Canada's business magazine for traditional natural health retailers

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The 100 year retailer

Recently, a retail store in my community celebrated 100 years of operations.   There was a party, celebrations and even recognition from politicians for their years of service to the community.  I honestly don’t know much about the business except for the great service I have experienced as a patron over the years.

Recently, a retail store in my community celebrated 100 years of operations.   There was a party, celebrations and even recognition from politicians for their years of service to the community.  I honestly don’t know much about the business except for the great service I have experienced as a patron over the years.

What I do know however, from my own decades in business, is that there needs to be a lot more than great customer service happening behind the scenes for any operation to survive for a century. 

Every business has a lifecycle

A retail business usually begins with an idea and a struggle.  In this stage, the business owners are trying to generate enough sales to get to break even. They are doing everything they can to find a business model that will work.  They must  look for profitable products or services that will put money in the bank and ensure that they have a cash flow in order to pay their suppliers and their lenders.  Most retailers fail to get past this stage. 

Light at the end of the tunnel

If you are lucky enough to get through the early days – which typically takes about three years – there is the thrill of watching your business grow and flourish.  While you might not be making much money, you can see the fruits of your early labours generating results.  Customers are starting to come to you and while you might be still working 12 or  14 hour days as an entrepreneur, you can see some light at the end of the tunnel. You probably love what you are doing. 

Then come the good times.  You have figured it out and your business is generating some cash for the lean years you have gone through. You are happy to be employing some good people and making a difference in your community.  You decide to expand your operations or start another business.  You might run for city council or try to make the world better because you think you are set and need a new challenge. 

But wait! As you become distracted, your business starts to struggle. Key people retire or move on, a recession hits, or because you aren’t paying attention, some key customers leave.

One day, you wake to the fact that you need a business that is sustainable through good times and bad, which can operate when you are not paying attention.  At this time, we tend to diversify our revenue streams, implement systems, and have procedures in place to ensure we hire great people to manage our store.  If we are lucky, our business gets back on track.

For years, we might enjoy that thriving business, until one day, it seems that our business becomes monotonous. We are just doing the same thing over and over.  It doesn’t generate the thrill it once did for us, our employees and even our customers.  If we aren’t careful at this point, competition can swoop in and take away our competitive advantage because we have become complacent. Yes, we reassure ourselves that we are still growing because the population is changing.         

Things will change

However, at some point, things will change, the economy will turn, and we will realize that our business is suffering. 

If we are fortunate, we can recreate a vision that will revitalize our store, re-energize our employees and thrill our customers again.  This will take different forms for every business, but it might mean that we will need to replace out-dated strategies with new, more relevant concepts. Many businesses never get beyond this stage in their history and begin the long decline into oblivion. 

For a store or a business to survive 100 years, there is a history of challenges that have been overcome, hardships that their customers have never seen, experiments that have failed and strategies that have been doomed.  Yes, perhaps fortunes were made, but also many grateful households and communities have benefited from years of employment and stability. 

Could you enable your business to survive 100 years? If so, you will need to create the foundation now, to ensure that management has the tools to communicate challenges and the ability to make decisions that will allow it to thrive into the future.  You will also need to craft systems that ensure the generational transfer of knowledge from leader to leader. Finally, you will have to be content in knowing that how your business looks and operates today will inevitably evolve and change to adapt to advancing technology 80 years from now.  

One hundred years in business is indeed something to celebrate and admire, especially when you consider what the owners of that store have gone through in the past and what its future may entail. 


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