What I learned at the International Christian Retail Show (Day 1)

What I learned at the International Christian Retail Show (Day 1)

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In the tradition of past trade shows that Aquinas and More has attended, I’m bringing you my experience at the 2012 International Christian Retail Show (ICRS) in Orlando, FL.

The ICRS is the annual trade show organized by the Christian Booksellers Association. The first conference was in 1950 in Chicago. This is the largest gathering of Christian manufacturers in the country.

A year ago the CBA was looking at their store survey data and realized that over 700 stores that attended their conferences carried Catholic products. I was invited to assist the CBA in adding a Catholic component to the show for the first time in 63 years! To that end, I helped them find Catholic vendors to attend and am giving two talks at the conference. The first is about how to serve Catholic customers. The second is about how to get your brick-and-mortar store on the Internet. I’ll be posting the slides for both talks over at howtorunacatholicstore.com after the show. If you want to follow the show on Twitter look for #ICRS

So what have I learned on my way to this conference?

Even if you read the luggage notes that come with your plane ticket itinerary, call the airline to see if there are additional luggage restrictions.

I got to the ticket kiosk at American Airlines in Colorado Springs, paid the $25 bag fee and took our display case to the counter. The lady at the counter said “That will be $400.”

“No, there must be a mistake, the plane ticket is already paid for.”

“No sir, this isn’t for the ticket, this is for your box.”

Do you know how when you’re dreaming you sometimes feel like you’re walking through molasses and that everything is working in slow motion? That’s how I felt. You see, American Airlines charges $200 one way for a package over 70 pounds and another $200 for an oversized package. So that box, which is flying steerage in an unheated compartment and won’t be served drinks by the stewardess, costs more to send than me! If it hadn’t been Saturday morning, I would have gone to the Fedex counter and had the display shipped overnight which would have cost less. Unfortunately, I was stuck. After leaving the box and going through security I realized that they hadn’t refunded the other $25 that I had paid at the kiosk. Grrr. Fortunately, after tweeting about this @americanair contacted me to look up details about the flight and package so maybe there will be a happy resolution.

 

Blessings happen when you aren’t expecting it.

As I finished picking myself up off the floor from the bag fee shock, I turned around and saw Eric Grimm next in line. He is the member of the CBA that initially contacted me about helping with this conference and was going to be on my flight. I told him what happened and he said that he would arrange to have our display go back to Colorado Springs in the CBA’s truck. Thank goodness! He also treated me to breakfast and introduced me to a homeschooling family that has been helping out as conference staff for several years. The CBA, in spite of running such a huge show each year, has always had a small company feel and meeting this family just made the organization look even better.

 

Blimpy’s has good subs.

Hot Panini Sicilian at the Dallas-Ft. Worth Airport. Yum.

 

Always compare prices on car rental.

Advantage Car Rental is a better deal even if you get a $100 discount from National or Hertz. Mid-size car for four days at Advantage: $130. Same car with $100 off from National or Hertz: $160. Fortunately, I checked first.

 

Dry heat is a blessing. And a curse.

When Colorado Springs was burning down two weeks ago the temperatures were over 100 degrees and with the combination of the fires, smoke, and ash it looked like Mordor. The temperature in Orlando is in the high eighties but the combination of humidity and cicadas buzzing in the trees makes it feel far hotter and definitely stickier than Colorado Springs. After living in Dallas for several years and doing irrigation work there, you would think I’d have gotten used to living in a sauna. Nope.

This was Colorado Springs on June 26th, not Mordor:

You don’t have to get on a toll-road to leave the Orlando Airport.

I hate toll-roads. I’ve only been on the toll-road to the Denver airport twice in my life even though I’ve flown in and out of Denver many times. When I picked up my car and got my city map and started driving out of the airport I realized that the signs to both the North and South exits both had toll-road labels. Grrr. Fortunately, the map showed a two-lane back country road that left the airport and headed in the direction I needed to go. Score! So, yes, I did manage to get to the convention center without paying a toll.

