Clem Sunter

Starting with the Mealie lady

2010-09-09 08:22

I was driving home after lunch last week when I saw the mealie lady resting by the side of the road. I stopped, we exchanged greetings, I selected a couple of mealies from her trolley and paid her.
As I walked to the car, I reflected that she had been doing the rounds of my suburb ever since I moved there in 1980. That’s a period of 30 years which classifies her as a sustainable business. She has outlasted well known names like John Orrs and Garlicks which were still around in the early 1980s. Why?
I think there are six reasons:
1. She greets me with a smile and makes me feel good during the entire transaction. I walk away with a warm feeling which transcends the purchase of the mealies. By contrast, when you walk into some of South Africa’s premier hotels, the receptionist’s first words are: “Can I have your credit card details?” No welcoming hello, even though a customer survey of the hotel industry has shown that the most important factor in repeat business is the initial contact in the foyer, not the quality of the room or food. How many supermarkets are the same with surly assistants and check-out clerks?
2. She is now familiar with the suburb so she knows which houses are likely to be potential purchasers. She slows down in front of them to increase the chances of a successful deal. How many companies have lost touch with markets and the younger generation of customers? They are all operating in unfamiliar territory and go bust as a result.
3. She has a very melodic cry as she goes down the street – m-e-a-l-i-e-s! You cannot miss it even though the TV may be turned up loud or the kids may be screaming. It is a good marketing ploy which announces in no uncertain terms your presence in the neighbourhood. Lots of entrepreneurs have good products but their advertising is terrible and most of the public do not even know that those businesses exist. They have websites with frozen content.
4. She must have a reliable supply chain and buy wholesale at a lower price than she sells her product retail. Otherwise she would not have lasted so long. Her added value is getting the product within 50 metres of all her customers. A well-known soft drinks company has exactly the same policy. The distribution system must ensure that every American is able to access the product within a short time of leaving the house.
5. She has raised the barriers of entry. I doubt whether any other mealie-seller could trade in our suburb. Singlehandedly, she has through her personality achieved a position of dominance in the market. So many companies miss out on this aspect by not giving enough attention to personalising their product or service.
6. She knows that her earnings depend on her output. How many people working in large organisations in the public and private sector are aware of this principle? She is naturally accountable because the market makes her so.

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