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Bill Kalmar

Quality Insider

It’s All Downhill Now!

If you don't ask customers before making product changes, watch out!

Published: Wednesday, June 24, 2009 - 03:00

June 21 marked the beginning of summer, also known as the summer solstice. As a major celestial event, the summer solstice results in the longest day and the shortest night of the year. From here on out, we will have less daylight. It’s over folks, and frankly I haven’t even donned my bathing suit yet. Oh well, no one really wants to see a 66-year-old man in a Speedo anyway.

Be that as it may, and because I have signaled the end of extended daylight, there are a number of other items, issues, and events that have also reached their longevity. Did you see that iconic retailer Eddie Bauer has declared bankruptcy? It doesn’t appear that all the stores will close, but in my opinion it manifests another miscue on the part of management. Since 1920, Eddie Bauer has been a purveyor of sporting goods, outdoor apparel, and gear. It was the first company to use quilted goose-down to insulate a garment. Many of us, I’m sure, have seen or even used a down sleeping bag. I have a Gortex down-filled parka from Eddie Bauer that is more than 20 years old and still in great shape.

In its heyday, Eddie Bauer even had a Ford sport utility vehicle with its name emblazoned on it. Then Eddie Bauer management decided that it was time for a change and from there it was all downhill . Starting in 2005, the store shifted its focus and evolved into a predominantly women’s clothing brand , and now bankruptcy looms for this once popular outdoor store. Let’s hope that management recognizes the error of their ways and starts returning to its roots—or to more goose down . In the meantime, Cabela’s, Bass Pro Shop, and Gander Mountain continue to thrive because management understands the needs, wants, and expectations of their customers, while their core values have remained unchanged.

The changing focus at Eddie Bauer reminds me of another organization that lost its way, Bill Knapp’s Restaurant. The green and white stores along the highway always had that welcoming look. And of course the tasty cakes that came free of charge on your birthday were always a treat. Let’s also not forget that you could deduct an amount equal to your birthday on that special day.

Then something happened. Management determined that attracting us senior citizens and families wasn't in their best interest. In fact, catering mostly to seniors gave the restaurant the nickname of “God’s Waiting Room.” I suspect that some consultant convinced store management that attracting the yuppies should be the new focus. A total remodeling program began to modernize the stores , attempting to make the interior more hip. A campaign of “That Was Then, This is WOW!” was on all the airwaves.

When we first entered the new stores, we were turned off by the décor and didn't return. In an attempt to woo their customer base back, the company embarked on a campaign of returning to the old standards stating “The Tradition is Back,” but it was too late. Evidently thousands of others felt the same way and thus the company went out of business in 2002. This is a classic example of management not understanding their customer base. I just hope that my favorite highway establishment, Cracker Barrel, never changes.

Both Eddie Bauer and Bill Knapps illustrate the consequences when management makes decisions without first performing a survey or a due diligence with its customers. How many times have we asked for a particular product at a department store or a menu item at our favorite restaurant only to discover that it has been discontinued. The response from the organization's staff always seems to be the same: “Yes, everyone is asking about that item.” Well, if there is such an outcry for the item, why was it discontinued . The answer is—incompetent management. I have no patience with a management team that concludes they know more about my needs than I do. In a couple of instances, I have written to the CEO of some companies and believe it or not the results have been favorable.

Not that I was the only one to complain, but in the case of Longhorn Steakhouse, French onion soup is now a staple on the menu. It was offered temporarily at one time and then discontinued. My comment to management was, “What type of a steakhouse doesn't have French onion soup?” Evidently they agreed and it returned to the menu.

Then there was the case of Tropicana Orange Juice altering packaging, making it difficult to discern between “some pulp” or “no pulp” or any of the other pulp choices. To save money, Tropicana decided to go to single packaging for all the choices with an explanation of the content in very small print. Very confusing. A letter to the CEO resulted in a change back to the original packaging. Again, I suspect that others complained because , frankly, I don’t have that much clout.

I think it demonstrates that customers have influence and power because ultimately we buy the products. If we don’t like something, we vote with our feet and our checkbook. Great companies recognize this and are in lockstep with their customers. If only Eddie Bauer and Bill Knapps had subscribed to this theory, I would still be camping and canoeing with Bauer accessories and enjoying those wonderful Knapps' cakes .

Well, time to unpack my Speedo. Then a trip to the local flee market to locate some long gone favorites along with some other revered items before they too become extinct. I’m referring to Vernor’s Ginger Ale, some Sanders hot fudge sauce, perhaps a Hughes and Hatcher suit, a Farmer Jack shopping bag, a picture of the BobLo boat, a Winkelmans dress for Mary, and a drinking fountain from Hudsons (Yes, all Michigan icons). And since we are the Motor City, maybe I can locate an Edsel and an Oldsmobile. Oh, for the good ‘ole days .


About The Author

Bill Kalmar’s picture

Bill Kalmar

William J. Kalmar has extensive business experience, including service with a Fortune 500 bank and the Michigan Quality Council, of which he served as director from 1993 through 2003. He served on the Board of Overseers of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program and has been a Baldrige examiner. He was also named quality professional of the year by the ASQ Detroit chapter. Now semiretired, Kalmar does freelance writing for several publications. He is a member of the USA Today Vacation Panel, a mystery shopper for several companies, and a frequent presenter and lecturer.


its all downhill now

Didn't some really, really clever management type come up with the phrase "If it ain't broke, break it"? Did he work for Eddie Bauer?

Bill Knapp's...sigh...

I still shake my head over what happened to Bill Knapp's. Sure, it was the place where senior citizens took their parents to dinner, but it had solid, decent food and no worries about taking the kids there, other than the sometimes 20 minute wait to get a table. Something was working there.

Bill Knapp's, to me, was the classic example of what happens when management forgets how they got where they got. Sure, why not try out a model that appeals to the younger crowd - but create another brand with a different name and start with a single restaurant to test the concept. Anyone with half a brain would have known that "Bill Knapp's" was not going to replace Friday's or Starbucks. But what's that they say about "common sense"? Oh, yeah.

Jeff Jackson

It's All Downhill Now!

Bill....it really depends on how you look in the Speedo.
Ironically, leadership at many companies are too far removed from what's really going on and have little or no understanding as to what their customers want....I personally think it's because they surround themselves with 'yes men' plus only take action when customers stop purchasing their product, which in some cases can be too late (much like Eddie Bauer).

Sandra Gauvin