Article > Feature Story

An (un)Usual Observance

By Kris Walker

Kids say the darndest things...maybe we should listen.

Anybody who has ever been around children knows they are capable of saying anything at anytime. Not long ago my five-year-old and I were riding our bicycles, and we stopped by a co-ed softball game and sat behind first base to watch.

"Dad, look at me, Dad, look at me, Dad, look at me, Dad, look at me," my daughter demanded.

"I see you. Get your finger out of your nose," I said.

Then all of a sudden she blurted much louder, "Dad, is that a boy or a girl on first base?"

And before I could regroup and clamp my hand over her mouth, she repeated it even louder, "Dad, is that a boy or a girl on first base - that fat one?"

But sometimes children make observations that are right on. Sometimes their observations are so simple and basic that the logic escapes adults. We were driving down the road another time and passed by a freshly painted 100,000-square-foot big-box store. Now that's a lot of paint to cover a building that really didn't need repainting. One of the adults in the car said, "I wonder why they re-painted that big box?"

And a little voice - I believe in a car seat - from behind responded, "So they all look the same."

(The car almost left the road.)

Here's the single-largest retailer on the planet repainting its stores so that they all look the same. Why? I suspect that back before they were the biggest retailer on the planet, it was decided that making all of the stores look the same would make the stores more recognizable. And due to this uniformity, it would make them appear to be bigger than the sum of the individual units. If they all look the same, you don't miss one while driving by.

How many jobber and service-dealer marketing presentations across the country stress the importance of a common identity, policy, procedure, etc.? Why? So we look larger than the sum of our individual parts. Competitors to the predominantly independently owned traditional automotive aftermarket view that 'independence' as one of its most glaring and easily attacked weaknesses. As one strategist commented, "the aftermarket is fragmented," which leads to such historical truths as, "divide and conquer," or "united we stand, divided we fall."

Just for a moment, forget about 21st-century technology and disciplines such as e-commerce, data warehouse, Pay on Scan, category management, ISO9000, six sigma and partnerships. The former owner of the biggest box there simply considered himself a merchant. Think for a moment about basic merchantability tactics: You may think it's hokey to have a 'greeter' in the front of a store, but haven't we all committed to greeting a customer within 'x' seconds, or 'y' steps or 'z' rings of the phone? Do we follow this rule of thumb? They do. And how about passing out a smiley sticker? Do you think the logic may be: A welcome customer and a smiling customer is a happy customer - and a buying customer? I'm not suggesting hiring a greeter, but I'm certainly suggesting that we recommit to the basics.

So what if I took this 5-year-old on a tour of a traditional parts store somewhere - what observations would she make? "Dad, why is there trash in the parking lot? The grass isn't cut. There are weeds in the sidewalk."

Maybe walking through the store..."Nobody said 'hello' to us when we came in. This stuff isn't priced, is it free? This display is empty. I don't want to buy the last dented dusty one. What's that stack of paper behind the counter - are they starting a recycling center? The shelves are dusty, the floor is dirty, Dad, I think there are monsters in the bathroom. Why is it so dark in here? I can't see out the windows - Dad, I'm scared."

It's an obvious exaggeration; however, there is far too much talent behind the counter and within the walls of an independently owned automotive parts store not to give that talent the opportunity to be the very best it can be. Do we encourage consumers, men and women of all demographics, into our stores or into our competitors' stores?

If the traditional argument that "our people are better than theirs" is true, and assuming that the competitors are smart enough to figure that out, doesn't it stand to reason that a reasonable strategy to attract customers away from a traditional store is to excel at those areas impacting a consumers' buying decision that focuses less on the people and more on the shopping environment?

And knowing that, what simple and inexpensive merchantability tactics could we implement right now that would encourage consumers into, and to stay in, our stores? Some tactics are inferred within this article - maybe ask a friend to walk your store and tell you what they see - maybe even through a child's eyes. We can't afford to give away our competitive advantage by carelessly reducing our customer count or invoice size.

My daughter had one last thought, "Hey Dad, that place was kind of smoky. Did you know that smoking kills?"

"The workers?" I asked her.

"No, business, Dad," she said.


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