Playing a major role in this fast-moving, always-evolving consumer electronics marketplace has been as fascinating and challenging a business experience as I ever could have hoped to find. What Ive learned and the relationships that Ive developed are priceless and precious to me.
Thinking back over the last 25 years, I realize I never had any real-world experience for all of the major jobs that I had. Each stage of my career entailed learning a completely new part of the business, and figuring it out as I went along. I was always lucky to have employers who were great mentors and teachers who gave me wide berth to express my big ideas, along with the opportunity, resources, and responsibility to turn my visions into action…and learn from the results. However, at every stage of my career, there was always one aspect of my job that particularly turned me on with new ideas and a boundless supply of fresh energy.
Early on, at Harvey Electronics in NYC, my passion was for merchandising. In the hey day of hi-fi on 45th Street in Manhattan, we had 400 people a day breeze through our store at lunchtime, and many more on Saturdays. Every morning, I would rally the troops to move around the displays, set up bulk stacks, price special buys, and then Id stand at the front door during the lunch hour to watch how customers shopped the store. If something didnt move one day, wed change the price, move the display, shine a light on it, and then, like magic, the very next day wed sell 20 in an hour. On my way home from work Id comb the citys specialty stores to study their merchandising schemes to get ideas, then wake with a rush of excitement to get to work to try something new. In short, for three years I had access to an intensely exciting retail sales laboratory that fueled my passion for specialty merchandising, and helped me cultivate an eye for effective store design and overall brand presentation technique.
In 1986, my next position as Tweeters VP of purchasing, marketing, and merchandising spawned two new passions. In my second year there, we made the decision to bring advertising in-house and so began a new learning curve to figure out how to run an advertising agency, a process that tapped every part of my creative and managerial reserves. Through trial and error (or more precisely, trial by fire) we spent hour upon hour dreaming up headlines, choosing fonts and colors, and creating in-store posters and signage as we learned to design and deliver a fully realized marketing campaign, finding the right selection of media, at the right time with the right message, to increase sales while creating consumer desire and building a unique brand identity for Tweeter in New England. It was a group endeavor, enlivened by a team of talented, resilient artists and merchants who shared my passion for both the creative process, and a sense of adventure to try new things, learn from our mistakes, and then go back to the drawing board to try once again.
At Tweeter, I also had my first introduction to the process of long-term strategic planning, an activity that spoke directly to my intellectual interests, and that developed over time to become my greatest overall business passion. For the first time, I began to understand the big-picture drivers of the specialty consumer and vendor marketplace, disengaging from an emotional knee-jerk response to local competition to learn how to position a brand to communicate to a particular targeted customer set while creating clear-cut value and differentiation from other market segments. From that time forward, half of what I now read on a weekly basis pertains to business and marketing strategy as a way to learn from other industries, feed my ongoing passion for spotting trends and new market opportunities before they become commonplace, and using that insight to write articles for the industry trade and help my clients achieve their marketing goals.
When I left Tweeter in 1992 to become executive director of PARA, I had the opportunity to engage all of my passions in the service of waking up a once vital trade association to become the kind of meaningful organization I knew it could become again. During those first few difficult years, it was all about listening to our members and creating management education programs and group deals that could really help their businesses grow. However, to get the ball rolling, I relied on my own heartfelt belief in the value of PARA, a personal passionate energy that I communicated with great verve and conviction to every person I encountered until the tide began to turn. Then it was other peoples experience and passion that helped spread the word and create a sense of community and momentum for PARA, that was very special and meaningful to many people, for many years.
Looking back, I now recognize that my passion for business and this industry has always been about the art of doing business, the more magical qualities of marketing, and merchandising the customer experience. Its also about the complexities of creating and executing a complete brand identity initiative, formulating market strategies that find and exploit an open niche, and designing meetings and conferences that achieve the perfect combination of content, community, and creativity.
In this first year in the life of my new consulting company, The Deborah Smith Group, I have already had ample opportunity to put these passions to work, helping dealers, vendors, and trade groups with various marketing, training, and conference design projects. It is my sincere hope and expectation that the coming years will engender many new opportunities for learning and growth, and along the way, that I will encounter a host of new personal and professional passions…just waiting to be discovered.