Who’s on first?

who’s on first-web

In your store, that is. Knowing the answer is the key to your success in 2019 and beyond.

I know I’m dating myself, but in the mid-1930s, a burlesque act of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello was formed. Of all their performances over 22 years, the one they are most famous for is titled, “Who’s on first?” In the routine, the two performers are talking about a baseball team that Abbott is going to manage. Costello is asking Abbott the names of the players on the team. Abbott states that many professional baseball players have unusual names as witnessed by his new team.

Without repeating the masterful routine, the position and the names of players mentioned were:

First base: Who
Second base: What
Third base: I don’t know
Left field: Why
Center field: Because
Pitcher: Tomorrow
Catcher: Today
Shortstop: I don’t care

Listening to the Abbott and Costello routine, which you can easily find online, you will hear that Costello is confused. In asking Abbott who’s playing on the team, one of Costello’s first questions is, “Who’s on first?” From there Abbott and Costello go back and forth as Abbott attempts to tell Costello the names of the players.

As in that comic confusion, I see how many furniture stores are equally perplexed today. They are struggling to understand why they don’t have as much business as they used to. They don’t understand why they are unable to command the loyalty of their customers that their stores once did.

There are likely to be some businesses in your community that are working hard to solve the challenge. There are others that are simply lost and are just remembering “the good old days,” and there are some that are simply waiting to retire and will likely close their doors at some point in the future.

If they were to listen to Abbott and Costello, they would find the solution within that funny routine: Using an analogy from baseball, these stores — maybe even yours — don’t know the position they should be playing.

How many businesses in your community were once very successful? It doesn’t have to be furniture they sold. They could sell groceries or provide a service. Regardless of the specifics, their stories are likely to be the same.

The prime time of the business was many years ago. The business might never have been thought of as progressive, but when there were fewer choices for people to spend their money, the business was profitable and busy. It did all it needed to do for the business to succeed.
At this earlier time, when the business was more successful, it was known for what it sold. The strategy of a successful business could have been simply to attract a greater market share. Additional customers could come in several ways. The business could take customers away from the competition, expand to additional locations, draw customers from a larger geographical area, or simply wait for more people to move into the town. “What” was the second baseman for Abbott’s team.

As simple as these strategies may sound, they worked for many businesses. There were signs, much like those used in baseball, that should have given a business clues about changes that would be coming. As someone who grew up in Arkansas, I remember my father remarking to fellow business owners in the 1960s that there would be many changes coming.

Two highways that intersected in our town were rerouted. Soon, that intersection was outside town. While most people quickly associate Walmart with Arkansas, Walmart was not the first mass merchant that arrived on our landscape. I remember several empty buildings on our Front Street. The north side of Front Street backed up to the Arkansas River. My father’s suggestion was that all the businesses move to the side away from the river so that the riverside buildings could be leveled and free parking be provided.

“Who would want to pay for parking when they could get free parking at the mass merchant, which would surely eventually come to the new intersection of the highways?” my father would ask. And when he gave away coins to pay for the parking meters on Front Street, he aggravated some city fathers. My father was not the only one who saw a community that failed to look toward tomorrow, but he was one who closed his business when he felt the downtown was doomed. “Tomorrow” was the pitcher for Abbott’s team.
Most baseball games last only nine innings, but many businesses thought today would last forever. To them, tomorrow would surely be just like today.

With thinking like that, it is easy to understand why there were no changes made. The exterior of the building remained the same through all the years. In the case of retailers, the only change to the interior occurred as they received a new display fixture from a manufacturer.
The insurance agent continued to expect that all his customers would either walk in or call to renew their policies. The restaurant thought people would forever want the same meals; no consideration was given to the changes in how Americans ate, such as healthy options or smaller portions. The furniture store saw no need to upgrade its point of sale system or start collecting email addresses or leverage social media or, well, you get the idea.

There were many other changes. The Internet, malls, strip shopping centers, lifestyle shopping centers and mass merchants all changed the way business is conducted in the past half-century. Today did not vanish all at once. It faded gradually, and many businesses did not notice it happening. But they see it now. “Today” was the catcher for Abbott’s baseball team.

Yet some business owners, when asked how they see their business 20 years in the future, answer “I don’t know.” Perhaps the biggest challenge the owner thought he had was to determine who would run the business next, but without any doubt he believed the business would still exist. So, why have so many of the next generation chosen not to work in the family business?

For an answer, think about conversations you’ve had with business owners like this. Probably not many have been positive. They complain about business but do nothing about it. Now think about the child who heard these comments every day. It is not surprising why she would choose to do something else for a living. “I don’t know” was Abbott’s third baseman.

The question we continue to ask is, why? Having seen that tomorrow became today, and today bore little resemblance to its predecessor, why haven’t businesses changed so they will be in business in 20 years? Why won’t they change so that the downtown can become more vibrant? Or why won’t they at least close the business so that the community can get a new business in that location to bring customers to that part of the business district? “Why” played left field for Abbott’s baseball team.

There are two players on Abbott’s team that we don’t care to highlight: “Because,” the center fielder, and “I don’t care,” the shortstop. There is nothing we can do about the business owner who answers to “I don’t care,” and the part of the sentence that comes after “Because” is not likely to be very logical.

In the routine, Abbott and Costello do not name the right fielder, but there is one other position we have not mentioned: the first baseman. His name is “Who.” This is the key to solving the problem; when Abbott said, or Costello asked, “Who’s on first?” they were sharing what has been the problem and is the solution.

A business that identifies itself by what it sells or does is likely to always be looking for customers who want its products or services. We have just observed how the what has changed over the years. When the business fails to change the what, it is likely to be looking at a continually diminishing group of customers to market to.

Business is, and always should be, about the who. Paying attention to the customer means the business changes as the customers change. Think about how clothing preferences have changed, or grocery shopping or driving. Change is just as profound when it comes to home furnishings and appliances.

Who’s on first?

The first consideration of every business must always be the customer. That’s who’s on first.

About the Author

Tom Shay
Tom Shay has more than 25 years of experience in retail. Subscribe to Tom’s e-ret@iler, a free monthly newsletter packed with tips for improving the profitability of your store, at profitsplus.org.