Pocket Change

29 08 2011

It has been said that the Road to Hell is paved with good intentions. While I am not going to argue the theological implications of such fiery demises, I’d like to note that the Marketing Freeway is far less smooth, and is instead littered with potholes. Dangerous curves. Bad drivers. And no guard rails.

Every inch of the way, it’s a Thelma and Louise moment. Except you really do hope to stay on the pavement.

And it’s all because Marketing operates within an atmosphere ruled by a climate of change. The more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s all a blur, and if it feels like your rear wheels are falling off a cliff, you’re probably right.

Because someone moved the road.

I remember my very first job. I was a high school senior, and had recently been redirected by my Father The Accountant to pursue business instead of journalism (“There’s money in business, Son,” he said.). As part of my participation in DECA (Distributive Education Clubs of America), I would be placed in a local business to ostensibly learn the ropes. With a dose of humility in the air, I joined Dugan’s Office Supply in Lansing IL for the lofty wage of $2.30 an hour.

Don’t worry, Warren Buffett. I was never destined to compete with you.

And so for one whole year I stocked shelves, uncrated office furniture, swept floors, affixed price tags. And delivered office supplies all over the south side of Chicago. It’s where I learned how to drive like a maniac. A very polite maniac. Because I’ll signal before I cut you off.

But I digress.

I toted boxes of letter pads, typewriter ribbons (remember them?), Liquid Paper (gack), and all manner of stationery items. “Sign here,” I’d say, and be on my way to terrorize more motorists.

It was a god job. I learned a lot. I even decided that Marketing was indeed my life calling (never mind Dad’s prompting). But I was too young to understand the dynamics of change, of how markets evolve. And that some businesses, like so many dinosaurs before, will die.

I returned to Lansing one day in the mid-1990s, hoping to drop in and see the gang. But there on Ridge Road, in that familiar little shop, was a printing businesses. Dugan’s had died. I went in the shop and poured out my heart. “They closed a little after Office Depot came to town,” the man said.

Ouch. Big Box Retailing 101. David, say hello to Goliath. Good luck with that sling.

I left with a tear in my eye. I would never be able to take my kids there. All I will be able to do is regale them with stories of how it used to be. How we once used typewriters. How Dugan’s once repaired them, and I returned them. How people did everything on paper. And computers were not something that sat on desks, but instead occupied large rooms.

I should have known better than to think that Dugan’s could have survived that long. I had already seen LPs and cassettes fade away, having been replaced by CDs. Black-and-White had gotten some color. And Main Streets everywhere had started moving to saccharine strip malls anchored by retail behemoths with all the personality of Styrofoam.

But that’s just the reality of Marketing, and business in general. Things change. And if we don’t learn to change with it, we’ll be the next one posting that grim “Out Of Business” sign in our window. Better to have change in our pocket, our friend. Our ally. And not our master.

Our task as Marketers is to learn to recognize it. Embrace it. Love it. For to not change is to die. From that perspective, this should be a no-brainer. The alternative sucks. But it isn’t always that easy.

And sometimes I don’t always understand the change (for example, Burger King is now offering oatmeal, and Subway is trying to go upscale), but I give them credit for trying. Maybe they know something I don’t.

Like I said, this freeway has a lot of crazy things going on. Buckle your safety belt. You might even want to consider a helmet. Keep your eyes on the road. But most important, get your motor running. We’ve got an adventure ahead.

I just wish Dugan’s could have been along for the ride.

Dr “Can’t Drive 55” Gerlich

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