Natural Foods Merchandiser

The Practical Manager: Retail is detail, but what about the view from the top?

by Bill Crawford

A few months ago, I saw an interesting title being used by a respected retailer in our industry—chief visionary officer. In one sense, it wasn’t a surprise. After all, this was a person leading a very successful retail operation. Emphasizing "vision" made sense. We have to plan for our future, and who better to do it than the person with ownership and leadership responsibility? As it has been said, "No one plans to fail; they just fail to plan."

Failing to plan can be traced back to lack of vision. If you have a vision, you are thinking about the future, planning for what your store is going to be in the years to come, and making necessary adjustments to be ready when your future arrives.

What did surprise me—and even then, only a bit—was the particular retailer using this title. As you read this, you may think it’s someone leading Whole Foods. That those at the top of the company are obviously visionary and forward-thinking. But it’s not. You may think that if it isn’t the national leader, it would be from an up-and-coming chain that is doing well—Sprouts Farmer’s Market, Sunflower Farmers Market, Vitamin Cottage or Earth Fare, for example. It’s not someone from one of those fine chains either.

I saw this title being used Michael Kanter of Cambridge Naturals—a single-store retailer in the greater Boston area.

To me, this explained not only a bit more about the decades of success that Kanter and Cambridge Naturals have enjoyed, but also about why all retailers—regardless of size—need to think about their vision.

While this was in the back of my mind, I was in a meeting with Ben Nooney. He was the longtime creative director at Wild Oats. While we were talking, Nooney used a phrase that I recalled from my early days in retail, but that I haven’t heard much in the past 30 years: Retail is detail. In context, we were talking about having proofing and approval processes in place for retail fliers, and the advertised prices in those fliers. However, in the bigger use of the concept, how valuable a phrase is this?

As a retailer, what do you deal with that is not detail-oriented? Ingredients, pricing, discounts, customer satisfaction, store cleanliness, staff schedules and more—those are all detail-oriented. The challenge that these two concepts present comes from the fact that a retailer cannot be successful without paying attention to both the future (vision) and the present (detail)—and it’s demanding to do both well at the same time.

Some thoughts that might help you apply these concepts in your store:

Vision has to involve the person or people at the top of the organization. Others can, and should, provide insights and perspective, but the leader has to be vitally involved. He or she should not delegate this to others. As your store grows, it’s important to spend more and more of your time working on the business, rather than working in the business. This will help you refine your vision and direct your store to be ready for the demands and opportunities that are to come.

Detail involves tasks that can and should be delegated to others in the organization. As an owner, you can walk through a store and find a dozen things that need to be taken care of—most of them before they become issues that your staff or customers will notice. But remember, the eye that you have developed through the years is something that you can develop in your staff as well. You can train them to not only solve problems, but to notice them and solve them proactively. This kind of training takes time, but rather than think of it as an expense, see it as an investment that will pay rich dividends in the future.

I will be talking about vision and detail at Retailer Education Day at Expo East at 3 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 15. Look for it and other seminars and events at I’d love to have you join me for this session.

Bill Crawford, director of retail custom programs at New Hope Natural Media, spent 12 years on the management team of a major natural products chain. Contact him at [email protected]

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 11/p. 40

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