Swimming Upstream

January 1, 2016By Future of Retail, Views

By Dave Wendland, for HealthCare Distributor magazineOut of the Box column

November/December 2015

What happens if an organization chooses to swim upstream? The common idiomatic definition of swimming upstream is to opt for a difficult course of action when a simpler or safer alternative is available; to make an unwise decision against sound advice. Sure, following the current is something that takes less effort, seems to be what everyone else is doing, and will definitely move all those in the current to the same final destination. But, are there industry examples of trailblazers who elected to swim against the popular direction? And what was the outcome?

One of the most referenced "swimming upstream" advocates was Sam Walton. Among his 10 business rules for success was Rule #10: Swim upstream. Go the other way. Ignore the conventional wisdom. If everybody else is doing it one way, there’s a good chance you can find your niche by going in exactly the opposite direction. But be prepared for a lot of folks to wave you down and tell you you’re headed the wrong way. In all my years, what I heard more often than anything was: a town of less than 50,000 population cannot support a discount store for very long.

Another example directly from our industry is found in Iowa with the Hy-Vee® grocery chain. The grocer began stocking a special checkout lane with only healthy snacks. It became a smash-hit with health-conscious moms who shop with young children, and the chain is reportedly considering expanding the idea to 100 stores.

Dollar Shave Club® is another untraditional, mold-breaking company that definitely challenged traditional logic. With 90 percent market share in the men’s razor category dominated by Gillette® and Schick®, what prompted a young entrepreneur to take them on with an unorthodox, mail-only approach? The desire to offer a differentiated alternative that provided quality replacement blades affordably and conveniently. That little fish swimming the opposite direction has literally changed the face of the category.

Looking at one other example, I believe Apple® was another trailblazer. Taking on "Big Blue" IBM® with its entry into the personal computing space in 1977 was definitely against practical logic and actually preceded IBM’s entry a few years later. Big dreams and aspirations led the company to not only provide a differentiated, intuitive user interface, but it began a revolution that led to computers being placed at homes and in offices. Seems hard to believe that this revolution was sparked less than 40 years ago and now personal computing devices have become ubiquitous.

Moving in a differentiated direction that allows an organization to stand out from the masses can be a prudent move. People are hardwired to notice what is different — and a path less traveled may be just what the doctor ordered for business success. Of course there may be a constant urge to simply follow the pack. Truth is, creating a distinctive approach or solution will actually attract customers and produce such a divide that the competitors can become outmoded or irrelevant.

As Robert Frost’s classic poem, The Road Not Taken, concluded, "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."