John Howard, Woolworths and mutual admiration

It was disappointing to see Prime Minister and Woolworths CEO Roger Corbett side by side yesterday and gaining so much media attention. Woolworths is doing more to hurt small business local communities than many other companies. They make price more important than service. Woolworths and their peers, have ripped hundreds of millions of dollars out of newsagents. They have divided communities with their superstores – Maleny QLD, they turn happy people into mechanical drones as they dance through the required customer service steps. They are relentlessly pursuing getting pharmacies into their supermarkets.

The Prime Minister needs to be seen more often in small businesses. His policies need to more often reflect the interests of small businesses. He needs to understand the damage done to communities by giant corporations like Woolworths. When was the last time you heard a local story at a Big W checkout? Probably never. I bet at your local chemist or newsagent you get local stories passed on all the time. This is community building small business style. It’s part of the Australian story. Woolworths is not part of any Australian story.

Is Woolworths a family friendly employer?

In the television advertisements Woolworths want us to believe they are a happy bunch focused on delivering great customer service. I know one Woolworths employee, a single mum with two young children, who works for the Safeway division of Woolworths. her story is not reflected in the TV advertisements. She has asked for single mum friendly hours and has been told that it’s not fair on her co-workers. Her hours are either 5am starts or 9pm finishes. The daytime shift, which allow for school drop off, pick up and evening interaction are, it seems, saved for people other than this single mum. My friend has worked for the company over a couple of stints for more than six years and she continues to be treated appallingly through her roster. My friend suffers as do her children. Her supervisor and management want to know nothing of these things. The only option she has from their perspective is to get a job somewhere else.

Maybe Roger Corbett could find space in his next TV commercial to tell us about their family friendly management policies.

How much do Woolworths and Coles really hurt small business?

Not that much is I read this article by Lindsay Tanner (Labor finance spokesman and federal member for Melbourne), from the Herald Sun last week. Tanner’s position on the big guys getting bigger is not clear. Take this:

For all kinds of reasons, we tend to dislike major retailers like Coles and Safeway. They’re often blamed for killing smaller shops and suburban shopping strips, squeezing suppliers and exploiting workers.

While there’s some truth in such criticisms, they’re often very exaggerated.

Then this:

The big supermarket chains are not charities. They try to get prices low in order to make money. This intense competition benefits the consumer.

Some argue they’ve become too big and powerful. The best test is to look at their profits.

They’re reasonably healthy, but they’re not in the same league as other big companies such as banks.

There’s a huge range of smaller, specialised shops competing with them, often in the same shopping centre.

Be sure to read the whole article for context.

I think Tanner misses a few key points: supermarkets are not transparent – take Coles, their FlyBys loyalty program is not that great, they do not disclose adequately to consumers the value of th spend in terms of points and therefore discount; supermarkets cherry pick against small business – take newsagents, supermarkets choose the top magazines while small business newsagents don’t have the luxury of such a choice; supermarkets pursue profits whereas small businesses connect with the community; supermarkets control economies whereas small businesses support diversity of supply – take vegetables for example, Coles could wipe out a region with one national buying decision. This buying power could turn farmers into the working poor, all in pursuit of profit.

Like Tanner, I shop at Coles. I don’t like that they, through their buying decisions, try and control what I buy. I’d shop elsewhere but it’s not convenient. So I have to live with what they make more profit from or put with the inconvenience of shopping elsewhere.

The High Street Britain 2015 report.released by UK parliamentarians last week was on the right track. It seeks to curb the power of supermarket chains for the good of the economy and for the good of the community.
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The high cost of virus terrorism

People who write and release computer viruses are terrorists. The threat which has been widely reported as likely to hit today has caused extraordinary heartache in small businesses even if it only ever is a threat as opposed to actually damaging. The news about the threat has caused people to jump at shadows all day and I am sure that small business software companies around the country have wasted time like we have rescuing people from the shadows. The economic cost of viruses demands that those responsible are jailed for a long time.

Those most at risk from a computer virus are the most vulnerable – individuals and small business. That they are at the coalface of suffering at the hands of these terrorists is appalling. I’d like to see government action so their suffering is not in vain. Tougher legislation, stronger public statements of virus attacks and assistance for businesses attacked.

Woolworths, market power and consumer choice

Against the backdrop of the Federal Court imposed fine of $8.9 million against Woolworths in a long running price fixing case…

Samsung 1610 has released a new computer printer. It’s available exclusively through Dick Smith (Woolworths owned) stores. What is not made clear to consumers at the point of purchase is that toner for the Samsung printer is not available anywhere except through Dick Smith.

