Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Running the Store Remotely

I've been the buyer for my store well, forever, but I've done it from home for the last 22 months. Two years ago, almost to the day, I sent everyone home and shut down for two months. I ran the store mostly solo, did home deliveries, ordered everything we needed, installed a brand new POS system by myself, and when we re-opened, I handed the reins to my manager. I needed this two months to realize I still had it, as my confidence had waned after stepping away from the counter for six years. I could step back anytime and make the business thrive. I went home, but retained purchasing and finance as my roles, but everything else was handled by staff. This crisis gave me my freedom, or as usually happens, allowed me to see I was the only one keeping me chained. So what did I learn?

Tactics vs. Strategy

When you are in the thick of things, when your inbox is overflowing, customers are streaming in and there is a mountain of receiving in the back, you are more focused on getting through the day than thinking about purchasing strategy. I gave up counter work in my ninth year, but I kept coming in to engage in the battle for another six years. Sitting at home, I don't experience any of this. 

At home, I don't worry about finding time to research new product. I don't worry about where a product will go once it arrives. We've always found space, although we're now objectively out of space for new product without cycling out old. I also don't worry about the work I'm creating, since other people are doing the receiving. Since I'm providing excellent buying services, there is little to no data entry for them when orders show up, with purchase orders accurate to the penny. It's turn key. Nowadays, if an order arrives without a purchase order in our POS, it's a bit of a crisis. Two years ago that was a Tuesday.

I have to admit, the idea of a truck full of product arriving in a day is something that would have made me take pause if I were there. At home it's a logistics problem for my manager to handle. My personal feelings about products are also removed. I'm likely to order something when it sells and not order it when it doesn't. At this stage there are products I've ordered, sight unseen and clearanced, without ever putting eyes on them. There are some products that always irritated me when they arrived for various reasons, often packaging. Not being in the thick of this battle, means I can think clearly about product mix, supply and demand, and objective sales data. 

Budget Concerns and Sales

I only have two levers to pull from home: input and output, purchasing and clearance sales. I can buy product and watch the results as it streams into the store. I can put items on sale in our online store and watch the feeding frenzy (or lack thereof). Because I only have two levers, I probably pull them more often than I should. 

I've found regulating purchasing to be difficult, mostly because of supply issues. Having a huge bulk of holiday goods arrive in January and February devastated a lot of holiday savings, although it also resulted in February being our best sales month ever. We have doubled our inventory over the last two years, thanks to government money, but now it's time to stop. But I like pulling that lever when I want. I like researching the new coolness. Sometimes I need to go for a long walk and realize my work for the day is over. Stop pulling that lever.

The other lever is clearance sales. Working from home, I primarily use my Open to Buy spreadsheet to know when I'm over budget and my POS to tell me what that stuff is. I've been grossly over budget for a very long time. I rarely look at turn rates nowadays, as my fancy POS analytics provides me a screen with GMROI. Gross Margin Return on Investment tells me how many dollars I'm getting back from every dollar I spend. 

Having an online store resulted in segmenting many categories, so I can now tell you I get back about 90 cents for every dollar of Citadel Air paints, even though Citadel paints overall give me back $2.83. You guessed it, I'm blowing out Citadel Air where before I would have a vague feeling they sold poorly. There might be a hole in the rack, but losing 43 cents a pot is unacceptable. Note that a lever I don't have from home is good old fashioned sales and promotion. I can't drum up excitement for airbrush paints from my dining room table.

The other mechanism for figuring out what to put on sale is my Dusty Inventory report. There is some inventory you'll want to blow out immediately, some within a month, but Dusty tells me when something hasn't sold in six months. I can change that to a shorter period, but my current strategy is to keep inventory longer. With a 5.52 turn rate, I think I can afford to do that. Once a week I get a Dusty report (a report from Dusty?) emailed to me automatically and I start pulling that lever. That $7,450 of Dusty stuff (above) rarely moves. There is eternally more or less $7,450 of dusty stuff, as new stuff gets added to Dusty and old stuff sells. I have this lever next to the purchasing lever, so you can imagine I use it a lot. I have poor inventory control when it comes to clearance sales, and that's something we need to work on. A lot of things are Dusty because they don't exist. Schrodinger's Inventory.

What About Customer Input?

Do I need to listen to customers? Yes and no. No, because I've been doing this a long time and although we have 300+ publishers represented in the store, about 80% of sales come from 30 of them. Most of those 30 are on auto pilot, the question not being whether to carry a product, but how much. Working from home has me far more dependent on listening to peers, following Kickstarter projects that are retailer friendly, and stretching outside the game trade for product. I certainly carry a wider product range than the Before Times, and that comes from active listening and breaking out of the insular bubble that you can get from customer interactions. That's right, listening to customers can also trap you into complacency.

I do listen to customer though, and it's through the Internet. We have a variety of Facebook Groups for each game category and a Discord server. A customer asked me about a pre-order on Discord yesterday, I let him know we had them on order, added it to our online store with a 10% discount, and he bought it. Ta da! Listening to customers. I also have SMEs I listen to. A SME is a Subject Matter Expert. If an RPG SME tells me they just got in a new Kickstarter RPG and I should carry it, I put extra weight on their judgement. I allow SMEs to co-buy with me, to some extent. I've got SMEs in RPGs, board games, miniatures, etc. Some of them I knew before I started working from home, but some have developed after. I have a new SME who is an expert on kids board games. Whatever she asks me to bring in, I make sure to get an extra copy.

Not having events for nearly two years has removed that huge customer input from the equation. You can learn a lot from what people are playing in the back, what they're talking about, the accessories they use. Without strong events, due to COVID, that input doesn't exist. I'm not there to hear it anyway, but as things return to normal, this will be a loss on my part.

In Conclusion

This works for me because I spent 15 years previously working in my store, talking with customers, developing friendships and contacts, networking in my field, and understanding this trade. There is a chance that I will become out of touch. There is a chance that the trade will take an unusual turn and I will be making course corrections. I don't have to be first, but I don't want to be last. There is always a chance and it happens often, that I'm buying product that no longer fits on shelves, that sits in storage or is forgotten in a cabinet somewhere. I am delegating customer service, cleanliness and organization, human resources and safety. Having a manager who can handle all of this requires training, communication and a lot of faith. When that manager leaves, it may require weeks or months of returning to work in the store to start over. This is not a perpetual motion machine. But it's a wonder to behold when all the pieces are moving.

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