How Not To Fail at Retail

I’ve spent most of my adult life working in retail, most of that time in management. It’s not a career I would recommend to anyone but if you like talking to the general public and having a career where no two days are alike, usually busy and at times you feel like a plate juggler with sixteen plats spinning and half of them wobbling, then it’s the right career for you.

I bring that up because over the course of working in retail I attended a lot of training seminars on selling techniques, motivation, leadership and even something called training the trainer. The last was intended, of course, to train me to return to my store and train everyone else. A recurring theme in all of the training I received was How to Succeed. Isn’t that really what we would all like to know? What’s the secret? What are the keys? Is success a strategic decision or does it happen as a random chance accident.

One of the greatest lessons I picked up from all those training seminars is that success is not a destination but a process. One of the most common mistakes people make in their quest for success is seeing it as a goal. You have only to look at successful people to determine that one of the reasons they succeed is they refuse to fail. Sounds silly, I know, but it’s true. They learn from their mistakes, make adjustments, start over again, keep working at it until they achieve the intended results. But once they arrive a some point that from the outside perspective may appear to be success, they seem completely oblivious to the fact that they might have succeeded. Why? Bbecause they are still engaged in the process of success. They have a longer range plan perhaps or their goals are constantly in flux. But they never seem to arrive at a point of satisfaction with what they have accomplished.

The adage about if at first you don’t succeed is kind of misleading, though. Trying is part of the problem in failure. “As long as you tried your best” will often result in lowered expectations. You become content with the attempt and not the outcome. “I tried” cannot be a satisfactory answer. To only ever try is to only ever fail to succeed. It’s easily proven. Drop something on the floor and try to pick it up. If you actually try you can’t possibly pick it up because that would not accomplish what you stated was your goal. If you pick the object up you have succeeded in not trying but instead doing.

With all that in mind, failure, then, is an opportunity to learn more about the process of succeeding. I had a boss when I worked for a major retailer. His motto was if you don’t fail you’re not trying hard enough. The company was extremely successful because it allowed its employees to have an entrepreneurial spirit. For managers it was really kind of like having your own company and using someone else’s bankroll. We were encouraged to think for ourselves and do what’s right for the customer without needing anyone’s approval. As front line employees, the ones who actually interact with he customers where all the revenue for the company is really generated, we were given the authority to be the hero and make the customer happy. This led to some exciting times during the a period of rapid growth and expansion for the company. It was kind of a perfect storm situation, a confluence of doing enough things right that even when we made mistakes it didn’t matter much because everything else covered for it. Sometimes we did really crazy things and because we believed we were going to succeed we made the impossible or unlikely happen. Not only did we think outside the box but also we were constantly working outside of the box.

Here’s an example of one of the craziest things I ever did . With every opportunity to fail instead I succeeded:


I ordered 12,000 – 1 gallon azaleas to be delivered the day an ad broke on the third week of February in Florida. They were in bloom. It was the right time of the year to make customer start thinking about springtime in Florida. I had one week to sell them. Did I do it? Well, no. But the¬†only reason I didn’t sell 12,000 was that the vendor could only fit 11,500 on the truck. No one in his or her right mind would order that many live plants with the risk of them dying and suffering a sizable markdown to zero. But who said I was ever in my right mind?

I didn’t ask anyone’s permission to do it. I had a open checkbook when it came to ordering whatever I intended to sell. To everyone else who looked at it from the outside, including my district manager who showed up the day I was unloading the truck, it was a career decision. Yes, he told me if I didn’t sell all of them I was fired. Frankly, I didn’t believe him because firing someone who was crazy enough to work for that company at the time didn’t make a lot of sense. Going to work each day was a lot like jumping onto a train that was whizzing by at 90 miles per hour. It took a special breed of lunatic just to survive. Still, I took the ‘threat’ as a challenge and motivation to move a whole lot of azaleas in a short amount of time. I was not about to fail so making it happen was all I could do.

Certainly it was a gamble. But to me and the people who worked for me it became a fun adventure. Let’s see how many azaleas we can sell! Keep track of your sales, print out a duplicate receipt from the register every time you take a customer up to check out with azaleas. But the contest was not based on how many plants were sold but instead everything else on the ticket. To make it fair to everyone there was a prize for the most dollars total over the sale period and another price for the largest single sales ticket. It was a easy enough award. Each winner got a day off with pay.

Now we did a lot of other things too, like I had one of the employees out at the street with some azaleas and a sandwich board sign promoting the sale. I called local landscapers to let them know about the great deal we had going on. We were not going to mark down a single distressed plant. We were determined to sell everything we brought in.

One of the parts of the story that really confuses some people is this. We lost money on every azalea we sold, meaning our delivered cost on the item was higher than our retail. Azaleas were on sale for $1.25 each with a cost of $1.38. Investment was 11,500 X $1.38 = $15,870. We sold every single one of the plants. So the revenue on that one product was 11,500 X $1.25 = $14,375 for a net loss of $1,495.

