retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Survival in business relies on a simple Darwinian principle: it’s not about being the biggest or strongest, but rather the one most able to adapt to changing situations. That’s why the dinosaurs are gone, yet horseshoe crabs and Gingko trees keep going.

Adaptability is a reality every business needs to consider at a time when economic, competitive, technological and demographic conditions are changing virtually everything around you.

There is a great lesson in that very principle developing across the US in possibly the most surprising place of all: the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW).

In recent years the VFW and the American Legion both have been facing existential threats despite the ever-growing number of young veterans from the continued conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the past decade, the 116-year-old VFW lost nearly 500,000 or one-third of its members sadly due to the death of many World War II and Korean vets. The American Legion lost nearly a million members.

But a front-page article in this Sunday’s New York Times detailed the very new path the VFW is successfully taking to reverse those losses and become more relevant to the new generation of veterans. It’s an amazing story about adapting to new times and new needs, in part by changing ways and in part by a return to basics.

Some of the changes made by the VFW are simply in the activities featured at the posts across the country. The Times visited a post in Denver where yoga is offered on Tuesdays, meditation on Wednesdays and photography on Fridays.

Other changes are in style. No longer are members all wearing the traditional VFW hats. Rather there are many baseball caps - worn backwards, of course. What’s more, the posts are now more family friendly and put a heavy emphasis on healing post-war wounds and psyches more than simply creating a meeting place for inexpensive drinks.

Even the VFW charter itself has been changed, replacing the word “men” with “veterans.”

In many ways the VFW’s changes are bringing the organization back to its roots. As the Times pointed out, the mission a century ago was to lobby the government to stop spending lavishly on war memorials and to give better care to troops with psychological injuries. The VFW and American Legion succeeded on countless fronts in doing just that since World War I.

And now, an organization founded by veterans of the Spanish-American War is rebuilding its numbers and importance.

Accompanying the Times article were pictures of the new community of vets that beautifully represented the diversity the VFW serves today. Along side a 92-year-old WWII vet were pictured two women, one with many visible tattoos, a Vietnam-era vet with long flowing hair and vets of Iraq, Kosovo and the 1991 Gulf War.

In many ways the challenges faced by the VFW or Legion translate directly to many existing businesses that grew to success in cities, towns and neighborhoods that are very different today. The basic shopper needs have evolved as have the shoppers themselves. The companies that succeed best are the ones that change with them.

It’s the basics of relevance and survival.

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 on Amazon by clicking here. And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon by clicking here.
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