..and when the sun rises again tomorrow, we'll see how far we've come ...

..and when the sun rises again tomorrow, we'll see how far we've come ...

... just to remind myself why I'm doing this ...

Depending on our personalities, the world can be a crowded place or a very lonely one. For those who seek comfort in numbers, there is no shortage of hangers on, but for those who avoid that circus, keeping thier own counsel can leave them feeling quite alone and disengaged from the mad place we call home. Life is a trade off and most of us choose how we live it.

For me, I'd rather work things out as best I can, using my own thoughts and feelings to sort things out. Following the crowd has never been a temptation to me, but that has its price, one that I'm totally comfortable with every day I get to stand up and be the person I aspire to be. When I sometimes lose track of who that is, I come here to remember, to reconnect and to resume my quest.

These posts are a reflection of some of what matters to me and it's a privilege to have the opportunity to collect these thoughts as they form in my head, as they prepare the way for my life, as it evolves from one day to the next. They re-inspire me when things seem to be floating about, with no particular aim or purpose, and it does happen from time to time.

So, today I had these thoughts that I think are worth writing down for the future me to look back on when I need to ...

Saturday, June 27, 2015

.. and they used to deliver bread and milk to the door for free too ...

Way back in the early part of 2013 I made a decision to try something very different and potentially detrimental to my business for some time, until the concept would actually have sunk in. After musing about, then calculating and finally planning a very controversial concept for a retail operation, I actually did it - yup, I did it. The local paper got wind of it and wrote up a lengthy article about it, and made a decent effort to explain it, because I think the reporter actually got it! Well, while some folks also got it right off the bat, a lot more didn't, particularly at first. I tried a number of signs explaining it in the simplest terms but the fly in the ointment proved to be the "charge", or "fee" as the paper called it, and the rest of the message fell on blind eyes, deaf ears and lazy minds. I say lazy, because so many were unwilling to even make any kind of attempt to understand the reasoning and get past the idea of paying for something that up to then was simply a free activity, seen as almost a "right" in its own.

Starting back a bit, originally the thought that got all this going was that EVERY person through our door was a potential sale but definitely a real cost to the business; the calculation was based on the annual cost of doing business divided by the number of people through the door. For illustration's sake, let's use some round arbitrary numbers of no relation to the business. Annual cost of doing business, $150,000.  Number of people through the door in a year, 30,000.  making the cost $5 per person. Putting it another way, we have to lay out $5 to literally pay a body to come into the business. At that point, nothing has been sold yet. At this point we have to presume a gross margin so let's set it at 50%, for argument's sake and to make calculations fairly straight forward. To recoup that cost from 25% of the browsers who actually turn out to be buyers, each buying customer has to leave behind, on average, $40 to cover the product cost alone (to the business) of what they bought and the cost of having the opportunity to buy it. It also means that 22,500 people through the door paid nothing towards the cost of having the door open for them to come through. That cost is then being paid entirely by the 7,500 buyers who actually made a purchase. How many people do Canada's Wonderland, Fort Henry, Disney World, Lang Pioneer Village, and so on, allow through the door to see what there is to see without contributing to the cost of making it available to them for that purpose? ZERO. What if they only charged those that actually did something or looked at the displays, that group would have to pay for the whole thing and make the cost of admission prohibitively expensive. Since that's not a feasible business model for their operations, they spread the cost over EVERY person who comes in, thus making it affordable for all and allowing the business to survive and continue to provide the value that their visitors enjoy day after day.

So, with this "concept" in mind, we ran a pilot project to test the concept at retail level. For 6 months we applied the concept and monitored the reactions and results. That takes us back to the top of this post. Now, a few months short of two years after the pilot project was complete, we still hear comments about "that's the place that charges you to go in" and yet sometimes they remember that the actual "buying customers" saved 20% on everything they bought, including things like $700 desks and $600 clocks. You see, the amount we charged each person, which was already part of the prices of goods being purchased, was actually removed from the selling prices of what was then purchased, making everything cheaper to buy because the fewer buyers were not having to pay the whole cost by themselves. The concept was designed to provide a great benefit to those who actually supported the business by buying the products., at the expense of those that just wanted something to do or a place to pass the time.

