The road ahead for specialty retailers

- Kelly Sharp is the owner of the Heart of Iowa Market Place in historic Valley Junction.

I took some time off to travel out west last month and it got me thinking about the road ahead.

When we drive, even when we put the car on cruise control, we still have to pay attention to what's ahead -- the good as well the bad.

What's over that next hill? Is there going to be an obstacle in the road that poses a danger that we either have to go around or stop and rethink our course? And what about that unexpected curve or detour? Is it going to take us completely off track -- or lead us somewhere better?

It's very important for specialty retailers to think about the road ahead, too.

In fact, the top five defensive driving tips could just as easily be the top five strategic tips for small retailers:

·         Look Far Ahead. It sounds simple. It is simple. Unfortunately, simple things aren't always easy to do -- or they're easy to overlook. Set aside time on a regular basis to look far ahead. That leads us to the second tip.

·         Get the Big Picture. Should you focus most of your attention on your business, products and customer service and what you can do to make them better? Absolutely. But also take time to look at the big picture to see what's going on with other retailers that can benefit or hurt your business.

·         Have an Escape Plan. I don't mean bail out of your business at the first sign of trouble. But just like I've said before, if you have a product that's not selling, for instance, know when to avoid disaster. Don't keep hanging on to something because you hate to admit a mistake. Reduce its price, put out samples and get out of a bad situation as quickly as possible so you can move ahead on a better path.

·         Maintain a Proper Following Distance. OK, stay with me on this one. What happens when a pack of cars is following too closely? They crash, right? In the retail business, you need to know when to keep your distance. Don't run with the pack and try to be like everyone else. Keep your distance, chart your own course -- create your own niche -- and celebrate your uniqueness. Customers will appreciate it.

·         Reduce Distractions. We all know how texting, juggling a handful of French fries or sipping on that mocha latte can take your eyes and mind off the road with the disastrous consequences. (My favorite scary moment is when I see someone drinking a coffee, talking on their cellphone and putting on makeup all at the same time while driving on I-235 in the morning rush hour, but that's another story for another day.) The point is, success depends on focusing on the things that are going to cause your business to succeed, ignoring those things that aren't and knowing the difference between the two.

Keeping your eyes on what's ahead and following these steps will minimize unwanted surprises and guarantee to make your retail journey smoother and more profitable.

Less is more on your favorite restaurant menu

Jessica Dunker is president and CEO of the Iowa Restaurant Association.

As I write this, I am lamenting the end of the premium grilled chicken wrap at McDonald's.

I liked it, and now it’s gone.

It was introduced by the quick-service giant as part of a strategy to compete with the various sub sandwich chains and to attract millennials who were “demanding healthier, fresher” menu items.

As the proud parent of three millennials, who spent a decade pushing apple slices in place of fries, I am pleased to know that this generation is demanding such things. But are they really? Sales numbers would say differently. People like what they like, and regardless of generation, restaurants rarely go wrong by offering fries in any form (shoestring, cottage, waffle, etc.).

Healthy stuff with your burger? Not so much.

But this isn’t an indictment of closet fry-eaters. Rather, it’s a recognition that restaurants, like all businesses, have to evolve — and that includes changing their menus — and dumping sales losers.

This methodical evaluation of a menu can be easier for chains than for locally owned restaurants. You’re not likely to find any sentimental value attached to “mom’s favorite flan” recipe in a national chain. Independent restaurateurs are much more likely to resist dumping an item on the off chance it is one of their regular patrons' (or their own) favorites. That’s why you may notice a local restaurant’s menu grow and grow, and grow some more.

But that’s rarely a good business decision. Restaurants, particularly those locally owned places, cannot be everything to everyone. And if the menu is too long, quality — of food and service — can suffer.

Thankfully for those owners who have trouble letting go, the move toward shorter restaurant menus is actually considered “trendy” these days, and that can make unloading a few rarely ordered menu items more palatable.

What’s more, research shows that today’s busy diner doesn’t want to be met with hundreds of options when eating out. They generally prefer easier-to-read menu formats — less is actually more.

Take a look at the relatively sparse menus from some of the Golden Circle’s newest restaurants, add to that the offerings from your favorite food truck, pop-up restaurant or single-item food venue, and you quickly realize that it isn’t a lack of ideas keeping these menus small. Rather, it’s a movement toward focused, specific menu items.

