Earlier this week, I made a confession that might have surprised some of our 7 Graces readers. Back in the 80s and 90s (before I moved to the UK and changed my life completely), I ran a retail business in various flea markets (also called ‘swap meets’) in Texas and Arizona. Although I used to feel embarrassed to mention this as part of my entrepreneurial history, lately I’ve come to appreciate just how many valuable lessons I learned from that experience. Thus, I thought it would be fun to share some of my reflections about those times, and to consider how they can inform us about operating resilient, ethical businesses in today’s world. To that end, I decided to write a 3-part article series of the ‘top 10’ business lessons I learned from working in open-air flea markets.
Last time, in Part 1, we looked at the first 5 lessons, which were:
- Know Your Audience
- Maintain Cash Flow
- Be Flexible
- Know When to ‘Deal’ and Not to ‘Deal’
- Understand Your Profit Margins
Lesson 6: Have a Diversity of Suppliers
One of the things I learned early on in the retail trade is how dangerous it is to depend upon a limited number of suppliers for your merchandise. Back when I worked in the swap meets, I had three kinds of suppliers: local importers, local manufacturers or non-local manufacturers. Then, amongst these different types of suppliers, I always had accounts with at least two or three independent wholesalers.
Any business owner who doesn’t bother to diversify their list of suppliers in this way inevitably puts themselves in a vulnerable position. Your suppliers might run out of stock, especially during peak seasons like Christmas. Suppliers who deal in imported goods might be negatively impacted by changes in international trade. Some suppliers might suddenly change management or even go out of business. Or sometimes, you might decide to drop a supplier because they are not fulfilling your orders and expectations properly. Any of these circumstances can create havoc in your retail business if you have come to depend too heavily upon a particular supplier. Having a good working relationship with a diversity of sources for your goods is essential to ensure consistent cash flow.
The Bigger Lesson: If you’re a service provider and/or a social entrepreneur, you might not immediately see how this lesson applies to you, but I assure you it does. While you might not need to worry about wholesale suppliers in your business, your business operations will depend upon other things, such as technical equipment, software applications and – most of all – people. If a specific branch of your enterprise becomes too dependent upon the skills and knowledge of one particular person for it to operate, your organisation is just as vulnerable as the retailer who depends solely upon a single wholesaler.
Having others on your team who are ready and able to pick up necessary jobs when needed is highly important. However, it’s also necessary for your enterprise to have systems in place that permit you to shift responsibility from one person to another with ease should you need to. For example, on our book launch team, one of the ‘job roles’ is our Virtual Blog Tour Coordinator. For four years, we had the same person in this role. Recently, he moved onto a new career path and we needed someone to take his place. Because we had systematised the way we do the blog tours by creating timetables, templates, etc., one of the other members of our team was able to take over the role without any fuss, and learned how to carry out the new role quickly and easily.
To keep your independent business or social enterprise afloat, be sure to ‘diversify your sources’ by 1) ensuring you have a diversity of skilled people on your team who can step in quickly when needed, PLUS 2) creating systems that can enable your team to step easily into new responsibilities. In this way, your business operations can remain smooth and seamless.
Lesson 7: Balance Prices with Quality and Service
One of the unfortunate things about flea markets is they often have a reputation for selling ‘junk’. I’m not talking about second-hand goods; I’m referring to inexpensively-priced commercial goods – toys, watches, t-shirts, you name it. Sadly, many of the commercial goods you will find at flea markets are poorly made and fall apart soon after you buy them. So when you’re an honest vendor selling decent-quality goods in such an environment, it can be demoralising when someone sets up right across from you selling what LOOKS like the same merchandise as you have, but at a significantly lower price. Of course, things that look the same on the surface are not always the same quality. But trying to ‘convince’ customers of this in the fast-paced environment of an open-air market can often be next to impossible.
When we find ourselves in such a situation, it’s easy to have a panic attack or go into a price war, especially when you’re still building up your business and your client base. However, what I learned from my years in the swap meet is that the solution is NOT simply to undercut ‘the competition’ but rather not to view them as competition at all.
Here’s an example of what I mean. For many years in the swap meet I used to sell framed art prints. Invariably, new vendors would pop up with a few boxes of prints of the latest pop stars or sports heroes, which they typical sold for slightly less than my prints. But instead of lowering my prices, I kept my prices where they were and aimed at having the widest selection of goods possible. This meant that people came to think of us as ‘the’ source for framed prints, even if our prices were slightly higher. But our wider selection and range of quality also meant that our profit margins were higher than the ‘budget’ vendors, which gave us the freedom to offer nice discounts to our regular customers.
Because I focused on developing the reputation, quality and service level of my own business – rather than worrying about having to ‘compete’ with other businesses – I was able to develop a steady, loyal customer base. Loyal customers do not come back to you because you offer the cheapest prices; they come back to you because you give them the best quality and service for the price.