One of my businesses, Inkfast, sells ink and toner online. We have excellent wholesaler relationships. None of our wholesalers has been able to supply the toner for the Samsung 1610 printer. One wholesaler, who deals direct with Samsung, advised us that they understood there to be an exclusive deal involved because they are unable to source toner for this printer.

While Woolworths (aka Dick Smith) is welcome to negotiate special deals on printers, it is unreasonable to restrict access to the fuel, toner, for these devices. Toner is where you make the money long term and a deal providing Woolworths exclusive access to toner for the Samsung 1610 for even a short period of time is bad for consumers as it does not deliver the same price pressure as if the toner is available elsewhere.

On the back of yesterday’s Federal Court loss, Woolworths and Samsung ought to reconsider their position on this. Woolworths makes considerable noise about being consumer friendly and socially responsible yet its actions on matters such as this demonstrate otherwise.

Book review: How to Feed Friends and Influence People

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This is a good book for small business owners. How to Feed Friends and Influence People by Milton Parker and Allyn Freeman is and enjoyable and motivational ride. It’s about the success of the Carnegie Deli in New York.

Sure the book is a bit long winded in parts and you get the key business message in pages 2 and 3. The publishers are kind enough to provide a link to an excerpt at their website which includes pages 2 and 3. (Thanks!) However, the rest of the book provides the foundation to the brilliant strategies presented in pages 2 and 4. Plus other pages have recipes.

I’ve eaten at the deli and can vouch for it’s food and service. Beyond operating a successful deli, the business principles in the book work for anyone.

How to Feed Friends and Influence People is an enjoyable read and highly recommended.

Craigslist beats Oprah, Amazon and Coke in Brand Power awards

Craigslist a small almost not for profit classified advertising site has beaten some very respected brands in the US in Brand Channel’s 2005 Readers Choice awards. Over 2,500 participated in the survey with most participants in the 26 to 35 year old range. Participants are asked to vote for the brands that had the most impact on them in that year. Craigslist being Oprah Winfrey, Amazon.com and Coca Cola is a surprice since it does not advertise. The win says a lot about its community connect and its commitment to social responsibility.

Why K-Mart, Big W, Harvey Norman and others make price the issue

It’s back to school time and the TV, radio and letterboxes are screaming about deals. It’s price, price and price. The national retail chains are screaming that their deals are the best. It seems that price is the only point of difference Big W, K-Mart, Officeworks, Harvey Norman and others want to pitch. There is little about quality, service and community commitment. These people know their market. Price is an easier sell than service and quality. An ad focusing on price cuts through easier than one focusing on these less tangible benefits. And there is where independent small retailers miss out. Even though they often compete on price they don’t have the budget.

Using our technology we try and help small business compete. We can list savings on receipts; print coupons drawing customers back in; and, run a loyalty campaign more valuable than anything the big boys do.

My point is that small business has the tools to better compete but too often does not use them to their fullest.

Big W, K Mart et al are not cheaper. They are just louder.

Transparency not enough for this small business user

There are some aspects of owning and operating a (relatively) small software company which frustrate me. One is the user who wants it done their way in their time frame regardless of everyone else. We have a situation at present where a user has reported a problem and because we did not publish it as a bug right away he is (publicly) grumpy as all hell. I explained that we have a ‘proof’ obligation for reports of bugs to determine if indeed they are a bug. He wanted this proof process speeded up. We’d had two calls about the problem from more than 1,000 active users running the software on over 3,500 computers. Also, the reports we received were not consistent.

After several tests we were able to recreate the problem – but not exactly as the most vocal user reported to us. In his case his system (not supplied by us) crashed. This caused him to place a higher priority on the problem. In our testing we considered it annoying but certainly no show stopper.

We have advised our users of the problem, noted it as minor and issued a workaround to keep the few who will experience the problem happy until we issue a patch some time next week. It’s in a function of the software used a few times each year and it only occurs if one of the optional parts of the function is used.

None of these comments are written to dilute our obligation to correct bugs. Rather, I am concerned about the considerable time lost responding to the many emails from this one user demanding that we publish it as a bug and even in terms which suit him. What he wanted was not supported by the evidence. When I put that I was told I was not transparent etc etc. Some of this conversation was on our public discussion board which I established more than five years ago. Postings are not moderated. That, alone, demonstrates a level of transparency between my company and its user base.

