Catholic Business Tips

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?

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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.

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Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

 

Non-Catholic Christian Publishers see Spike in E-books

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Are you moving up? Source: freedigitalphotos.net

Are you moving up? Source: freedigitalphotos.net

In March Christian Retailing reported that Christian publishers saw a “large spike” in the purchase of digital books following the Christmas frenzy over e-readers like the Nook and Kindle. Baker Publishing Group  saw a 300% increase in sales during the week following Christmas compared to the entire eight weeks beforehand. Nathan Henrion, National Account Manager for Baker, said that he expects e-books to account for 9.5% and 10.5% of all sales for the company this year.

Zondervan spokesman, Tara Powers, said that “We also saw a lift in sales of both frontlist and backlist titles because of the e-book influence during Christmas.” Powers also expects total e-book sales for the company to double this year.

Meanwhile, most Catholic publishers are still trying to decide if and when to get into digital publishing. What are you waiting for? This isn’t a passing fad! You really should contact us at Catholic Digital Services about getting in gear.

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Borders Is Bankrupt. What You Can Learn.

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Borders

Borders - What you can learn from the fall of a giant.

Not too long ago Borders and Barnes and Noble sat on top of the book selling world and the world trembled.

On February 16th Borders filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy and announced the closure of almost 30% of its retail outlets.

As a Catholic retailer, what can you take away from this disaster to help your business?

Borders has a history of getting blindsided by technology. As early as 2001 Borders was already trying to play catchup with technology as e-commerce really became a major source of retail revenue. Borders announced in August of 2001 that it was throwing in the towel on its own e-commerce platform and was teaming with Amazon to run its site. It’s a bad sign when you have to cede the battlefield to a company that had been operating in the red since its founding and wouldn’t turn its first quarterly profit until later that year. In 2007 Borders took back its e-commerce site.

In 2009 Borders announced a partnership with Kobo for e-book distribution. Again, Borders wasn’t a leader, it was playing catchup. In this case, catchup was to a major retail book seller in Canada. In 2010 Borders announced a huge offering of free e-books as part of its digital services but upon a cursory review it turns out that they had just repackaged all of the public domain books already produced by Google.

So here we are in 2011. Borders never produced an e-book reader like the Nook or Kindle but you could argue that since they invested in Kobo that they really did have a reader of their own but I had never seen them promote it.

For the last ten years Borders has been a company of “Wow, we really need to do that, too.” instead of an innovator. Instead of leading the digital revolution they were caught up in its riptides and it sunk them.

As a Catholic retailer you may be saying, “Well, that’s great but as a small Catholic shop how am I supposed to be an innovator when Borders, a multi-billion-dollar company failed?” It’s really very simple. You need to innovate in your store. I know one Catholic store owner who has been selling mp3s in her store for years by purchasing them for customers upon request. You could try contacting your music suppliers to see if you could buy permission to sell flash drives full of music. You can start talking to other Catholic stores about ways to work together to make technology improvements across the industry. Granted, you probably aren’t going to be able to create your own e-book reader but you can’t sit back and hope that the digital wave will miss you. It won’t.

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Of Burritos and Baseball Bats

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Recently I visited Big 5 Sporting Goods to find a baseball mitt for the kids. I’m left-handed and much to their loss, none of my kids are so they can’t use my old mitts.

Amazingly I was able to find a very nice leather mitt that wasn’t made in China.

At the counter there was a sign offering buy 1 get 1/2 off a second burrito at Chipotle with any purchase over $50. What do Chipotle and Big 5 Sports have in common? Nothing, except for sharing a parking lot and a desire to increase sales.

So take a look at the businesses around you. Are there any that you could put together such an agreement with? We’re all looking for more sales and in this case, it really is a win for both companies – Big 5 gets larger orders and Chipotle gets people coming in and ordering food for two instead of one!

The E-book Revolution is Here. Get On Board. Now.

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Barnes and Noble Nook

Barnes and Noble Nook - It can kill your business.

Six years ago I started pestering our publishers for pdfs containing tables of contents and sample chapters of their books so we could better promoter their titles. I’m still waiting for any publisher to do this.

 

Early last year I started making contact with the major Catholic publishers asking if we could sell their titles as e-books. At the time, we were already several months behind Amazon and non-Catholic Christian (nCC) publishers had fully jumped on the e-book ship with thousands of titles available. After weeks of calls I came away with the following results:

  • One publisher had already started producing e-books that we could sell but we had to sell them at the same price as the physical titles even though both the publisher and Amazon were not (this has changed since).
  • One publisher had books available as pdfs and allowed us to sell them.
  • Two author had titles in pdf format and allowed us to sell them.
  • We produced our own line of Catholic classics in e-book formats.

For the most part, the remaining Catholic publishers hadn’t even started discussing the sale of e-books internally or if they had, were still in the conceptual stage.

At the same time we were reading article after article in Christian Retailing about how the nCC bookstores were trying to come up with a solution to avoid missing out on being e-book distributors as they had missed the boat on digital music. What this means is that a year ago the Catholic market was already about 18 months behind everyone else.

