What the smart merchant did to cash in on 2021

Since we end this week with Christmas, I’m going to give you a quick Christmas story and show how it relates to a problem facing many of you in 2021, that no one has mentioned. Oh, and I’m going to share some wisdom from Frank Oliver.

Here’s the quick Christmas story: My wife and I always visit a “cut-your own” tree farm to select and cut a fresh Christmas tree. Our chosen farm is the site of the former county poor farm. The main field is over 100 acres, containing probably 6,000 to 8,000 Christmas trees. The field is sectioned into smaller fields of trees in various stages of maturity. Some are 1- and 2-year seedlings, while others are now well beyond the size of what would fit in the average home.

About 8 years ago, we noticed that the owners had not planted any new seedlings the year before, and they didn’t do so for at least three years. Finally, they plowed under several of the smaller fields and planted thousands of new seedlings. But that was five years ago. Those trees are now only four feet tall.

Here’s the problem – we went to get our tree this year the day after Thanksgiving. The field where you park was packed with SUVs and pick-ups at 9 AM. We hiked to the upper field, where other customers were milling around, wearing masks and social distancing. In the past, my wife would roam from tree to tree trying to decide between several that were perfect. It was tough to choose because the options were all so good.

This year, it was a question of picking the least defective tree. And every one that was in the field that morning was eyeing the same few trees. I ended up standing guard over the tree we selected while my wife flagged down the guy with the chain saw. (We have nine-foot ceilings, and we had to cut almost two feet off the tree to get it to fit when we brought it home. My wife calls it Mongo.) Later that week, I read in the paper that the farm had sold out of trees that first weekend, and closed for the remainder of the season, and it was not even December.

I doubt they will open next year because they had so few trees that will be at the right stage of maturity. By 2025, they’ll have plenty. But because they skipped replanting for three years, they robbed themselves of a future in 2021 to 2024.

The pandemic of 2020 created a problem for many of you that will rob your business in years to come. Your buyers and merchants were unable to get out and source new products. Sure, they “scoured” the web looking for new products. They attended “virtual” trade shows. They looked at samples of new products from your existing vendors.

Unfortunately, your competition did all those same things and saw the same products. Your vendors sent your competition the same samples and the same new product ideas. A wise merchant once told me that vendor reps hardly ever show you the products that would be good for you – they always show you the products that would be good for them.

Of course, many of you moved beyond sourcing products from the same sources that everyone else did, and moved into developing your own products. That gave you a competitive edge that makes you unique and different. Hopefully, you used 2020 wisely, developing a long list of new options. But even those of you in this stage, experienced a pause in 2020, with factories shut down, and just a general lack of new ideas that feed the vitality of product assortment.

But what more could you have done? To answer that question, I turned to my good friend Frank Oliver, former product developer at Gardener’s Supply and co-worker many years ago at Brookstone. I asked Frank a simple question – from a merchandise perspective, what was lost by not being able to get out to source products in person? Frank’s reply was classic, and I share it here. Thanks Frank!

“Bill: Trade Shows are no doubt a super venue to see a lot of product in a very short time period.  The bigger show organizers even made attempts to go virtual and host buyer-seller match ups on line.  Not sure how successful that was….. because those organizers want to sell booth space to manufacturers, not host meetings with potential buyers online! But that said, don’t all my competitors go to the same trade shows and see the same new product in a “normal” non-pandemic year?

Tables have turned in 2020, now past trade show exhibitors have both extra time and money to do other activities…….. like developing new product! Merchants also have more free time, less travel time, less commuting time, less useless office meeting time.

The smart merchants will have enough time for a personal phone call to each of their top twenty-five suppliers, to discuss new and refreshed products suitable for 2021.  Suppliers will listen because the pandemic market is tough for them, too.

Smart merchants will “troll” the web more deliberately. Taking clues from Pinterest, learning clever solutions from YouTube and reaching out for opinions on Facebook.  This is where their competition may have a hard time “following” them. 

Smart merchants will find the quality time to read all the Power Reviews on their best sellers [on their own website], instead of listening to books on tape while they sit in rush hour traffic.  They may even survey customers about specific needs and product improvements.  Wow, customer-driven new product development! Smart merchants working from home can test more products and make better, educated selections for new introductions that work as advertised.

But, in reality, most merchants will overly lament the loss of that week in Las Vegas or the connection in the UK and certainly the cancelled Canton Fair (I would truly miss the great dumplings with hot sauce every day for lunch).  Most merchants will say they have “lost touch with the market” without those all-important trade shows. Working at home isn’t the same as being “out there”. So, yes, new exciting product introduction will suffer in 2021, for sure.”

Were you a smart merchant? Did you use your time wisely in 2021? You may be going into 2021 with the same number or per cent of new products that you usually start the new year with. But, are they the best you could have found? Or, are they simply a rework of something you did before? If so, that lack of “newness” is going to come back and bite you, in 2021 and beyond.

Your #1 goal for 2021 must be to double down on new product development and sourcing, particularly products that will be web-only. The shift from retail to online shopping brought on by the pandemic focused attention on the most significant factor facing you – you must have unique products. The internet breeds product ubiquity. Every product is now everywhere. You can find anything you want, just about anywhere. But that availability has diminished the sense of discovery for the consumer. You must bring back that sense of discovery for your customers in 2021.

by Bill LaPierre, Datamann

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