retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

It’s fitting that Kevin’s Eye-Opener last week about his local bookseller is generating one of the last big MNB discussions of 2011. Because while many of the stories covered here throughout the year were so complex, that one story gets back to what it’s all about:

How can a company, a store or an individual stand out and succeed in the crazy market in which we operate today?

In many ways, the keys remain as simple as ever, which is a fitting end to this or any other year. The fundamentals of good business can be found anywhere and need time in the spotlight to remind everyone why they matter so.

On Monday, the Washington Post highlighted a great example in Total Wine & More, a stunningly successful retailer that is inexplicably based in the suburban town I call home. Total Wine’s story of growth to 78 superstores grossing in excess of $1 billion from a single store grossing $300,000 is a checklist of key steps every company must take.

Total Wine is the brainchild of the Trone brothers, who actually grew up on a family farm and cut their teeth in retail through a small beverage shop owned and run by their mother. Thirty years later they have 2,700 employees and stores up and down the east coast.

The brothers’ steps were incredibly simple. They built their original business by taking a laser focus on cost cutting in every aspect of daily operations to keep themselves running in the black. That allowed them to cut margins, which in turn allowed them to build sales volume. It was the classic virtuous cycle of efficiency leading to lower prices, extra sales, greater efficiency, more sales and so on…

They recognized the realities of selling wine, beer and spirits and understood they had to learn a lot about regulations, licenses and more. So unlike many small businesses they threw themselves into the business of getting to know government officials and regulators. That enabled them to work for flexibility in legislation and regulations on their stores and products, which then created its own virtuous cycle allowing additional selection and an improved shopping experience.

Lastly, they embraced all aspects of their business to make sure it is a singular shopping experience. Each of the company’s stores has a classroom where customers and employees can learn about new products and hear speakers. In addition, store employees wear headsets that enable them to quickly communicate and get answers to any customer’s questions.

Simply put, they thought small when it came to the details, but big when it came to growth.

Interestingly enough, Yahoo! news on Monday featured an article on the humble beginnings of many of today’s most successful technology companies. The article included photos of the suburban garage where Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak built their first Apple computer or the similar space where Sergey Brin and Larry Page created Google. Like oak trees, huge companies grow from acorns, especially when those companies are supported by inspiration and hard work.

Sure, 2011 was incredibly complex in so many ways and 2012 promises more of the same. Economic realities remain brutal. The demographics and values of our associates and customers are changing constantly and in stunning ways. Technology is reshaping how we communicate, connect and more. And all the old headaches from competition to regulation promise to be just as challenging in the year ahead as ever.

That’s when stories like Total Wine matter most as a reminder to focus on what you can control, to collaborate when it’s the best option and to make the customer experience better than ever. Nothing less will do.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
KC's View: