From the February 6, 1995 issue of Smart

Taking Advantage of a Bad Situation

By David English

Sometimes, it's OK to take advantage of a bad situation.

No, I'm not saying that you should be like the lawyer who chases ambulances or the insurance salesman who accosts family members at a funeral. But there are times when offering your customer a real solution can be a win-win situation for everyone.

Here's a terrific example. Last May, the National Education Commission on Time and Learning reported that U.S. students spend an average of 1,460 hours on core subjects in order to graduate, while German students spend an average of 3,528 hours on the same material. French students spend 3,280 hours; and Japanese students spend 3,170 hours.

The report found that the typical U.S. student spends just 3 hours a day on subjects such as science, math, and English, when the amount of time should be closer to 5 1/2 hours.

The commission recommended a longer school day, an extended school year, and an emphasis on such neglected subjects as geography, foreign languages, fine arts, and civics.

In praising the report, education secretary Richard Riley called for the nation to reinvent schools "around learning rather than time" and challenged parents to take a more active role in the education of their children.

Guess what? Not much has happened. At the vast majority of schools, it's business as usual. Most kids still spend a significant amount of their school day taking socialization classes, such as drug counseling and sex education, and parents are increasingly frustrated about the quality of their kids' education.

That's where you come in. If the schools can't or won't transform themselves, parents will have to take up the slack by supplementing their children's education. Fortunately, with a multimedia computer and the right software, parents can bring vast worlds of knowledge into their living rooms.

You might create a special software section in your store called Home Learning or Homework Reference Programs. Talk to your customers about the report and find out about their concerns. Don't ask which software programs they want; ask which kinds of knowledge they need in order to supplement the local schools. Then translate those concerns into specific programs.

While education is a constant worry for many customers, the same principles can apply to news reports that highlight a temporary problem. When a report appears in your local newspaper, you can follow up with a targeted ad or mailing emphasizing products that support the report's findings. If the government announces measures to protect office workers from repetitive motion injuries, it's time to beef up your supply of ergonomic keyboards. If your locality has a severe pollution scare, a sudden loss of jobs, or an unusual crime wave, that's your cue to order more environmental, résumé, or self-defense programs.

Positive news reports can work almost as well. If your local football team is number one, stock up on football titles. And if the unemployment rate dips to a new low, be sure to have plenty of PIMs (personal information managers) on hand for the newly hired.

We all share the same news environment, though we rarely think about the effect it has on our lives. With a heightened awareness and some careful planning, you can anticipate your customers' needs and increase your profit at the same time.

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