 

Before you actually leave on your trip, find out which building the convention is in.

When Aquinas and More attended the ICRS in Denver several years ago, Iwas overwhelmed by how big the exhibit floor was. I’ve been to several Catholic Marketing Network conventions and they take up about 1/5 of the space. The Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) and surrounding area is on a completely different scale. It’s kind of like holding up a house for an N-gauge model train next to an HO-gauge train. It also felt like the first time I walked into St. Peter’s in Rome. The scale of the building is for giants, not regular people.

Orange County Convention Center and Crystal Palace

Approaching the convention center, my first impression was “It looks like a combination of the Sydney Opera House and the Crystal Palace.” The place is huge and the front is covered in glass and rounded white arches. It is a very classic looking building. After finding a place to park and getting inside I started to have a suspicion that I wasn’t in the right place. The signs were all for a pharmacy conference and everyone was leaving, not arriving. Hmmm. I tried to find an information booth which I think was nearly a half-mile walk through the building. Fortunately, I’d left all of my luggage in the car so I wasn’t hauling boxes. Finally, I was able to find a janitor who told me that I should check the other building (“Other building?”) to see if the conference was there.

Main entrance to the West Orange County Convention Center

The OCCC is so huge that they had to build two buildings. I had walked nearly a  half mile back and forth to my car in the North / South Building and was now being directed over to the West building which I had to drive to.

 

Parking lot” and “convenient” do not necessarily go together.

By this point I was just about worn out. I’d already gotten in more than my daily exercise in high humidity and been on a plane for several hours. I pulled into the West building parking lot and started looking for the registration desk. The parking lot entryway is massive but in one corner by an escalator I noticed a sign for the ICRS and thought that I was finally nearing my destination. (Insert laugh track).

The walkway between the Peabody hotel and the West OCCC building

Because the show hadn’t started yet, I couldn’t actually go through the exhibit halls but instead had to go upstairs, across a walkway between halls (each one is about ¼ of a mile long), down some more stairs to the main entrance which is at exhibit hall D. I needed to go to “A”. You know how little kids get jelly legs after they have been walking through a mall for a while or across the room when it’s nap time? That’s about how I felt but I didn’t have mom to drag me along.

Finally, after wandering several more cavernous corridors, I could see, far off in the distance like a mirage, signs with the ICRS colors! Yeah! As I approached I realized that there was far too little activity going on. In fact, the registration area was deserted. I looked at my phone and saw that it was 6:10. Registration had closed at 6.

 

The Peabody Hotel is not Motel 6.

Tower II of the Peabody Hotel

The main convention hotel is the Peabody, right across the street from the West convention building. The hotel is on the same scale as the convention center and actually stretches the same distance. My room is on the 20th floor and has a bird’s eye view of the “water feature” which looks like something you would find at Wet and Wild, water slide included.

The water feature – no diving allowed

 

Apart from the things you expect to find in a hotel room, at the Peabody you also get a bathrobe, chocolate and for those who really like to spend time in the bathroom, a tv built in to the mirror. That’s just a little too much creepy technology integration for me.

And they turn down your covers and leave chocolate!

International Avenue is like a food amusement park.

The street that runs between the Peabody and the convention center is full of restaurants. By “full” I mean that just about every square inch is stuffed with a cornucopia of restaurants as well as an upside-down Greek temple that looks like it crashed through another building, a theater and a mini-golf course that is like Disney’s Thunder Mountain on steroids.

No, I don’t see anything strange about finding an upside down Greek temple-like thing at an intersection in Orlando

Since I always like to try new things, I didn’t want to go to TGI Friday’s or a steak house so I found a non-chain Thai restaurant that didn’t think the music level had to go to eleven. I had a delicious and spicy green curry soup with Jasmine rice.

Green Curry soup. Spicy hot!

With that delicious dinner, I’ll close for the night. See you tomorrow!

