The Customer is always right….Except when he isn’t…

As part of my continuing series on markets and customers, I would like to tell you about another entrepreneur who was determined to change his customer. Unlike Bob from the last blog who was content to live with his books, this entrepreneur, Luis, has been fighting to convince customers that he was right and they needed to change since the day he opened his doors.

Luis was a Portuguese immigrant to Canada in 1980. Luis was a bright, energetic and enthusiastic young man eager to make a life for himself and his family. He came over to Canada as a pastry chef. His family had been bakers for generations in Portugal and despite his rather Neadrathal like appearance, Luis was rather artistic when it came to decorating cakes.

Luis at a Market in the winter
Luis prefers to sell outside…and grab (sometimes literally) unsuspecting customers as they walk by.

He started off living in Leamington, Canada, working for a baker there who sponsored him. Within a few months, knowing some contacts in London, Canada, Luis moved there. Always dissatisfied working for others, Luis changed jobs every few months, much to the chagrin of his wife and young family. Finally, in 1986/7, Luis took over a Latvian bakery and began working for himself on weekends (still doing construction during the week to supplement the family income).In 1989 the bakery was forced to re-locate due to a zoning change and Luis bought a new home and bakery in Aylmer, Ontario Canada where he has been ever since.

Luis makes what we would call today artisan bread. The bread is made with flour, salt and water-nothing more. Fashionable today, these loaves in the 1980’s resembled a cross between a flatbread and a rock. Despite this, Luis peddled his wares at area markets. He haggled with customers, yelled at them, insulted them and kept coming back for more every week. For a few years he tried retail-delivering to area health food stores and supplement stores. When one of them went broke–owing him a large amount of money, he swore off retail in favor of farmers markets and flea markets where he could sell directly to customers.

What makes Luis unique? Well for one, he has never changed his product in nearly 30 years. He has added lines, detracted products, changed recipes slightly, but the core product has never changed. His selling style resembles old world Arab market (think yelling and haggling) crossed with a pushy car sales man. People either love him or hate him. He has adapted his “pitch” to go with the times. In the 1980’s-1990’s the pitch was “diet bread” no fat, sugar, milk or oil…..the magic fix pill that would make you lose weight. In the late 1990’s to 2000’s healthy bread-with no fats or oils, that would let you take charge of your health. From the late 2000’s onward he has been peddling artisan breads with no additives or preservatives that supports the small business owner.

Selling outside in the Summer time
Luis used to use cardboard boxes to sell his bread–old banana boxes. These days he uses wicker baskets because banana boxes are treated with chemicals and health regulations actually prevent their re-use in our local area.

Over time has his product changed? Not really. Instead he uses language of the times to “re-invent” himself and keep his product relevant. He is still in business, fighting with customers who disagree with him, pushing his product onto unsuspecting passer-bys. Is he happy? Yes, 99% of the time he loves what he does. He is eccentric and his work environment permits him to be eccentric.

Luis, fights with his customers to make them understand why his product is relevant. Everyweek he fights. For some this would be exhausting, but for Luis, this weekly fight is what motivates him, what drives him. At heart, he loves people (“I am a lover, not a fighter” as he would say). He is known to be yelled at to keep him quiet. However, despite all of this, he loves what he does. He is passionate about bread and never hesitates to educate customers about his product, about bread, about why you should be passionate about it. He does not let the customer dictate what product he should sell, rather he fights with the customer, changes his sales pitch and educates, until the customer exhaustedly agrees to buy a loaf just to shut him up. The funny thing is, most customers come back a second time, a third…etc. He knows he just has to get them to take one loaf. A few have put up with him for nearly 30 years, others tire of his ways, and only come back occasionally. Does Luis care? No. He knows the world is full of customers, they just have to be convinced and he will go on “convincing” till the day he stops baking.

As an aside, there is much more I could tell you about Luis–enough to fill an entire book–and that book would be called ” A Baker’s Daughter” –yes he is my dad and probably the reason I am a passionate entrepreneur today.

Article keywords: the customer is always right

Demographics Part II: The Battle Between the Customer and the Entrepreneur

I promised in the last blog post to guide you through the demographic research component of your business plan. Before we get into it, just understand that knowing demographics is really nothing more than thinking about your customers and every business must have customers.

The Story of Sylvan’s Foremost Bookstore
I would like to tell you a story about Sylvan, Ontario’s Foremost Bookstore. Sylvan is a clustering (I do not think it can even be called a hamlet) of about 20-30 people and this bookstore proudly lays claim to being the “foremost” bookstore in Sylvan–in fact it is the only thing in Sylvan.
(Sylvan’s Foremost bookstore) Yes there really is one…

Sylvan's Foremost Bookstore
Sylvan’s Foremost Bookstore

Now the reason I bring up the Sylvan bookstore is that its owner Bob Lewis, according to his bio on his webpage, is a most unusual sort of character. Having spent a significant part of his youth working in rural areas, Bob loves country living, and he loves books. The road where his business is located is quite busy in the Summer as it is enroute to some of Southwestern Ontario’s best beaches. However, the short construction period, means that this road is frequently closed during its “peak” season, leaving Bob alone with his books.

If you ever entered this shop you would realize that Bob is a bit of a hoarder. There is no where to walk with all the books in the place. Yet, there is a charm to this place and Bob, who charmingly refers to himself as the “book gnome” on his bookmarks, is not far off the mark.

Bob, on his bio-says that he “will never be a dot come millionaire” and he probably won’t. He is happy living amongst his books, reading and selling one or another when a stray customer happens to walk in. Usually, customers come in because of his claim to have 40,000 books in the place.

Bob is happy. Others may be less happy with the lack of material possessions, but to those of us who dream of running our own businesses, it is important to do so under your own terms. You just have to fully comprehend how these terms relate to the rest of the world. Bob is quite happy to be away from the rest of the world and take the consequences that come with it.

We may seem quite far off the mark from where we started. What does Bob and the Sylvan bookstore have to do with demographics? Quite simply, you have to understand the customer, you have to be prepared that customers may not want what you want and that you have to define what it is you want very early on in your dream. Do you want to be a dot come millionaire, or do you want to be Bob and his books? Do you want the inner peace that comes with doing what you love, or do you want to just make a lot of money? These are two very different objectives and it is rare that you are able to combine the two.

When an entrepreneur goes into business, many times it is because they are passionate about something. We want to share this passion with others: our customers. Yet, very often along the way, the vision changes. What we want is not always what the customer wants and needs. We have to be prepared to understand that we may either have to sacrifice our vision or sacrifice sales and the material.

Bob has chosen to not fight. He simply has removed himself.
Tomorrow, I will tell you about another entrepreneur who set out nearly 30 years ago to “change” customers and he still slugs on today and who believed his calling came in providing the world with a better loaf of bread.

Article keywords: market demand