Driving Positive Word of Mouth (the cheapest form of advertising)

April 28th, 2016

My business partner always mentions that the 5 top reasons people shop at a grocery store are:


2-Clean and bright

3-Modern and up-to-date

4-Friendly employees, and

5-Well stocked


Not surprisingly, these attributes have not changed much over the years. Notice how many of them are:

A-in your direct control (2-5) and

B-do not cost a lot of money.

A couple of months ago I was part of a panel discussion at the National Grocers Alliance show in Las Vegas and spoke on the topic of re-engineering the Dairy department. During the ending question and answer period, I was asked what are the top couple of things I would advise other retailers to do to improve their dairy sales results. Many in the audience were probably expecting suggestions involving a capital investment, like new refrigerated cases. My answer was simple: start with the things that are in your control that don’t cost much money at all! Clean the department. Make sure you have no out-of-stocks. Have the top 20 dairy items in the category well merchandised. Train your employees to point out the positive traits of the new dairy item to customers. Etc.

 A recent study by the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) shows that Word of Mouth (WOM), both offline and online, can be much more effective and certainly less costly than paid advertising. Think about it. What would make you try a new store more: a flashy ad or a recommendation from a friend? This landmark study by WOMMA finally puts some statistics behind the question-An offline WOM drives at least 5 times more sales than a paid advertising impression.

Nothing drives positive offline WOM more than a good shopping experience. And nothing produces a better shopping experience than first addressing the top five reasons why a customer shops your store. Once you have done that, then consider whether more expensive paid advertising is needed.


John Marklin



Reinventing Dairy

March 18th, 2016

The dairy department in a grocery store is like Rodney Dangerfield, it gets no respect.

Dairy is not top-of-mind when it comes to the topic of fresh, like it is with produce.

Dairy doesn’t get front page attention on the store’s weekly ad.

Dairy is viewed more as a necessary commodity and not a destination item like those fancy chips or organic meats that only your favorite grocer carries.

So when I was asked to give a talk at the recent National Grocers Association convention in Las Vegas on “Reinventing the Dairy Department”, my initial reaction was only so-so.

But then I did a little soul searching and decided that the dairy image needed some help and I accepted the invitation. After all, dairy provides over 15% of sales and about 20% of the profit of a typical store. Without a solid and up-to-date dairy department, a grocery store will linger from becoming exceptional.

A few years ago, we decided to overhaul our meat department as its results were not up to par. We wanted to expand the department by eight linear feet, but that required a domino effect of meat spilling over into dairy, dairy into beer, and beer into our wall of values.

We called on our wholesaler SuperValu for guidance and help. Coincidentally, SuperValu was rolling out a new Dairy Initiative which focused on making sure the anchor items like milk and cheese were positioned appropriately to allow higher visibility to complimenting items like biscuits and yogurts. The program refreshed our assortment making sure that we had the best movers, the latest nutritional items like probiotics, and threw out the items that lagged and tended to expire.

So we adopted the program after we did a thorough cleaning and relighting of the department. The results were amazing. Not only did the Dairy sales increase 9%, but so did meat, beer and total store sales.

With the help of some other colleagues our dairy presentation was a hit to a standing room crowd!

Think about this the next time you are asked to help on a routine project like a parade or a school musical. Or invited to help an average kid with tutoring or coaching a sport. With the right attitude and solid effort, you can take something ordinary and make it extra-ordinary!


John Marklin


Cheap Chicken

February 10th, 2016

The Deli is the lifeblood of our grocery stores. It pulls hundreds of people in daily to try our signature Kretschmar meats and cheeses as well as our hot lunch bar. Our secret? We set our prices to be at or lower than our competition while providing quality food prepared fresh daily.

Additionally, we have always been known for having good fried chicken in our deli. In fact, before we bought our stores in Bridgewater and Chincoteague we would ask customers what they liked about the stores and invariably having good fried chicken was usually top on their list.

Last year, we talked about things we could do to further increase sales. My partner came up with the idea to have Cheap Chicken Tuesday where you could buy 8 pieces of chicken (two breasts, two wings, two legs and two thighs) for $4.98, regularly $6.98! In addition, he came up with a radio commercial that we played hundreds of times on the radio station for a week and then ran it every hour in our store over the speakers.

