The Sky is Not Falling

Discussion
May 31, 2011
Warren Thayer

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion
is a summary of a current article from Frozen & Dairy Buyer magazine. 

I’ve concluded that the
sky is not falling after all. This startling epiphany came after I sat through
a series of presentations at three separate conferences. At each, speakers
held forth, convincingly, on the dreadful things that are poised to hit the
fan and soon. I heard how business is tougher than ever, and that 53 percent
of us will be lucky to be Walmart greeters in five years.

Confession time: I’ve
probably been in the “glass is half-empty” camp
for way too many years. And I’ve always taken these dire predictions as
gospel. But then one sleepless night, pondering how the long-ago death of print
media would surely be the ruin of me within a fortnight, I suddenly thought, “Bullcrap!”

As
a mildly related aside here, you may have heard of “Bullcrap Bingo,” only
under another, coarser, brand name. Bullcrap Bingo calls for audience members
to keep a little card in their laps during speeches at conventions. Terms such
as “at the end of the day,” “paradigm shift,” and “negative
earnings” are checked off at the time they’re heard, until someone
in the audience crosses off a straight row of them. He or she is then supposed
to jump up and shout “Bullcrap!”, thus embarrassing the speaker
and seriously damaging the shouter’s career trajectory. (All stories of people
actually getting up and doing that are urban legends, or I suppose I should
say convention legends.)

Anyway, it dawned on me that I’ve been hearing these
same death rattles from lecterns for several decades now, and while they make
good copy for the columns of newspapers and such, not a whole helluva lot has
really changed. In cleaning out some basement cabinets last week, I found stories
I’d written way back in the last century. Not much had changed except for the
names and the dates.

So I’ve decided that the glass is half full, by gum, and
between you and me, I just took a swig of it. Would you believe it’s an excellent
pilsner? Really. Try some. I’ll wait right here.

The point of all this is that if you expect disaster, that’s probably what
you’ll get. And if you expect good things, you’ll probably attract
them. Zen folk have been telling me that for years, and I’m finally starting
to believe them.

From this day forward, I’m moving ahead as if print media will
never die, frozen and dairy foods will thrive forever, and prognosticators
of doom will be sufficiently wrong as to be nearly irrelevant. I wish you patience
and fortitude, gentle reader. You gotta believe.

Discussion Questions: Does the retail industry and related businesses seem to generally have a “glass half-empty” mindset? How should retail leaders balance their own “glass half-empty” versus “glass half-full” attitudes? 

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28 Comments on "The Sky is Not Falling"


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Ryan Mathews
Guest
9 years 11 months ago

Of course it does. Like any conservative, entrenched and reactive industry the only possible response the food industry can have to any news is “Woe is us”! It’s been so long since the industry pushed real, homegrown innovation that almost any new development in retailing, technology, the economy or general business is seen as something that must be responded to, i.e., an outside threat. Given this bunker mentality and a well established tradition of rushing for the blinders every time significant change seems imminent, it’s only natural that the industry’s glass is half empty — and the contents suspicious at best.

David Biernbaum
Guest
9 years 11 months ago

Too many retailers, manufacturers and marketers sit back and wait for the sky to fall. What we all need to do is to utilize our experience, knowledge and skills to make rain. We can do this.

Dr. Stephen Needel
Guest
9 years 11 months ago

Nothing gets more attention in a speech than doom and gloom and I’m just as guilty as the rest (although I did predict the end of category management as we knew it many years ago). While we have to continue to improve whatever it is we have (our store, our chain, our marketing, our research) to stay alive, the half-empty mindset may be our source of motivation. Of course, we see so many examples of over-reaction to possible gloomy scenarios–many of them here in this venue. So I’m with you, Warren. The sky is probably not going to fall in the near future, even though the blue could use a little touch-up now and then.

Marge Laney
Guest
9 years 11 months ago

Right On, Warren! As I always told my kids; it’s just as easy to have a positive attitude about a situation as it is a negative one. It can’t hurt, might help and it makes the wait time to outcome a lot less stressful. Being a Pollyanna has always been my MO, with a dose of Irish skepticism thrown in for good measure. Some retailers do have a glass half empty outlook. Like all naysayers, it’s easier to throw a wet blanket on an idea than it is to make the necessary changes to make new ideas work.