National brands like Chipotle figured this trend out early. In an effort to capture the dollars of diners who want to customize meals but not wade through large, confusing menus, Chipotle offers four main items. Customers then walk through and choose from 20-plus optional ingredients. It’s a short — but very customizable — menu.

Other chains (and independents) are following suit. A recent Washington Post article noted that the country’s 500 largest restaurant chains have cut more than 7 percent of their menu items this year. Small independent restaurants would be well served to follow suit.

In the past, restaurants tried to differentiate themselves with the breadth of their menu offerings. Today sharp owners recognize that too many choices make it hard for diners to choose anything at all. Diners don’t judge a restaurant on how many items it offers, but rather on how well it executes specific offerings.

So if you notice your favorite restaurant has shortened its menu, you can bet that the items that remain are likely winners and will consistently taste great. You win, and so does the operation. Flat out, that’s just good business.

5 ways to step up your corporate event game

 

'I throw lots of parties... But I insist on only serving canned pumpkin and crystal clear cola.'

 - Amy Nebons owns event management company Blink Events LLC.

Sure, a bunch of pop, water and beer in a cooler is an easy way to serve your attendees drinks, and in some cases this tactic is totally appropriate. However, there are other times where your attendees deserve a little bit more pampering. By investing a little bit more thought and moolah into your events, you will boost the quality of the experience you are creating for your attendees -- and they will notice and appreciate you for it. Here are five ways you can step up your corporate event game in a positive way.

1. Consider room layout and convenience for attendees.

Before you lay out your furniture, do a walk-through of the event space yourself. Start at the main entry and enter the space as if you were an attendee. Make sure the course of travel is clear and free of obstruction. Look for anything that might be confusing for attendees, making them feel awkward. Make your attendees feel welcome by stationing a greeter at the door. Beware of the possibility of traffic jams that may occur in the space. Place your food and beverage locations where they will not inhibit general flow of travel. Make sure restrooms are clearly marked and are made discreet so your attendees feel comfortable going in and out. Space planning should be a part of your initial event strategy (not an afterthought), so take care during the planning and develop a design that functions well.

2. Be conscious of food and beverage choices.

Be thoughtful about not only what you are serving your guests, but how you are serving them. As part of a health-conscious society, planners should be sensitive when creating event menus. It is important to choose items that are rich in proteins and complex carbs, while avoiding foods that are high in fats that leave your guests feeling bloated and lethargic. Choosing smart food options will boost your attendees' energy and attention span. These wise choices show your attendees that you promote healthy living, and that makes you look cool. Avoid foods that are messy to eat, for obvious reasons. If doing appetizers, make sure they are compact and bite-sized. If the food requires utensils, make sure you provide ample options for attendees to perch at tables to eat. It’s REALLY hard to cut something while holding a plate and a drink, so think about that. Paying for a bartender sometimes just makes sense. You can hire companies that will provide the bar and all its fixings for relatively cheap. They come with insurance and smiling faces and will set up and break down their bar without you having to lift a finger. You buy the booze, they bring the rest; no mess, no stress.

3. Create continuity in event design.

Determine what it is that you wish to gain by holding your event, and use those objectives to guide the course of your event. Deliver clear and consistent messaging across all elements of your design so your message is received by your attendees. This means from your initial invitation to your check-in process, to the food you provide, to your centerpieces, to the parting gift -- every element of your event should relate to the other elements. By developing some sort of underlying theme, it makes it easy to make choices on the different components of your event. If you are throwing a party to promote an expensive jewelry line, every element of your event design should speak to and demonstrate the concept of that jewelry line. Event planners are really good at creating continuity in event design. So if you feel lost in this area, find a qualified and stellar planner to assist in this creative process (wink, wink).

4.  Dress her up!

Add some flowers, drapes, interesting graphics … something that adds some interest to the space. Yeah, no one will really care if you don’t dress up the space, but if done well, people will notice if you do. Remember, this is your opportunity to create a positive experience for your attendees. Make them feel like you knew they were coming and prepared for their arrival. Don’t make your event seem like a frazzled afterthought; that will be noticed too.

5.  Give a little bit.

A thoughtful favor is always advised. Use this as an opportunity to leave a lasting impression and further hammer home your message. Be unique and impactful; avoid giving away junk. We all have a million coozies, pens and water bottles, so think outside the box. Creating a well-packaged and useful favor can really go a long way in differentiating your brand.

Contact me by phone: 617-840-5073 or email at anebons@blinkevents.net. Find me on LinkedIn , Facebook or at my website www.blinkevents.net.  

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