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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.

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