Paula Rosenblum
Guest
9 years 11 months ago

I just read a fascinating piece that talked about the Darwinian roots of Doomsday prophecies. I think without external intervention, the sky probably IS falling. Watching documentaries like “Inside Job,” “Too Big to Fail” and others takes one right to that dark place. But as you pointed out above, there’s no point in expecting disaster. The point is to live and enjoy. Because if the world is ending, there’s not a whole lot you can do about it anyway, is there?

Steve Montgomery
Guest
9 years 11 months ago

It is interesting to hear that retailers are of the “glass is half empty” ilk. Until reading this, I thought to be a retailer (or consultant) you had to be an optimist. True, the retail environment is constantly changing and for some that can be disconcerting, but as a retailer I always saw change as an opportunity.

As a retail employee I would not want to work for someone who kept telling me the sky is falling. How would I plan for the future not knowing if I were going to have a job tomorrow? I agree successful retailers have to be aware of the dangers that confront them, but would suggest that those discussions not be overly shared. The downside of doing so far out ways the upside.

Bob Phibbs
Guest
9 years 11 months ago

Love your epiphany Warren! I was on the program with two economists three years ago following their “doom & gloom” presentations. You could feel the audience hunker down and shoulders roll forward. You can still watch it here. I get the “futurist” thing. Look how we are preparing you for disaster. What often is missing is real information about what to do.

Look, shopping is people. Selling is communication. If we continue to discount the basics to discover the “economic winds” “paradigm shift of boomers” and “homeowners underwater” we won’t get out of bed. Enough. Really. Enough. Earl Nightingale said it nearly 50 years ago: We become what we think about.

Doug Stephens
Guest
Doug Stephens
9 years 11 months ago

This isn’t a matter of good or bad or better or worse. It’s simply different. An era of retail is coming to an end and a completely different era is beginning. It’s not a bad thing, in fact it’s long over due. Retailers face a host of new challenges and only the ones that accept the fact that this is not business as usual will make it. This isn’t a matter of “belief”… it’s a matter of understanding.

Dick Seesel
Guest
9 years 11 months ago

The best recent illustration of the “sky is falling” syndrome happened during holiday 2009. This was about a year after the “Crash of 2008,” and consumers pulled back on discretionary spending at an alarming rate. But the stores who played their inventory bets most cautiously also lost market share, because they were overly conservative and ran out of goods. The retailers who found a sensible balance between tight inventory control and having wanted product in the right stores were the winners.

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
9 years 11 months ago

Is a speech interesting if it contains no provocative statements? If our collective hair is not on fire, who cares? There HAS to be a burning platform from which to jump. Retailers just love Armageddon. Every week. In the newspaper FSIs.

Gene Detroyer
Guest
9 years 11 months ago

Warren, I am a bit confused. Apparently the things that you see as doom, I see as exciting progress and change. Is it doom that print media dies or is it destiny that a new more exciting media takes its place. If in 30 years most brick and mortar stores cease to exist is that doom? Or, is it progress that shoppers adopt new channels that better fit their lifestyles. Was it doom when shopping centers replaced Main Streets? Or, did it lead to the Golden Age of retailing? As long as we see change as doom, we will never see opportunity.

Tim Cote
Guest
9 years 11 months ago

The half-empty mindset has grown as retail leadership has gotten more and more driven by operational and finance people, and less by merchants.

John Boccuzzi, Jr.
Guest
John Boccuzzi, Jr.
9 years 11 months ago

I am not sure it is a glass half empty or full situation as much as retail leadership not inspiring and empowering their team to try new things and push the envelope on retail practices. Retail management is consistently quoted as saying they are “focused on the customer” or they “want to grow private brands,” but do they truly allow their teams to go out and really do that?

I look at the challenge and believe the glass half full and there is an easy fix. Retailers need to go out and not only say what they want to accomplish (grow private brands, customer first), but then go out and inspire and empower their teams to do just that.

