retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Technology and changing societal norms have wiped out Wilfred Rose’s career, but don’t get upset. In just a few sentences you are going to lose any sympathy you might have for him. Just keep in mind that Rose, now in a New York jail, brings a tale of today’s changing environment.

Rose, you see, was known as an excellent pickpocket who, according to a wonderful article this past Sunday in the New York Times, spent decades sizing up potential victims and stealing their wallets and more. Not surprisingly his favorite venue for theft was the oft-crowded New York City subways.

But that was then. As Rose explains in the article, changing times are destroying his profession. Thanks to ATMs, people are carrying far less cash these days. Men are wearing tighter fitting pants instead of suits, which also hampers pickpockets. Plus, as Rose tells the Times, younger criminals are heading in new directions, such as putting devices on ATMs to skim cards and passwords, giving us consumers new things to worry about.

‘We’re disappearing,” he said. “In a few years, there won’t be any of us left.”

While it’s impossible to work up any sympathy for Rose, it’s stunning how easy it is to find so many legitimate businesses in exactly the same boat and even, at times, echoing his exact words. We hear it all the time concerning especially specific types of family owned business. “In a few years, there won’t be any of us left.”

And that’s right, unless those very same business people do what Rose could not: CHANGE!

I saw an interesting example of the need for changed thinking as I recently visited my local supermarket to unload a small bagful of coins that had built up in my office. Anyone in my age group who ever worked a cash register knows that our once important skills of counting change or wrapping coins have all fallen prey to automation. Now I just visit the machine, dump in my coins and let the magic happen.

But this time the machine gave me pause for what it could not do. My intention was to convert the coins into a gift card for the supermarket yet when I went through the touch screens to make my selection the very supermarket housing the machine was not among the choices.

I could select some local restaurants or even, but not the store itself - even though my intention was to spend the money right there, to reward the store for a service I value.

After selecting iTunes - always an easy choice - I went to the store’s service counter and asked about the omission. The woman working the counter said she wasn’t sure why that was the case, but it was.

Now I understand she’s not the president of the company (a rather large chain by the way) and has no control over what I found. But I don’t understand the policy and I hope my question got forwarded on upstairs.

The reality is that supermarket competition has and continues to change. We all understand that the battle for the food dollar goes on meal by meal with restaurants and we know without question that is a big part of the battlefield we face tomorrow.

Yet, here was a supermarket that got me in the door and with little effort had me willing to dedicate my collection of coins to my next shopping trip. Rather than grab me, it was helpfully sending me to Chili’s or Amazon - the competition.

The thing is, we are delighted to see Wilfred Rose’s occupation get changed out of existence. I can’t imagine one of us bemoaning the collapse of the pickpocket industry and questioning why Rose and his colleagues didn’t find ways to adapt earlier.

Still he provides an important lesson in making sure we don’t allow anyone to take away our hard-earned money. Whether it’s on the subway or at the front end.

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 .
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