Some people will never be satisfied. In this case, the bug itself was ot the issue. It was that we did not respond instantly, to the detriment of more pressing work, and that our response was not of a form acceptable to the user.

It’s the kind of interaction, which thankfully happens only occasionally, which makes me not enjoy owning the business.

Left click, right click; what’s a click?

The support call with a new client was like step back into the 1980s when now many small business owners had encountered computers in their businesses. But this call was today. The client on the end of the phone wanted to know what it meant to “click”. There was no “click” button. How could he “click” if there was no “click” button. He said it’s not fair that we ask him to do something he cannot do. It’s a fair point when you think about it – how much, we in the industry, take these additions to our language for granted and how much we expect people to be on our level when it comes to jargon.

Thinking about, it I can understand the caller’s frustration. They have a pretty simple small business. They don’t really need technology but must have it if they are to be acceptable to certain suppliers. So, as the technology provider, we are part of the compliance mechanism and this brings a level of frustration to their contact with us. It would be different if they came to us because they wanted to. Different, too, he this was not their first contact with computers.

It’s calls like these, over the simple matter of clicking the mouse, that force us to pause and consider how we communicate with clients, old and new.

Hpnotiq and the Long Johnson

In Kuala Lumpur last week we got to talking with a bartender asnd what he likes to drink. He made a personal concoction of his. Taking his name, John, and the need for grand quirky cocktail names, we dubbed it the Long Johnson. He then put it in his point of sale system as a bar item and we proceeded to drink several more Long Johnsons. What stuck us was the base liquor, Hpnotiq. Hpnotiq was launched in Australia a few weeks ago and late last year elsewhere. What is clever about Hpnotiq is the viral way blogs and the Net more generally are being used to spread the word – beyond the usual launch parties which get photographed for magazines. Hpnotiq is getting cred through word of mouth. The question has to be how much of the word of mouth is real or paid for marketing. In the case of the Long Johnson, it;s real. We asked for it, drank it, enjoyed it and recommend it as a good cocktail to start the evening. There’s something about it which is appealing to IT nerds.

The Long Johnson

1.5 parts Hpnotiq

.5 parts Triple sec

.5 parts Vodka

1 part Cranberry juice

1 part Grapefruit juice

Shake with ice and pour into cocktail glass.

.5 parts Grenadine – pour gently to get to the bottom

Drop in a maraschino cherry.

Is Melbourne airport ready for the Commonwealth Games?

I arrived back in Melbourne this morning from four days in Kuala Lumpur with two work colleagues. Our flight arrived at the gate on time but we were kept from disembarking for over fifteen minutes while the aerobridge operator tried to maneuver the aerobridge to the plane door. Their poor efforts were watched by the planeload of people desperate for fresh air after a long flight. As seems to be usual with these things there were plenty of experts at the aerobridge with advice watching on but no one able to get it close to the plane. Once they did dock we heard one of them explain that the problem was that this aerobridge was too close to the second aerobridge at the gate and that’s why they could not get it closer. “We’ll know next time” they were heard to say. Okay but Tullamarine has been operating for decades.

Finally off the plane we were greeted with a mass of people at the Customs/Immigration counter waiting to be processed through. The line for foreign passport handlers was okay, it was the Australian passport line which snaked way back past the duty free store. I travel internationally frequently and this is the longest line I have ever seen at Melbourne Airport Immigration. Another 45 minute wait was much appreciated after a long flight and the long wait for the aerobridge to reach the plane. What frustrated the most was the number of Customs officers standing to the side or behind the desks looking on. They did not seem to be playing any role other than sharing anecdotes with each other. It would have been great to have more than four or five desks open. They seemed to have no plan for coping with the volume of passengers. The line was a mosh pit toward the back with no regulation. In most other countries this is handled much better.

While waiting for my 60 seconds at the Customs/Immigration desk I witnessed a Customers officer demean an Asian passenger. It was indiscrete behavior which deserved to result in a reprimand.

All in all not a good experience this morning at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport. It makes me wonder how they will cope with the Commonwealth Games travel influx in a few weeks. Based on today’s experience, Melbourne Airport needs to be avoided.

