"Not what it is, but what it could be"

I will always remember the speech that Art Stark, President and Chief Merchandising Officer of Bed Bath & Beyond (BBB), gave to the company's buyers in late 2009. Art had just returned from a meeting with SodaStream, a brand that was far from being the household name that it is today. The theme of the speech was "Not what it is, but what it could be."  In the speech Art told several stories about products at BBB that seemingly came out of nowhere to become runaway successes. The stories were about individuals (a buyer in one story, a store manager in another) who saw an opportunity to make a big deal out of a product or category that previously garnered little attention. At the end of the speech Art alluded to the SodaStream, which at the time was just another product, as something that could become a major success.

I remember the speech well not only because SodaStream went on to become a hit, but also because it touched on several characteristics that lead to success in retail and beyond. To ask "Not what it is, but what it could be" is to:
  • Embrace innovation and business evolution: Your strongest item today will likely not be your strongest item one year from now. It is possible that a whole new line of business will emerge in that time and become a key sales driver. While you cannot predict what your next big thing will be, you should maintain an open mind and recognize that your business is continually evolving. You must give those items or lines of business that appear to have potential an opportunity to reach their full potential. 
  • Partner with young companies that show promise: You may come across a vendor or service provider who has an innovative product, but does not have significant market traction and is inexperienced. While you may only be able to do so much to help this company, if you believe in the product and the company's management you should take extra time to impart wisdom on them. At BBB I recall working with a small vendor who had a great product but had done only limited business in the US. Consequently he had a lot of questions around import compliance and packaging requirements. Some might have simply emailed him the company's cumbersome compliance files with no further explanation. Instead I took time to walk him through specific requirements, and I helped make his packaging much more appealing.  This not only helped the product sell but also set the foundation for a fruitful business relationship.   
  • Follow your gut, but don't be foolish:  There are lots of products and categories out there that have potential to drive your business.  They do not need to incorporate technology like SodaStream; they may just have a fun pattern or useful function.  When you come across one of these products, find a way to give it a chance to be great without taking excessive risk.  Test the product without taking too much inventory or negotiate a guaranteed sale with the vendor.  
It's refreshing when I come across a person or company that sees a product and says "Not what it is, but what it could be."  I recently met with someone at Fab.com who explained that the company has a knack for taking products that are hidden in the corner of a booth at a trade show and "look like shit", and making them not only look awesome, but sell well too.

I was also happy when I came across a small booth in the "Inventor's Spotlight" of the National Hardware Show earlier this year and learned that a major national retailer is picking up the pomegranate deseeder.  When I asked how the retailer found his product, the inventor said it was at a similar inventor area at a national trade show earlier in the year.  Why did that make me happy? Well, there are literally thousands of booths at these shows and many have fancy banners, huge product displays, or even talking robots.  The inventor areas are off to the side with each company occupying a tiny space (about 4' wide).  Each inventor is at a different stage with their business, and not all are equipped to deal with a major national retail account.  Furthermore since these inventors do not have much scale, their pricing often isn't where a major national retailer would want it to be.  So for a buyer to walk through the inventor area, take time to learn about some of the products, and eventually decide to purchase one of them means that the buyer said "Not what it is, but what it could be."  If this highly successful retailer adopted this mindset, it's probably a good idea for you to do so as well.

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