David Zahn
Guest
9 years 11 months ago

The core of the retailing business has ALWAYS been the same as it is now. No change at all to the mission. The “methods” changed (scanning, merchandising techniques, pricing zones, segmentation, targeting, QR, the web, etc.)–but it is still about providing customers with products that they both need and want. In terms of half-empty or half-full, every business must operate as if its hair is on fire and as if a hose is right around the corner. Always be vigilant for threats, weaknesses, attacks, changes in shopper preferences, etc. And, at the same time, seek out opportunities to pursue and strengths to leverage, etc. Every situation presents both. One need not pick to go down only one path; both are available. Just like a good trial attorney must think like “the other side” in preparing their case. So too must a retailer recognize what MAY happen (half-empty) and then choose what WILL happen (half-full).

Dennis Serbu
Guest
Dennis Serbu
9 years 11 months ago
For all you hope and change folks, there are very sound reasons for concern. Our economy is in a faux recovery. Some signs of improvement do show, and yes we can pull out of it. However, our economy is influenced by government policy and regulation. We are seeing more regulation, not less. We are spending more and borrowing more which is not sound policy. All of this will impact our industry. Should you doubt, look at our lack of vision in energy. We have had the Department of Energy since 1978 to what? Reduce our dependence on fossil fuels? Since then we have driven the price of commodities and transportation up by diverting production to corn and then subsidizing the production of ethanol. We have not increased production of energy domestically. The price of oil based commodities (packaging, transportation, plastics) continues to rise and we have essentially done nothing to either increase our ability to resource, or replace. This is not a Republican or Democrat thing. All have contributed to our current failures. We have… Read more »
Tim Henderson
Guest
Tim Henderson
9 years 11 months ago

One reason retailers may gravitate toward the “glass half empty” mindset is a persistent feeling that the brand is always in a defensive posture. The reasons include the seemingly daily onslaught of new products, new players, new technologies, new trends, new ways of reaching consumers, new studies, new research, new data, etc. It’s hard to escape the feeling that the brand is always behind and needs to catch up.

What could help overcome that mindset is having retail leaders who stay above the fray, i.e., leaders with a strong vision for the brand and a plan to get there. Retail leaders can’t be optimistic about their brand’s future, if they only get mired in a daily barrage of newness that leaves the distinct feeling of being inadequate.

Bill Emerson
Guest
Bill Emerson
9 years 11 months ago
Scaring people has always been good business (ask Steven King) and I think Warren is really on to something here. It’s not so much that the world is ending, it’s that it is changing rapidly and the velocity of these changes is growing. Change frightens most people as it requires new skills, new risks, and brings new threats. Put this together with the natural inertia of humans and their resistance to change, particularly in the executive suites, and you get insecurity and anxiety. The reality is that there is enormous opportunity out there. People will always buy things they want, as the explosive growth of anything with a small “i” in front of it amply demonstrates. Secondly, there is a huge demand coming as Gen Y enters its acquisitive cycle. Thirdly, the internet allows retailers to reach global markets. The challenge for retail leadership is to accept and embrace the fact that 1) there is plenty of opportunity, 2) how the opportunity is captured will be different in many ways, 3) to succeed as leaders… Read more »
Matthew Keylock
Guest
Matthew Keylock
9 years 11 months ago

The world is not going to end. Some companies may end…and they should. Retail is definitely changing (as it always has) and the businesses that will survive are those that understand and respond to these changes quicker and better than the rest.

Jonathan Marek
Guest
9 years 11 months ago

Great discussion. No, the sky isn’t falling, but I do think a little “healthy paranoia” can be helpful. Things do change. In retail, that can mean fashion companies going out of fashion, or big boxes flattening gasoline margins, or the small box videotape/DVD rental business disappearing. These aren’t macro-economic–i.e., they don’t depend on the debt ceiling or Fed funds rates or even unemployment. They just happen, and those who haven’t evolved become irrelevant. To that end, if looking at the empty part of the glass keeps you focused on ways to pour more water in, that is a useful objective.

Doug Garnett
Guest
Doug Garnett
9 years 11 months ago

I’ve been struck by how the companies that stick with the fundamentals seem to build the best strength. But there are a lot of consultancies, agencies, and research and technology suppliers who make their millions by promoting the idea that radical change is the only way to survive.