Since our project was completed, this SAME principal has made itself known in the wholesale world at the world's largest market for retailers, held twice yearly in Germany. Attendees to the market now pay $35 per day to attend their buying show which was once free and open to all retailers. It takes part of the load and cost of putting on the market for the retail industry back on the very ones who need it and off the backs of those who provide the market in the first place. It's about an equitable distribution of costs among ALL the beneficiaries of the enterprise. This thinking, while revolutionary today, will become far more mainstream as costs escalate everywhere.

We'll always have lazy minds that see only what they think is bad for them in the immediate and miss the true value behind it. I'm convinced that new strategies are needed for retail, as we've known it, to carry on as a way to buy and sell goods in an open market. I think the on-line marketplace is part of that evolution. My own day in retail is winding down but my mind still wants to race ahead to see what the challenges will be like some day, and to try to offer the things I've come to know about it, to those who will devise those new strategies.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Growth... the faster way to die

Today, after thinking about many things connected, and not, I asked myself if what I think about growth is real, smart or even supportable, or if it's just an idea that's rolling around up there and not making much sense. Well, let's try to find out.

The whole impetus for the question is my belief that so many communities continue to struggle with their problems that seem to only get more difficult, because they don't know when they've got it just right. Many forces are at play as a community wrestles with infrastructure issues, finances, unpredictable economic shifts, business and economic volatilities, population changes and demands, political infighting and a particularly difficult one - development pressures. There's even more but this gives us the tone of what affects the community day in and day out. The default, by far, is to believe and accept without reservation, that growth is the Holy Grail of municipal health. Without growth, you begin to die. Well I think that's way too monolithic thinking. Sure, growth is part of the living process and probably is next to impossible to arrest fully but is it an essential ingredient or is it an inevitable byproduct? I think growth takes us closer to death than not growing. Growth becomes a maturing process and that maturation can only lead to decline and death. The slower the growth, the slower the maturation and the slower the decline.

Now, that's not to say that we can simply do nothing to facilitate growth. On the contrary, we need to maintain what's already here and "renew" on a regular basis, as well as when needed beyond that. Simple analogy - an apple tree starts by planting a single shoot. It grows, and eventually matures to a point when it begins to develop blossoms and bear fruit. Of course, it wants to keep growing, but good practice, if you want it to bear good fruit for some time, is to prune, to cut back the unnecessary growth, the DNA driven growth, the growth that uses valuable resources that are otherwise directed to fruit production. Growth makes a bigger tree, yes, but does it provide more or better fruit? Not so according to the apple-wise. So we have the restriction of natural growth and as a result we maintain an arguably healthier tree and produce. We also prepare for the time when we have to "renew" the original tree because it will eventually need too many of the resources to simply continue to live and produce its fruit. That replacement is also a form of renewal and can never be achieved by the growth that was curtailed throughout its lifetime. In fact, its lifetime was likely extended by curtailing that instinctive need to simply grow. Had that growth been allowed to remain or continue, it would have eventually created a situation where the available resources would have been insufficient to even maintain a healthy existence plus ever more growth. So, my point is, growth, while it may be the natural thing to do, may not and likely is not, the best solution for a healthy existence.

A tree can't know about the availability of resources at any given time or in the future, so it simply acts on what is at hand. That means it grows when it can and slows down when things are not favourable. That means an external guidance system is essential to a healthy future. That guidance can determine the optimum conditions for growth and for existence, given the vagaries of its environment. It can also determine the optimum size to which it should grow in that environment. Absence of such guidance assures a return to the simple and natural instinct to simply grow when it can, just in case anything interferes down the road and threatens its existence. So, to guide growth requires assessment of environment and future possibilities. It also means flexibility is an important factor to be included.

