If you never try something different, how do you know if what you’re doing is best?
Carnac the Magnificent, as portrayed by Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show, was a mystic from the East replete with a feathered turban and cape. He could psychically divine unknown (and humorous) answers to unknown questions. Often in our stores we discover that we do not know what we do not know.
Why, you might ask, do I need to learn what I don’t know about what I don’t know? In simple terms, if you always do what you have always done then you will get what you’ve always got. Certainly, if you’ve had success in some areas it seems perfectly logical to continue. But the home furnishings world is rapidly changing, and failure to anticipate change may have dire consequences. What you don’t know may be holding you back or threatening your future. I imagine that buggy whip and pay telephone manufacturers had some phenomenal year-over-year growth patterns before they stopped growing and later stopped existing. Maybe they didn’t know what they didn’t know before technology rendered them unnecessary. Here are some tips for learning what you don’t know and ways it might just help your business.
Get lost. At your next furniture market, that is. Take an extra day and explore products and manufacturers outside your normal shopping patterns. Style trends and product innovations are keys to keeping your store fresh and relevant to the consumer. Are you worried about online retailers taking market share from your store? Find those manufacturers that supply the big online guys and pick their brains. Ask them what you’re missing and how to compete with the online world. Visit those little suppliers in the temporary spaces and see what the creative entrepreneurs are up to. Oh, yeah, why not attend furniture markets outside the U.S. occasionally?
Trial and error. Sometimes the best way to learn is by making a mistake. Unfortunately, the amount of time and potential for big mistakes can make this an unpleasant and costly experience. Control this by setting up tests of processes in your store to see what works and what doesn’t. If you have multiple stores you know that a good decision across many stores is desirable where as a bad decision times many stores is dangerous. Develop a testing program for new merchandise in one store before rolling it out to multiple stores.
Testing new advertising certainly makes sense before jumping into a new campaign with both feet. Almost anything in your store can be tested if you’re willing to try. In some ways, this is a “try to fail” approach, which is not for the faint of heart, but may serve as a powerful tool for gaining and expanding knowledge as you learn from your failures.
Ask questions (dumb ones, too). Of course, we have been taught there is no such thing as a dumb question, but think about it. When you don’t have knowledge of a subject then the questions become more important than the answers. At the furniture markets, go to the HFA Retailer Resource Center and spend time with vendors you may not think you have interest in using. Ask them to help you learn what you don’t know about their products or services. When someone skips over a subject or suggests that it’s not important, that’s the right time to ask about it. Those who know their field or category often have an expert’s blind spot. In other words, they assume what they know must be obvious to those who don’t.
Get out! Take advantage of programs and seminars offered throughout the industry. If you’re a member of the HFA or other industry groups take advantage of their education. Go to their annual conference. When you’re grouped with other furniture retailers, the opportunity to learn what you don’t know about what you don’t know is easy to explore. There are many other issue specific industry events such as financing, bedding or leadership that will help you learn. And a little break from your store helps you stand back and see the forest from the trees while getting a little R&R, too.
Use an experienced consultant. Sometimes the subject might be way over your head or time constraints make it impractical to do it on your own. For example, technology issues often leave us furniture folks not even knowing where to begin. One retailer I know tells how he bought a point-of-sale system that was fine until his business exploded (he was not complaining) and he went from five stores to 15 in short order. He didn’t know what he didn’t know about growth and scalability as factors in a decision. Face it, the outside consultant will have the benefit of seeing similar situations over many other situations and may already know what you don’t know just by evaluating your situation. Be sure to review the background of your consultant for relevant experience and ask for references. Always require a non-disclosure agreement with any arrangement.
Johnny Carson was famous for saying to his guests, “I did not know that.” It’s reported he did this when he didn’t have a quick or witty response to a guest’s comment. Perhaps this approach can be modified for you when needing to learn. It might be as simple as saying, “I did not know that—and you should tell me what else I don’t know.”
Although it’s sometimes painful on the ego to admit you don’t have all the answers or all the questions, it may help propel your business forward. And if you’ve never heard of Carnac the Magnificent, go to YouTube and check him out. You might get a nice chuckle and learn something you didn’t know.