Fast forward a year and there has been some slight movement in the Catholic publishing industry. The Daughters of St. Paul have farmed out their e-book distribution to a third party, effectively cutting Catholic retailers out from being able to sell them. Tan Books is producing e-books but isn’t letting anyone else carry them. Another publisher is also considering going the third part distribution route which will take their titles out of the Catholic retailing world. Another publisher has started producing some e-books but hasn’t figured out distribution yet. Everyone else that we have talked to is still holding meetings to decide what to do.

The problem, and one that I have been commenting about for years, is that as an industry Catholics do not adapt at the speeds necessary to keep up with trends. This doesn’t mean that we need a zillion Bible translations but it does mean that we shouldn’t produce our first zipper cover Bible years after the Protestant world. This issue of bad inertia is only being exacerbated by the speed at which technology is changing. When I opened Aquinas and More cassettes and VHS tapes were still a part of the landscape. Those are gone. E-books didn’t exist. The iPod didn’t exist. In three years (40 years if you want to go back to the origins of Project Gutenburg) e-book sales have gone from non-existent to surpassing paperbacks, according to the American Association of Publishers.

Both Catholic and nCC stores completely missed the boat on digital music. NCC retailers are currently trying to find a solution that will allow them to be part of the e-book revolution but the first time I heard the same worry mentioned by a Catholic store was yesterday – over a year after the NCC stores had already put together a group to try and find a solution.

So what are we to do as an industry?

For Publishers

  • Quit talking and start doing. You are already a year and a half late to the party. I recommend taking a look at Catholic Digital Services if you don’t have anyone in-house with the skills to start the conversion process. If you use another conversion and distribution system you are most likely going to cut Catholic stores out of the picture because these distributors typically charge more than any Catholic store could pay for the service.

For Stores

  • We need to start talking as a group about how to become a viable outlet for digital media. No publisher, and rightly so is going to want to go to each individual store to sell e-books and music. We need to come up with a way to do it as a group. I want to start a regular on-line conference with other Catholic stores to discuss issues like this. If you are interested, please take our survey so we can start organizing.

For Both

  • As an industry we need to talk together about how to make this work. The nCC publishers just plowed forward with digital conversions without having a discussion with nCC retailers so the retailers are in a panic right now in spite of being far ahead of the average Catholic store in technological acumen.

If you have any suggestions, please leave ideas here so we can start the discussion.

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Why Would You Poison Your Well?

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Fr. Richard Rohr

Fr. Richard Rohr - "If you want and need religion, I think the Papacy is rather excellent at providing just that."

In the latest issue of Christian Retailing there is an article titled “LifeWay Christian Stores drops warning label.”

It seems that LifeWay stores, a large Baptist chain, was selling books that went against Evangelical theology and putting warning labels on them. The program was called “Read with Discernment.” They ended the program because there was “hardly and interest, ” according to Thom Rainer, president of the chain.

I can certainly understand why. The entire Protestant history, and especially the modern acceleration of splinter Christian churches, has been one of rejecting specific doctrine and forming a new church. Why would an Evangelical with the mindset of “I don’t like this pastor’s theology so I’ll go to the church / strip mall down the street instead” care whether or not a book had a warning about being “unorthodox?” For that matter, how could the chain possibly make a decision to put such warning labels on books anyway? Once you have decided that 2+2 is no longer four and is really based on how you believe the Spirit is moving you to interpret such a question, you lose the mooring you need to say “This is true and this isn’t.”

The really interesting thing, however, isn’t the program or the ending of it, but the decision process that led to carrying such titles in the first place. As a business, why would you want to carry titles that may convince your customers that your product is just the same as another or, worse, far less interesting than another? The process of intentionally or unintentionally convincing customers that they really don’t need your business is what I call “poisoning your own well.”

Just imagine if Pepsi started posting reviews of their product in ads that suggested that Coke was just as good or even better? How long do you think Pepsi would survive? Or, take another hypothetical example, how long would your Catholic store last if you stocked and promoted authors such as Fr. Rohr who don’t believe that the Catholic Church is necessary for salvation? Sure, you may have a generation of customers and I have seen first hand a store that has been in business for over fifty years that specializes in heresy but the children of those who buy into such beliefs aren’t going to be shopping with you. They probably won’t be passionate about any faith to shop anywhere.

As a prime example, take a look at the National Catholic Reporter. They have been feeding their readership heresy for decades. The result? Their average reader is over 60. I’m not making that up. The Catholic store that I know specializes in heresy? Their shelves are bare and there have been whispers for years that they are barely hanging on, not because of financial problems but because of lack of interest.

If you run a Catholic store you have to ask yourself a very simple question: “Do I actually believe that the Catholic Church is THE Church?” If you can’t say “Yes” and mean it, you might as well be selling tennis shoes or some other item you actually do believe is the best. Once you have answered “Yes” to that question, you have to base all of your product decisions on it. Every product must be evaluated in the light of “Does this product help or hurt people’s faith in the Catholic Church?” If you can’t say that it helps, don’t carry it. It’s really that simple.

Once you can make such a decision you can tell your customers that, like Aquinas and More, you have a “Good Faith Guarantee.”

