Right Under Your Nose and All Around You

 Continuing each Monday an excerpt from my book Hoover’s Vision:
Life all around us has texture, a feel. Some of that texture is chrome and glass and silk, but more of it is cobblestone and brick, burlap and wool. In seeking new ideas and opportunities, it’s important to reach out and touch everything around us — especially the world that’s right at our feet. We look around, we look straight ahead, sometimes we look up, but rarely do we look down. We miss so much that is right under our nose.
There are streets that you drive again and again, on the way to work or the grocery store or the restaurant. Get out of your car and stroll one of those blocks. See what you’ve never seen before. Every block tells stories—of people, their needs, their wants, their dreams. Every statue in every yard, every half-restored old car, every tricycle, every picture in every window tells a story.
When we travel, we go to a new city, we eat at the best restaurant, we go to the observation deck atop the skyscraper, we oooh and aaah. But do we stop in the corner deli or diner? Do we sit with the people who keep the city running? You can learn as much from the local workers in one hour at a breakfast counter as you can learn in a year of nice meals at the trendiest restaurant with your best friends. Great politicians know this. So do great leaders of enterprise.
We are naturally fascinated by the rare, the unusual, the near-extinct. But we ignore the everyday. If you go to the bird section in a bookstore or to a “birds of prey” website, you’ll see lots of information about the California condor, the nearly extinct raptor, but very little about the turkey vulture, which has thrived in much of the US by adapting to a changing world. You will find more books about wolves than about coyotes, more information on sports cars than minivans, more research on rare diseases than on headaches and colds.
No detail around us is too small to be noticed — and, in the right hands, used. As a retailer, I know that the most valuable real estate on earth is the ten square feet that surrounds the supermarket checkout stand. If I have something great to sell, I can make a fortune if I can just get it next to the cash register in every supermarket or every convenience store. So I am always studying how the world economy uses this most valuable of real estate, how its highest and best use changes from one visit to the next, from one season to the next, from one fad to the next.
You can learn about family structure by walking the aisles of a supermarket – how many people are in the average household, how many kids, how many elderly folks, how many pets. You can learn how people are organizing their lives, how their priorities are shifting, by walking through a Container Store (one of America’s most exciting specialty store chains). When was the last time you really absorbed all the information a mall has to offer? Such information may be the most valuable thing (and the least expensive) in the mall.
When you go to a Chrysler dealership to check out the Chrysler 300 or the even-hotter PT Cruiser, pick up a brochure about the minivan to see what is important to people today.
One of the greatest retailers of all time was a fellow named Harry Gordon Selfridge. Starting with nothing, he rose by the turn of the last century to be the great manager, innovator, and promoter at Marshall Field’s in Chicago. He finally decided to strike out on his own and opened the biggest store in Britain, Selfridge’s, which you can still visit today in London’s Oxford Street. No detail escaped his eye. When one of his people disparaged the hundreds of city buses that clogged the street in front of the store, Selfridge remarked about how frequently the buses came by (he had timed them), how many people got off each one (he had counted them), and what share of the store’s business came from these people (he had tracked it). Selfridge subsequently ran a newspaper ad thanking the employees of the bus system.
Coca-Cola marketer Sergio Zyman talks about how much time and energy (and millions of dollars) Coca-Cola invests in its TV ads. But he also points out that the sides of the thousands of Coca-Cola trucks around the world are a more important part of its advertising than television. Look closely and you’ll see that the company’s vending machines have evolved from being merely dispensing devices to powerful visual appeals as well. If you don’t notice vending machines, maybe you should.
I had a speaking engagement in Brisbane, Australia. I got there a day early so I could look around. Brisbane was wonderful from the start and kept getting better. After I had toured the downtown botanical garden, I went to the bus station, where the Australian long-distance buses came and went. I am sure I was the only American businessman in the building. The first business my college friends and I started was a charter bus business. I’ve never lost my interest in the industry. In the 1960s, the largest carrier of passengers in the world was the Greyhound Bus System. After the 1979 deregulation of airlines, that era came to an end in the US. 
So I am standing there watching the Aussie long-distance busses come and go and I realize two things: they are frequent and they are packed with people. And this is a country that has lots of long distances to cover. My first reaction was one of melancholy, for the old days when US bus stations would have been buzzing with activity like this. But my second reaction was more instructive: airline ticket prices in Australia were too high. I knew this from what I saw in the bus station. I did not have to study the airline industry, I did not have to look up airfares. The evidence was right in front of me. Forty-eight hours later, even before I left Australia, Virgin’s Richard Branson announced he was going to start a low-cost no-frills Southwest-like airline in Australia. Qantas’s shares dropped 25%. I guess Richard must have stopped in the bus station, too.

Motivational speaker Bertice Berry says she doesn’t believe in networking, where you’re always trying to link up with people who have power and influence. She believes in quiltworking, where every patch has its place, where every stitch matters. It is critically important that we look at every thread. You never know which one may be the starting point for your next great idea. The credo of the learning person is “there is no one on earth that I cannot learn something from – the rich, the poor; the bosses, the workers; the young, the old – no one.”