What Happens When You Poison the Well

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As I read the latest issue of Christian Retailing, I came across an article about the Religious Booksellers Trade Exhibit. The article described the traffic at the show as “light”. I think that is a polite way of saying it was almost empty.

I’ve been to shows like that before. Vendors practically begging people to come to their booths and customers wandering the venue that seems even larger when there are hardly any other people walking around.

Several years ago our store attended the RBTE as both an exhibitor and customer and the venue was bustling. We didn’t do much business but it seemed pretty healthy. The one thing that I wasn’t happy about was the Catholic Book Publishers Association honoring of dissident Catholic Mike Leach with a lifetime achievement award. I heard that this wasn’t the first time dissidents had been honored at the show and it was the reason we never went back. Several other Catholic store owners that we talked with after the show also said that it was the first and last time they would attend.

What many publishers and groups still don’t seem to get is that YOU DON’T POISON YOUR OWN WELL. Why is this such a difficult concept?

The Briarhurst Manor – A Study in Customer Service

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Briarhurst Manor at Night

Briarhurst Manor at Night (Source)

A couple of years ago I wrote a post about the Briarhurst Manor and gave it a lukewarm review.

This year we decided to give it a try again for our 15th wedding anniversary. One thing they do very well is keep in touch with past guests. If you give them contact information, they send you a postcard for a discount on your birthday, wedding anniversary and the anniversary of your first visit to the restaurant.

The Briarhurst is nestled in a picturesque forest clearing in Manitou Springs and was originally built by Dr. William Bell, the founder of the town and co-founder of the Denver & Rio Grande railroad. It’s a pink stone home with all kinds of unique design elements and supposedly is haunted. It’s no wonder that it’s such a popular site for wedding parties and anniversaries.

When we arrived we were seated in the window seat of the library. The windows are probably original and are as insulating as you would expect 100 year old windows to be. Fortunately, there is a heater right under the bench so it was pretty pleasant. After the hostess seated us we waited for our waiter to show up. And then we waited some more. One waiter passed through the room several times and didn’t say anything. Another was taking care of every table in the room, including the other half of the window seat, but never acknowledged that we were there.

After 20 minutes (I’m probably way too patient), I went to the front desk to ask where our waiter was. The hostess was not the same one who had seated us but she went looking for our waiter.

Almost immediately the original hostess appeared at our table with our waiter and apologized. She admitted that she hadn’t told our waiter that he had a table outside of his regular section. She also offered us a free drink and said that they would do “something” with our bill. Our poor waiter was skittish for the rest of the evening. I think he expected us to start yelling at him or something.

The food was delicious and our waiter did a great job. We got a free hot coffee drink for dessert and our hostess took 25% off our check.  Would we go back? Yes, but only because of the followup by the staff.

So what’s the take away for your business?

  • It is the business of all of your employees to make sure the business runs well. The waitress in the room we were in was waiting on the couple at the other end of the bench from us. She should have noticed that we hadn’t even been given menus after stopping by the other table multiple times.
  • When you make a mistake, take ownership and fix the problem. Taking 25% off our bill was more than I had expected and left me feeling like the hostess really was sorry about the error.
  • Deliver on the expectations that you set. This restaurant is one of the most beautiful in the area and the menu (and price tag) is definitely fine dining. The service had better measure up to the unspoken expectations set.

10 Essential Actions to Prepare for the Advent & Christmas Season

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From my house I can see the first snow on Pike’s Peak. That either means it’s the end of summer or God is teaching some silly unprepared hikers a lesson.