I think growth has to be about optimum, instead of maximum. While there may be potential for growth, the value of that growth may be far too little to consider allowing it to proceed. Some growth is needed to replace damage or decay through a variety of reasons and that's part of the assessment process that should be always at the forefront. That's good MANAGEMENT. Management is the key to successful existence, and well-controlled and guided growth. The absence of good management simply allows the uncontrolled forces of nature, the power of DNA, to take over and chaos eventually takes over and tries to overcome all obstacles, using limited resources that would otherwise support a healthy existence.

All of this is a metaphorical way of explaining my perception of growth of a municipality and the community it sustains or attempts to sustain. A municipality is likely far more complex than an apple tree but in the final analysis, is it? A municipality can have its roots in one sole inhabitant at the beginning of its life, and it grows as the necessary resources come available and continue to be so. It can change depending on its environment and its output. The parallel can go on in every way and the results are equally comparable in so many ways. Of course, we can immerse our thinking in the minutae of municipal management and loose sight of the whole analogy but from outside, it remains quite clear and quite appropriate.

One of the most problematic challenges for any organism is disease, that goes for trees and it goes for municipalities. The medicine cabinet, though, is quite different, but there are similarities upon which we should draw to effect the necessary cures. Municipal "diseases" come in many forms and of varying strengths, and cures can be elusive. That's one good reason to restrict the growth that leads to such unmanageable diseases right from the start, instead of letting things grow far enough to require impractical or almost impossible intervention. Restricting growth known to cause such conditions may seem unconventional but given the option, could be the smartest one to choose.

In my way of thinking on this, I see the development industry as the natural, the DNA force behind unrestricted growth. That doesn't make it evil; it just makes it something that needs to be channeled properly, and municipalities have the tools to do that. They don't necessarily use those tools to the level they should in most cases, |I'd speculate, because the "rewards" for restraining themselves appear too lucrative at the time, to decline. The fact that there are always already so many other pressures at play means that any reward that helps to deal with them at the moment are attractive enough to suspend good judgement in dealing with the rewards being offered and their hidden costs that manifest later on. Politicians being the creature they are, today's brush fire is far more pressing than the forest fire it MAY ignite later. The development industry knows this and uses it to its fullest advantage. That's its own DNA, growth = profit = more growth = yet more profit. No amount of medicine will cure that condition, and because its an eventual crippler, it should be looked upon as a disease. A disease without a manageable cure. It's a disease that can only be checked through prevention, not through treatment. It resists treatment like a bacterial infection that develops immunity as it evolves. And it takes an enormous amount of restraint and willpower to keep it in check, but it can be done. It has to be done if a municipality hopes to contain the spread of all its other problems beyond its ability to cope with on its own. As proof, just look at every city in this country, and listen to their pleas for help from bigger government, which ironically has the same weakness choking it into unconsciousness.

The development industry is an essential part of municipal "RENEWAL". It doesn't have to be dependent on growth alone. Renewal can be a far better mainstay of development but it does require more work, more effort, more consciousness, more foresight and more goodwill than greenfield  razing and virgin conquests. Municipalities can redirect developer energies into renewal by making it more lucrative than new development. The fact is, they already have the tools to do just that. They just avoid using them because they're afraid the developers will simply take their money and seek even greener pastures and purer conquests. That has to change, and it will take politicians with a strong sense of right, a longer view and the guts to act responsibly, regardless of the political cost to themselves. We have seen them, just not that often and not long enough to establish a beach-head from which more such visionaries can set the trail for those following to navigate the way to successful communities that are truly sustainable and great inspiration to others as examples of successful management and municipalities that are the most attractive places to live fulfilling lives in every way.

All it really takes is a willingness to see the picture, the desire to make it happen and the guts to see it through. I'm convinced this is more than just a thought rolling around in my head, It's a compelling idea for the well-being of municipalities as their challenges outpace their ability to cope with them.

Hello....anybody out there...hello....

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

a lack of vision eventually results in lower expectations... especially of ourselves!

In times of increased and increasing economic and social challenges, two choices prevail. Work harder and smarter, or accept the apparent inevitable. Governments slip between the two choices the rest of us face, they throw money at the challenge and end up distracting us from the more difficult choice.

