Marketing 101: No Empty Wagons!

I love times like today, when a customer gets out and walks around his car in the parking lot outside my front door.  The anticipation of what will be pulled out of the back seat or the trunk is always a little exciting.  As I stand behind the counter and envision the treasure which will soon make its way into the music store, I remember my younger, more foolish days, when I would spend whole weekends searching through junk stores and pawnshops for those hidden treasures.  The enjoyment was what I described often as the thrill of the chase.  One never knew if the quest would prove fruitless.  It often did.  When that happened, the disappointment would overcome me and I would vow never to waste another weekend in such a foolish pursuit.  Invariably though, a few weeks later, the fever would overtake me again and off I would go to the jungles of Kansas City, or Dallas, or maybe even Memphis to stalk the prey once more.

I seldom go on the hunts anymore.  I no longer feel the call of the wild, since I actually acquired the best trophy I will probably ever bag several years ago (you may read about it here if you wish).  The thrill of the chase is now greatly diminished.  I’ve become more of a trapper than a hunter as I’ve gotten older and wiser.  It seems that the prey I seek actually will come to me anyway, if the trap is baited with an attractive enough prize.  The tantalizing aroma of cold, hard cash is what seems to work best, although I will admit that a fair number of the prizes I’ve taken have come with simply the offer of an in-kind trade; one of my favorite types of bait.  The latest trophy is carried into the store and left in my hands with the most painless of exchanges; a straight across swap.  Although, a cash sale is good, sometimes the swap, which achieves two things, is better.  First: our stock rotates, giving the impression that we sell more merchandise than we do; and second: frequently, the instrument which has been traded in may be sold for more money than the one which we relinquished in the transaction.  The customer has what he or she wanted and we are able to make a profit and live to hunt another day.  A win-win situation by any calculation.

Today, as I waited expectantly, the young man brought in a prize, a valuable, older guitar with a hand-carved top and beautiful abalone inlay all the way up the fingerboard.  I wanted the guitar, that much is certain.  As a businessman, however, I have to take certain precautions, and I decided that I should pass on this instrument.  He was disappointed, but may be able to take steps which will make a future deal possible.  As we talked, he inquired about what I would do with the guitar, should I ever acquire it.  I said casually that I might just stow it in the back room of the store to bring out at a future date.  Immediately, he brightened as an idea took hold of him.  “Do you have lots of guitars back there?  Can I go back and look at them?”  I laughed, and then had to disillusion him about the imagined treasure-trove of stored instruments in the back room.  The only instruments back there are the ones I don’t want to have in the sales area of the store because they are either too cheaply made or too badly damaged to ever repair.  They are only good to be hung on walls or stripped down for salvage.  The disappointed young man carried his guitar out of the store.  Even now, I can feel the twist it was on my emotions to let the prize slip through my hands.  Another day, I may have the chance to win that particular trophy.

Later, I considered the verbal exchange, and I was struck with a dichotomy.  As a business owner, I know that I have to have my wares on display, available for the public to see and to hold.  If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to sustain the business.  My father-in-law, who was my teacher and mentor for many years, always told me, “You can’t sell from an empty wagon.”  In our day and age, that saying doesn’t make as much sense as it did to him.  Many years ago, during the depression, he walked along with his elderly father, born during the Civil War, as he sold from a horse-drawn wagon.  The products, made by the Rawleigh company, had to be in stock for them to make any sales.  When you were sold out of items, you went home.  No one would buy on the promise of a future delivery.  They wanted to make the purchase and have the product in their hand as they walked back into their houses.  Today, almost a century later, I find that most customers prefer to walk out with the item they walked in to buy.  Special orders are sometimes made, but the vast majority of people want the gratification of being able to take their purchase home with them today.  You still can’t sell from an empty wagon.  You see, a special room in the back, with hidden items, simply doesn’t make sense from the standpoint of making sales.

With that said, here is the dichotomy.  I always wanted the shops I frequented on those hunting expeditions to have merchandise which no one else had been able to view.  Hidden merchandise could be a bargain and it might even be a trophy of epic proportions.  Interesting, isn’t it?  I wanted to be the best that I could be at marketing, but I wanted to buy from people who didn’t understand the basic principles of business.  It worked out well for me back then, but over the years, the market has changed and so have I.  So for now, I stay in my little store and put out the bait necessary to bring the prizes to me.  It frees me up to do a better job at other aspects of my work.

The world says, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it!”  While it is not their intention, they’re just espousing a Biblical principal.  Jesus said it this way, “A city that is set on the side of a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do men put a candle under a basket.  No, they put it on a lamp stand and it gives light to all within its reach.”  Just like the merchandise in my store, our gifts are made to be displayed.  They are given to impact the world, not to be hidden.  Every time I hear the words “hidden gifts”, I cringe.  It is unprofitable at best, and maybe even a little selfish to keep gifts to ourselves.  Buried talents never multiply, never benefit even the talented, much less, fellow travelers.  Shine!  Like stars in the heavens, light up the night around you.

So, no valuable guitars hidden in the back room, no trophies hanging on the wall with “Do Not Touch” signs.  Some things are made to be out in the open and accessible.  I kind of like it that way.

While I’m thinking about it, if you’ve got a genuine Stradivarius violin hidden under the bed at home, maybe you could bring it by sometime.  I’ve got the perfect wall on which it can hang for awhile.

“This little light of mine, 
I’m going to let it shine.
Hide it under a bushel?  No!
I’m going to let it shine!
Let it shine, let it shine.”
(“This Little Light of Mine”~Children’s song~Harry Dixon Loes~1895-1965)

“Take your candle, and go light your world.”
(“Go Light Your World”~Chris Rice~American songwriter)

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