In Catholic retail you can’t start prepping for Christmas in October because we have a season that really starts in November. So if you haven’t already begun here’s your checklist:

  1. Take a deep breath and remember why you opened your store. You aren’t trying to provide a Catholic branded consumer mentality. You opened your store (I hope) to strengthen the faith of other Catholics and answer questions for those who aren’t Catholic yet. Christmas isn’t a time to provide a Catholic version of the buying frenzy, it’s a time to help people get more meaning out of the season.
  2. Take advantage of seasonal specials that are offered during mid to late summer by you vendors. Printery House offers an unbeatable special on Christmas cards during the summer. Buy a certain number of packs and get a free display and no hastle returns on what didn’t sell! You can’t beat no-risk.
  3. See what sold really well last year. Your point of sale system had better be able to give you a bestseller report. Make sure that you have a good stock of the top 20% of those items.
  4. Schedule gift fairs at local parishes for the Advent season. It can be a great way to get your name out and help people have a more prayerful Advent.
  5. Clean your store. If you have been putting off your Spring cleaning all summer it’s time to put the best face on your store for ome of the busiest times of the year.
  6. Related to store cleaning but often overlooked, take a look at what’s in your front windows and other displays around the store. It’s time to take down the First Communion display and old movie posters.
  7. Check your advertising. Make sure that any ads that you are running get a face lift and have all of your correct information on them (hours, phone number, location, etc.)
  8. Put together a marketing calendar so you are sure to have the product you need when you need it. This will also help you get ready for specific events without them sneaking up on you.
  9. Check all your pricing. January isn’t the time to find out that the bestselling item of the Christmas season was actually 20% more than you were selling it for.
  10. Start paying attention to what publishers are releasing in the Fall. If you aren’t going to stock them at least be knowledgeable about them when customers ask.
  11. Bonus tip: This Advent (2011)one of the biggest changes in the Church that most of us have ever experienced will be happening. Make sure that you have plenty of new Roman Missals on hand. They will make wonderful Christmas gifts. If you don’t own an imprinting machine yet, go buy one. It will probably pay for itself this season.

How to Make a Last Impression

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How to never get repeat business

This week a long expected and long dreaded event finally occurred. We came to work on Tuesday in a torrential downpour and thought we had a ceiling leak. It turns out that the water heater for the bathrooms had finally rusted through.

Today a plumber came to replace the heater.

The heater is conveniently located over our coat rack but we had a bucket under the drip so no ones stuff was getting wet. The ceiling tiles that needed to be removed were also conveniently located over the coat rack and had become waterlogged over the past few days. When the plumber started removing the tiles he didn’t bother to move the coats or even to come ask us to do it. He just started pulling down tile right on top of them. Fortunately, there’s nothing I like better than a coat covered in sour-smelling water and soggy bits of ceiling.

When the plumber left today we found that he hadn’t bothered to clean up after himself. The women’s bathroom was a disaster. Rusty water, bits of ceiling and metal were strewn across the sink, floor and toilet. The hallway outside the bathroom was covered in bits of ceiling tiles and he didn’t even bother to ask if we had replacement tiles to put back in so the ceiling is still the residence of several soggy and broken tiles.

It is clear to me that this guy never expects repeat business.

Of course, this is an extreme example but if you don’t make sure that every step in the sales cycle at your store works well you could leave customers with a similar impression.

The biggest challenge is to set expectations up front that are realistic but also ones that you may beat. Don’t tell a customer that his custom order will be available for pick up in four days if the vendor you are getting the product from typically doesn’t deliver for five. If there are any unexpected delays be sure to keep the customer informed because each day that goes by beyond the date that you promised delivery is another day that the customer is stewing about his order.

Be sure that the impression you leave the customer with won’t be the last impression he ever gets of your business.

 

Is Anyone There?

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A couple of weeks ago I went shopping for a mattress for one of my kids. I walked around the entire floor of one store, checked pricing and left without ever seeing or hearing from a single employee.

I guess the price on those mattresses could have been free since I could have backed my van up to the door and loaded up without ever having anyone notice.

The second store I walked in at least had an employee in the front who asked how he could help. I told him what I was looking for and he showed me two samples. I picked one, paid was leaving when I asked about a new mattress for our room.

Had I not asked the question the employee would have let me walk out the door without any attempt at seeing what else I needed. He didn’t even ask for my phone number, let alone an email address to fill me in on the latest mattress news.

