On Point: Reality calling

For retailers, coping with change can be the ultimate survival skill.

Whatever happened to your Palm Pilot? Had you forgotten that you once owned one? You tom weirmay still own it, although it has probably been stuffed in the back of a drawer for years, unneeded and unwanted. Your BlackBerry, if you have not already switched to an iPhone or Android device, may be destined for the same ignominious end.

The fall from grace of the erstwhile gold standard for cell phone users who depend heavily on wireless e-mail is well known. The device, which four years ago commanded 51% of the North American market for smartphones, now has a market share of 3.4%. The company is suffering large financial losses and a steady drain of customers to more versatile devices.

After Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007, executives at BlackBerry—then called Research in Motion—failed to anticipate the changes it would bring and stuck to their tried and true business model. Then Google came up with the Android operating system for mobile phones, made it available to all wireless carriers and got a leg up on Apple, which had tied its phone exclusively to AT&T.

Where was BlackBerry while all this was going on? Who knows? People were focused on what was new and different. Whether BlackBerry or some part of it has a future is anybody’s guess. The world will go on with or without it.

That is the signal issue in business. No company or industry is indispensable.

This is especially important to keep in mind when you are riding high and feel that things just could not get much better. That is a dangerous mindset. By the time a self-satisfied company figures out that it needs to change, it may be too late. The corporate landscape is littered with cautionary examples.

Continued success may depend on fostering a sort of 360-degree paranoia. You have to look ahead because that is where you are going and you want to get out in front of what is coming next. You have to look to the sides to keep tabs on your competitors and you need to look behind to see what you have done for—or to—your customers and how you can improve their experience in your stores.

There is quite a bit of variation in the supermarket business: high-end stores, low-end stores, middle-of-the road stores, specialty stores. But grocery caters to the mass market, and many of the distinctions that seem important to us may not be significant or even apparent to the sizable majority of shoppers whose main goal is to restock the refrigerator, load the pantry and feed the family. If a supermarket does an excellent job of category management, minimizes out-of-stocks and moves checkout lines efficiently, its customers are not necessarily going to be thinking about it in those terms. They are just going to know that this store meets their needs well and it is where they prefer to shop.

So whenever you are discarding an old piece of technology for something that is newer, faster and more productive, give a thought to the fact that your customers may someday have reason to do the same. Fortunately, things happen a little slower in retailing, so if you are paying attention you might have the chance to catch up before it is too late.

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