Here's a novel idea that you won't hear in corporate boardrooms or business schools: The most basic principles of business success can be found in the smallest of enterprises. In bulk vending terms, whether an operator has 50 or 5,000 locations, he's dealing with the same issues. Similarly, a small business is a microcosm of the large multinational.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with some African immigrant entrepreneurs. For those who might be unfamiliar with New York City, African immigrants now represent a significant percentage of street vendors who sell everything from sunglasses and scarves and watches to belts, handbags and electronic goods. Of course, this is nothing new for New York's immigrant population. Pushcart and street vendors have a somewhat long and rich history in the Big Apple, dating back to the days when Jewish and Italian immigrants sold their wares from pushcarts during the 19th and early 20th centuries. And, if some of the products sold today are "copyright challenged" -- no, that is not a real Rolex for $25, and the face might actually read Bolex -- is besides the point of this particular discussion.
Despite their longevity and apparent continued success, it's highly doubtful the somber and serious-minded students at the Harvard or Wharton are reading case studies on "pushcart capitalists." Perhaps they should.
What strikes me about these new entrepreneurs is how quickly they grasp and master the basic principles of New York City-style capitalism. "You buy for a little and sell for a little more, my friend," one vendor told me. "But you have to be where they buy and show what they want." In other words: profit margins, location and selection. Vast fortunes have been accumulated on such basic principles.
"And you have to look, my friend," the purse vendor said. "See what American women want. I look and see what they carry. I see the bags in windows at Bloomingdale's and Saks and that is what I buy."
In speaking with these vendors, it occurred to me that some of America's CEOs might do well to spend an extended period of time selling "Bolex" watches or "Cucci" handbags on a busy Manhattan street corner. I can think of some automotive executives who would benefit from the experience. Not only would it make better businessmen of them, it might also provide entertainment value. As they say, hilarity would ensue.
Some bulk vending operators would also do well to take a lesson from the street vendors. Challenging economic times have prompted some operators to reduce selections, limit use of new or untried products, and narrow location focus to traditional "safe" venues. That is to say that they have retrenched to limit risk and in the process they also have limited opportunities.
It's easy to call for innovation and aggressive strategies during tough, uncertain times from the safety of a keyboard. Doing it is another matter altogether. But then I think about the immigrant sidewalk vendors whose day-to-day survival depends on the number of products sold on any given day. Such aggressive strategies are the key to their survival.