How can a company make money doing that? Well it can’t if that is all you sell. But I considered that an investment, like advertising. It was a promotional expense in order to call attention to all the other great deals we had on things that we actually made a little money on. We were promoting everything on sale in our catalog paying particular attention to everything featured that applied to azaleas because they were in season and in demand. We made it a circus-like experience for customers. You didn’t have to ask if the plants were on sale. You didn’t even have to ask were the plans were because when you have 11,500 azaleas you merchandise them everywhere!

Making a sale into a true event, generating a lot of talk in the local community, we planned to succeed. And if you think people weren’t going home and calling their other plant-loving friends you’re wrong. We also had customer asking if they could use out store phone tell their friends. (This was before cell phones were ubiquitous).

How we made money was that while the customers were buying five or ten azaleas they were also buying the soil amendments like peat moss, fertilizer, shovels, landscaping fabric, edging and decorative mulch. A few decided to buy a new lawnmower, string trimmer or hedge trimmer. We sold a lot of grass sheers, gardening gloves and garden hoses as well.

As a result of ordering a truckload of 1 gallon azaleas between Thursday when the ad broke and the end of the sale, which was the following Wednesday, the garden department in my store was the top department in the entire chain with sales of $127,000 in February! The promotion has a residual effect as well. The following week sales comped (meaning comparative sales from one year to the next) 15%. The largest ticket sold during the contest period was $1,213. The largest total sales by employee was $23,455.

A week after the event my buyer from corporate office flew in just to take me to lunch. He decided he wanted to shake the hand of anyone who did something that crazy and made it happen. I finagled free lunches for both of the employees who won the sales contest and my department lead as well. Since it was kind of her idea to order a lot of azaleas in the first place it only seemed right, though her original order had one less significant digit to the left of the decimal point from the one I actually signed.

Me picking oranges in Mission, Texas

#failure #success #overcoming #retail #management #sales #azaleas


About Launching A Book

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What has happened with the recent launch of Fried Windows is fascinating to the publicist side of my nature. It is not entirely unexpected, but some things have been surprising.

Let’s be honest. The initial response to the launch of Fried Window has been, in a word, underwhelming. As much as an author would like to sell hundreds of books on the first day and reach best seller status for a few moments in the spotlight, those things happen because a lot of factors converge at once. It is a false indication of the book’s overall potential for success. A book is a success because of the connect it makes with the public, not because of how many friends and family member buy it on the first day. So it is dangerous to read too much into a launch day spike – or in my case the absence thereof.

The problem is almost never the book. Everyone who has read Fried Windows in advance has loved it. It has a great, attention-getting cover. Although some friends have told me it is startling and a little over the top the book is unusual. I think the graphic captures that.

FINAL Final Fried Windows Front Cover Only

The problem Fried Windows is having in the market place is the same as every other book from every one of the millions of obscure authors. It is a new book from what the public perceives as a new author. Readers are attracted to brand-name authors. They invest time as well as money in purchasing a new book to read.

My fan base response to Fried Windows has been lukewarm at best. That’s what is disappointing in that I have worked a lot on building relationships with others over the past few years. But I also understand that launching a new book without a lot of fanfare is like throwing a frozen burger patty into a skillet before it’s heated up. At first nothing happens. Heating things up a bit is all that’s necessary but it takes some time. Sounds simple, except it’s not quite as easy as turning a knob on a stove. As is true of nearly everything worth doing, there is a process involved and procedure to follow. The first step of that is finding out why promotional efforts in advance of the launch failed to produce the desired result – sales.

First of all, selling anything via social media alone – as was the case with this book – is difficult. People are online to be social, not transacting business. They tend to ignore direct pitches, especially since they are inundated with them. So despite FB’s claims that you can promote your page for a few dollars a day and gain all sorts of followers through likes, that in itself is not going to sell a book. Also, in the interest of bolstering their own business model, FB has altered their algorithm so that your messages reach perhaps only 7% of your friends. Unless you buy FB services what you post on your page will not reach all your followers. So out of the thousands of people who might have seen my message about a book launch, only a few actually received the message. Each social medium has its limitations. I’m picking on FB because they are the biggest and have most recently been playing games with their programming that counters whatever users may be doing to promote themselves in a social medium.

Let’s face it, people who will buy a book from a relatively unknown author have more than a passing acquaintance. And the mere fact that someone is a friend does not necessarily mean he or she will buy your book. For the moment, let’s set aside the real goal of an author, which is to have others read the book and sing its praises to others through written and posted reviews or spreading the word to their friends. It is a fan base problem.

Growing the number of fans is an evolutionary process. It cannot be rushed because attention and awareness must be cultivated and reinforced throughout your process, otherwise a fan will forget that he or she ever was a fan. The best connections are personalized through memorable events – like book signings or chatting online. Others may be people you know at your day job. They may purchase a book simply because they know you – even if you are not close friends – but usually co-workers will not buy your book unless they know you well. Why should they?