Computer says no; helpful point of sale software

The Little Britain TV show is brilliant. Each character has a defining phrase. As developers of Point of Sale software some of us are latching on to the banking employee who randomly taps at her computer keyboard in response to a customer query before saying rather lamely: “computer says no”. Saying “no” is an important part of what our software does in trying to help small business owners not make mistakes in buying, extending credit and setting retail prices. We create barriers which help the business. A few days ago I saw a customer ask about a product and the employee, using our software, tapped away and then said “computer says no”. The employee and the customer enjoyed the joke. Watching this made me want to create a wav file which responds with the “no” instead of some nerd type message which one has to interpret before speaking to the customer.

Adverblogs make the medium less valuable

I’m not happy that companies are using blogging in a corporate way – many using third parties to blog about their business on their behalf. A whole new business category has started and many agencies have introduces specialist blogging operations into their businesses. This is hijacking a medium for pure commercial use. Blogging is more pure than that. A blogger can be vulnerable in a way corporations are not. A blogger can share a personal view regardless of consequences in a a way a corporate blogger will not. A blogger gives on him/herself whereas a corporate blogger is as detached as corporations can be.

I hope that corporate sanitised adverblogs will be seen for what they are. The problem is that many consumers of blogs will not see that. Already blogs and commenters on blogs have hijacked the medium to make one really question what one reads.

If companies want to blog then they need to stay true to the medium. Make blogs personal. Give of yourself. Take a risk with openness. Don’t spin. Don’t pay someone else to blog for you.

Blogging interaction

My two blogs attract or two private emails a day – separate to logged comments. These private emails are from people who have read an entry and want to open a conversation with you, have a crack at your view or seek out more information. This contact is interesting not only because it’s connecting me with people I would otherwise not come into contact with but also because their questions and views extend mine.

I mention this because on ABC Radio last week I heard a newspaper person denigrate blogging as “not much better than gossip”. That may be true for some blogs and even some entries here. However, this ever growing conversation online and offline with people who read this blog and those who read other blogs adds to one’s view of the world and this can only lead to more thoughtful blog entries. The result will be better commentary through blogging than many of the singular view commentaries we see in daily newspapers.

The more feedback a blogger who takes their efforts at the keyboard seriously receives the better their published contributions. Keep it up!

Don’t ask me I only work here

I was at Coles on the weekend and made the mistake of asking how much I had to spend before I could get something free through FlyBys. “you have to go to the website” was the answer, followed by “they don’t tell us that stuff”. Okay, I can understand it might be a bit much detail. Even though I knew the answer I thought I’d compare what a Coles checkout person knows about flybys compared to the loyalty promotion I run in my retail newsagency. (It’s of interest to me because we have just introduced new loyalty facilities in the software we supply newsagents with.) This checkout person was no help. They didn’t have anything at the counter to answer my questions. Even though I spent close to $200.00 I could get no idea of how close I was to getting some value from the spend, some recognition for loyalty.

My point is that retailers have an obligation to be transparent about their loyalty schemes. If they promote rewards they need to disclose the value of rewards earned with each transaction. They also need to ensure that their front line associates can do more to answer a customer query than point one to a website.

I’d prefer to shop elsewhere but Coles is the closest and my sense is that they’ll win more market share by buying competitors out – look at liquor and fuel over the last two years. Consumers have less choice and with that comes worse prices and poor service.

Based on years of poor big business experience and mucking around in my own small retail business, at my software company we’ve created solid transparent facilities in our loyalty software which help independents retailers show the bug players how to deliver honest and transparent customer service.

Raising money for Greenpeace with bad shirts

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Gary Hall (above) organised bad shirt day Friday to raise money for the Greenpeace campaign against the Japanese ‘scientific research’ into whales. What surprised me was that no one really wore what I’d call a bad shirt. Now, you’d expect that with a company full of computer nerds there would be some really bad shirts. Just about everyone admitted that they liked their bad shirt and they wore it only because they thought others would not like it. For our next fund raiser we need to organise a really bad shirt day with penalties for those who play it safe.

There was some healthy debate about the Greenpeace campaign against the Japanese – the kind of debate which is good for any open workplace where opinions are encouraged.

Don’t copy us copying you you

The other interesting take away for me from the Hong Kong trade show I attended this past week was that companies presenting did not want photos taken because they didn’t want you copying what they were doing. Fair enough. But then some of these companies make their living out of copying others so the double standards were exposed. The number of times I saw Disney and other branded product which was not available for ordering if you asked whether they had approval to use the images. Hmm..

