retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

The business model for survival in what’s like to be a tumultuous new year comes from, of all places, the Bee Gees, a music group that reached superstardom in the disco era.

In many ways, that’s the essence of the story. The Bee Gees (or brothers Gibb) started their musical journey light years away from the disco tunes that would earn them stardom and scorn at the same time. In the many decades of their success the Bee Gees mastered, what the New York Times called the most rare of pop culture skills: adaptation.

Adaptation, as Charles Darwin opined in the 1800s, is the key to survival. In his studies of the natural world, Darwin posited that "it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one most adaptable to change.”

Which brings us back to the Bee Gees.

Prior to their successful songs for the ultimate disco movie, Saturday Night Fever, the Bee Gees had a run of hits that made them appear to be more of a knock off of the Beatles, the New York Times article, as well as a new HBO documentary, explains.

The importance of adaptation is worth considering as we head into a new year fresh off one of the most complex and challenging years in history. The retail food industry was thrown for a never ending series of ups and downs thanks to Covid-19  - from the panic shopping of early March to supply chain breakdowns in key products to a designation as essential businesses and then to reaping incredible sales gains thanks to lockdowns and the near-total shutdown of the food-away-from-home industry.

In many ways 2020 provided enough challenges to last a few decades.  Heading into 2021, countless questions remain such as whether shoppers, now accustomed to online shopping, will ever return to stores … whether restaurants will survive and compete again … will vaccinations tame the virus … and when and if the economy will stage some kind of rapid recovery.

All of these questions are connected - the answers that emerge to one will impact the answers to the others.  And, none of these questions is simple because not one of them comes with any modern precedent. There may well be lessons from the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, but that happened before supermarkets, the Internet or modern global commerce existed. In other words, it’s not much of a precedent to consider.

That means that companies will spend a large part of 2021 and maybe 2022 searching for paths to success.

And that’s again why we need consider the Bee Gees, a group that should be best remembered for its ability to adapt rather than an album of disco tunes. 

The brothers Gibb never tired of finding new ways to create a successful sound. Take for example how they landed on oldest (and only surviving) brother Barry’s falsetto that dominated the disco songs. Listen to older songs by the group and the falsetto never appears until Barry employed it in the background of a long-ago non-disco hit. One of his brothers insisted they had found something and the hits followed.

In that same way businesses need to consider what unexpected efforts paid off in 2020 and how could they be employed going forward. It might be the use of curbside pickup or even plumbing data to better decide variety decisions. Maybe it comes from how to position once invisible staffers as the stars of the show. Or how to best position the benefits of home meals.

No matter what, adaptation will be the key. So start limbering up, you are going to need to be very flexible.

It is all part of stayin' alive.

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 here.

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