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On Being Small

I once worked at Tower Records in Picadilly (when there still was a Tower Records at Picadilly, or indeed a Tower Records for that matter). I remember it rather fondly. I met my best mate there (19 years later we’re still mates). I served Morrisey (he bought a Mott The Hoople album). When Prince visited I was less than 3 yards away from him (he was very small). Hell, I even met Samantha Fox. And I fancied the Canadian Goth Girl who worked in the Jazz dept.

Tower Records was one of those stores that existed for it’s range. It might have looked like it competed with the HMV down the road, or indeed every other west-end record store but at the time they didn’t have many UK outlets and pre-long-tail, Tower Records was the place you went for the stuff you couldn’t find elsewhere. Whether it was obscure rock compilations, Jazz classics, unusual classical recordings, Tower Records would usually have it.

I was reminded of all this reading David Hepworth’s column in Word Magazine this month contemplating the changing face and functioning of retail and how one size no longer fits all:

"Big is no longer beautiful in any form of retailing; not clothes, not food and certainly not music. At some point in the ’90s we crossed an invisible frontier between the
plenty that intoxicates and the surfeit that leaves us jaded."

For me, this touches on an aspect of business that is quite fundamental but which has changing beyond recognition: the nature of competitiveness. It used to be about protected advantage. About safeguarding your programmes against the prying eyes of other companies who are in your market. About developing initiatives in secret until you unveiled them to your customer’s surprise and your competitor’s embarassment.

Nowadays, any development programme of note will involve its potential customers in the maturation and cultivation of the idea. And if something is in public (or even private) beta, confidentiality is irrelevant. Competitive advantage no longer lies in the organisation’s ability to conceal, but instead (arguably as it always has) in the quality of the talent it hires and the ideas that that generates. Its no longer about how well you can react, it’s about how well you can anticipate.

I’m not saying that we should immediately e-mail our NPD plans to one another in an orgy of collaboration, but the rules are changing and the landscape (and the threats) looks very different. If you can move smarter and faster than your competitors, does it really matter that they know what you’re doing?

And who are your competitors anyway? The old days where you could neatly segment and compartmentalise them into a convenient grid are well gone. Anyone with an understanding of business and network effects could be your next challenger in waiting. Your biggest competitor in a years time may not even exist yet. Things move so fast that the greatest threat comes not from your competitors but from not keeping up. So the relationship you really need to worry about (and keep focused on) is that with your customer, not your competitor.

Tower Records was an early victim of the decline in old ideas of competition and old models of retailing. To paraphrase David Hepworth, customers are no longer quite so sheep-like in their choices. To a large extent the urgency is gone. That’s not the
game anymore. We know that everything now will be around forever:

"The relationship between the shop and the
cutomer has changed profoundly. It used to be a breathless clash of
tongues in the minutes before the last bus left and we all know how
that can have its own special excitement. In the new world of retail
it’s all about seduction. The retailers are lowering the lights and
artfully arranging their cushions. The question is, will we come in for
a cup of coffee?"

Small definitely is the new big. And as Seth Godin said in his classic post (and book of the same name) smalls means flexible, small means personalised, small means nimble. But big isn’t always bad. The lesson here is that the person running small has to think big, and the person running big has to think small.

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