The frustration of standards

We have long standing hardware standards. Being in the point of sale software space it’s important because things like barcodes cannot be printed on any old printer and because our software is tuned for very specific hardware. In the last two weeks we’ve had several of our clients soak up way more than their fare share of help desk time because of issues with hardware we did not supply and which does not comply with our standards. This is frustrating because of the time it takes us away from helping those who do the right thing. When we point to the standards one says well it used to work; another says they don’t care about the standards and will complain publicly about us if we do not fix one niggly aspect of the software on their old and non standard hardware. We’ve resolved to take a firm view on this out of respect for 99% of our client base who adhere to the standards and who call less frequently as a result. It’s a difficult road to navigate, especially in the small business space where so many relationships are personal – being the traffic cop and the people who sell the vehicle as well.

The ethical dilemma of buying from China

Care for Chinese workers was part of the story pitched by many companies at the Hong Kong trade show I was at this week. They have photos in their stand showing working conditions and worker accommodation. My naive takeaway is that the message about sweatshops is getting through. The only way to find out though would be to visit the factories and see the conditions first hand. When you are offered items by a manufacturer at a price of, say, 15 cents when you purchase them through a wholesaler in Australia for five dollars you have to wonder where the savings are being achieved. Labour has to be part of it. Walking through the trade show is a real ethical dilemma. The products are of a high quality with a low price tag. You need them for your business to compete back home. But then do you support an economic situation which is unfair on the workers?

Sucking on logos – a tasty approach to marketing

I’ve found the ideal corporate promotional gift. All day sucker candy with your logo. Deep inside is a light which lights up when you lick the thing. Yep, I can see my software clients going for that. Hmm… No. I’m just back this morning from a trade show in Hong Kong and boy do they have some wild products – especially in the promotional space. I’m not sure how I feel about someone licking my logo. Violated is a feeling that comes to mind. Ugh. No, I don’t want a prospect or a client linking my logo. And I’m not sure how they would feel about it either. I mean, what if they bit into this sucker and break off a tooth? Or what if they don’t like the taste? Or what if they give it to their kid and they go hyper because of some crazy chemical in this all day sucker. The more I think about this the more I realise it’s a promotional product which should not have left the drawing board. But then people all through the trade show were sucking these things. It was really weird seeing people licking these things and the lights inside blinking. Freaky.

On the other hand, it’s something people would talk about and isn’t that the idea of marketing? No, I think that my POS software requires a more refined outcome focused product giveaway. I’ll pass on the lit all day sucker this time.

No protest over giant mall extension

I am surprised that the announcement of the massive extension to the Chadstone shopping mall remains unchallenged in the press. Besides a couple of stories on December 22 it’s been very quiet yet many small businesses in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne face a significant impact as a result of the development. When I heard the news I expected a wave of protests. Maybe people don’t care or maybe they don’t understand the implications of a giant shopping mall growing by another 50%.

Dell Australia misses the mark of customer service

Jeff Jarvis’ Dell Hell blog entries are legendary way beyond the blogosphere. I have a local story about Dell which casts a shadow over their self proclaimed commitment to customer service.

While you can purchase ink and toner for Canon, Lexmark, HP, Epson and a bunch of other printers from wherever you choose, if you have a Dell printer you have to go back to Dell. We discovered this first hand when we tried to supply ink to a client with a Dell printer. The wholesalers we spoke with told us the client had to go back to Dell.

If this continues Dell will lose what should be easy repeat business when these customers want a new printer.

Peter Costello and small business

The weekend newspapers delivered another profile of Prime Minister in waiting, Peter Costello. In a soft interview Costello gets us no closer to what he thinks. Sure there is talk about the abortion pill and gay marriage – topics which appeal to his constituency. But what of other issues, issues which the media does not cover – like small business policy. What does Mr Costello think about small business, and its role in Australia today? On small business Mr Costello could carve out a significant point of difference and move the government from spinning on small business to actually doing something. This also helps employees, suppliers and the government – I’d suggest that small business pays a higher proportion of tax per $1 sale than big business. I could be wrong – it would be worth investigating.

Each day our shopping malls and streets become less individual and more clones. This puts people out of work, stifles creativity and kills off Australian culture.

Mr Costello should get the government active and: determine the real economic, social and environmental impact of big businesses like Coles and Woolworths compared to small business; find out what Australians want (independent or clone) and talk to local government about ways they can stop big business ruining the fabric of local communities.

I’d also suggest an overhaul of government tax breaks and grants for big business compared to small business. There is no sense in providing government incentives to businesses which don’t benefit the community.