Experiencing Bellaire Michigan

Foreword: this blog post is the result of an excellent customer experience at the Bellaire Smokehouse, which we’re using in this blog as a prelude to highlighting some best practices that small communities (and their businesses) can deploy for economic development success in their downtown.

Our Bellaire Experience
This week we’ve been in Bellaire, MI on vacation.  How did we pick Bellaire?  Well, it happens to have a resort that accepts exchange points from a time share our family owns and it is conveniently located within a short drive of my wife’s best friend (and her family).

Bellaire has a population of roughly 1,000 and is located next to Lake Bellaire, but the village itself is not on the lakefront.  The village’s Bridge Street is their “main street” and it features restaurants, bars and shops. On it’s face, (and without diving into the data on the community) we assume that two season tourism is a primary driver of the local economy (especially given its proximity to several resorts).

Not to take away from the great food and service we got anywhere else in Bellaire, but the most memorable customer experience came at the Bellaire Smokehouse as my family (5 of us) and our friends (4 of them) were browsing through the various shops in the village.  They were familiar with the Smokehouse and suggested we go take a look and it was our full intent to drop in and just look around, especially since our 7 year old is an impatient shopper.

Not long after entering the Smokehouse, Karen (one of the owners) offered our 7 year old a fruit snack from a cookie jar or fruit snacks she had on the top of the counter.  Not only did that simple gesture change his mood, but it took some pressure off of us and allowed us to more comfortably look around.  And she let us try a couple of samples of smoked fish sausage.  By the time we left the store both families had made purchases including a few extras for the kids (like honey sticks).

So why was this such a big deal?  Because what Karen did as a small retailer was a perfect example of how small retailers in small communities are winning by creating both “emotional” connections and unique experiences for their customers.

Suggested Reading:
Inc Article on Why Shopping Experiences Lure Customers
Read “Customer Service and the WOW Moment” in this ShopKeep blog
Shopify Blog: The Science of Free Samples (and how it can boost sales)

What Successful Communities & Business Are Doing
One of the biggest challenges for small and rural communities is the struggle to stay relevant and survive (let alone thrive), as they face the squeeze of online shopping, competition from nearby big box stores and, in many cases, declining populations.

For those retailers and communities that are successful, it usually comes down to things they are doing that the unsuccessful ones aren’t.  The most common are:

  1. The retailers aren’t just selling products, they are developing emotional connections and selling customer experiences. Our experience at the Bellaire Smokehouse was awesome, but there are more examples of it.  In one instance we saw a small clothing retailer located next door to a restaurant who would offer customers spending over a certain amount “lunch on them” via a small gift card.  And for multiple customers visiting the store together (who spent a certain amount) they would let them know the store would be happy to reserve an after hours, by appointment time for them to come back to shop as a group and enjoy some food catered in from next door.  Those experiences may sound like something out of a “Real Housewives of. . .” show, but this is happening in a small town of 8,000 in rural Iowa.
  2. The retailers survive because of a “pack” mentality.The example we most often see is that multiple stores carry each other’s local products and they aren’t afraid to recommend that if you like “X” in our store, you may want to visit Store A to see what they have too. And even more important, if their a clothing retailer is located next to a popular coffee shop, they ARE NOT posting “No food or drink in store” on their entry.  Why? Because if I have to shop with my wife without that latte in my hand .  . . well, you get the gist.
  3. They create activity to draw in more activity. Being open from 9am to 5pm Monday through Friday doesn’t work for small retailers in small communities.  Unless you have heavy traffic from tourists, you’re not open when those who have money can spend it with you.When downtown businesses in small communities stay open nights and weekends, and their communities support them with outdoor spaces and even activities (like live music, extra large sidewalk jenga, etc.) the combined efforts draw large crowds of people into common places, resulting in increased spending.  For more ideas, we suggest checking out the Downtown Destination Association (Roger Brooks), who encourages communities wanting vibrant downtowns to have over 250 events per year.
  4. They have an identity as well as community pride. In Bellaire, I was impressed with how even their police cars reflect community spirit by displaying the school’s “Eagles” logo.  Communities that are winning demonstrate their local pride through public art, well maintained public spaces, and investments that support their identity. Communities that are losing out are those that have identities or slogans that do not match their appearance.  There would be nothing worse than to be City X with a slogan, “A place you’ll love” that has broken sidewalks, overgrown parks and dilapidated buildings.  As the saying goes, if you can’t love yourself, you can’t expect anyone to love you!

