No, I Will Not Stock That

If you work retail, or have ever worked retail, you know one of the keys to continued successful operation of a store is stocking items that sell well and eliminating items which do not. Stock rotation is incredibly important. You must generate sales regularly to stay afloat. That’s just common business sense. So, when a customer asks if we will stock an item, I often say, “no.” And here’s why: they won’t return to buy them.

Isn’t that betting on the negative nature of people? No. It’s betting on experience based on realistic expectations about customer habits. Now, this isn’t to say that I won’t order any product I can for a customer if they request it. I absolutely will. And they will pay for it before I do so. But I will not stock any item for a customer just because they think it will do well. The customer is one person who knows absolutely nothing about the marketplace or demand for a certain product beyond that of his own needs and desires.

However, if I get three or four people in a week looking for that same product, I’d be more inclined to stock that item and see how it sells, see if demand continues. But if I see that demand start to stagnate and diminish, that item will be sold off and will not be returning any time soon. This is especially true of time-limited items (not to be confused with limited-time items, which are only around for a limited amount of time and then it’s gone), which have a certain window of time during which they are good, such as food items. In my store, they’re aeronautical charts.

Allow me to explain this a bit for those of you who haven’t any idea of how aeronautical navigation works. Aeronautical charts are divided up by the type of flying being done, the size of the area covered, and approach altitude. Also, there are supplements for airports, as well as terminal procedures for those airports. This terminal procedure books are the subject of this post.

This is what a terminal procedure publication looks like. Notice at the top that they are good for only 56 days, not even two months, which is the case for all instrument flight charts (enroute highs, enroute lows, and terminal procedures). That’s a relatively small window compared to the visual flight charts, which are good for about six months. Still, it’s enough time for a customer to plan accordingly for a flight.

A couple of years ago, the FAA disconinued the practice of buying back for credit unsold expired charts. So, whatever you didn’t sell after the chart cycle had ended you were stuck with. They were good for nothing but training purposes, as wall paper, or as packing material. What’s a small aviation supply shop to do?

Simple: stock what sells most.

We implemented what our chart distributors call an “on-demand model”, which means they will print books as they are ordered. We carry only what is in high demand and order any others as they come.

Part of the reason for the sharp decline in demand for charts over just a few years is the FAA’s allowance of the use of electronic devices for navigation (such as tablet computers using subscription-based services like ForeFlight) in the cockpit. Now, pilots don’t have to lug around cases and bags loaded with heavy charts and books. A simple annual subscription and an iPad is all you need now. It’s fantastic for pilots, airlines, FBOs, and any other groups who used to purchase large amounts of charts and fly to a vast number of locations.

So, what’s the point of continuing to sell paper charts then? Well, for one thing, aviation students still mostly learn on paper charts. Learning the skills of navigation are essential and are best accomplished by hand on paper. Besides, for another thing, what if your electronics go down? Wouldn’t you like to have a physical backup in case that happens? I don’t know about you, but I sure would. Plus, there’s still people who don’t use electronic charts at all.

Point is there still exists a market for them, even though it is considerably smaller than it was before. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stock the entire US in the hope that someone will come in a buy one for Maine or Oregon or South Carolina. No, I’m going to stock the region: all of Texas and the surrounding states. And even the quantities of those must be closely monitored and carry no guarantee of selling well. It’s a vicious cycle.

That brings me to yesterday’s customer encounter. Despite the fact we have signs up explaining the new system, which customers never read anyway, we continue to get questions: “Why aren’t you stocking these anymore?”

Because I like having a job, basically.

I’m not about to take a loss on items that have lower profit margins and shrunken and unpredictable demand. Since I have a local distributor who can provide me, usually, with in-stock products with complimentary next-day shipping, I can order just about any charts I need and receive them within a few days, depending on stock available.

Here’s the issue: this assumes the customer plan ahead, which the customer never does. Every single cycle I see this issue rear its ugly idiot head. A customer will come in looking for a chart that’s now out of stock: “But I have a check ride tomorrow morning!”

Two things about check rides: Firstly, check rides are incredibly important. Think of it as a drivers ed exam in the sky. You have to pass a check ride to be considered legal in the eyes of the FAA. That means you have to know your stuff and have up-to-date charts. You don’t have one of those things, you won’t be flying.

The other thing about check rides? They don’t just get scheduled with little notice. Usually, they schedule those weeks in advance. It’s not a surprise.

One of my teachers in high school had a sign on the wall behind his desk that read: “A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” It’s a simple mantra of “your screw up ain’t my problem,” and that’s absolutely true. Other people should not be made to clean up messes made by you. If they offer to help, that’s nice, but they’re under no obligation to help your procrastinating idiot self in any way. They’re perfectly right if they just say, “well, that sucks,” and go about their day.

Desperation always leads to two other questions: 1) When will you get more?; and 2) Do you know if anyone else around who might have it?

1) I don’t know. I’ll have it as soon as my distributor does. 2) Nope. I am affiliated with no other stores in the country. I work closely with some, and we have a mutually beneficial relationship, but I don’t know their stock. I do know they have the same on-demand model we do though, so you’re welcome to drive the thirty miles to the nearest shop in the slim hopes they’ll have what you so desperately need right this second.

Here’s the bottom line: Don’t get mad at us for attempting to adapt to an ever-changing marketplace in a manner that best allows us to accommodate our customers and continue to turn a profit, ya know, the thing that businesses are designed to do.

And here’s the final reason why I will not stock the rest of the US ever again: The customer who came to buy charts we no longer carry has only shown up once in the last four months. Yeah, that’s a considerable amount of uncertainty, on top of the regular amount of uncertainty, to stock charts that will most likely go unused. It won’t happen, so don’t expect a store to bow to your wishes. If only one customer in a hundred calls out for an item, that customer will get a special order; it will not be regularly stocked. Because we’re not idiots.

When I first started working here, we carried headlamps. They never sold. So when I discounted them and finally sold them off, I didn’t rebuy them. Months later, and over the following two years, I’d get customers sporadically looking for headlamps. “I got one here, like, three years ago. Why don’t you stock them anymore?” Because y’all stopped buying them. Simple. As. That.

Because you nitwits stopped buying them.

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