A bolt of wisdom – business lessons from the fabric store

Many of you know I'm from Winnipeg and my parents were in the retail fabric business.  It was something my Dad started when he married my Mom and moved out west. My Dad wasn't formally educated but he was a smart and sociable guy who had two priorities: family and the business. And the two were inextricably intertwined. 

Anyone who's grown up in retail knows that owning a store is like having another sibling – one that requires constant nurturing and attention and is talked about day and night. I had the added complication of sharing a birthday with the store, but that's another story.

So today, on Father's Day, I've been thinking about my Dad and remembering some of the business lessons he taught me: 

  1. Know your priorities. He didn't say it quite like that but he sure lived it.  As a kid, it always bugged me that his office was a complete mess. Jammed with papers and samples, I didn't know how he could find anything or work in there. And in truth, he didn't.  He was always on the floor selling. That's what he liked best and what he was best at and, for the business to be successful, it was the most important thing he could do. So I'd come in and tidy up once in a while – and be so proud of my efforts. My Dad acknowledged it and then hurried back upstairs – he had a customer waiting.
  2. The customer is always right. I took this literally and for years didn't agree with him. Sometimes customers ARE in the wrong, I'd say. I didn't realize that for him, it meant looking at a situation from another person's point of view and trying to solve their problem. In all his years in business I don't think I ever saw my Dad get mad at a customer – even the ones with the dumbest requests. I, on the other hand, freaked out over a button return. Not my finest moment. (I was young and naive and learned from it.)
  3. Have a conversation, don't sell. My Dad said the worst thing you could say to someone who walks in the store is, 'May I help you'. Because they often respond with, 'No thanks, I'm just looking' and then leave. Instead he gave people time to look around and discover and, once he saw what they were drawn to, he'd engage them in a conversation. He loved talking to people, asking questions and finding out about them.
  4. Word of mouth begins with a good relationship. My Dad paid attention to people and remembered what they bought, joked with them, listened when they told him about their sewing projects, tried to figure out what they wanted, often measured more than he charged them for, gave away remnants and, even though he said he didn't, refunded cut fabric when a person brought it back. As a result, many, many people knew my Dad and recommended him to their friends, family and children – for nearly 50 years. 

My Dad died in 2000. And as the son of an outspoken and opinionated guy, we didn't always agree,  But we knew he loved us and we loved him. He truly enjoyed and respected people and always tried to help. I think that was the most satisfying part of his job. And so to you Dad, wherever you are, I just want to say I miss you a lot and thanks.

Thanks to Dana Hughens for inspiring me with her tribute to The Dads Behind the Clairemont Team.

And if you want to read a truly heartfelt chronicle of father and son, check out Ian Brown's remembrances in the Globe, What we lose when our fathers are gone.

About Martin Waxman

Martin Waxman is a digital, social media and communications strategist, content marketer, social media trainer and instructor and co-founder of three PR agencies. He blogs at myPALETTE and hosts the Inside PR podcast.