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Swamps, Alligators, and A Deep Black Hole

April 17, 2009

As we say down here in the humid South, “When you’re up to your behind in alligators it is hard to remember you came to empty the swamp!” I believe we are all suffering from the "alligator syndrome" this season. We have had to do so many things just to stay in business that we are fogetting the our core practices that made us successful in the first place.

I mention this because of an article I read in the most recent “Casual Living.” Several manufacturers were interviewed and asked what retailers have to do to survive the economic downturn. The answer that really stuck with me was that retailers have to continue providing the same top-notch service their market has come to expect. Personally, I buy into that; but, I wonder if manufacturers realize this is a two-way street. Manufacturers who are going to survive past 2009 are the ones who pay attention to business practices that made them flourish in the past.

Good design, comfort, quality, and perceived value are all part of a winning strategy for vendors in the outdoor specialty industry. The problem is it costs money to reach any of these lofty goals and it costs even more to reach all of them. As the alligators of decreasing sales, smaller consumer demand, and increasing costs snap at their behinds, manufacturers could easily pay more attention to fixing these problems than doing what truly needs to be done to remain in business. I’d like to offer examples of two companies that have taken different paths in the past few months. One company I’ll call one Company Good Bee and the other Company Bad Bee. Let’s start with Company Good Bee.

Last year and for the beginning of this year, Company Good Bee had problems with product packaging and quality control. I am not exaggerating when I say that for about seven months every custom order we received from them needed extensive touch up. Because packaging was inadequate, the corners of furniture would burst through and get scratched during transit. Even worse, product got out of the factory with scratches and poor paint jobs that quality control should have caught.

I complained and I complained but it was like spitting into a large, deep, black hole. Or at least that is what I thought until we received a custom order from this company about two weeks ago. The packaging had been changed completely. Not only were the cartons heavier, corners were now packed with foam protector blocks around them. The packaging was so good; it took a long time to unpack each piece. In addition, the quality control issues had all been addressed. A company that used to cause my sales force anxiety whenever we placed a special order with them is now one we are all anxious and happy to sell. I am sure all of this added to their expenses. But they did it to remain competitive.

Company Bad Bee has been having the same quality control and packaging issues for over a year. It seems every custom order we received from them they had to be touched up or replaced. Company Bad Bee tells me part of the problem is because their quality control inspector has to do other jobs unrelated to quality control. By dividing this person’s attention, they are not doing either job well.

Believe me, I understand we are all trying to be more productive with fewer assets right now. However, reducing quality control shouldn’t be an option when cutting costs. Company Bad Bee assures me they are going to address this problem and do so quickly. I sure hope they do. I don’t want them to become another fatality in the still full swamp littered with half eaten corpses of other businesses that lost sight of their core principals.

Yours in confused retailing, Bruce