As a Catholic store owner, can you say that your employees are really there and focused on helping your customers?

Here’s a quick quiz to help you figure that out:

  1. Do your employees have a written procedure to follow when a customer comes in?
  2. Do your employees greet every customer?
  3. Do your employees let customers know about specials you are running?
  4. Do your employees ask what customers need and ask follow-up questions to make sure they can find what customers really need?
  5. Do you have a plan in place for capturing customer information so that you can follow up with them in the future?

If you can’t say “Yes” to all of these questions it’s time to review (or create) your procedures for that all-important first impression.

E-books Outsell All Others On Amazon

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Amazon Logo

Amazon Logo

So today Amazon announced that e-books are now outselling all other formats combined. Not everyone is buying it.

Most Christian publishers figured out that e-books were the next big thing two years ago. I’m hoping that Catholic publishers will step up to the plate quickly now.

In other completely unrelated news, someone made a bid to buy Barnes and Noble for 1 billion dollars today. That’s 1/9 of the value Linked In received on its first day after going public.

If you are a Catholic publisher trying to get your feet wet but don’t know what to do, please visit Catholic Digital Services. We can do it all for you.

Five Things Every Catholic Businessperson Must Know – Guest Post

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The Angelus

The Angelus

Over at the resurrected Crisis Magazine, Dawn Carpenter, member of the graduate school of business faculty at CUA, has some points that Catholic store owners would be well to keep in mind:

1. Man is called to work, and money is spiritual.

Man is wired for work — to be productive. It is part of our mission and who we are as human beings.

We find this laid out in the opening verses of Genesis. God is introduced to us as the omnipotent Creator who makes man in His own image, inviting man to work the soil and cultivate and care for the Earth. Man is given dominion over all living creatures — not as a tyrant, but as a caretaker and protector. The man did not create the goods of the Earth; they are God’s creation, and man’s role is to respect and fulfill the responsibility of the stewardship of God’s material world. God is the owner, and man is His manager.

It is important to remember that work is part of the original state of man and precedes his fall. It is not therefore a punishment or curse, but something that should be enthusiastically embraced. We know that work is honorable, because it provides the resources necessary to live a decent life and to have the means of combating poverty. In its most elemental sense, work is the fulfillment of our duty pursuant to our state in life.

Of course, we’ve come a long way since the days in the Garden. Today, work is often associated strictly with the production and accumulation of wealth — and there is some truth in that. But with eyes of faith, we see there is more to it: Work is service to mankind, and money is simply a medium of exchange.

Real value is not measured solely by money. Money itself is a spiritual thing, in the sense that its true essence isn’t material: It can be created and destroyed without ever touching it. If the world were ending tomorrow, what would be the value of your assets tonight? Immediately, wealth would be destroyed. Conversely, markets can be driven up simply based on news reports or advertising — and suddenly, wealth is created.

Why are these notions of work and money valuable? They are the basis of understanding our vocation to business as spiritual, and thus within the realm faith.

Go read the rest.

Cloak and Dagger

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Spying is your friend

Spying is your friend

It was a foggy, dark night. The mist dripped from my overcoat like a leaky roof in an old apartment. I was standing in front of a large store that I knew well. I tried to shed the memories of the place like I’d shed a cheap coat but the former Shoe Carnival store still had a lingering ambiance that wasn’t easy to leave behind in spite of the purple Family Christian logo that now adorned the front.

I pulled my collar higher and my hat down, hoping that the heavy out front wouldn’t recognize me. He probably wouldn’t, the store was owned by a new company and this guy hadn’t crossed my path before. I took a deep breath and walked towards the door.

Actually, it was the middle of the afternoon, I had never been to the store’s previous incarnation as Shoe Carnival and the heavy was actually a nice, tall, thin guy who said “hello” when I walked in. But, hey, competitive research sounds much more exciting when you think of yourself as Sam Smart, PI.