 

You Don’t Know You Need Us (Until You Do)

We’re a land use and economic development company.  Most people aren’t sure what that means, but essentially we have three types of clients:

  1. Developers – we help developers get the permits and approvals then need (especially difficult ones) in a timely manner.  We also help them analyze and select locations for their projects.  We also help bridge the gaps where a jurisdiction’s policies, permits and practice don’t quite fit or are not anticipatory of a type of project.
  2. Cities/Countys/EDOs – knowing what it takes to make a project happen, we help advise communities on policies, programs and marketing so that they are more effective at getting the economic development they want.  Essentially, we help these clients get smarter, more strategic and we do it for a better cost structure than “planning” companies.
  3. Small Businesses & Individuals – zoning is one regulation that applies to every business, every non-profit and every individual, so when small businesses run into zoning challenges that are complex and political, we help them navigate to safety.  Click here for an example

Unfortunately, we frequently hear our new small business and individual clients say something like, “Wow, I didn’t even know people like you were out there. . .”

We recently helped a small business, The Grayson, resolve a zoning compliance matter that threatened to shut them down because their c0-housing solution to long term rentals for corporate relocation clients was defined as a “hotel” though it’s a far cry from such.  It would be incredibly difficult to walk through the challenges of their situation in a single blog post (so we won’t try).  But, we’d like to provide you with our client’s thoughts, which she allowed us to share:

“Toyer’s firm has a great background and working knowledge of regulations, zoning, and code. Toyer was able to navigate the complexity of county planning department and code, succeeding in getting a resolution that kept our business from having to close. More incredible was the fact that Toyer was successful where attorneys had failed to help us with the problem.  Without Toyer Strategic’s involvement, we would have spent thousands of dollars fighting a losing battle,”  Mariam Zinn, Owner, The Grayson

We’re proud of the work our company does and what it means to small business and entrepreneurs.

Got a zoning or zoning compliance issue?  We can help. Contact us

 

Planning Has Gone to the Birds

Given my title, I already know what you’re thinking:  “Planning has gone to the birds, huh?”  “Have you lost your mind Toyer?”  “What is your beef with planning?”

Answers (in reverse order to your questions): I don’t have anything against planning, but I am concerned about how we are planning.  No, I’ve not lost my mind.  Yes, this is a story about planning and birds.  Intrigued?  Then read on.

Last week I was a small community’s economic development plan while my wife was taking down a wreath on the front door of our house in the Midwest.  My wife loves to decorate for every holiday, change in season, or occasion that Hobby Lobby says exists, buying a new wreath to hang on the front door.  I never knew so many wreathes exist!

The problem develops every April when birds are looking to build nests and an unsuspecting bird family thinks the wreath is a great spot to build their nest.  But after several years of seeing this happen, I have begun to believe there’s something wrong with the birds’ planning process.

In fact, what I’ve seen on my porch combined with what I see regular when I sit down to review plans has convinced me planning has a problem and it’s not just a bird thing.

But, sticking with the story, imagine if birds knew about modern planning and related processes like SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) assessments.  If they did, would they not figure out that the wreath was a lousy location for their next home?

Problems with SWOT

Let’s be the birds for a minute.  The wreath resembles a snag of brush or tangle of tree.  It’s tucked back from the open elements and, at least in appearance, offers a higher level of protection from the severe thunderstorms and daily wind that adjacent foliage does not.  And being perched higher than much of the area around with a roof above and a wall to one side, the area to be watched for approaching predators is greatly reduced.  Strengths.

But on the downside, the location is a further from their conveniences (grass, flowers and trees where food is) and being more in the shade means the days and nights will be cooler.  Weakness.

As far as the design of the nest goes, there’s a strong likelihood that building the nest here will require less effort, fewer resources and a shorter time frame for construction, giving the birds more time to do other bird things.  Opportunity.

Now about the threats.  (Head Scratch)  None, because the strengths kind of outweigh the weaknesses and everything seems to be otherwise perfect.  Right?