The Bigger Lesson: So many new independent business owners (especially those offering services like coaching, mentoring, consulting, therapy, etc.) worry that clients will not hire them if they are ‘too expensive’. Of course your prices have to be proportionate to what you are offering, but rather than worrying too much about what is ‘enough’ or ‘too much’, focus on developing a reputation for delivering the highest quality of service you can, with a range of offerings that can serve clients at different levels of needs (and budgets).
For example, one of the products we offer in our author services is a full-service book launch. I’m well aware there are a few companies out there who offer book launch services for a lower price. However, I have 100% confidence that our team give a superb level of service to our clients. Also, if we determine that a client is not really ready for a big launch, we have many other types of marketing services to offer them that would be more relevant and beneficial to their business.
If you’ve read The 7 Graces of Marketing, you’ll know that one of the ‘7 Deadly Sins’ of marketing is ‘Competition’. So many old school marketing gurus will try to lure you with terms like ‘learn how to crush the competition’. But as a new paradigm marketer, I’m not out to ‘crush the competition’. I’m here to ensure my enterprise is the best it can be. And I know this approach is working because our past clients are always referring new clients to us.
Competing against other businesses might make you short-term sales, but it will not GROW your business. Focus on quality and service, rather than on ‘being competitive’ and you’ll be planting the seeds for a strong business future.
Everything we experience in life contributes to our learning, but only if we allow it to. If we judge some experiences to be ‘lower’ than others, we will push them away and fail to notice the lessons they have to offer. When I was younger, I undervalued the experiences I had working in the flea market, as I was conditioned by the attitudes and opinions of my family and others who told me it was ‘beneath’ me. After all, I had gone to graduate school. Surely working in a flea market was a step backward in life, not forward, no?
But now, more than 30 years after I set up my first swap meet display, I can see just how formative – and vital – these ‘lowly’ experiences have been to establishing the foundation of my life’s true work as a social entrepreneur and Founder of the 7 Graces Project CIC. Today, I’m rather Zen about it all – accepting and embracing all parts of my life experience as being equally important.
Coming Up Next Time
I hope you’re enjoying my flea market reflections, and that you can relate to the lessons I’ve taken away from them. I’d love to know what you think, so please DO share your thoughts, experiences and reflections in the comments below.
Next time in Part 3, I’ll be sharing the final 3 lessons I learned from my days as a flea market vendor. I hope you’ll came back to give it a read. So make sure you don’t miss it, be sure to subscribe to the 7 Graces blog via the form at the top of this page.
And do feel free to share this article with friends or RePost it to your own blog.
31st January 2014
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Find out more about how changing the paradigm can help make the world a better place:
The 7 Graces of Marketing: how to heal humanity and the planet by changing the way we sell, by Lynn Serafinn, where you can learn how the 7 Deadly Sins and the 7 Graces impact the world through media and marketing. Brit Writers Awards Finalist eLit Book Awards Silver Medal in Humanitarian & Ecological Social Issues
Tweep-e-licious: 158 Twitter Tips & Strategies for Writers, Social Entrepreneurs & Changemakers Who Want to Market Their Business Ethically by Lynn Serafinn, which can help you learn how to create meaningful collaborations through Twitter and other social media. eLit Book Awards Bronze Medal in Business and Sales.
Get instant access to a free 90-minute Twitter marketing class at http://tweepelicious.com
The Social Entrepreneur’s Guide to Successful Blogging: An Effective, Creative & Ethical Way of Marketing for Visionaries & New Paradigm Business Leaders. To receive an update when that book is available, just click here. As a thank-you gift for showing your interest, you’ll get instant access to an exclusive, free 5-page PDF revealing the exact same blogging template we use with our clients and we teach to participants on the ethical marketing training courses at the 7 Graces Project.
LYNN SERAFINN, MAED, CPCC is a certified, award-winning coach, teacher, marketer, social media expert, radio host, speaker and author of the number one bestseller The 7 Graces of Marketing — How to Heal Humanity and the Planet by Changing the Way We Sell and Tweep-e-licious! 158 Twitter Tips & Strategies for Writers, Social Entrepreneurs & Changemakers Who Want to Market their Business Ethically. She is listed in the Top 20 of the Top Marketing Authors on Twitter by Social Media Magazine and was a finalist for the prestigious Brit Writers Awards. She also received the eLit Book Awards Silver Medal in Humanitarian and Ecological Social Affairs, as well as the Bronze Medal in Business and Sales. Lynn’s eclectic approach to marketing incorporates her vast professional experience in the music industry and the educational sector along with more than two decades of study and practice of the spirituality of India. Her innovative marketing campaigns have produced a long list of bestselling non-fiction authors through her company Spirit Authors.
Lynn is also the Founder of the 7 Graces Project CIC, a not-for-profit social enterprise created to train, support, mentor and inspire independent business owners to market their business ethically, serve society and planet, and restore all that is best about humanity.
(not just for Londoners, as we meet also on Skype)