This commercial, set to the tune of Mission Impossible really caught on with the customers. It was unique, funny and catchy. We entered it in the SuperValu Master Marketer program and won the top spot nationally in the radio commercial category.

It’s nice to have awards for commercials, but how did sales respond? Well, see the graph below showing number of 8-piece chicken sold per Tuesday for the last 13 months at one store


But still, I wanted to see what two experts in advertising thought of the commercial. I sent it to Roy Williams, the founder of The Wizard Academy and he published it in his weekly Monday Morning Memo sent out to thousands nationally.

I then sent it to Tom Schiller, owner of Radio Dial Marketing in St. Louis, who provided a unique perspective as follows, “the commercial is catchy alright, but it’s popularity is really due to the chicken being so good at a great price”.

Tom’s right. Without a great product to back it up, the commercial would have been like so many others-unnoticeable.


John Marklin


J Curve-update

January 2nd, 2016

I first blogged about the J Curve back in 2012. I talked about how any time there is a change in the eyes of the customer (a new store, a remodel, new items, etc.) that a customer can react opposite from desired results.

The change from the customer’s perspective can cause a feeling of uneasiness, complexity or confusion. As a result, the customer may flee and search for more familiar shopping conditions.

Customer flight causes a sales decline for the retailer, even though they may have “improved” the shopping experience. The eventual success of a retailer is to not give up and continue to show constant improvement every day. Eventually the relentless pursuit of perfection will result in improved sales.

But it does takes time, sometimes months and years, to break out of the J Curve. There are no get-rich-quick schemes in retail.

Look at the graphs below. These are two real examples of stores I owned. See the similar progression of how sales started out high, retreated and then slowly climbed back as we eventually won the customers back.

This J Curve can be applied to businesses and processes other than retail. New cars, technology products and fashion items are not immune to the J Curve. I would even suggest that there is a J Curve when a sports team fires a coach and replaces him with a big named celebrity. It takes time for fans to buy into the new system.

The key is not to give up when you are at the bottom of the J Curve.


John Marklin




October 14th, 2015

painted floorOne day after school, when I was a 6th grader, my mother wanted to talk to me. The conversation went something like this:

   “John, I put an ad in the Baden News Press and got a grass cutting job for you.”

    “Mom, why did you do that? I didn’t ask for one.”

    “I know, but you need to work.”

    “Why, none of my friends have jobs?”

    “I know. But they should.”

    “Where is the yard that needs to be cut?”

    “In Bellefontaine Neighbors.”

    “Well, how far away is that?”

    “About five miles.”

    “And how will I get there?”

    “Ride your bike.”

And that was it. I had my first official job.

Reluctantly I rode my bike out to Mrs. Enright’s house and began what would become a job that would last well into my college years.

Mrs. Enright was a delightful person, a school teacher and had a large house and yard. After I cut the grass, she asked how much money I wanted. Not being ready for this question, I said $4 per hour. She agreed and I was stunned at my success in negotiating my first salary.

The yard work evolved into more: weeding, mulching, small concrete work and cleaning the pool. And, the long ride back and forth seemed to be much more palatable now that I had a fresh $20 in my pocket.

That was the start of many jobs as a teenager. Work seemed to be a necessity at that time. My parents had little money raising seven boys. So if I wanted anything discretionary it was on my dime.

And then college was looming ahead. My Dad made it clear to me that he would pay for private high school, but I was on my own for college tuition, room and board.

So I set my sights on working several jobs in the summer and making enough to pay the full college load at Mizzou (admittedly very difficult to do with today’s inflated college costs).

And this notion of work never seemed to escape me as I always had a list of chores to do at home as well as a good deal of nightly homework.

Pope Francis, on his recent trip to America, said the following on the topic of employment and minimum wage: “Do good work as work is how you express yourself.”

The other day I decided to paint the floor of my garage. I always wanted that “car dealer floor” look so I bought a kit and set out to complete the task. It was a three-step process: (1) scrub and clean, (2) etching and (3) painting. I underestimated the first two steps as I was focused on the painting step, which was the glitzy part.

