneously with both left and right hands. Heck, it’s like those super-geniuses who can write two separate sentences at the same time, one from each hand, on a whiteboard!

But it takes time to learn a new piece: you begin to memorize phrases and sections so they become automated as you study the next segments. Basically, you’re transforming each section into “brushing teeth”, where you don’t have to think about it anymore.

If you’re going to multitask, you must do it deliberately. Take the time now to automate small physical tasks — turning them into consistent routines until they’re memorized — so your brain is free to concentrate. The effort will pay off later. Remember: multitask rote physical stuff, not mental stuff.

Here are the main ideas:

  • Do one mental task at a time: Resist the temptation to do multiple mental jobs at once. (Examples: reading and talking, talking and texting, conferencing and texting, anything and texting.) Instead, calmly go through your list, one item at a time. No panic! You’ll get there.
  • Automate physical activities like making copies, brewing coffee, changing your tie, driving. (But be careful! Nearly any activity can require full attention on occasion — especially driving — so stop with all the texting!) Go watch a good bartender mix drinks automatically while chatting with patrons, and you’ll get a sense of it.
  • Slow down to speed up: If you hurry, you tend to perform poorly. (Remember that time in the parking lot when some bigwig was waiting for you to pull out of your space so they could use it, and they honked their horn, and you rushed and dropped your keys under the car, and hit your head as you got in, and dropped the keys again, this time between the seats? You get the idea.) Anything you rush gets worse, including multitasking.

So now you’re at work, and your boss yells, “Where’s that report, Jenkins?! And get down to Receiving and find those overnights! Also, Simmons got sick, so grab someone to fill in!” You take a deep, calming breath and say:

“It’s on my list.”


A Survey of Startups

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Nearly all startups fail to scale up.

There — we got the bad news out of the way. The good news: it’s possible to greatly shorten the odds by following a few simple rules.

A report on recent MIT research lays out some pointers:

“Compared to average startups, which have a one in 3,500 chance of experiencing growth, the top one percent of firms with these characteristics have a much better chance (one in 100) of taking off. New startups are four times more likely than the average startup to grow if they are a corporation, two and a half times more likely if they have a short name, and five times more likely if they have trademarks. Furthermore, firms that apply for patents are 35 times more likely to grow. And, curiously, eponymously named firms are a whopping 70 percent less likely to grow.”

There’s more, but in a nutshell:

  • Incorporate
  • Use a short name (not the founder’s name!)
  • Nail down your trademarks
  • Apply for patents
  • Locate in a high-tech region:
    • Silicon Valley
    • Southern California
    • Washington state
    • New York / Boston
    • Texas

Oh, and let’s add the standard principles for business success:

  • Provide a product or service people need and love
  • Make what you sell vastly better in some important way
  • Hire excellent people you can get along with
  • Stay focused on results (instead of signs of your own importance)
  • Work your butt off for 4 years or more

What could be simpler? Now get to it.


Your Livelihood and the American President

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Running a brilliant campaign does not translate into running a brilliant White House. — Gail Collins

Does it matter to your bottom line what the government does? Absolutely. Legislatures and bureaucrats and presidents and prime ministers can screw up an economy with the stroke of a pen. Witness, for example, the run-up to the Great Recession of 2008: the U.S. set low interest rates, encouraged home buying (and strong-armed banks to provide loans to incompetent borrowers), spent nearly $2 trillion on a useless military venture in Iraq, then blamed Wall Street when the bottom fell out … and then bailed out the Street’s investment bankers while workers and small firms on Main Street had to suck it up.

Okay, but does it matter to your bottom line who is the U.S. president? Yes and no. Great power does flow through the White House, but it’s like water through a firehose that’s hard to point at problems without backsplash or getting knocked over. Over the past century, a few Chief Executives have managed to wield enormous influence (for better or worse): Wilson, FDR, Johnson, Reagan, Bush. But most have come and gone without leaving much of a mark.

A finer-grained question is: does it matter to your income stream which party a president belongs to? Campaign contributors tend either to be labor groups or corporations, neither of which are keen on draconian measures that might cause job losses or declines in revenue. So there’s a political limit, despite all the rhetoric, to what either party can do to the economy once it controls the White House.

In fact, it may not much matter which party holds the office. Sometimes a Democrat can be good for business (as with Clinton’s budget surplus), and sometimes a Republican can be bad for it (witness Bush with Iraq and the Recession). What’s more, it’s hard to tell what kind of administrator a candidate will turn out to be, and it’s often just as hard to foresee what policies they’ll instigate once in office. Meanwhile, situations can change suddenly — Pearl Harbor in December 1941 … 9/11 … the recent upheavals in technology — with unpredictable results for White House policy.

On top of that, the Constitution was written deliberately to throw sand in the gears of political change, impeding the government from rushing headlong into wild-eyed projects that might do more harm than good. This applies to the Executive as much as to the Legislature. Sometimes the American government breaks through and hurtles toward disaster, but usually progress is glacial. Thus one change of government probably won’t result in enormous shifts in society or the economy.

