It’s Your Store
Small store retailing gets in your blood. Prior to being in the insurance business, I was the manager of a small store and after a five year pause in the game publishing business, a partner of a small retail store chain. It is good now to look back from my new perspective as an insurance professional and bring forward insights for small retail store owners.
Love What You Sell
My path into retailing started as a holiday job at the Lubbock mall toy store (South Plains Mall – Toys by Roy). This was in my Junior year at Texas Tech (Go Raiders!) and my parents had gone crazy about my first college job (compliant desk at the Lubbock newspaper from 5am to 9am) because I made the mistake of bragging that I was sleeping though my morning classes but still “Acing” them. I applied as a holiday clerk in the hobby area selling model trains, Estes Rockets, plastic models and other fun stuff. The manager, Phil Hixon noticed my work ethic and understanding of model trains (my older brother was a model railroader) and I was kept on as part-time hobby clerk. While completing my fourth year of my Business degree, I evolved into being the hobby section manager of this large specialty toy store. I loved selling hobbies and wanted our customers to have what they needed for their projects and soon took over ordering for the entire hobby area. I was a Business Major focused on retailing studies after all and this was my first time to put my learning into practice. I also embraced selling children’s toys as an additional passion. I was hooked and while I had several large retailer job offers in the Spring of my senior year, my journey was to be toy & hobby retailing because it was what I loved to sell.
Insight – One of the secrets to success in small store retailing is to love what you sell. Your passion will attract loyal customers. Your personal interest in your products will help you see trends and correctly balance your inventory with the right stock selections.
Rite of Passage: First Christmas In the Toy Business
In the toy retailing business, you must show your mettle by working the Christmas gift buying season. Toys, more than most retailing, are very seasonally focused on the Christmas gift buying event. The whole year is focused on being ready and having the right selection to “bring home the bacon” during November and December. Last year’s “must have” toy is now only an OK seller and the two years ago hot toy is in the clearance aisle. Your buyer (that’s you in the small retailer world), had to guess at the January Toyfair, what will be the hot items for this year’s Christmas season. Half your total sales will happen between mid-November and December 24th. The manager and assistant manager are expected to work long hours and stay focused. Being willing and able to work the 80+ hour per week for the entire Christmas sales season is “the Rite of Passage” in toy retailing. My baptism as an Assistant Manager in the toy business was the Star Wars toy crazed Christmas of 1978.
Insight – Hard work and long hours come with the retail store territory. You will earn your markup.
I still dream about assembling the big green Ertl John Deere Riding Tractor (Lubbock was Cotton Farm country and this was the prime “just like daddy” large gift for five to eight year-old boys). None of the consumers ever successfully assembled this expensive toy. There was no point in selling them the kit in the box because it would only become a messy mangled return. It took an hour per unit, even with practice, to get this beast put together. As assistant manager, I became the designated expert assembler. We sold the heck out of them in 1978 and 1979 when I worked at the Lubbock Toys by Roy as assistant manager.
Insight – Retailing is about adjusting to your customer product wants and delivering it. An assembled Ertl Riding Tractor was something our clients could not get anywhere else. We had them in stock and happily put them together. We delivered what they needed – the other local stores didn’t care. We won both the large sale on the tractor and often a whole family Christmas gift purchasing event and repeat off-season visits from the thrilled parent that had obtained their son’s critical “under the tree” gift without the torture of putting it together Christmas Eve.
Insight – Your product in retail is the whole shopping experience, not just the item sold. Our “product” included broad selection, help finding the right toy, location, free gift wrapping and yes, free assemble of the Ertl Riding Tractor. We were never the low price leader for toys but had a loyal clientele because of the whole product we offered.
Be the Destination
As a small retailer, you need to achieve and maintain “Destination” status. I ended my career in retailing rather than yield to my ex-partner of our three game store chain in Dallas, Texas over maintaining “Destination” status with adequate inventory selection. Let’s face it; Wal-Mart will beat you on price and advertising spending on any market segment they want. Your store must develop a small niche that the big retailers don’t want and then dominate it. This is the classic “Big Fish in the Small Pond” approach. If you become just another “Small Fish in the Ocean” your store’s going out of business sale will be in the near future. In game retailing, the focus is a selection including the new game releases and having a wide range of accessories in stock. My ex-partner, after I sold out, paid off the IRS and other creditors by not refilling inventory for four months. He then refilled but had lost “Destination” status and our regular customers had left for other better stocked stores where they could buy what they wanted. The chain was liquidated a couple months later.
Insight – Decide on your small niche and do what it takes to be important for your regular clients. Be the destination for your chosen niche. You have to provide a reason for your customers to come, buy and bring their friends.
Most small retail stores are in leased space and getting the right location with an acceptable lease is a critical business decision. My second retail venture was a Game Store chain. Envision a store that featured chess, dominoes, board games and adventure games (Dungeons & Dragons, etc.) and not a video game store. We had a successful location in Amarillo but wanted to move into a large market and were enamored with malls. Dallas was the “Land of Oz” to the eyes of a small city retailer. The only Dallas mall that would offer a lease was Red Bird Mall in far South Dallas. As I assessed the mall opportunity, I made the key mistake of seeing the location from the perspective of Amarillo and not the needed perspective of the big city. This was a mall in decline in the wrong part of town and we had just signed a five year lease in hell. The financial wounds of this bad choice eventually lead to our enterprises’ demise.
As a commercial insurance salesman, I often see new store owners sign the lease without any understanding the insurance requirements that they have agree to. The insurance required by the lease can be extensive, sometime ridiculous and well beyond any affordability. Lucky me, I get to be the messenger. While this is a different error, it can have similar results.
Insight – Your location and lease are critical to your financial success in retailing. Be sure you have understanding of your market and have a professional review your lease terms before you sign-up. By all means, have an insurance agent quote the insurance required by the landlord. A bad or overpriced lease or a lease for the wrong location is a quick way to bankruptcy.
Evolution and Listening to Your Customers
The wolf at the door can be the driver of innovation needed to survive in retailing. Faced with an expensive mall store with flagging sales, I had all three staff members writing down anything that our customers asked for that we didn’t have. This act of listening was why we survived the unfavorable mall lease and led us to a new niche that made real money. We found many good individual product line extensions based on requests of 2 or 3 customers, but we added an entire new product segment with 153 votes for Nintendo. My partner and I were initially completely deaf to this big wave that was engulfing the game, movie rental and toy business. Nintendo was extraordinarily “hot” and people expected a “Game Store” to have it. Without capital for a big expansion into this very expensive area, we developed a low capital approach of a small selection of new games, taking trade-ins and then renting them by the week or selling them used for a good markup. It was a cash engine and actually pushed us into “percentage rent” (our nasty mall lease had a provision to charge a percentage based on sales).
Retailing is never a steady state. We cornered the “Best Value in Nintendo” market for several years but the market never stays still. The big money (Blockbusters, Funcoland – now Game Stop, et.al.) invaded our niche of used games sales and extended video game rentals. One of my conflicts with my ex-partner was that we had to push our envelope again and find new niches. He resisted any increase in our product selections and insisted that we stay focused on cost cutting and not growth.
Insight – Retailing requires listening to your customers and paying attention to what they want. The evolution of new product niches is part of the business of retailing. Failing to grow your concept or change your product selections to stay focused on your customers will doom any store.
I hope my vignettes of my personal retailing experiences have been helpful. Retailing was a passion of mine for many years and helped mold the insurance salesman that I now have become. I don’t miss the long hours, weekend shifts or the bounced paychecks but I still have fond memories of my years in retailing.