But I looked at the floor after the first two steps and it still wasn’t clean. I wanted so badly to just go to step three and paint, fully knowing that it would not yield that sparkled look unless it was cleaned again.

So I did stop and clean again, taking another couple of back breaking hours.

But the result was spectacular. Much more so than painting over dirt.

I wanted a beautiful floor. But it required very hard work. A trait that was drilled into me by my mother.

Thanks Mom,


John Marklin


Believe in yourself

July 20th, 2015

Throughout my early career, I was raised in a corporate environment. Offices, secretaries, lots of people, training programs, procedural manuals, job reviews and plenty of management issues.

In 1997, I got an “entrepreneurial seizure” and decided to go out on my own and become a consultant. I was ready to leave the corporate world, work out of my home and be in charge of my own destiny.

I had been a CFO for many years with several companies, so I decided to become a part-time CFO for smaller companies. I would handle top level financial issues for a half dozen or so clients.

In the beginning I got lucky. I made a couple of phone calls to colleagues who owned businesses and they had a need for this skill. You have to keep in mind that this was a long time ago, and consulting was not nearly in vogue then as it is today. So I landed a couple of jobs to get me started.

I focused at first on the skill. I researched topics that were important for my clients. I designed spreadsheets, flowcharts and templates to bring things into a simpler and clearer perspective. I soon discovered that I was on to something, that most business owners hate financials and the whole financial process. They were usually sales people, marketers or engineers. They despised accounting.

So I used this as an asset-that I would take the burden of worrying about financial issues off of their minds, or at least reduce it a bit.

After about three months in my new career, I realized that my success was less about the actual product, but more about me. The clients liked the way that I made them feel. They liked that issues were kept in confidence. They liked the fact that they could trust me with inner secrets of their business. They enjoyed having a confidant who could hear their side of the story and look for honest critique. And they liked dealing with a realist, which often balanced their optimism.

This was not easy to do, to be able to get into the inner sanctum of my client’s personal and business world. It took time, and it took a belief I could do it. From that moment on, I switched from selling financial services, to selling me, who just happened to know a little bit about accounting and finances.

This revelation was a real jolt, and it changed my whole approach to consulting. I immediately looked at myself through the client’s eyes: my appearance, my approach, my disposition, my demeanor, my style. After a meeting, I would give myself a report card of how I did. And I always felt I was too hard on myself in my ratings; but it made me better the next time.

Becoming a small business owner is risky business. In the end if things go wrong, you really have no one to blame but yourself.

And that is exactly why you need a huge dose of self-confidence that only you can make it work.


John Marklin


John Leonard

July 7th, 2015

When I decided to move my family to Richmond in 1994 from Reading, PA for a new job, I did the pre-drill: first go alone and look for a neighborhood with good schools and a good Catholic parish.

We settled on the west end of Richmond for the schools and then I looked for a parish. I heard about a new church (St. Michael’s) forming a few miles away so I went to attend a Mass. The brand new parish was using a Middle School auditorium for Mass while the new church was being built. I nestled in a comfortable “theatre” chair and observed the people around me. All were chatting and telling stories about their week. Smiles everywhere and the place was alive with a feeling of happiness all around me.

Being raised in St. Louis, where growing up Catholic seemed to be a given, I have been to hundreds, maybe thousands of Masses. Most seemed to be compulsory in attendance, and ones where a place of solemnity trumped celebration. Rarely did people interact in Church, that was for praying.

The contrast hit me hard, in a very good way. I called Debbie and said, “I think I found our parish. So vibrant. I think you will love it.”

The next day I sought out the pastor, Fr John Leonard, who was working from an old ranch home on the new parish grounds. He met me with open arms, asked me to sit down and chat.

I told him the neighborhood I was moving to and asked if that was in his parish boundaries. Knowing I was from the Midwest, he said, “John, you are now in the south, and we Catholics are in the minority. We will take you at whichever parish you choose. Just go, attend and participate!”

That was my first real encounter with a man who would later become a very important part of my life.

Father John was a charismatic man. You could not keep your eye off of him while he celebrated Mass. He brought such life and meaning to rituals formerly so mundane to me. His sermons were “real” not preachy. He spoke about his trials and tribulations, as well as his joys in life while relating to the Gospel message.

