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Bill Crawford's Blog

The Black Swan Phenomena

My wife and I were enjoying a cool evening chatting with my brother and his wife when my brother, the possessor of a much more active and curious mind than I, asked what I had been reading lately. He proceeded to tell me about the Black Swan Theory and the book about it that he had been reading. (I didn’t tell him that I had scored some old Robert Ludlum books at a used book store and was living vicariously through some 1970’s cloak and dagger tales!)

To give you some background, here is the Wikipedia link to this subject: (Yes – if any of my students are reading this blog, turning in a paper with Wikipedia as a source is an automatic goose (or should I say “swan”?) egg, but this is not academic research!) The author of the theory, Nassim Nicolas Taleb, describes his thoughts and theories on his site: And – lastly – you can find out about the book about the theory (which was recently added to my reading list) at this link from Amazon:

As you can see, even without opening these links, the Black Swan Theory deals with matters that are highly improbable. They do occur, but not on a regularly predicable basis. As we are in the specialty retail world, these are things that, when they do occur, affect us a great deal.

I think back to one of my early Christmas seasons as a retailer that carried Cabbage Patch Kids – and the Black Swan that that event was! The world went crazy for those dolls! A couple of decades later, it was the Beanie Babies!

In our world, in mid 90’s, it was the Melatonin craze! It was an overnight hit – we went from selling a couple of bottles a month to selling hundreds a day if we could have gotten our hands on that many! It was a Black Swan – rare, unpredictable, and even improbable. But it did happen and gave us a chance, as a whole industry, to serve a whole new group of customers (and enjoy some good sales increases at the same time!)

Since then, we’ve seen things like Saint John’s Wort and Lo Carb. Wow – those were both incredible.

What concerned me about all of these happenings – and why I have filed them under the heading of “Black Swans,” is that as these fads ebbed (I was still working in retail at the time), I got messages from dozens of sales reps telling me that they had the “next” Melatonin, Saint John’s Wort, etc. In essence, I have the next Black Swan.

Black Swans are unpredictable. (They also can be negative occurrences, but I am only focusing on the positive elements in this post.) Anyone who claims to know when the next one will occur and what it will be is treading on some thin ice!

When one occurs, you need to react quickly – you need to take advantage of it while the door is open!

If one is not occurring, you need to focus on delivering good products to your customers, with a great deal of service, enthusiasm and thanks. Between the Black Swans, there is just “normal” business – and that is the foundation of success that you and I can build on.

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