Unfortunately no.  Here’s what goes wrong for the birds:

Unless you’ve experienced the weather in this location you wouldn’t know that the prevailing winds come from the west, catching the north corner of the porch and swirling back toward the corner where the wreath is located.  In fact, if they had observed this, they’d know the winds can circle so strongly that they lift the wreath up and drop it against the door like a old brass door knocker.

While we don’t use our front door often, we occasionally have a visitor or package delivered and the door must be opened.  With higher Spring humidity swelling the door a touch, opening the door requires a bit more of a tug.  As the door opens, this creates an action that causes the wreath to separate from the door like being pulled back in the seat of an accelerating car, but followed immediately by crashing back into the door like the car hitting a jersey barrier at 65.

Things have never gone well for the birds at this location.  They wind up building and rebuilding the nest.  And even when they’ve had eggs, they’ve rarely had any hatch.

This story highlights two of the biggest failures with SWOT in planning:

  1. Unacknowledged Unknowns.  Most SWOTs fail to identify what former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously referred to as the “Unknown, Unknowns.”  And while they are unknowns for a reason, they are also the blind spot from which  “disruption” typically appears.
  2. Predispositions. The failure to anticipate unknown, unknowns is a matter of our being predisposed to see our surroundings a certain way as well as to value strengthens above weaknesses and threats.  Added to the fact “Threats” are usually discussed last, further devalues the significance of considering what the worse things are that could happen to a plan.

Overcoming these obstacles requires more attention to “threats” and a willingness to accept a condition that something bad will happen.  This requires strategies for the execution of a plan that frequently look for emerging threats and strategies that all plans to be adjusted timely.

But it’s not just flawed SWOT that is bringing down the nest.

Looking Deeper at Planning Predispositions

Planning has become part of life, literally.  Liking brushing teeth.  Both of which we aren’t necessarily done as frequently as they should be.  Why?

We have made planning into an image of what we think a great plan is supposed to look and act like.  In fact, we are convinced great plans:

  1. Must be comprehensive, because what’s the point of planning, if not to be exceptionally thorough
  2. And by comprehensive, we are certain planning must feature:
    • Months of process and the involvement by groups, teams and/or committees of colleagues and/or stakeholders
    • Plans need to be explained, so prefaces and forewords are inserted to describe past plans and how this plan was created
    • History can’t be repeated so a description of everything prior to this plan’s creation is described ad nauseum to prove the “context” of the present is understood
  3. There must be lots of data.  A full and complete regurgitation of historical and current information collected or quantified at the time of the plan whether it relates to data points the plan should measure going forward or not

In regards to data, I liken it to my middle school Algebra teacher in my head reminding me, “Show your work.”  Because you can’t simply have the right answer, you have to demonstrate how you got the right answer.  However, such a philosophy is to a degree correct, but taken to this extreme in planning, it’s a waste of time.

This vision we’ve created is thus often justified (wrongly) by assuming that “comprehensive” plans are like luxury cars: expensive because they look better, have more features, and impress others.  But that doesn’t answer why we plan this way.

The deeper answer is that we have allowed “self” (both individually and collectively) to influence planning.  In this context, “self” as a participant is not seen as a double-edge sword.  While it brings diversity of thought, experience and opinion to the table, it also invites three dangerous influences to the party:

  1. Fear of judgement. Deep down we fear being judged.  In planning, we/I fear that someone, sometime will read the plan and we/I want them to be impressed with the work we/I did.  We/I want validation that the time and resources spent on planning were worth it.  Conversely, we/I fear someone will read the plan and see a failure because [______] was left out.
  2. Pride and Ownership. Whether the motivation is pride or ownership (or the desire to leave a legacy), we/I want to be a part of creating something grand.  This can influence planning as we/I start to view of the plan as the action or the accomplishment, and believing falsely that the plan is legacy we create (by the way, it’s usually not a great legacy when this is the thinking).  In contrast the real legacy of planning is the movement of a business, organization or community closer to its vision – movement that takes place when goals of the plan are accomplished.

By the way, when I see a list of the planning participants in the first five pages of a plan, it’s a strong sign that this error has been made.