So here is a counter observation: Did you ever notice how MOST revolutions end up replacing the mediocre or inept with the truly horrible? Revolution created the USA and that’s great. But it more often begets Stalin, Napoleon, Sadaam Hussein, the Ayatollah, or the Taliban.

A great many people make their personal fortunes by convincing retailers that the glass is half empty.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
9 years 11 months ago

Bullcrap! The sky IS falling (at least outside my window…yet more rain in the not-yet-Golden State) Warren’s piece is high on amusement value, and I agree that there are many exaggerators – both optimists and pessimists – but what to make of what they tell you? Office buildings (and stores) sit empty because they were built for a boom that really wasn’t, while Wards was driven halfway to ruin planning for a Depression that never happened (of course they eventually finished the journey on their own)…moral: when you predict the future, it pays to get it right.

Herb Sorensen
Guest
9 years 11 months ago
Retail works because there are billions of people in the world, all who want more, and massive numbers that NEED more. If you will build boxes and put the stuff in them, they will come and get it. There is no evidence that retailers have lost the will to build boxes and fill them. God knows that there are plenty of people dedicated to filling those boxes–and they seem to do quite nicely, profit-wise, in doing it. Anywhere in the world where you find societies suffering under this paradigm, government is presuming to manage this show. Shockingly, many moderately intelligent citizens, believe that turning the whole show over to government is the road to nirvana! Is nirvana a new way of saying hell? 😉 Well, we spent 100 years purging the world of the most murderous elements of this social torture. Looks like we’re facing another 100 years of “peaceful” attempts at suppression of the human spirit. Personally, I’m betting on the human spirit, since it is the expression of something greater–and not repressible.
Lee Peterson
Guest
9 years 11 months ago

Here’s the issue: retail is changing forever and it’s changing fast. If you’re not able to make this next 90 degree turn or you just can’t keep up with the peloton, you bet it’s frightening. It’s going to take a lot of energy to get into the new retail, and if you’re not up for that, think: Darwinism.

The good news though is that if you look at the history of retail, it’s filled with high-innovation points (one of which we’re now in) followed by bursts of massive growth. So, good news for the many revolutionaries, bad news for some laggards. Same as it ever was.

James Tenser
Guest
9 years 11 months ago

If the glass is half-full, then it’s probably time for replenishment.

If the glass is half-empty, then it is also time for replenishment.

Either way it’s an opportunity for positive action.

Giddy or gloomy, pronouncements from the podium are calculated to grab attention and stimulate creative thought.

I’m pretty sure we’re in a world of mess, economically speaking. But that does not mean the demise of opportunity. The future belongs to the glass-fillers.

Janet Dorenkott
Guest
Janet Dorenkott
9 years 11 months ago

I’m a very positive person and being optimistic is great, but it shouldn’t mean you ignore reality. Our national debt has gone from $1 trillion to $14 trillion in less than 3 years. Housing values are continuing to drop. This is not dooms day talk, this is reality and there is absolutely a negative effect that has been, and is continuing to happen. Putting on blinders and telling yourself the glass is half full, will not leave you very prepared. Tell the guy down the street who just lost his house that this is all just “negative talk,” he’s living it.

Stay positive but don’t ignore reality. You have to have a realistic outlook with a solid plan for success. I’m all about the glass being half full, but don’t think someone’s just going to fill the glass for you because you’re thinking positively.

Peter Kohutanycz
Guest
Peter Kohutanycz
9 years 11 months ago

Retailers (and related businesses) that continue to stare at the same glass and attempt to determine if it is half full or half empty are the very same retailers that are struggling to maintain their businesses.

The retailers that have figured out that the glass has changed completely are the ones succeeding regardless how full the glass is. And those retailers are being lead by managers with the vision to see this difference.

Odonna Mathews
Guest
Odonna Mathews
9 years 11 months ago

Even though many panelists feel the sky is not falling for retailers, perhaps offering consumers a rainbow of choices and services would show them the glass is half full, not half empty. I agree that change is an opportunity as difficult as it might seem at the time.

Al McClain
Guest
Al McClain