Since most of my online friends are other authors, I have never expected a great number of sales from those associations. Why would I? Authors are busy hawking their own wares. Some have bought my book, though. Those tend to be people whose books I have read and reviewed and those with whom I have had repeated contact. Again, it is a matter of turning an acquaintance into an fan. With most authors, it comes down to quid pro quo and professional courtesy. I’ll buy your book if you buy mine. I’ll write a review for you if you’ll write a review for me. Sharing blogs with other authors exposes one author to another’s fan base. So it’s worth having other authors as friends as long as the relationship is cultivated beyond mere acquaintance.

What about all those people you knew in school or wherever else? Counting on the support of people you knew in the past is iffy. It will depend on how well you got along in the past and whether your relationship continued or recently resumed. Even then, simply having contact with someone you know doesn’t mean he or she will buy your book. However, if your book becomes popular and you become famous, that dynamic will change dramatically. People you never knew you knew will suddenly claim to have known you well.

The launch of Fried Windows has exceeded any of my previous work. That’s progress and it’s due to building my fan base. Once the interest in the book increases through other promotional efforts, the momentum will build as well. It may take months and the subsequent launches of my other books in order to stir the desired level of interest in Fried Windows but it will happen. The book is that good. Once someone reads it they understand that it is unique in many ways.


Frankly, I Don’t Understand FREE


Okay, I get it that FREE is one of the most powerful words in advertising and promotions. It is also one of the most overused. And many times FREE is not really FREE. Fior example, all those FREE membership cards at retailers that give you money back on your purchases. Ain’t nutting’ FREE about that. You get email blasts and text messages with ads, don’t you?

Anyway, I’ve been scratching my head for a while over why anyone would want to give away a book that took him or her years to write? It just doesn’t make sense because, it is both unnecessary and stupid – especially if you’re getting nothing in return. You see, a real promotion always has a purpose. Like the aforementioned FREE frequent shopper rebates. If you give your book away in exchange for reviews or to promote your latest book or as a means of capturing email addresses for future directed promotions, then giving something away makes sense. But what I see happening in the publishing world is a lot of indie authors giving away books hoping that in the process they will gain a fan base. That’s ludicrous.

Here’s why. People who are drawn to the word FREE are bargain hunters. They are not trend setters. They don’t go after the new and shiny. So the chances of ever getting them to buy your next book when it first comes out is pretty low. They are the bottom feeders of the market. They buy everything on clearance. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but you need to know that is the customer you’re attracting with the word FREE.

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Also, remember that any damned fool can give crap away. It takes no effort at all, really. We recently ran a FREE promotion to test its viability for a good, well written book with an attractive cover. In two days it received over 2600 worldwide downloads.Afterwards a few more books sold and a couple of new reviews appears in the days afterwards. So for the sake of giving away 2600 FREE copies of a great book, the end result was a few real sales and a couple of decent reviews. You be the judge whether it was worth it.

Now, the conventional wisdom of the FREE promotion is that it creates new fans for an unknown authors. Again, remember the sort of customer that is attracted to the word FREE. Granted, you may pick up some long term fans who are attracted to the word FREE because they have never heard of the author and it is a no cost way to test drive a book from that author. But I’m here to tell you, if that accounts for 10% of the action an author gets from a FREE promotion, that’s a lot. You decide if that is a worthwhile objective of the promotion.

For most authors, anything below $2.99 on eBook pricing is a loss leader.Indie authors who have lower production costs associated with their books may be able to eek out some profit at lower prices because they have not invested in professional editing or cover design. But once you factor in the cots of a real cover and a real editor you are realistically looking at a price point between $2.99 and $3.99 just to be able to make a few pennies per copy sold. The higher the production costs, the higher the necessary retail price for a break even point. It’s simple business.

Let’s forget about paperbacks because they have higher fixed costs. No sane person would give them away.

I posted a few days ago about about pricing art. In that article I stated that there are divergence trends in eBooks. Publishers are raising their prices while indies are continuing to drive the average retail price lower. The reason for the disparity is largely FREE and 99 cent promotions. Some of the price pressure comes from programs like Kindle Select. For those who do not understand the program, Amazon offers members of its Select program the ability to choose any Kindle title listed on the program for FREE. Actually it is not truly FREE to the member because he or she has paid an annual membership fee for the privilege. For the author, listing on the Select program requires an exclusive commitment to Amazon for 90 days – meaning you cannot have an eBook version of your novel on sale anywhere else. So, if your book is not on the Select program it has to be priced at FREE to compete. This is inane, though. You see, authors who are on the Select program are compensated for any book downloaded as part of the program. If you price at FREE to compete or even attract fans you lose money while those on the program do not.

I’m not saying you should place your eBook on the Select program. That’s your choice. I’m just explaining why it makes no sense to compete with the special deal through FREE pricing. If you are attempting to attract people away from the Select program for which they have already paid a fee, my first question is why? Those readers joined the Select program because one of the benefits was being able to download new books for FREE. What makes you think they will even look at your book?

Maybe I’m missing something. I could be wrong. there could actually be a valid reason or a FREE promotion for a book other than the few I have stated. I suppose anything is possible. There could be an honest politician somewhere and I do believe int he tooth fairy, Santa and the Easter Bunny. But I’m not inclined to promote my books for anything less that a break even price unless it is for a limited time and for a very good promotional reason. And you shouldn’t either.

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