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Why the Small Things Matter so Much in the Business World

This is why it's so difficult to run a successful business

My all-time favorite documentary series is James Burke’s, The Day the Universe Changed. (Sorry, Ken Burns!) Why is it that the British seem to have such a knack for music and television?

Originally broadcast in 1985, the 10-part presentation focused on the vast ripple effects generated by subtle technological advances like the printing press, telescope and our approach to knowledge. Truth be told, the series could easily pick up today with the Internet, digital media and cell phones.

Burke’s fascinating point was this, though we tend to believe our history books that cite war, pestilence and natural disasters as the cause of a sea change, it’s actually the almost silent shifts that defined Western Civilization.

I’ve always remembered that concept because it applies to so many things in this existence. Life, like baseball, is often a game of inches. And that axiom is especially true in regard to running a retail enterprise.

I’ve said it before, operating in the shadow of the Sword of Damocles is no way to do anything, but more often than not, it’s the capacity to pay attention to the simple things that make or break a business.

Before we continue, please allow me to be clear that my intent here is not to single out one particular business. Though we’re about to use a specific Geneva concern as an example, it’s only that and nothing more.

What got me thinking back to James Burke was, last week, I suddenly realized that I hadn’t stopped by Fresh Market in more than a month. And it just kind of happened. It wasn’t a conscious decision, there was no fanfare, and it had nothing to do with their customer service.

The story actually starts with my love of raw food—ultra rare steaks, huge salads, and sushi being among my favorite repasts. The nice thing about Fresh Market is, you can pick up pre-made sushi created by professionals right there on the spot.

The end result was, I found myself headed to the Commons at least three times a week.

Since the sushi chef is all the way in back, I’d invariably pick up some blueberries, strawberries, a couple of their amazing gouda cheeseburgers, and anything else that struck my fancy along the way .

But about a year ago, they switched sushi vendors. Upon inquiring, the folks at Fresh Market told me they bid out that space and the new vendor had coughed up more cash. I thought nothing much of it. The sushi was just as good, the prices were the same, and the chefs were just as friendly.

But about six months into it, things started to gradually change.

Where there were six shrimp wontons per package, there was now five. Then the prices started creeping up, some eventually as much as 38 percent. Then they started seriously skimping on the pickled ginger and wasabi and selling those items separately

As is almost always the case when confronted with a price-point-based decision, I never said to myself, “This is the final straw,” I simply started making more economical choices. It may not contain raw fish, but Trader Joe’s has some interesting options and, though it’s not pre-made, Ju Rin’s sushi has always been great.

The end result is, my Fresh Market spending has dramatically decreased and, as we’re all well aware, consumer behavior tends to adhere to a herd mentality.

I’m not saying Fresh Market is going out of business anytime soon, but this is a perfect example of the best bid not necessarily being the best bid. The chain may have made more money up front, but I’d be willing to be they’ll end up losing more in the long run.

This is why it’s so difficult to run a successful business. You can pore over the numbers until you’re seeing double, but because nothing in this life occurs in a vacuum, the most successful entrepreneurs implicitly understand that you have to strike a balance in order to succeed.

You can’t stick to a formula simply because it worked in the past, nor can you embrace a new idea without seriously contemplating what the side effects might be. And that’s a very difficult exercise because, as anyone who’s ever run a business can tell you, there’s quite a bit of ego tied up in that risky endeavor.

I’m sure I’ll be back to Fresh Market because I still like the store, but I would encourage every Geneva business to, like James Burke, consider where those ripples might go before you start throwing stones in the pond.

LR July 18, 2012 at 05:51 PM
Jeff, maybe you should take your own advice when you write "consider where those ripples might go before you start throwing stones in the pond." You're causing a lot of ripples when you keep throwing stones in the Millcreek pond.
Jeff Ward July 18, 2012 at 06:26 PM
BR, Trust me - I always do! And the response has been exactly what I had anticipated it would be! Jeff
Jeff July 18, 2012 at 07:15 PM
"The end result is, my Fresh Market spending has dramatically decreased and, as we’re all well aware, consumer behavior tends to adhere to a herd mentality." So, as Jeff Ward goes, so goes the local economy? LOL
Jeff Ward July 18, 2012 at 07:22 PM
Jeff, Did you read the whole column? All I was saying there is that consumer behavior tends to come in bunches - nothing more. Jeff
LR July 18, 2012 at 07:33 PM
If I were you, I would worry that one of those stones, instead of making a ripple, is going to splash you back in the face. I understand that you might not care what people in Millcreek and Eaglebrook think of you, but have some consideration for your family. Reading your articles makes me grateful for the husband that I have.
Jeff July 18, 2012 at 07:36 PM
Hey Jeff-Yeah I read the whole thing. Actually liked it. Just poking a little ;)
Jeff Ward July 18, 2012 at 07:36 PM
Hmmm! Perhaps I should add marriage counselor to my job description.
Storm Nielsen July 18, 2012 at 08:03 PM
Jeff, it is an interesting point. However, why is it that I suspect there were other reasons for your decreased spending - hence the shift of your business to another establishment? Could it be the overall state of the country's economy? Your own personal feelings of the tenuousness of employment when you see others getting laid off or losing their jobs? Sometimes I wonder if all the terrifically bad economic news in which we are bombarded has an effect upon our spending habits and decision making. Lastly, did not you and I have a bit of a p!ssing contest over owning a business? It turned out that, though you claimed to be an "expert" - being a consultant to big business and an internet business owner, you had never had the experience of operating a brick and mortar retail establishment? Just wondering, you see about ducks and such.
Jeff Ward July 18, 2012 at 08:05 PM
Just checking! Then by all means - poke away! Jeff
Arthur Dietrich July 19, 2012 at 01:16 PM
I agree with the ripple effect. The bigger picture may include folks like me who can't afford to shop at Fresh Market, Dominick's, or even Jewel. My economic downturn results in shopping at Aldi, Target, and Walmart and pouring over coupons before I head to the market. It was much different just a couple of years ago when I had a steady income.
G.Ryan July 19, 2012 at 05:00 PM
I agree with you Arthur as I am also in the Aldi shopping mode. And as a treat sometimes Caputo's has some real deals like grapes for 98 cents a pound which you cannot beat. In this economy, it is shop around for the real deals!

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