Where Coach Cal and SMRs Get It Wrong

Ignoring merchandising "free throws" can cost you a championship.

I attended the University of Massachusetts during the ascent of the basketball program headed by John Calipari, now coach of the University of Memphis Tigers. While I graduated too early to be present for the Marcus Camby-led team that made it to the Final Four-whether the NCAA wants to recognize the achievement or not-I was still able to see firsthand how Coach Cal built a winning team based on concepts such as "Refuse to Lose" and playing "any team, any time, anywhere."

However, Coach Cal had one serious blind spot: He didn't think it was necessary to devote significant time to practicing free throws. His philosophy was that a player at the Division I collegiate level should know how to sink an unguarded shot a mere 15 feet from the basket. As a result, Calipari-led teams have consistently featured low free-throw percentages.


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This trait was on full display during the NCAA tournament finals April 7, when a missed Memphis free throw at the end of the game gave Kansas University a chance to tie the game with a truly spectacular last-second three-point shot by guard Mario Chalmers, and then go on to win in overtime.

Taking nothing away from the heroics of Chalmers, if Coach Cal had better prepared his team to make free throws, right now they could be the reigning college basketball champs.

Many SMRs (small to midsize retailers) have a similar blind spot. They build successful enterprises by refusing to lose to more established competitors and taking on big chains on their own turf. However, they all too frequently ignore the opportunity to improve their performance in routine merchandising tasks, or the "free throws" of the industry.

For example, a few years back I had lunch with a high-level executive at a small, family-owned specialty clothing chain with five or six locations in Massachusetts. This retailer had found a niche and successfully competed against larger specialty chains for three generations. I asked the executive, whose grandfather had founded the business, if he had ever considered implementing a markdown optimization system.

He cocked his head and looked at me like I had suggested opening an outlet on Mars.

"What's the point of doing that?" he asked. "If something doesn't sell, I mark it down. If it still doesn't sell, I mark it down more."