business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Rightly or wrongly I think we can find lessons in better business behavior in virtually everything around us if only we are willing to take a really contrary view to what seems so obvious. Even the US mail.

Last week MorningNewsBeat’s usual robust discussions included the proposal to eliminate one day’s mail delivery each week. Having stood in epic lines many times in my local Post Office, I could easily understand most of the responses on MNB that indicted the postal service and its employees. But I’d also argue that if we looked in a different direction, we could see how the struggles of the Post Office could be ours someday soon.

The postal service has a big, incredibly obvious problem. It’s called e-mail. In a very, very short amount of time the world of communication moved dramatically to our computers and mobile devices and the mail simply doesn’t seem to matter that much anymore. E-mail and the Internet now take care of the personal stuff, plus bills, payments, magazine, advertisements and more.

So while my mother wistfully remembers a time when mail was delivered more than once a day in the offices of New York City, my kids think mail comes all day long - to their electronic devices. Likewise, my father remembers a time when newspapers came out in multiple editions throughout the day and my kids get their news when they want it, how they want it. That’s the world of the Internet.

The question isn’t whether newspapers are better or worse today or whether the staff in the Post Office seems decidedly disinterested at times. The real focus should be on learning from the changes those industries and others seemed to miss.

I would argue that in many ways newspapers today are better than ever. If you looked back on the newspapers of just 20 years ago you’d find them written in a less engaging style and completely devoid of the color photos and tables you find everywhere. Likewise, the Postal Service has evolved. It offers more services and products and, like it or not, does an incredible job of moving mail around the country. As Kevin and I found with shipments of our books, a relatively inexpensive service called Media Mail gets a book from coast to coast in days.

One has to imagine that in both those industries leaders thought long and hard about how to become better than ever at virtually everything they did. Costs were attacked, supply chains made more efficient and innovations were tried in every possible way. Yet with each passing day, newspapers and the mail become increasingly less relevant to the younger population.

Now many may argue that there’s no parallel to supermarkets because newspapers, the mail, recording companies, movies and others merely distribute information, which the Internet really can do better and faster. Food products are tangible and therefore must be moved location to location until the day we have Star Trek replicator machines to send food right to our printers.

I’d agree, but also would argue that we need to think of the experience of those dying industries and question how we are approaching the next generation of shoppers. And then I’d get worried. Too many supermarkets are still designed on essentially the same model that was geared to my mom with her twice- daily mail and my dad with his morning and afternoon newspapers.

When looking at today’s younger generations, the question isn’t whether they’ll shop differently; it should be how their preferences will change and how fast these changes will take place. And if all our efforts are simply based on making today’s model more efficient, we could be heading for the same fate as daily mail.

As always, there’s a great movie line for this. It comes from a speech by Danny DeVito as a corporate raider in Other People’s Money. Explaining why a beloved family-owned factory needs to be shut down, DeVito says:

”At one time there must have been dozens of companies making buggy whips. And I’ll bet the last company around made the best damn buggy whip you ever saw.”

So true and it’s the fate we want to avoid at all costs.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His new book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
KC's View:
I have an answer for one of the questions raised by Michael. He says that we need to ask ourselves how the next generation’s shopping preferences will change and how fast these changes will take place.

The answer is simple. Their preferences will change more than you think they will, and faster than you expect them to.