Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome

One of the smartest businessmen I ever met in my long lifetime, was my uncle. He took a single-store sporting good store his father started and through a VC sale, built it into a chain of hundreds of stores spanning most of the country.

We are living in very interesting and troubling times right now. As I lay awake at night, I am reminded of another crisis many years ago and how my uncle dealt with that crisis and find it a lesson in encouragement and perseverance. A long time ago in an era when I had hair atop my head and no need for eyewear or low-fat anything, the oil embargo of 1973 was a major economic crisis for the United States. It most certainly wasn’t the health crisis we face today, but the blow to the economy at the time was a shock for many.

In 1973, as a reprisal for the support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War in October of that year, OPEC, The Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries proclaimed an oil embargo on the United States, Canada, The United Kingdom, Japan, The Netherlands, and other countries deemed to have supported Israel after Egypt and Syria attacked Israel during Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism.

At the time, the nations of OPEC controlled almost 80% of the world’s petroleum. With the oil embargo, there were long lines in most American cities at gas stations, lasting hours and in some cases days. Gasoline was as hard to find in those days as toilet paper is today. The price of oil and consequently that of gasoline rose more than 400% during the oil embargo.

After a couple of weeks of the oil embargo, when it looked like it was going to be a protracted catastrophe, my uncle, at a Monday Morning Manager’s Meeting, told all his buyers to cancel all outstanding purchase orders.

We were going into our virtual bunkers. His thinking was no one was going to buy skis, golf clubs, tennis racquets, camping gear, running shoes, hunting rifles, fishing gear, etc…and we had better cut back on everything to survive. It seemed to be the most prudent thing to do… wait it out.

A few weeks went by and he was having lunch with a good friend of his who owned the Cadillac dealership a few blocks from our flagship store. Of course, business came up and my uncle told the car dealer how he canceled all purchases and cut back on advertising to try and weather the oil shortage and the economic calamity it was sure to bring.

His friend, the Cadillac dealer told my uncle his gut instinct was to do the same. He canceled orders on new Cadillacs, never a car known for great gas mileage, even then. However, when Cadillac offered better prices and terms, he released the orders, received the new cars, and after a slight change in advertising, was selling loads of them.

My uncle came back to the store, called another Manager’s Meeting and told everyone that we were back in business and to release the purchase orders. He turned to me and instructed me to increase our advertising. As he explained at the time, people might not be driving cross country on a family road trip anytime soon, but they could sure as h#ll play in their backyards, our Rocky Mountains, just a short hour or so outside Denver.

We changed our marketing to remind our customers that they lived in a virtual paradise of things to do and that our stores offered them all the necessary gear and even lessons to help them do all those things. We offered classes and seminars on how to fish, how to hunt, how to backpack, rock climb, play tennis, play golf, join team leagues, do photography, in short, how to do everything we sold, and do it better.

We ended up 1973 and 1974 (when the embargo was finally lifted) with record-breaking sales. We took what could have been a couple of very bad years and turned it around into very good years. We took a new outlook on what life was like and as the US Marines teach their ranks, “Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome”.

Gart Bros. Sports Castle – courtesy The Denver Post

The Covid-19 outbreak is a public health crisis, unlike the world, has seen in over a century. I am certainly not attempting in any way to draw an equivalent parallel between the OPEC oil embargo and the coronavirus pandemic we are facing. We must all do what we can to flatten the curve and slow the progress of this virus. Our first priorities should be keeping ourselves and our families safe and healthy. We want to reach out however we can to our friends and coworkers to help ensure their health as well.

At the same time, this is not the time to bury our heads in the sand. There are opportunities out there waiting for optical companies, optical providers, and optical shops to “Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome”.

With people working more from home. They will be sitting closer to their laptops, tablets, and smartphones. The distance from our eyes to those devices is much different than the distance we keep our desktop monitors from our eyes. So, how are you selling reading glasses?

People will be walking outdoors. (Hopefully 6 feet from others) How are you selling sunglasses?

Can optometrists better embrace telemedicine, especially for urgent care?

Can opticians use Skype or Zoom to do remote measurements?

Can optical shops use platforms like Optical Near Me for virtual try-ons?

Can optical shops send customers 3 or more pairs to try on at home?

Can optical manufacturers do live webinars of new products and styles to showcase their lines?

Can optical shops create videos to show how to insert and remove contact lenses with minimal virus exposure?

Can we all use this time to not only clean but remodel and rearrange our shops to be better prepared to make sales once this pandemic has finally passed?

To be honest, I could come up with dozens of programs and opportunities that we can all try. So too can you. Some will be big winners. Some will be total failures. However, the people, the business, the shops, who push the envelope, who reach for the stars, who do something different, something exciting, something innovative, will be the ones who not only survive this calamitous time but will be the ones who come out more nimble, more viable, and much stronger.

Will that be you or someone else?

Today would have been the opening day of Vision Expo East 2020. It seems almost like a lifetime ago that we were all looking forward to this reimagined show and our optical year of 2020. We are all now hunkering down and social distancing on what otherwise would have been the summit conference of American optical. We can still make this a banner year of sorts.

I know I am not giving up. I want to make my uncle proud. I want to make my family proud. We will do what we can to “Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome”. Join us! You too can do something different. Something bold. Something that makes you and your business stand out in your community that will make a difference.

Share with us what you are doing and what others in our global community might also be able to learn from and do as well.