When I wrote my last story, “CUSTOMER SIZES, PART 1” my first inclination was to regard my encounter with Carl as a curiosity, much in the same way as the one I had had earlier with Elton John (as featured in my story “ARRIVAL”). Carl’s book, Cosmos, was a favorite nighttime read of mine. Pondering other places (and times) in the universe had always sent my imagination soaring.
But halfway in writing this post, I came to realize that Carl’s brief and sudden appearance in my life was much more significant. His was an unexpected voice from the outside, the beyond, on an otherwise dull and dreary night at work. An incoming message far from random chatter that nevertheless pointed the way out of my predicament.
I don’t believe that I am extraordinary or special in this way. I think messages like this bounce around us all endlessly. The trick is in recognizing and decoding the signal. It makes no difference if you do this consciously or unconsciously. For me, I acted on it unconsciously. And only now, 27 years later, I can see the link.
And it all had to do with my flippant comment about running a regression to determine my favorite author’s true waist size. You see: the size of the customer. This is part two.
In a business like Polo Ralph Lauren (“PRL”), the focal point is the fashion. The patterns, the fits, the feel of the fabric (known in the biz as “the hand”) – this is what excites 99% of the good folks who work at PRL. I can appreciate and admire all of that stuff. I mean, I am a writer, an aspirant in the literary arts. But business and efficiency are my core interests. I can’t help it, it’s in my blood; I’m the kid whose Dad brought him to the PSI computing center on 42nd Street and the futuristic Pan Am Building in the 1960s!
So while I made a joke about using overkill to determine a customer size, it wasn’t long before I noticed something peculiar about the distribution of sizes of one product in the store. It was right under my nose. What I was stacking when Carl invaded my life: Men’s Shirts.
In our great shirt gallery on the main floor, the walls were composed of cubbies, stuffed with shirts, arranged by size. From 14½-32 on the left, to 18-36 (the first number is the neck size and the second is the sleeve length, in inches) on the right, maybe 150 cubbies in all. The thing was, there was something wrong with the distribution of sizes from a supply point of view. Meaning that, in some cubbies, the shirts sat on the shelf for a long time. Literally, the fabric could get so old that it started attracting bugs to it! Apparently, I thought to myself, not as many guys come in to buy these sizes as compared to the others.
I wondered, ‘What if the shirt-wall cubbies could be reallocated by size to more nearly match the demand walking in the door?’ This would mean that certain sizes, like 15-35 and 15-36 (worn by dudes built like giraffes) or 16-32 (Tasmanian Devils) which were currently allocated 10 cubbies between them could easily be pared back to 4. The extra 6 cubbies could be allocated to the most popular size, 15½-34, where we were always out of stock in hot selling patterns.
This is a giraffe. This is a Tasmanian Devil.
I surmised, therefore, that shirt sales could be boosted if the supply by size matched their demand by size. So I set about to study the problem using the sales analysis section on the store computer inventory system. It was one of those old-fashioned green-screen mainframe applications; not particularly user-friendly. Fortunately I benefited from some professional training in this regard. I took a year’s worth of sales data for shirts and broke them down by size, arriving at the percentage of sales by size.
Then I compared this to both the inventory of shirts as well as the proportionate allocation of size on the shirt-wall. There were many adjustments to make. Generally, I felt certain we could sell more shirts if we supplied more in the popular sizes (and fewer in the less sought after sizes).
This was something for John Mains, the Store President, to consider. I made an appointment to see him and then showed him my analysis. He loved it! I asked him for his approval to do 2 things. First, rearrange the cubbies by size according to my proportionate recommendations. Then adjust the buying of shirts by size accordingly.
New size-plaques were ordered, and one evening soon after their arrival, Ivan, the (crazy) Russian handyman, rearranged them all in accordance with my (evil) plan. (Most plans are evil.) I came in early the next morning to stock the newly assigned cubbies with shirts (now ordered by size/style instead of haphazardly by style) that had arrived overnight from the warehouse.
Ooooh! An evil plan!
The whole point was to reduce uncommon sizes sitting around uselessly collecting dust and housing random insects¹. If often-sold sizes could take their place, maybe we would push out more merchandise.
After a year, I ran the shirt sales analysis and the results were startling! Shirt sales were up $1,000,000, a significant gain! So I made another appointment with John Mains, and this time presented the results.
I asked for a raise in the following way: $500,000 of the million dollar gain, I explained, was for overhead. $250,000 was for Ralph. So I asked for the remainder, $250,000 as an increase in my salary. I made it very clear that I did not expect PRL to actually grant me a quarter million dollar raise — I was just making a business case and asked him to consider an appropriate increase given my initiative.
After several days, John came through with a sizable increase to my salary. I had now come very close to duplicating my income at Olcott International!
So did this external message really come from Carl? Or did it originate from me, an internal message after all?
¹ – This is a joke. At no time did PRL sell bug-infested merchandise. The shirts were just old.