The Crisis
The Response
    Fresher Produce
    Work Harder
    With More Affluence
Lessons of History
Footnote to History

I grew up at the foot of the Holywood Hills.

I learned about retailing in my uncle’s grocery store.

The family farm sat on the top of the wooded hills of oaks and chestnuts, overlooking the Lough [click here for farm].

Holywood, Northern Ireland, had some 5,350 inhabitants in the mid-50s [click here for map]. While Holywood is pronounced like the film capital,“Hollywood”, the name actually derives from the Latin, Sanctus Boscus, Holy Wood, due to a monastery first established in 620 AD [click here for what’s left of the Franciscan monastery].

Many Holywood streets are named after famous poets: Byron, Milton and Spenser. But, the conditions near the Old Mill were as bad as anything described in Angela’s Ashes [click here for some picturesque poverty]. In the mid-50s, Holywood had more bars and tobacconists than any other type of commercial establishment, clearly indicating the priorities of its inhabitants [click here for the former commercial mix of the Town].

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Food rationing had just ended [click here for my ration book]. An era of plenty was about to begin.

Then, without warning, a supermarket arrived in town. Run by the Co-Op, it threatened the family business: it had so much choice (on an “enormous” 6,000 square foot footprint) it had low prices; and it offered an annual rebate.

This impersonal interloper was going to take our customers away. The big-box store was going to be like one of our 300 pound sows squashing the wee baby piglets. Rumour had it that only the big, strong chains would survive in the new economy. They were easily going to vacuum up our customers, like the sawdust we had on the shop floor. They were the fox. We were the lambs. They were the myxomatosis. We were the rabbits.

Everything was shaping up to be a cataclysmic disaster of biblical proportions.
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My uncle, who had virtually no schooling, but had a great deal of wisdom, and was the most unlikely of entrepreneurs (he spent most of his spare time raising sausage dogs, dashunds), rose to the big-box challenge, in a variety of ways:

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Reacting in this manner, we survived the supermarket threat. My uncle did what the retail theory now says you should do when the big-box store comes to Town: improve service, and don’t compete too directly on merchandise. We stocked fewer cans, which the no-brainers at the Co-Op were very good at doing. We had more (higher-margin) perishables, at which the Co-Op was appalling.

The most relevant part of retailing comes at the end of the day when you’d count the tills. Often we did not have enough change for the next day, so I would be sent with a fistful of pound notes to the Holywood cinema, because they always had change. The manager would let me in to see the show while he counted the money. And he didn’t care when I left. From the balcony of the Holywood cinema, I saw them all: High Noon with Gary Cooper, Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn, the re-release of the Magnificent Ambersons with Orson Wells narrating, Hobson’s Choice, the Lady and the Tramp, the Court Jester with Danny Kaye (it had to be the funniest movie yet made), Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday in Gunfight at O.K. Coral, the Witness for the Prosecution and the re-release of Stagecoach. I even got in to see the chilling Invasion of the Body Snatchers [click here for the Holywood cinema’s ad].

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I was back in Holywood a few years ago. My uncle’s store still survives. (It is under much different management now; it has SKUs from all over Europe, a variety unparalleled in my day. They have bar codes and a computer). What I didn’t realize then, but I do now, was that his store was in the most central location, beside the only stop light in Town. The best location wins again! The feared new channel of distribution, the Co-Op, is no more. It has been superceded by an even larger store, further out, this time with good parking. The dreaded Co-Op did not survive; we did. Mr. Darwin would have been pleased with us.
A by-pass has now diverted the through-traffic away from High Street (in my day, some 5,000 vehicles on an average annual daily basis). That traffic (which of course could not stop and shop, but just clogged the main street) made Holywood High Street look so busy, so vital, so important and so heavily-travelled. The ballet of the street has changed; but a good retail location never goes outta style.

Retail has some eternal and unchanging laws. The same old rules apply: (1) you understand what motivates your customers; (2) you understand the competition; and (3) you get a better site. The secret is: there are no secrets. The best ideas—like the self-service—are out on the shop floor for all to see. If an idea works, grab it.

Uncle Johnny’s store is under the large roof, three buildings west (right) of the maypole, on the south side of High Street (east-west) at Church Street (north-south to the Lough). The 72 foot Holywood maypole, the only one in Ireland, was first erected in 1625 after a shipwreck. The frequently-burnt monastery is to the top, west.

To this day I am still a country boy in my heart of hearts. Small town, farm (oats, barley, potatoes, hay, cabbage, carrots, dairy), hard work, limited income, cinema, family, retail.

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There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.

You can’t fight the future. The future was self-service. Self-service changed the future forever. It was irreversible. You couldn’t keep technological change out of Holywood. There was no shelter, no reprieve from market forces.

We opened the door and let in the future. Others did not.

You either break old habits, or they break you.

One of our grocery competitors, the eponymous Holywood Cash Store, did not offer credit and kept its customers lined up, in a smoke-filled haze, until they had ordered and paid for their goods. They did not last very long. Consumers decided the outcome very quickly. The proprietor complained a lot, but did not compete. He waited for a miracle that never came. You couldn’t teach the old dogma new tricks. It was quite easy to observe what was wrong; he did not have the eyes to see. He couldn’t find a way to stay in business; unfortunately, by refusing to adapt, his store died, and shortly after, he died too. At the end, he was as helpless as a leaf in the wind. He did not realize that his future actually lay in his own hands.

The bell rang, but he was not ready for the future. He didn’t want to come through the doorway and face the future. The horse had bolted through the gate. If the Irish didn’t know how to shop during rationing, they sure caught on fast during affluence. Expectations changed. They didn’t any longer want the chore of waiting for ages, in a line in a smoky store, as the people in front had long conversations about the rain.

You gotta please customers, and you gotta keep learning.

There are no signposts in the cataract of change.

The best practitioners in any business never stop adapting. You cannot hide from change. If you stand still, you go backwards. Relying on the old ways doesn’t work. There are no lifetime franchises. But, unfortunately, they don’t sell handbooks for the future (that’s the job of a consultant, like me).

Peddling peas gives you a sense of reality.

Survival needs creative thinking. Nothing came easily to my uncle Johnny. It was one small step at a time, piece built on piece. If someone was gonna lose, it wasn’t going to be us.

And for Horatio Alger fans: the grocery store is to the U.K. what the log cabin is to the U.S.

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