  1. The Naivety of Wishing. As we got older we had to reconcile the difference between needs and wants.  But like the magic of Disney’s when we wish upon a star. . . our inner, raw optimism comes out too often in planning and we shift the focus of the plan towards wishful thinking.  A process that leads to seeing the future of the business, organization or community as something that it cannot realistically become.

Conclusion

Planning is critical and necessary, but it’s become more of a commodity than a strategy.  Like milk, it’s a so-called “staple” of our daily diet.  Something we generally have to share with others.  And if handled improperly or kept too long it goes bad.

Now is the time to refocus planning around three key elements:

  1. Avoid the trap of “comprehensive” planning.  Refocus the planning process develop a strategy that’s appropriate, actionable, and adaptable.
  2. Respect real-time data and leave the irrelevant past behind.  We are in a new world and historical data has limited value. Focus instead on how evaluate real-time information and the processes you need in place to adapt to current and emerging conditions.
  3. Set an expiration date and refresh or replace the plan.  A plan is only good if you use it and all plans have a self life.  Plans needs to include ways to evaluate and measure what is finished, processes to adjust the strategies and a reasonable time period for completion or replacement.

About the Author
David Toyer is the founder of Toyer Strategic Consulting and an entrepreneur, economic developer, land use adviser and recovering lobbyist with nearly two decades of experience turning ideas into finished projects. He’s also the creator of Toyer Framework™ – an approach to creating more efficient and effective economic development plans in communities 50,000 or less in population.  For more information about David Toyer or Toyer Strategic Consulting, visit www.toyerstrategic.com.

 

 

A Bubble or some Bubbly?

A Bubble or some Bubbly?  That is a fair question going through the minds of some in Washington State right now.

Bubbly – Like Champagne is a Good Thing

The popping of the cork on a bottle of champagne followed by those fizzy bubbles are symbolic representations of celebration and success!

And Washington State’s economy appears to be raising a big glass of the bubbly these days.  In 2016 wages in Washington State rose 4.8%, accounting for the largest year over year increase since 2007.  The State’s unemployment figures for May 2017 dropped to 4.5% from 5.6% just a year ago.  And for the second year in a row, Seattle leads the country in the number of cranes (58 cranes – 60% more than any other US city) – a sign that typically points to a booming economy.  Add to this, WalletHub.com has ranked Washington’s economy #1 in the US based on an assessment of 27 economic factors.  And CNBC concurs, ranking Washington as the best state for business in the US.

Is there a Bubble?  (that ol’ Bearer of Bad News)

But despite all to celebrate in Washington’s economy, there is room to take pause.  Some data indicates some very negative trends and recent company announcements point to some small earthquakes within key industries that are drivers of the state’s economy.

For example, state data should that wage growth has primarily been limited to to King (Seattle) and Snohomish (Everett) counties, leaving the balance of the state flat or dropping.  Moreover, nearly 1/5th of Washington’s counties (7 out of 39) have unemployment rates over 7% with six more hoovering just shy of that mark.  And even in the prosperous Seattle metro, a count in late May found more than 11,000 homeless in the area – a significant number of which that are employed.  In four years, the median cost of housing in the state has jumped 37% to over $300,000 (driven by price pressures in the metro counties) – a great thing if you own a house, but bad if you don’t.

Recently announced layoffs and moves at Boeing and Microsoft – including 125 engineers tied to production of Microsoft’s surface and hundreds of Boeing’s shared services group being relocated to a Mesa, AZ facility – are just some of the more visible ‘adjustments’ happening in the market.

Conclusion

Nothing is definitive at this time, but if you’re investing and developing in the Northwest (especially Seattle), you should give caution to whether the next pop you hear is the opening of another bottle of the bubbly or the air releasing from booming growth adjusting to underlying market factors.

Got the To-Do List Blues?

You’ve worked hard and reached the end of your day, but your to-do list hasn’t budged.

Were you distracted?  Maybe.  Too many fires to put out?  It’s possible.

But if you want to really understand what happened and why you didn’t accomplish much, you may need to look deeper.  According to psychologists like Daniel Kahneman, your day may have succumbed to a cognitive bias called the “planning fallacy.”

What is it?  It’s when your brain thinks you more capable than you are, tricking you into not accounting for how long things will actually take you.

A Business Insider article written by Shana Lebowitz on April 23rd explains.