In reviewing our editorials over the past year, it seems that none has gotten more response than the modest rant against what is usually called "common sense." Judging from some of the emails we've received, you'd think that we kicked their dogs or advocated a change to the metric system. With that in mind, I've decided to double down and revisit the topic. The premise is a simple: What is generally referred to as common sense more often than not is a nonstarter when it comes to business.
Years ago there was a homeless man who stood outside the subway entrance near Wall Street during morning rush hour in a disheveled three-piece suit and sneakers. Unshaven and wild-eyed, he would hold a blue paper coffee cup for donations while shouting "Buy low! Buy low! Buy low!" After a few minutes he'd change his chant to "Sell high! Sell high! Sell high!" Overall, pretty solid advice, though a little short on specifics. Even today, whenever some business pundit appears on television or in the papers touting common sense as the key to business success, I always think of that guy shouting on Wall Street. In truth, it provides enormous pleasure imagining them outside a subway stop in a filthy suit with a paper cup spouting drivel.
If common sense was all that it took to succeed in bulk vending, then any vendor could enjoy an abundance. Nobody would ever fail. Ever. However, the problems a typical bulk vending operator encounters nearly every day require solutions that are beyond simple and instinctive common sense. How, for instance, does a simple common sense solution apply to meeting the product demands of the notoriously fickle demographics of kids, tweens and teens at a single location over an extended period of time? It doesn't, and good operators already know this.
Simple logic would suggest that highly complex problems require something more than simple solutions. I believe the vast majority of bulk vending operators already know this. And they know that what worked yesterday may not necessarily be the best solution for today. Even if bulk vending machines themselves have changed little over the years, practically everything else in the industry has undergone enormous changes, from pricing to product and consumer expectations to a location's requirements. Large and small businesses are not simple and straightforward, as we like to imagine they were in years past.
This is true on a number of levels for bulk vending operators. Take the typical small route operator who acts as a one-man band, handling purchasing, equipment placement, product rotation and service calls. On any given day or week, he's taking in and processing an enormous amount of information. This includes new product offerings from suppliers, profitability of existing equipment configurations and sales at existing locations and potential accounts, along with changes in location management, the price of fuel and even weather conditions. Granted, if he's been in the business for any length of time, he's acting and reacting to those fairly complex questions with an existing store of knowledge gained through years of experience and an eye towards the bottom line.
Though on a much smaller scale, those are exactly the same issues that have driven many multinationals into the crowded dust bin of business history. The bulk vending operator who grows his company has mastered, almost unwittingly, a fairly diverse and sophisticated skills set ranging from marketing and sales to logistics and accounting. What is fascinating is that so many of these same operators continue to give undue and undeserved credit to so-called common sense solutions. Some of them even try to apply those principles to their businesses. However, as the journalist and critic, H.L. Mencken is reputed to have written, "For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong."