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Networking adds competitive edge

Karen Galindo -- Casual Living, February 15, 2006

When people ask me the secret to my success, I always say my relationships with vendors, industry friends and even competitors see me through the day. Every success I owe to my friends. When times aren't so great, I turn to them as well.

There are obvious benefits to networking. I know some retailers who like to keep their business private and won't share information. I believe in an old adage that "it takes a village to slay a dragon." We have a lot of challenges and we need all the help we can get to contend with increased competition from mass merchants, employee and hiring problems, demanding customers and so on. By sharing useful information, we build on a common base of knowledge. Let me share some examples that have been really useful to me over the past few years:

Share information about what works. Send valuable information to industry friends and they will repay you. I shared info on two of my best manufacturers with a friend in another city. I told him what to buy and that if it did not work out, I could take the extra inventory that he could not sell. He tried them and his business grew as a result. I am a hero to him, to my manufacturers and have already benefited myself. Later, he helped me fill a much-needed position in my company by giving me the name of someone who once worked for him but now lives in my market. Because he cares about my business, I got a great new employee when I really needed one.

Share product as needed. I have a network of people I can call when I am desperate for a product. It happens to all of us. We order something wrong or there is a fabric shortage or some other problem that causes a patio emergency. I stress to industry friends that I love to help them out, because they are there when I need them.

Trade dead inventory. We all buy the wrong thing from time to time. We try a color that does not work in our market or suddenly a popular product just dies on the floor. Make an inventory swap. A good friend in another market just swapped a 53-foot truckload of furniture with me. What was slow for him is a hot seller for me and vice versa. We are both thrilled with our swap, and I will be able to turn that inventory into cash instead of sitting on it for a long time. Create a dealer network where you can trade, but make sure there are not distribution restrictions in your area. This also benefits the manufacturer because it frees up inventory dollars to purchase viable new inventory.

By becoming friends with manufacturers, we can help each other. I try not to abuse my manufacturers' good will, but when I really need help, I call them. Conversely, when a manufacturer needs help, I am there. I will introduce them to reps and retailers that can make a difference in their business; I will take inventory from a problem account they cannot collect on.

Attend CFR conferences and meetings. Our industry is tiny. There is no reason we shouldn't all know each other.

Four years ago, I attended the CFR conference in Las Vegas and have been a proponent ever since. There were educational conferences, roundtables where we had candid discussions about everything from what we charge on deliveries to Internet problems, and time to socialize. Now, instead of just knowing about seven other Texas retailers, I know people all over the country. I am also buying from several manufacturers I would not have bought from had I not met them at CFR Forum.

The CFR Forum is a non-competitive environment; you can formulate relationships without feeling the pressure of a market where you are expected to buy. Never assume an operation with fewer stores cannot share some great ideas. As the old saying goes, "It is not the big that eat the small, but the fast that eat the slow."

We compete with anyone selling a product that competes for the disposable income we need to grow our business. I know I can count on people and that makes a psychological difference so when I am having a bad day, I can call someone who understands the daily demands of my business.

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