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Pep Boys – A Study in Customer Service

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Pep Boys Logo

Pep Boys

Last Saturday an event I had been anticipating for months with apprehension finally occurred. My store van has 260,000 miles on it and a few things, like the ignition switch, are starting to wear out. When your ignition switch is wearing out the typical result of turning the key becomes a toss-up between your car starting or nothing happening.

I had gotten a ballpark quote to replace the switch from my regular mechanic of $200 – $300. Since I could typically still start the van in just a few tries I didn’t bother to get it fixed immediately.

Initial Quote

So after my son’s Pinewood derby race we got in the car to leave, I put the key in the ignition, turned it and nothing happened. “No problem”, I thought. “I’ll just try again.” And again. And again. “Maybe if  I flip the key over and lean over the steering wheel while pulling the key toward the dashboard.” No luck. After several more tries I gave up called Pep Boys for a quote on replacing the ignition switch. The service tech I talked to told me “$110”.  Since that was less than my regular mechanic had guessed, and he had just pulled his number out of the air, I decided to have my van towed over for repairs.

Don’t Believe the Customer

On Monday I called to explain the situation since the tow truck operator hadn’t bothered to leave them any information. I was told that the problem couldn’t possibly be the ignition switch and was probably the starter. They needed to do some test. I agreed since it was possible that something else was also broken. On Monday evening I was told that my starter was fine and it must be some wiring behind the fusebox.

Bait-and-Switch

On Tuesday I got another call saying that they had found the problem! The tech proudly announced that it was the ignition switch. I commented that I had told them that on Monday. I asked what the total was going to be for the repair and was told “$290”. I didn’t yell, but I did forcefully explain that I had been quoted $110 on Saturday. The tech said that he didn’t know anything about that but that the diag cost $34 and the rest was parts. I asked why I should pay for a diagnostic when I told them the problem originally and their analysis said the same thing. He then told me that the quote I got was just for the labor. I told him that I had never heard of an auto place giving just a labor quote without mentioning that that there were other costs not included. He told me he would talk to his boss.

Blown Off, But a Glimmer of Hope

Later he called back and said his boss would remove the charge for the test and I could have the van towed somewhere else. I explained that I was filing a report with the BBB for the bait-and-switch pricing. He said that was fine and I was welcome to come get the van whenever I wanted. After filing my complaint with the BBB I posted my story on the Pep Boys’ Facebook page and it was almost instantly removed. I figured that was the end of it but I received a Facebook message from Pep Boys asking me for my contact information so they could discuss the problem with me. This was better than I had expected.

Letdown

I didn’t receive a call on Tuesday or Wednesday so I wrote back to Pep Boys and told them that having a car down like this while we waited for them to make the situation right wasn’t acceptable. I got an email back saying that they would get back with me in 48 hours. Fantastic. Four days after my initial complaint I was supposed to get a call back.

On Thursday I spoke with the service manager who told me that the total cost that he was going to charge for the repairs was about $160. He made a big point about not charging me for the diagnostic which turned out to be a different price than I had been told on Tuesday. I told him that I didn’t care about the diagnostic, only about the price quote being wrong. He told me he had talked to everyone in the department and no one remembered talking to me. Implying that your customer is a liar is not the way to make things right.

I told him to go ahead and do the repair because I wasn’t about to pay to have the van towed somewhere else. So now we have a fixed van.

I still haven’t heard back from customer service at Pep Boys corporate and it’s six days since I wrote.

UPDATE: Today I got a recorded message from Pep Boys hoping that I was satisfied with my service but that if my problem hadn’t been resolved or if I hadn’t heard from someone I could call them back. Boy that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.

Takeaway for your business

  • Make sure that you have your numbers straight before giving a quote.
  • Don’t ever, ever, ever imply or tell your customer that he is a liar.
  • If your customer service sets an expectation, they had better meet it.

Iron Mountain – A Study in Customer Service

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Iron Mountain

Every year we take all of our shredding from the office to a secure document shredder. For the past few years we have taken our stuff to Docu Vault. This year when I made our delivery I found that Docu Vault had been bought by Iron Mountain.

When I walked in the front door the receptionist wasn’t there. I rang the bell and waited at least a minute for someone to show up at the front desk.

I explained that I had boxes to drop off for shredding I was told that “they don’t do drop off shredding.” Okay, fine. New company. New policies.

So I asked what I needed to do. Instead of offering to help, she asked if my account had transferred over from Docu Vault to Iron Mountain. Since I wasn’t even aware that the company had been bought out, I couldn’t answer her question. Instead of offering to look in her system she gave me a card for a sales rep and told me to call him.

I called last Wednesday and had to leave a message. It is now three business days later and he hasn’t bothered to call back.

It seems to me that this company is confident in its market dominance and couldn’t care less about customer service. Maybe they treat big customers better but we certainly won’t be going back.

So what’s the take away from this?

  • If you  buy out a business make plans to deal with previous customers in a way that causes the customer the least inconvenience.
  • Don’t EVER tell a returning customer to call a sales rep as if he has never worked with you before.
  • If you are a sales rep, at least pretend to care and call back immediately.

Update: After an initial contact from a rep about this post we never heard back.