irreverent, thought-provoking analysis of the industry.
Consistency vs. Creativity
One of our chains just made a major goof.
by Mike Hartnett (January 3, 2005)
Recently a chain held a meeting of area store teachers, event
coordinators, and managers to announce that the company was
eliminating the "teacher" position. From then on all
classes were going to be designed and developed at the corporate
headquarters and sent to the stores where the classes would be
taught by the sales clerks.
All of the stores' class schedules would be the same. If a clerk
had an idea for a class, she would have to submit it to the store
manager for approval, then the manager would have to submit it to
headquarters for approval, then it would be developed and sent to
Teachers could remain as hourly employees, but there would no
longer be any extra compensation for teaching a class or commission
on sales made to students. Oh, and teachers could no longer submit
any projects to magazines or enter any scrapbook page layout
How did the teachers respond? They all quit.
My first reaction was that this is the most pathologically stupid
business idea I've heard in years. Whoever made this decision
probably thinks there are still weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,
too. Then I realized it was just the latest example of how chain
execs at some point succumb to the temptation to make every thing in
every store the same.
It doesn't matter which chain came up with this knucklehead
policy. Every chain is tempted to go too far in exercising control.
In some cases they have good reason to want that control. Years
ago, before Michael Rouleau became CEO at Michaels, the chain's
store managers had a tremendous amount of individual freedom. They
could order any products they wanted, and how much. One vendor
called Michaels managers "the cowboys of the industry."
Of course that does make some sense. When Frank's Nursery was the
Michaels of its day, I visited stores in Minneapolis and Boca Raton
within a three-week period and discovered the yarn departments in
each store were exactly the same. Gee, do you think customers in
Florida might want to make lighter-weight sweaters than customers in
But the overall result of Michaels' managers having so much
freedom was chaos. Michaels' corporate buyers had to call vendors
and ask them how much Michaels had ordered from them. One vendor
told me that he received a call from a panicked buyer who said she
just realized how desperately short of the vendor's products
Michaels was. She insisted that the vendor air freight a huge
shipment (at the vendor's expense, of course).
The vendor had employees work overtime and air-freighted the
order, only to receive a phone call a couple of days later. Oops,
the buyer said. Turns out Michaels didn't need the order after all,
so it was being shipped back to the vendor – again at the vendor's
Clearly, that's no way to run a business. Still, this new
chain-wide class plan is pathologically stupid for a variety of
1. This idea that anyone can teach anything is a fallacy all
too common in U.S. society, not just in retail. All execs need do is
remember the good and bad teachers in their schools and they should
know good teaching is part gift, part training. Particularly when it
comes to teaching, human beings are not robots.
2. Trends aren't consistent within an area. The same class
would not succeed or fail equally throughout a region, let alone the
country. Consumers in south suburban Chicago do not have the same
interests as those in north suburban Chicago.
3. If trends aren't consistent within an area, they certainly
aren't consistent throughout the country. Just ask any vendor of any
industry product if his/her sales are the same everywhere. Every
trend starts somewhere and therefore is at a different level of
evolution depending on the region. Scrapbooking started in the
Northwest, stenciling in the Northeast, and cross stitch in the
Southeast. How could the demand and interest for a particular class
be uniform across the country?
4. Implementation is not consistent. That's true of basic
merchandising, let alone teaching. I can't count the number of times
a frustrated vendor has called complaining with the same tale of
woe: the vendor and a chain buyer create a wonderful program – a
merchandising plan, an endcap, project sheets, or whatever. The
vendor spends time and money fulfilling his part of the bargain,
then visits stores only to discover that the plan was not
implemented properly at store level.
One vendor told me a buyer loved his new line but thought a test
was in order before adding the line to all of the stores. The buyer
shipped the line to 12 stores, then later visited a number of the
stores to see how it was doing. In half the stores he visited the
line never made it out of the box in the back room. Guess what? The
test was deemed a failure.
5. Local trends can be caused by a store. An
enthusiastic teacher or clerk can create interest in a particular
product or technique. The result is strong sales of that product or
a high class enrollment. Meanwhile, the same product or class falls
flat elsewhere because the staff is not so enthusiastic.
Recently an excellent scrapbook retailer posted a message on a
TwoPeasinaBucket board that she was dropping a particular line
because it wasn't selling. Surprised retailers in other parts of the
country responded that the line sold very well for them. This was a
classic example of how regions, consumers, and retailers differ –
and why a uniform teaching program won't work.
The bottom line is that a chain needs to walk a narrow line
between consistency and allowing employees' individual creativity
and enthusiasm to flourish.
(Note: To read previous Business-Wise columns, click on
the titles in the right-hand column. To comment (on or off the record) on any of the issues mentioned
above, email Mike Hartnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.)