There is no need to reinvent the wheel.

But there are always opportunities to learn more about how to maximize the principles of retail evolution.

I first taught the “wheel of retailing” in my Fundamentals of Retailing class at Marshall University in 1979. Initially espoused by McNair at Harvard University, the wheel is widely taught in marketing as an observation rather than a life-cycle theory.

To oversimplify, the wheel rolls through four stages.

It begins to turn when entrepreneurs see gaps in the marketplace and offer penetration pricing, low service levels and small margins. In stage 2, as demand builds and service begins to mature, margins increase. By stage 3, service levels fully mature and demand begins to taper. There are fewer entries in the market. Prices increase and profit grows. But costs increase due to the addition of services and competitive pressure to innovate.

In the fourth stage of the wheel of retailing, competitors see opportunities in the field and offer additional services. Some fallout begins due to price competition and declining demand.

Though it’s not taught in textbooks, most of us can quickly suggest a fifth stage occurs in retailing. Let’s call it entropy. All matter progresses to the point of obsolescence. An organized closet moves toward disorganization. Routines fade away. Today, we can observe that a brick-and-mortar marketplace moves to online distribution. Or does online shopping simply mark the beginning of a new wheel? It’s not difficult to see the stages of online growth.

Perhaps we should take a closer look at the entropic process and understand that retail stores were not predestined to experience a flat wheel.

When online booksellers began to enjoy sales, the bell cow needed earplugs. Could it have been more obvious that online marketing was not a fad? Amazon lost money for almost 20 years, but during that time, built a business model that consumers soon rewarded.

The rate of entropy increased at an increasing rate. The goal of leadership is to create negative entropy. Any organization that experiences decline must take aggressive action to sustain life. New systems and revenue models must be established. Changing consumer demands must be addressed.

Many pundits offer a list of reasons about why Amazon whacked retailers with such impact. I continue to contend it wasn’t a sudden blow, nor should it have been so effectual. The gap in the marketplace that Amazon plugged had an engaging long tail.

The engagement that mattered most appeared on our front porch with a smile on a box of books. Shopping was easy, fast and relatively hassle-free. And service is better now than ever before. The long tail of inventory meant we could order almost any book anytime and receive it quickly. Readers of this column must ask themselves, “Now what? What can we do?”

In a word, the answer lies in a niche. We must find ways to overserve a smaller target market. We must develop a superior level of service as defined by a unique niche of customers. We must rethink our data collection, inventory and marketing.

Amazon taught customers that distribution mattered. Very few banged fists on retail counters demanding special delivery of their unique book request. Instant fulfillment became a learned need.

What can retail bookstores give customers that Amazon cannot?

I think the answer lies somewhere between extreme engagement and high-touch communities. I hear many prophecies that events are a necessary strategy for increased traffic. But events can become much ado about nothing if tribes are not engaged. I recently saw a billboard for an event at a retail store. I immediately concluded it would flop because “everyone” was invited and therefore, no one would come.

Our marketing tactics spotlight how we define our customer base. Our goal is not to attract large audiences of tire kickers to the store. We seek a tribe of buyers. We want to know every customer by name and reading preference. We want to see everyone more often and encourage their love for Christian reading. We hope more families read and study together because we offer resources and empathy.

We’ve been given a unique opportunity to reinvent how we do business. We have an opportunity to draw closer to our customers. Face to face. Not screen to screen.

I fully believe the more we care, the more we sell.

It’s the first stage of building long-term relationships with Christian readers.

It’s also a proven cure for entropy.

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