In recent years, though, the purview of the White House has widened. Under George W. “I Am the Decider” Bush, overly broad use of signing statements — which are meant merely to outline a Chief Executive’s plans for implementing legislation — enabled him to get away with backdoor line-item vetoes. Then the administration pushed through Congress laws that vastly increased federal power to spy on, arrest and/or kill U.S. citizens, often without warrants.

In 2009, Barack Obama — a constitutional scholar who as a candidate railed against Bush’s assault on civil liberties — became president and added to Bush’s power grab, especially in the overuse of Executive Actions.

Every president feels beleaguered by ongoing assaults from political opponents and will cast about for any influence that may win the day. No sitting president willingly lets go of arbitrary clout inherited from previous administrations; worse, there’ll be an enormous temptation to expand on it. Basically, if a Chief Executive exceeds the limits to his authority and nobody calls him on it, the next president will do the same … and then some.

The overall result is an ongoing expansion of Executive power, with no sign that it will slow down. In that respect, it doesn’t matter which party occupies the Oval Office; presidential prerogatives will likely continue to grow. More and more edicts will be handed down arbitrarily, rulings that could cause your company, or your career prospects, to lurch crazily.

What’s a business owner or employee to do?

  • Don’t waste a lot of time worrying about who will be the next president. Their behavior and influence is hard to predict and often vastly different from what they promise. Besides, fretting about events you have virtually no influence over is a waste of resources. Instead, put your energies where they can do some good — work on your career. Hold a steady course despite the changing winds.
  • Assume taxes and regulation will continue slowly to increase, no matter who’s in office. They have done so for decades, and there’s no sign they’ll halt or reverse course. Any compliance process you can computerize will simplify the burden and save some of the time and money you’d otherwise lose.
  • Assume recessions will recur under Democrats and Republicans alike. The Fed tends to tweak interest rates to stretch out economic booms, and the resulting busts become that much deeper, regardless of who’s in office. Resist the temptation to invest or make expensive purchases at the end of a boom simply because you’ve been doing well and there’s no sign of trouble. You’ll find yourself over-extended just as your income drops.
  • Assume 5% unemployment is the best we’re going to get. Rarely does the rate fall much lower, and soon enough it begins to swing upward, often doubling within a year or so. At 5% get ready to batten down the hatches.
  • Never assume a strong economy, or a good job or business, will continue indefinitely, unmolested by national turmoil or bad governance. As they say in poker, “Take some chips south” — squirrel away cash from the win streaks, and you’ll still have resources after a loss.
  • Never assume Washington will save you! They’re much more likely to cause problems than fix them; at best, their help is a mixed blessing. It’s better to have yourself on your side: you’ll retain the best ally you can get … for both bad times and good.


How to Reduce Event Attendance

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The mistakes of the fool are known to the world, but not to himself. — Charles Caleb Colton

Most of us go to events from time to time — festivals, concerts, conventions, street fairs — and many of these get promoted by email. If you’re on a list for, say, a monthly swap meet, you’ll receive a notice in your Inbox from the promoter, and it’s often written in a breezy, upbeat and chatty style that’s sure to charm and attract customers.

Yes, making money is probably one of the main purposes of the promoter. No problem with that, of course. The trouble lies elsewhere. Here’s an example of what you might get:

“Okay, our regular meet is all set up for the end of the month! Get ready, because it’s gonna be a great one. Usual start time, but we’ll have some extra-special guest vendors that you’ll love. Admission is $20 this month because of extra expenses, but rest assured you’ll think it was worth more. We look forward to seeing all of you. Do come to the main tent and say hi.”

What’s wrong with it? … Yes, you in the back.

“There’s no date listed.”

Exactly. I’ve lost count of how many announcements I’ve received that bubbled with excitement about an event but forgot to mention the date. Or the time. Or the address. Or the price.

The above sample omits nearly every particular. This is surprisingly common. Promoters seem to assume that their list members already know the recurring stuff, so why bore them with the same details?

Here’s a why: List members themselves often need the basic information. Your regulars are a motley bunch, some of whom have not been with the group long, or have poor memories, or have always caught a ride with someone else until now. Etc etc.

Here’s another why: Your regulars may want to forward the email to friends and new recruits, but they won’t if it’s an embarrassment of non-information.

If the promoter fails to list everything anyone might need to know about the event, attendance will suffer — not merely from missed opportunities for marketing to newbies, but from regulars unsure about the date or time or address or cost. Instead of the hoped-for increase in patronage, the turnout drops.

A big difference between professionals and amateurs is that pros tend to be methodical and detail-oriented, whereas amateurs are in it for the fun, confusing enthusiasm for competence. If there’s money involved, the event organizer needs to behave like a professional. But if thoroughness makes them impatient, they’ll hit “Send” too early … and prove they’re an amateur.

When it’s a one-person operation, that person will write the announcement, and then proof-read it … if she or he has time. The problem is that most amateur writers think if they understand what they’re writing, so will everyone else. They believe they’re communicating simply because they’re typing.

