6 Management Lessons From The Duck Store’s Jim Williams

College bookstores are under pressure as retail, content, and education businesses evolve. At the Duck Store in Eugene, Ore., the future is coming fast, but solid management principals help them take it all in stride.

I recently had an opportunity to sit down
with Jim Williams, the soon-to-retire manager of Oregon’s The Duck Store, to discuss what he
has learned about management during his 36-year relationship with The Duck
Store. Although The Duck Store, like all college stores, sits at the
evolutionary vortex of retail, education, and content, Williams doesn’t believe
the future of college stores or retail will be driven by technology, but by
service.

Williams is only third manager to
nurture The Duck Store over its 92-year history. At $42 million in revenue and
a staff that varies seasonally between 300 and 350 people, The Duck Store is
not a minor operation. And in all of its locations, the mantra of Ducks serving Ducks is reinforced by practices
built on respect, leadership, and empowerment. Here are six lessons that embody
those traits.

Lesson
One: Reflective Learning

The Duck Store is part of a learning
institution. Williams and his team don’t just hire people to stand behind
counters or help locate merchandize. They hire people who know about their
topics.

The Digital Duck, which exists
through a wide corridor just off the main floor of the Eugene store, sells all
things digital, from tablets and laptops, to mice and memory. The people who
sell them know the difference between i3 and i7 Intel processors, as well as
which programs tend to Mac and which ones to PC.

In the basement, the Creative Duck
offer supplies for art students and designers, sold not be clerks, but by art
students and designers who not only know which aisle houses the paint brushes,
but which paint brushes are best for the project you are about to undertake.

For retailers to be relevant, they
need to differentiate themselves on the knowledge they provide, not just the
products they offer.

Lesson
Two: Orchestration

With talented individuals, not just
workers or employees in his care, Williams perceives his General Manager role as
one of orchestration, not management. He fancies himself a conductor of bright,
dedicated musicians, all specialists in their fields.

Organizations that want to retain
high-quality retail talent need to think about creating a respectful, learning
environment where management is focused on outcomes, not output.

Lesson
Three: Rapid Innovation

Because of this environment, new
innovations at The Duck Store can be turned around in as little as one hour.
One recent example was a viral video featuring the Oregon Duck. The video was
developed by student to promote Oregon’s 2010 Rose Bowl run (I Love My Ducks). As the only
licensed Disney character outside of the Disney cannon, using the Oregon Duck for
anything comes with some strings. Williams and his team got involved,
creatively transforming the video from a random post into the promotion for an
“I Love My Ducks” line. The store worked with students, their attorney, and the
store to create what Williams calls a win-win-win-win (students, Duck
Store-university, and Duck fans) situation. The contract, executed from idea to
a handwritten agreement scrawled on a blank piece of paper, took 30 minutes and
lead to the sale of over 90,000 shirts and an exclusive deal to sell other
merchandise derived from the “I Love My Ducks” theme.

Innovation also means adapting to
change. If college stores are to survive, Williams asserts, they need to build
strong relationships with all constituencies: students, parents, alumni. Those
they see in the store and those that they encounter on the web through their
online retail arm. It is through these relationships that resiliency overcomes
technical change. As long as you serve people, you can deliver that service
through whatever channels evolve.

Other organizations would still be
quaking about why they couldn’t do something in the first 30 minutes of an
innovation discussion. Williams becomes a bit Yoda-like as he says: “We
don’t ask if we can, we figure out how we will.”

Lesson
Four: Drive Fearless Service from the Floor

Executive may see customers, and
they interact with employees, but they aren’t the front line. At The Duck
Store, the front line drives customer perception, and management knows that, so
that front line also drives the perception of management.

Bottom-up reviews effectively invert
the organization so the store’s learning derives from those closest to the
customers. And even the newest employee knows he or she can act fearlessly in
service to the customer. The review process gives managers direct feedback
about respect, communication, participation, and mentoring–managers are
evaluated by how fearless their employees feel around them.

Lesson
Five: Be a destination

At the corner of 13th and Kincaid,
across the street from a main University of Oregon pedestrian entrance, The
Duck Store is a fixture in the community. A large part of its success comes
from being close to campus, but that wouldn’t mean anything if it wasn’t
integrated into the lifestyle of the students. When families visit, seeing the
dorms makes their sons or daughters college experience real, and eating in one
of the many campus eateries engenders a nostalgic experience. But parents spend
hours in The Duck Store. In some ways, that’s where the real campus orientation
takes place, as the green and yellow somehow osmotically seeps into one’s skin.

Retailers need to recognize that
people don’t just come to shop, they come to experience.

Lesson
Six: Ownership

Being in control of one’s own destiny
is a good lesson. Many college stores remain captive, sometimes outsourced arms
of the central campus. Not so The Duck Store, which has been owned independently by faculty,
students, and staff since 1920, when it was acquired from a local pharmacy owner
after being sold to school to finance Oregon’s 1918 Rose Bowl berth. Ownership
allows the store to create its own culture while supporting the needs of the
college and the community. And while public institutions of higher learning
struggle to maintain learning excellence amid shrinking budgets, The Duck Store
can stay above any issues facing Oregon. The store has no long-term debt and
owns its buildings (expect where it leases satellite operations in retail areas
around the state). Ownership means self-determination.

36 Years
of Learning

Williams sees service at the core of
his philosophy and his experience. He harkens back to January 1969, the day
before he was to leave to serve in the Vietnam War–a day filled with snow and
delays. He had already said his goodbyes to colleagues and friends and readied
himself to head off to boot camp. But the snow delayed that trip. And when the
phone rang, Williams unquestioningly answered the call to remove the three feet of
snow weighing down the roof of the iconic corner store.

The college store is changing, and
rather than sit back and complain, waiting for technology and business models
to roll over them, The Duck Store leads change rather than resisting it. They
are currently exploring expansion plans that include a state-of-the-art retail
location as well as a hotel with extended food services to complement their
already cozy coffee corner. And as more retail moves online, The Duck Store is
prepared to complement their physical location with state-of-the-art e-commerce
tools and effective Internet marketing.

All of the strategic concerns of the
college bookstore store industry seem less daunting if you decide that the
answer lies in creating a caring culture that adapts, not by overthinking the
future, but by paying attention to the present. It won’t matter to The Duck Store
if the Kindle surpasses the iPad, if e-books become as easily bootlegged as MP3
songs, or if open-source courseware predominates. Whatever products, technology,
or channels evolve, The Duck Store will unflinchingly apply its management
principals and find a way to cloak the future in its own unique veneer of
yellow and green.

Watch an interview with Williams conducted by the Oregon Daily Emerald here.

[Image: Flickr user Sean Davis]

About the author

Daniel W. Rasmus, the author of Listening to the Future, is a strategist who helps clients put their future in context.

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