It’s happened to all of us. A visitor who you haven’t seen for years comes by to stay at your house for a couple of days. This is the home you’ve lived in for several years and you are house-proud. You clean it regularly. You even pick up the dirty laundry when you aren’t expecting guests. The place looks great!
After a day or so, the conversations become very comfortable and you and your guest are able to easily mention the first things that start coming to mind. The “polite visitor” filter has been lowered and your guest starts pointing out things around the house you hadn’t really noticed: a crack in a figurine on the shelf, the faded colors in a photo on the wall, a sink faucet that won’t stop dripping. Then, a magical transformation happens — you start anticipating what your guest is going to say and you start viewing your house through their eyes. Small things start to spring out at you: peeling paint on the door frame, a loose piece of carpet, dust bunnies under the bed. The horror!
How did this happen? Of course, these things can be repaired and fixed — if only you had noticed them. But you have to notice them first. This is similar to the frog in the boiling water analogy. You know the one: If you put a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out immediately. However, if you put the frog in a pot of tepid water and turn on the heat, the frog won’t notice the increase in temperature and will soon be sitting in the boiling water.
This is what happens in our stores. Incremental changes are very difficult to observe, especially if you are involved in the day-to-day details of running the business and are spending all of your time in the store. You have no perspective as to what is really happening because you live with it every day.
The problem is that your customers don’t spend as much time in your store as you do and they notice the things you might fail to see: the stains on the shelves, the dried milk on the floor of the cooler, the dust on top of the cans of beans. All of these small details add up to a larger picture and affect the impression customers have of your store. Would you want to buy food from a store that is covered in dust or has missing tiles in the bathroom? Would your customers?
So, how do you gain the perspective you need to be able to see what your store really looks like?
Perhaps the easiest thing to do is take a vacation and get out of the store for a while. A break of a week or two will allow you to take in new stimuli from being in other places, which will crowd out the familiarity you’ve developed with your store.
One of the things I like to do is visit other stores and observe things I think the operator has become oblivious to. Another approach: What would you change if you bought that store during your visit?
When you come back to your store, you will be able to objectively look at it with fresh eyes, but this will only work if you make the conscious effort to closely inspect your store immediately upon your return. Look for the types of things you saw in the other stores, and do it before you become over-familiar with your store again.
The second way to see the store from another perspective is to ask a colleague (or better yet, a competitor) to walk the store with you and point out what they see. I promise you that you will then notice at least two things for every one they point out. I admit this can be a painful way of getting the result. No one wants to hear about their deficiencies, but keep the long-term objective in mind — the more things you fix, the better your store will be, the more your customers will like it, and the better your sales will be.
A third way to view your store is to create your own formal inspection process. This is much harder than it sounds because you have to overcome the internal bias I mentioned earlier. Create a checklist and carefully scrutinize every inch of your store. Look closely at the floors, the shelves, under the products on the shelves, the walls, the corners, the ceiling tiles, and the interior walls and floors of your coolers and refrigeration units.
Don’t limit your inspection to only the areas customers see. Check the store rooms, closets, inside the cooler, under the shelving units, and behind the equipment. Write down every problem you see and take photos so that you can recreate the inspection in three months’ time and compare your previous notes.
You will find that one issue will lead you to think about another. Something you see in the storage area will cause you to think about looking under the sales cabinet. Imagine that you are a detective and give yourself points for each item you find. This is a game where you want a high score because it is evidence that you are being serious about making improvements.
Keep in mind that the most observant walkthrough and the most ruthless inspection routine count for nothing if you don’t fix the problems. In a perfect world, the number of issues you find would go down with each subsequent tour of the store as you find and fix problems. Unfortunately, in the real world, new defects emerge regularly and things need to be fixed again and again. In reality, it is a never-ending task. As Neil Young sang, “Rust never sleeps” and dust never goes away.
Good luck with honing your new vision. You, your customers and your business will be the winners in the game of “Spot the Problems.”