Asking Customers for Ideas

Greetings.  Comedian Paula Poundstone once offered the following insight:

"Adults are always asking children what they want to be when they grow up–it's because they are looking for ideas."

It's an amusing notion that might even have a bit of truth to it in these challenging economic times when many people will have the "opportunity" to consider second and even third careers.  And it's also an interesting notion in terms of innovation and business success.  The idea that we might ask others, including strangers, for their thoughts on the right products, services and solutions for us to offer, or the best practices and experiences that might accompany them.  And I'm guessing that many of you are doing this already.  Asking colleagues, vendors, customers, friends, neighbors, former classmates and others for their suggestions on ways to improve your businesses.

In this light, Walmart's recent "Get on the Shelf" initiative was a clever test of the value of asking customers for product ideas and the power of crowdsourcing to determine their likely popularity.  It was also a great way to generate a lot of social media attention.  And in the end, after receiving more than 4,000 ideas from its customers–ideas ranging from the crazy to the purposeful–the company chose three winners with real crowd appeal.  But before we get to the winners, you might enjoy a note about some entries that did not quite seize the day.  Entries like "Pelo Nuevo"–a vinegar-based salad dressing designed to cure baldness.  Or "Showels" –shorts made from beach towels that might have become this summer's pool and beach sensation (accept for the fact that they left the judges a bit dry).  Or "Scrats" –scarves that remarkably turn into hats.

Okay, so you're not overwhelmed by a desire to buy.  Well maybe the winners will inspire you.

The Grand Prize clearly touched the collective conscience of Walmart's customers. It's called Humankind Water, a new brand of spring water that contributes 100% of its profits toward providing wells and filtration systems for places in the world where children are dying due to a lack of clean drinking water.  One of the other winners is also linked to a challenging societal issue.  The "SnapIt Eyeglass Repair Kit" provides a simple screw that can be used to fix most eyeglasses in only 30 seconds and donates all of its proceeds to Jaylen's Challenge–an anti-bullying program started by an 11-year-old.  And the other winner is "PlateTopper" a handy invention that turns plates into airtight food storage containers.

Time will tell how popular these three new offerings are, but Walmart's idea might just spark your thinking about how to best leverage the ideas of customers in your company or organization.


We win in business and in life when we ask others for their ideas.  And when we commit to giving everyone a chance to own a bit of shelf space.


Bordering on Extinction

Greetings.  Like most people I know who spent time in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the 1970’s, I have a very close connection with Borders—the company that once reinvented the world of bookstores.  Started as a used book shop in 1971 by a pair of brothers, the original store would quickly become one of the most successful and cherished independent bookstores in America operating out of a convenient two-story building on State Street.  Filled with the latest titles, the coolest posters, abundant sale tables, and lots of quite corners and comfortable chairs to get lost in, it was one of my very favorite hang outs during my years as a graduate student. This was a place that made the joy of books and reading come alive.

Several years later this original store would move to a larger vacated department store a block away and, from my perspective at least, begin to lose the very heart and soul that had made Borders such a special place.  But this new formula would become the start of the current company and its chain of several hundred big-box stores filled with books and a lot of other stuff.  And even though they lacked the special feel I'd come to love, these new stores would become an important part of the cultural landscape of the cities, towns, and strip malls where they sprouted up.

Just as a powerful transformation was taking place…

So the announcement that Borders was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection came as no real surprise to me.  I’d seen the signs, read the tea leaves, noticed the obvious change in the world of book buying—both as an author and as a regular customer.  The rapid growth of on-line book selling–which the company failed to embrace, the emergence of electronic books–which Borders never made a serious investment in, and the presence of new competitors like Walmart offering the most popular books at even steeper discounts had all conspired to change the game that this remarkable business had invented.  And it now lacked a brilliant response or sufficient resources to reinvent itself again.  And it's unclear whether Chapter 11, in the absence of a more compelling strategy, will enable the company to survive. In fact, it's unclear whether a better positioned Barnes & Noble has a long-term future in the bricks and mortar book business.

It’s always possible that Borders will find its way.  In some new and smaller form with a clearer and more meaningful value proposition.  Because there’s still room for real bookstores that capture our hearts and imaginations in ways that no on-line retailer ever will.  The power of the written word and the tangibility of a real book are just too important.  But bookstores of the future will likely require a new business model.


We win in business and in life when we pay greater attention to the world around us and figure out how to remain relevant in a time of great change.  And when we embrace the full potential of written and unwritten words.  


“Black Friday”

Greetings.  It's the Friday after Thanksgiving Day here in the U.S. and a chance to "shop until you drop" if you're so inclined.  This day has even become its own holiday of sorts–dubbed "Black Friday"–when stores and consumers conspire to get a jump on the Christmas shopping season by offering and buying an amazing array of bargains.  Bargains that are so enticing that people will literally interrupt a good night's sleep to race to the nearest mall with the hope that they will snag a coveted game system, popular toy, LED TV, new computer, clothing, jewelry, the latest double, triple, or quadruple expresso maker, or some revolutionary kitchen appliance.  All at stores that opened conveniently at 12:01 a.m., 3:00 a.m., 4:00 a.m. and any other odd hour that might lure enthusiastic shoppers and spark the resurgence of our challenged economy.  I get goosebumps just thinking about it.

Not exactly.  

Because real value is something we should offer every hour of every day.  Not for "a limited time only" or "in limited quantities" or "while supplies last."  Sure the folks at Walmart, with all their giant stores and even more gigantic buying power, can choose to outdo themselves on Black Friday.  But you and I simply can't afford to. Because the success of our businesses is tied directly to our ongoing commitment to innovate and build deep and meaningful customer relationships.  Relationships that don't require our customers to wake up at all hours of the night in the hope of getting a better deal.


We win in business and in life when we always provide the most value for those we have the privilege to serve.  And when we're willing to stay up to make sure our customers get a good night's sleep.

Cheers and happy shopping!