Competing on Value: The Key to Surviving the Future of Work
The current discussion about Amazon’s HQ2, and its impact on the chosen cities, reminds me of a time about 15 years ago.
Back then, I owned a law practice in a small town. The same one I grew up in. It was a town that seemed to get smaller each year. Manufacturing jobs disappeared. Retail stores disappeared too. Leaving their downtown storefronts to be filled with law firms and insurance agencies.
We had two grocery stores and a hardware store. But, the two stores that sold clothes closed a few years after I started my practice.
So, when it was announced that Walmart was coming, there were mixed emotions. Very similar to today’s mixed emotions about Amazon. People talked about Walmart in one of two ways. For some, there was relief. No longer would you have to drive 20 or 30 miles to find better prices. For others, there was anger. Walmart had a reputation for undercutting competition and driving out mom and pop businesses. Those were about the only kinds of businesses we had left.
My opinion was somewhere in between. At that time, my 3 kids were all in diapers. Saving money on diapers was important. But, it wasn’t just about getting the best price. Sometimes, it was about getting simple things, like socks, in a 5 minute drive, rather than 30.
However, I owned a business and I needed other business owners to be successful.
Was there a way to survive Walmart? I set out to find one. I wandered around the internet, looking for stories about other small towns and their Walmart. I read multiple books. And, I learned that it didn’t have to be the end of our small town way of life.
Walmart was on a mission to make a profit. That was true. They would be competing. Fiercely competing to make that profit. That is, after all, what businesses do.
But, businesses in other small towns survived, flourished even, once they embraced Walmart’s presence and competed where Walmart was weak. A small grocery is actually faster for busy customers to navigate. A store devoted solely to hardware creates a deeply knowledgeable staff. And, a locally owned drug store can provide home-delivered prescriptions.
Small town businesses were surviving Walmart by refusing to compete on price. Customers were being persuaded to pay higher prices by business that provided greater value. So, the key to survival was building value.
But, for some business owners, the coming of Walmart seemed like the beginning of the end. They just couldn’t see it any other way. Just like robots and AI can seem to be the end of working life as we know it.
The Future of Work, the robots and AI, will change how we work. But, it doesn’t have to be the end. We can coexist.
To start, we simply can’t compete on price. We’ll end up losing. We’ll never be cheaper than a robot. We have to find and develop our value. Just like customers, employers can be persuaded to pay a higher price when there is greater value.
Competing on value, rather than price is not a new idea. But, it’s a brand new idea when applied to personal employability. So, it’s a concept that will have to be taught.
For example, we’ll have to teach kids that being willing to learn and knowing how to learn adds value. We’ll have to teach them to be aware of what skills they lack and how to learn those skills as quickly and inexpensively as possible.
Developing soft skills, like emotional intelligence and adaptability, are also ways to add value. Again, now is the time for kids to begin recognizing these skills in themselves and learn how to grow them.
I suppose a story is always better when there is a giant villain threatening one’s way of life. Whether it’s Amazon, Walmart, or a robot, the story is better told when there’s a threat that seems too big and too powerful to defeat.
I’m not sure this story has to end with defeat. Those small town businesses that embraced Walmart’s presence 15 years ago are still in operation. Where Walmart was weak, they developed a strength. And, they coexisted.
If we play to our strengths, articulate our value, we too will be able to compete and coexist.