We've just been shown a bit of upbeat news regarding the Northumberland Mall, which has languished in what I would describe as a state of suspended animation, particularly since the exodus of the large Zellers store. In a simmering economy, this could, at first impression, get folks excited but a second and deeper look reveals a bit if troubling apparent shift in focus locally.

Let's face one of today's basic truths - the economy has shifted from a local and regional emphasis to one of global scope. When we tend to now focus on and get excited about changes in the retail world, are we relegating industrial growth and development to a secondary stature or importance? Expansion in the retail sector actually translates to jobs that are considered among the lowest grade of employment. Secondly, it also tends to have an impact on the local (and to some extent regional) income levels, and at the same time increases the demand for even more disposable income, something that's pretty hard to count on at the moment. If we subscribe to the theory, as it goes at this time, that keeping spending local significantly benefits the local economy, why have we not experienced those benefits since the introduction of the multitude of national retailers locally? It stands to reason that the lion's share of profits from all those sales actually transfer out of the local economy and that may well explain why we've seen little in the way of benefits here. Bringing in yet more of the same could then only result in similar drainage. I think that the initial wave of such similar development some 13 years ago is the most significant factor in the decline of the central business district that we are experiencing at this time. This decline is of enough depth that the town undertook a plan to revitalize it with the help of Provincial funding. Of course, we're not unique or the only ones in this position but that's beside the point. So, in light of what has been announced regarding changes at Northumberland Mall, what do the "revitalization committees", proponents and supporters think about this development? It can't help but have an impact on what their plan is all about (and I still to this day don't have a clear picture or understanding of what that is).

Sure, we need to "grow" the local economy (as differentiated from the local community) on a number of fronts but we also need to be mindful that we don't put too many of our eggs in such a leaky basket; leaky in the sense that money spent in national and bigger chain retail stores in large part leaves the local economy with little benefit locally. We can't lose sight of the need to keep our major focus on better employment opportunities than retail jobs. Every community in the province is chasing whatever industrial development is coming on-line so our opportunities seem extremely challenging, if not limited there.
Remembering the shift to a global economy, Distribution facilities would be a great sector to develop, given the fact that most of their costs are lower outside the larger metropolitan centres and because of our excellent exposure to the variety of transportation infrastructure we already enjoy. We don't need to chase the big game to be successful. We need to pursue the second-string business opportunities, the less glamorous ones that others consider less attractive and too mundane. They are as important a part of the whole economic fabric as the "big fish" who know how to milk the demand for their favour. Retail, - meh, lets get aggressive in ways others can't. Then we can really get excited about our changes and development.

Cobourg struggles to stay rooted in the past... and is succeeding

Cobourg has a new Town Crier. Yup, a functional anomaly born of the need to inform the citizens of announcements that may or may not affect them in their day to day lives, at a time when there was no other widespread, timely and efficient way to do so, OVER 100 plus years ago!

Fast forward to the 21st century. Radio, television, telephone, email, social media and on and on ...communication is instant, world-wide and super-efficient, and does not depend on physical presence of anyone. Today, we have what the town calls a communications co-ordinator or something like that. You could argue this position actually fills the role of the old-style town crier.

So why do we insist on holding on to such a pointless vestige? There was concern that the new crier would attempt to emulate the one and only crier we've had, and in doing so, somehow diminish the memory of that local and admittedly colourful figure. I would say the best choice would have been to retire the position with all the memories it created and allowed it to be a completed chapter in our history that could not be reproduced to any similar level of recognition. Now, we will likely and unwittingly compare the new to the original and perhaps lose some of the magic that had been created in people's minds if the new performance differs significantly from the memory.

In my opinion, it's unlikely that this position of crier brings people out to events rather than perhaps add some colour to them. Nevertheless, it hearkens back to a time we should remember and understand but not reproduce today. Today is today and has its own characteristics that may some day, who knows, offer a glimpse into our "shabby" way of life as it may be seen some time in the future. Let every era be its own, have its own highlights, dark places and memories to be looked upon in future generations, as with "how they lived back then... the poor saps". Hey, we do it now, don't we?