Conversations with a Skate Retailer; A (Pretty Much) True Story

Some month ago, I got a call from an actual skate retailer. “It said at the end of the article that you work with companies in transition,” he asked almost as a question. “It’s true,” I told him.

“Okay,” he said. “Help me with mine.”
The story unfolded like this. He’d been in business for a bunch of years, and loved the business. He was doing about $500,000 a year but increasingly it was a struggle to make ends meet. He seemed to be feeling a little run down and beat up from the constant pressure of making ends meet financially and working long hours without enough help. Anybody out there sympathize with him?
Breaking the primary rule of having a consulting business, I started asking questions to try and figure out his situation and help him before he’d agreed to pay me anything. Oh well, so I’m a pushover. He seemed like a nice guy.
The conversation revealed that his product mix was about 60 percent decks, trucks and wheels and 40 percent apparel and shoes. Margins were “good” on the apparel and shoes and “not so good” and declining on hard goods. He couldn’t be much more specific than that, and didn’t even want to hazard a guess about which brands gave him the best margins and what they were. Nor was he real clear with me on which products and brands were turning how quickly.
The finance guy in me perked right up. I started ranting and raving about his need for point of purchase registers, new computers and advanced accounting software, and revising his chart of accounts forgetting for a minute that this was a $500,000 retail store, not a chain or huge stores. The long pause on the other end of the phone line brought me back to earth. It was clear that a big investment in equipment and hiring a financial controller wasn’t going to happen.
“Let’s try it another way,” I suggested. “Ignoring the small stuff and what you don’t sell much of, so you know what you sell everyday by category and brand?”
“Sure,” he said.
“And you know what it costs you, right?”
“Of course I do,” he said a little frostily, beginning to think I was suggesting he was an idiot.
Then I asked, “And you can come up with a pencil and paper, can’t you.”
Before he could tell me to go directly to hell and hang up, I said, “Well, then you can figure this thing out!” He was still unsure what to make of me, but at least he was still listening.
Every Sunday evening, I told him, he should get his sales records, dealer invoices, the pencil paper, maybe a calculator and a cold beer and sit down at a table. “Get the beer first,” I corrected myself, “And don’t put the beer on the pad of paper. It’ll make a big wet circle.”
List your dollar sales by category and brand.
Get your costs for those sales from your supplier invoices. Pretty soon, you’ve got a neat, one or two or maybe three page document that shows you your sales and gross profits by brand and product category. Do what works for you. Might look something like this.
Week Ending:
 Brand one
Total Decks
 Brand one
Total Wheels
 Brand one
Total Wheels
 Brand one
Total Apparel
Total Sales
Small business owners have a lot of this information in their head. But usually not all of it, not accurately, and not in a way where they can see the relationships. As your business gets bigger, keeping it all straight in your head gets, first, more difficult then impossible.   But with a weekly chart like this one, you can see which brands are moving, how your margins are, and how sales of one brand compares to another.
Consider the decisions you can make after you’ve been doing this for maybe a couple of months and have accumulated some data. Where are you actually making your money? Should you be carrying more of that product or brand? What is it time to discount and get rid of? What are the financial results of changing your product mix and increasing your gross margin by a couple of points?
If you want to get a little fancier, include columns for cumulative sales and margins from the first week you start doing this. There will be nothing to it if you’re doing it on a computer and using a spreadsheet. One last iteration might be to show the total inventory you’ve got in each brand and category. Obviously, sales have some relationship to what you’ve got in stock, and you wouldn’t want to condemn a brand for poor sales when you’re low on inventory.
Such an analysis isn’t just financial in nature, but is the starting point for evaluating some important operating issues. In the case of this particular retailer, we pretty quickly got around to asking how and if he could change his sales percentages from sixty percent hard goods and forty percent soft goods to the other way around. We knew, though we couldn’t be specific during the conversation, that the change would have a major impact on his financial situation.
I asked him some questions about his store layout and merchandising. It seemed like it had been a while since he’d changed some of his fixtures. His lighting, he acknowledged, might not be quite up to par or focused on the products he was most interested in moving. It sounded like some reorganization of his selling space was overdue and that product access could be improved. I don’t know a hell of a lot about merchandising and layout, but people who do know have told me that changes in these areas almost always result in sales increases and need to be done on a regular basis.
I wasn’t telling him to throw out all his fixtures and displays, trash his lighting, and redecorate his whole store. It wasn’t in the budget. But maybe some of those fixtures could be spray painted and put in a different place. Maybe the light bulbs could be changed to a higher wattage. Perhaps a coat of paint on one wall would help highlight some of his higher margin, but slower moving product. Couldn’t he use some of what he’d learn in the simple financial analysis described above to make some inexpensive but effective merchandising and marketing changes in places where they would do the most good? I mean, just changing things in your store from time to time is a good idea, but tying those changes to specific opportunities for financial improvement makes it an even better idea. 
The point, I guess, is that financial analysis doesn’t exist in isolation from other aspects of your business. The analysis isn’t difficult if you have some simple systems and doesn’t require a complex knowledge of accounting. It shouldn’t be looked at as forensic. That is, it’s not just something you have to do at the end of each month, quarter and/or year to satisfy your banker or the tax guy.
Besides, standard financial statements by themselves will not give you all the information we discussed above. But you need it to make day to day management decisions.
So improvise a little.  Get out the beer, pencil and paper and calculator. You live or die by your gross margin. Use the information about it that’s at your finger tips to make better business decisions that are responsive to the changing skate market.