He was brash at times, he had to be, since he was in charge of building his third Church in the diocese and raising the funds to do so. He never shied away from asking for money for a church window or a bell or a processional cross. All the money going for the Church.

And what a church he built. One that was in the round so you could see the “faces” of your neighbors, not the back of their heads. The church was artistically beautiful in a simple way-clean lines and good acoustics.

The church grew to be one of the biggest in Richmond. And at the center of it all was our leader John Leonard.

After Father retired ten years ago, I became very close to him. I would call him on my long drives between stores and talk for long periods of time, maybe an hour or so. We spoke about all topics and his insight usually ended up with me looking at things from a different perspective. He was a liberal and proud of it. Yet he was never demeaning of the views of others. He later went on to teach Ethics and Christianity in Film classes at a local community college. His classes were always filled up-no wonder.

Last week, John Leonard died from cancer. His death has hit me, and the community hard. It is difficult to believe that I will not have him to talk to anymore and I will miss him dearly.

John Leonard is leaving this world in a private way. As of this writing there is no obituary in the paper. I could not even find a picture of him on the internet to include in this post. Read below for his final letter to the parishioners of St. Michael’s.

He once told me that all he ever wanted in life, from a very early age, was to be a priest. And what a priest he was! He was married to the Church and now is in a much better place.

Thank you Father John, mostly for making me a better person.


John Marklin




When I was called back to Richmond from Norfolk Catholic by Bishop Sullivan in 1992, it was to begin a third parish for the Diocese.  The land was located on Springfield Road -a large field, home for 4 horses, a small brick rancher and a pond.
I would be visiting Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Mary’s, two well established parishes, to invite those who lived within the new parish boundaries to join us – what a challenge!  On May 31st, we gathered for the first time at Good Shepherd United Methodist Church on Hungry Road (all 150 families) to begin our journey as  “The New Catholic Parish in the West End”. You welcomed the idea of a parish to be formed on the basis of the Documents of Vatican II.  You rolled up your sleeves and did the work.  This was your parish and when I left in 2004, you never missed a beat.
I know there is a better way to do this, but time is not on my side.  I have been diagnosed with stage 4 Liver Cancer.  I want to thank you for all you did as a new faith community – St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church.  You have heard the Word of God proclaimed and brought those words to the 21st Century in all you have done for each other and God’s people wherever there was a need.  You were and are the presence of the Risen Lord in this day and time.
God blessed me by your presence in my life.  I ask that you continue to support Fr. Dan and your community.  Keep me in prayer as I make this last journey to God’s loving arms.

Fr. John E. Leonard
Founding pastor 1992-2004

Family first

June 5th, 2015

boysWhen I was very young, I used to ask my father what he wanted for Christmas or his birthday. His answer was always the same. “John, all I really want is for my seven boys to just get along.”

I always chuckled when he said that, never really understanding what he really meant until much later in life.

My six brothers and I were very close. We had to be, with only eleven years separating the oldest and youngest, we did everything together. Played together, went to school together, went through Cub and Boy Scouts together, and yes, went to church together. We had clothes passed down from one to the other, and all had pretty much the same haircut from my mother.

Fast forward 40 plus years and we are still close. Although we don’t all live in the same city anymore, we do stay in touch. And we all continue to check in on Mom and Dad, still going at the young age of 89.

1610938_951864981514860_1078250687097923682_n Recently, Debbie and I took our kids, their spouses and our grandkids on a vacation out west to Phoenix and the Grand Canyon. It had been many years since we had taken a vacation with just our family. We spent a week together touring the area, swimming, relaxing in the hot tub and just catching up. It was a delightful experience with everyone just getting along.

If you haven’t reached out to communicate with your family in a while, stop and take the time to do it. Call them up, or better yet visit them, even if they are in a different city. Tell them that you want to visit just them, for no other reason than to spend some quality time with them. It will make them, and you, feel wonderful.

Dad, I finally understand what you meant about the best gift of all!


John Marklin


The Flaw

May 11th, 2015

housing_bustThe year was 1999 and I killed some time waiting for a flight at the Manchester, NH airport by having a drink at the bar. With the news of yet another day of unprecedented stock market gains playing on the TV in the background, a lone traveler sitting next to me shouted out, “yeah baby, keep it going”. I asked him, “so you had a good day?”