If you don’t occasionally take walks around your competitors’ stores, you are missing out on some major things that would help your company.

First, if you want your store to stay competitive locally, you have to know what your competition is doing. You should pay attention to ads they run, articles that show up in the local paper and things they are doing in their stores. For example, the Family Christian store just moved from a much smaller location a couple blocks away to the current location.

Second, walking through your competitors’ stores and even completely unrelated retailers with an eye towards layout, product placement and promotions is a great way to get new ideas. Here are some tips for making anonymous shopper visits.

  • Take your time. To truly observe how a store works and what it carries, you can’t rush through.
  • Shopping starts before you walk it. Look at the signs at the street. Look at what’s in the front window.
  • When you first walk in the door, stop. Look at what is immediately near you. Next, take a slow look over the store as a whole. What can you see on the back wall? Where is the pos? Can you identify where things are right off the bat?
  • Walk around the store paying careful attention to how things are merchandised. Does the store know seasonality? Does the store have a focus? Are popular items front and center?
  • Does the merchandise make sense? The store I visited has a heavy focus on Evangelical product. Most non-Catholic Christian groups are in the “Catholics worship Mary and statues are idols” camp. This store had a whole section of Chinese saint statues as well as First Communion, Confirmation and Baptism gifts which included rosaries, scapulars and missals. All I could think is that this company is willing to sell things that they purportedly would condemn people for using just to make a buck. I wasn’t impressed.
  • Take a look at the signs in the store. Is there anything about the company, special features they offer or any other material that says “You should shop here and tell all your friends about us.”?
  • Is there anything about the store that invites you to take your time browsing? A reading area? A play area for the kids? Music playing that doesn’t make you want to leave quickly?

Okay, now it’s your turn. What “spying” tips do you have?

Would you like help with your business? Get a year’s worth of business tips or personal coaching.

 

Image: basketman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

You Can’t Compete on Price and Win

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Discounts can kill.

Discounts can kill.

There are many ways that you can distinguish your store to bring in shoppers. The simplest, and the most dangerous, is low prices.

Low prices are easy because everyone understands them and they are easy to implement. The problem is that if you base your company’s appeal solely on price, you don’t instill loyalty in your customers. Instead you instill a bargain mentality where customers are only as loyal to you as your prices are lower than the other options.

With so many places to buy products at discount, trying to be a low price leader when you aren’t also a volume and market share leader is a good way to find yourself cash strapped and eventually bankrupt.

This isn’t just a problem for small Catholic stores. Take the recent demise of Ultimate Electronics. The chain always billed itself as a low price leader in its ads. In fact, I can’t remember anything else about the ads except that Mark Wattles, the president, seemed like a really nice guy. There may be more involved since Wattles was also dealing with the demise of the Hollywood Video chain because of his failure to adapt to the changing video rental landscape.

What I took away from the closing was that I really couldn’t think of a reason to shop at the stores based on their ads. You see, ten years ago when you said you had the lowest prices there weren’t many places to go to verify that. Now you can go to Craig’s List, Amazon, Ebay, Overstock and other sites that probably have lower prices than your store.

These companies are able to offer huge discounts because they have one thing that you aren’t likely to ever have: vast volume. When you are like Walmart and can tell a company that you want to buy their entire production for the next two years, you suddenly have a huge bargaining hammer with which to increase your profit margins.

Your success depends on distinguishing your store on other factors. Here are a couple of ideas.

  • Customer service – Is your staff friendly, well dressed and willing to go the extra mile for customers? One of the biggest turn-offs for me is to deal with a clerk who seems to be wishing I would leave so he could get back to not working.
  • Knowledge – Your customers should come to believe that your store is not just a place to buy stuff but a resource where they can come to get questions answered. If you offer classes that can improve your image even more.

If your customer loyalty depends on beating Amazon’s prices you need to make a radical business shift because you aren’t ever going to win without sacrificing the long-term health of your company.

Would you like help with your business? Get a year’s worth of business tips or personal coaching.

Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net