business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

"Things are only impossible until they're not." That’s a quote from Star Trek: The Next Generation (uttered originally by Capt. Jean-Luc Picard) that both Kevin and I are fond of using. And it’s one that everyone should consider, no matter how you feel about science fiction shows…or books about wizards.

The hoopla over the final book in the Harry Potter series got me thinking about that quote again this weekend. All around the world, people waiting with bated breath for the final book. Retailers (including some in our industry) built merchandising events around the book’s release. Customers signed up in record numbers to receive copies on the first day. And the Internet was rife with stories about people finding ways to get advance copies.

This, mind you, was all for a book about a young boy in a mythical world of wizards, witches, spells and…well, you get it.

For many of us, it may be hard to remember a time before Harry Potter, even though it was just 10 years ago. Yet, we can all remember endless articles and discussion about the lack of interest kids have in reading and about the death of the written word. Quite simply, a decade ago the plans of a then struggling writer named J.K. Rowling, would have been viewed with that terrible word: impossible.

But the impossible happened once again, just like it always does. In the retail industry, there was a time the dominance of companies like McDonalds, Wal-Mart, Whole Foods , Costco, Trader Joe’s and Starbucks were all seen as impossible. Their products, their services and their stores were derided as too expensive or too cheap; their stores as offering too much or too little. And all they did was succeed.

The impossible happens all the time. In 2006, companies like Kroger and Safeway grew sales at a faster pace than Wal-Mart. I bet many of you thought that would never be possible, but again, the impossible happened.

The problem with the impossible is that we know how to dismiss it, but frequently not to dream it. Ask yourself—better yet, ask your staff and co-workers—what’s impossible today. Is it bringing excitement back to food shopping, the cooking and even to eating? Is it a radical remaking of stores to combine the benefits of on-line and in person shopping? Is it a new social contract with shoppers that helps them make better decision for health and nutrition or social and environmental welfare? Is it opening new discussions on issues like health care or energy savings that lead to quantum leaps?

Quite likely, all of that is too simple, because those are discussions we’ll already having today. And then again, maybe it’s not. The difference between the impossible and success often seems to be that one has happened and the other hasn’t.

What was the impossible story of Harry Potter? To my mind, it wasn’t about wizards, but about good story telling that helped kids from 10 to 90 get interested in characters and plot lines that kept them waiting for more. The same type of story telling has kept audiences enthralled for generations and, no doubt, there is another Harry Potter in the offing that we simply don’t know yet. For retailers like Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, Safeway or Kroger, it was about finding solutions that struck a chord with today’s shoppers in different and evolving ways.

After all, impossible things happen all the time. We don’t need spells and witchcraft, just the guts to keep dreaming them up.
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