I’ve received unclear or incomplete email announcements, replied asking for clarification, and been scolded for not reading the email. This tells me the promoter sincerely believes all the info is included even when it isn’t. This illusion can be very persistent; amateurs fall prey to it all the time.

Also, it’s extremely poor practice for promoters to get huffy with their customers about anything, especially communication problems, which could easily be the promoter’s fault.

If organizers simply assume they’ve announced events properly, they’ll never connect the dots between incompetent emails and lost gate. Besides, with so many variables — weather, time of year, competition, economic conditions — who can prove that it was the weak email announcement that put the brakes on attendance?

The announcement is one of the variables you can control. It is, after all, a part of marketing, which is critical to the success of your event. It’s hard to imagine it not affecting attendance.


Always include the basic details:

—Date and time (“Saturday, March 12, 8:00 a.m.”)

—Event and location (“Monthly Swap Meet, 123 Main St, Anytown”)

—Cost and benefits (“$20 gets you admission and a free raffle ticket.”)

—Any special notes (“Be sure to bring a warm jacket” / sunscreen / bug spray / box lunch / etc)

If you must issue an update or correction, be sure to include the basic details again, revised as appropriate. Do these things and it becomes easy for people to pop the event into their calendars … and forward the message, with its complete event info, to those they want to invite.

Always write for the first-timer. Read your own writing as if you were a newbie who doesn’t know the least thing about your event. This exercise can show you what you’re omitting that you’ve assumed everyone else knows. (And you’d be surprised how much the regular attendees don’t know about what’s going on.) Assume that your list members are like students in a classroom, where most of them aren’t paying attention. Be clear, and always include complete event information, so a beginner — and any regular who’s unsure about the latest event particulars — will have no doubts or hesitations about when and where to attend, what to bring, etc.

Always have someone else check your writing. Well-constructed sentences give off a professional air, while goofs and awkward phrases reek of amateurism. It’s easy to scan your own work and see no problems: you wrote it, it looks good to you, it must be getting the point across. We’re all a bit blinded by the majesty of our own verbiage. But be warned: our writing, unchecked, can and will rise up to humiliate us, the lovely words betraying confused or embarrassing meanings we never intended. Meanwhile, punctuation and spelling mistakes can slip past the best of us. A second pair of eyes will catch a lot of potential problems.

Don’t be the one left standing in the middle of a sparsely attended event, shrugging his shoulders — “But I told them about it!” — oblivious to the amateur mistakes he made. Let somebody else make those errors. Get your email promotions in hand … and watch your gate improve.


Three Ways to Bid

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If you work for an employer — like 93 to 97 percent of American workers — you get your pay from a salary or wage. If you work for yourself — free-lancer, contractor — your pay depends on the deal you strike with the client. That deal can take three forms:

HOURLY: You get paid for how much time you put into the work.

Advantages: You know in advance what your hourly income will be. If the job is bigger than expected, you’ll get paid more. Your rate is secure.

Drawbacks: You don’t now how much money you’ll make on the entire job, since the total number of hours is uncertain. And your rate is the upper limit on how much you can make per hour of effort. Also, your client doesn’t know how much the job will cost until it’s over, which can cause said client to balk at your bill.

When to use: Take your pay by the hour if the work is open-ended.

BY THE JOB: You get paid for results.

Advantages: You know ahead of time how much revenue you’ll receive. If the job takes less effort than expected, you’ll still receive the same amount. Your total payout is secure. Also, your client knows how much the project will cost ahead of time.

Drawbacks: You don’t know for sure what your pay rate will be, as the job could take much longer than you hoped. Worse, after expenses, you could lose money.

When to use: Take your pay by the job if you have a good idea of what your total hours and expenses are likely to be.

BY PERCENTAGE: You get paid a portion of your client’s revenue or equity.

Advantages: There’s no fixed limit on how much you can earn. If revenues — or stock value — go through the roof, so will your take-home. A lot of billionaires get started this way.

Drawbacks: You could earn nothing if the client’s business fails. Also, your equity participation can get seriously diluted, especially if you’re working for a start-up that goes for a second round of funding and renegotiates the cap table. And most start-ups don’t get very far, so don’t hold your breath.

When to use: Take your pay as a percentage of revenues and/or equity if the client’s company looks to blast off like a rocket and/or if the client is having serious cashflow problems right now but should get nicely into the black in the near future. (Bear in mind that most established businesses won’t do this kind of deal.)

…Of course, you can mix and match these pay methods to suit, taking a portion in up-front money and the rest as stock options or a piece of the company or a slice of revenues, then adding hourly consulting fees if the client has a last-minute need for extra help. 

In any case, your final bill can be hell to collect. Not every person you do business with — no matter how charming — is honest. The last bill is the easiest to welch on, as they often don’t expect to need your services anymore, and they know that most small contractors will give up the chase. Also, a client may sail into tight straits, and your bill gets tossed overboard.

That said, most people on salary never get rich, and the biggest opportunities find their way to independent contractors. So go ahead, make a bid.