He proceeded to tell me that he had become rich playing the stock market. That with only a High School education, he couldn’t go wrong with his stock picks, especially Initial Public Offerings (IPO’s). He said that regardless of the industry, he always made good, quick money with an IPO.

As I returned to Richmond that night, I went to see a High School football game. Sitting in the stands with a friend, I told him about my experience at the airport and asked what he thought of the market. He too had been caught up in the day trading mania and set aside $40,000 to play with. He spoke like it was “play” money, taking risks while doing little research since the stock market trends had been so consistently good.

The same belief of perpetual upward trends could be said of the real estate market through the 80’s and the 90’s. As I’ve mentioned before, I bought and sold numerous homes during that time period, and it always seemed like a sure bet that real estate prices would rise.

This type of thinking was so wide spread back then, that a sense of hysteria set in. That if you weren’t in the stock or real estate market, well then,  you were a fool!

This hysteria seemed to go on steroids in the early 2000’s especially when the lending institutions lessened the credit rules that had been in existence for a hundred years. Need a loan for a home? No problem; you could borrow up to 105% of the purchase price by merely stating your income!

As the movie, The Flaw points out, the big banks believed the real estate market would continue to rise. They looked the other way when the price of homes literally double in the early 2000’s which added on more debt to people especially at the bottom of the wage scale. This added fuel to an already growing gap of wage inequality in America.

We know the next chapter. The housing bubble, like the stock market, burst in 2006 and stayed in a downward slide for the next six years. Millions of homes went into foreclosure as the debt payments sometimes exceeded take home pay.

Unfortunately, many people learned the hard way that there is no Get-Rich-Quick formula. That taking risks based on what everyone else was doing, and without adequate research, is nonsense.


John Marklin


Building a Great Organization

April 9th, 2015

shannon-dadI recently reread the bestselling book Good to Great, by Jim Collins. Published in 2001, the author details the rise of eleven Fortune 500 companies from being good, to becoming great. Only eleven companies made the cut through extensive research and stats. One critical stat was that they had to have thirty years of consistent history: fifteen with good results and fifteen with great results. This requirement alone knocked out most of the Fortune 500 as it focused on long-term steady growth and progress as opposed to flash-in-the-pan exemplary results for a short period of time maybe due to one outstanding product or a CEO.

A Good to Great company needs a consistent, disciplined approach according to the author and his research. First by picking exceptional leaders (Level 5), then going through what he describes as the hedgehog phase (a slow, methodical phase employing three concentric circles of discipline) and then cultivating it with a culture of discipline and technological improvements.

Once the Good to Great process is implemented, a continuous acceleration of improvement is noticed called the flywheel effect- things get better and better with more and more ease.

I found this book to be fascinating as it lines up very closely with how I like to see and run companies or organizations. By focusing more on improving the matter at hand and less on the limelight, success often finds it way.

Seventeen years ago, I became involved as a softball coach for my daughter Shannon’s Little League team. She was nine at the time and we were new to the city of Richmond and the Tuckahoe Little League system. Little did I know of the success of the Little League in days past, but also of the impending success my daughter’s teams would have at the local and All-Star level. For the next six years, our teams went on to win three State Championships and two runner-up’s. A wonderful streak for anyone to be a participant.

As I reflected back on what made those teams so good, one consistent theme came to mind. I always strived to make the practices and games fun for the girls. So much fun that hopefully the experience would stay with them for a very long time, and possibly develop into their daughter’s wanting to play the game. To me, that would be the ultimate payoff of how well the team did.

So I “hired” excellent Dads as coaches who thought the same as me. We stressed fundamentals and turned routine practices into fun-filled events. We added “talk time” not only describing strategy but discussing great players of the past and why they were great. And we constantly rewarded hard work with little victories, like a game-ball or a sleep over with their teammates.

As we started to jell and win as a team, it became infectious. Girls on other teams wanted to join in the fun. We never lost focus on the girls, making it really enjoyable. Continuous improvement was made during each practice. And the victories continued, year after year.


John Marklin