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Who’s got a ‘Pet Rock’?

In the 1970s, Gary Dahl made a small fortune selling Pet Rocks.  It was, understandably, a gimmick.  It was a rock in a box with a “Care and Feeding” manual.  He sold thousands, maybe millions.  I had one that I was given as a gift.It was a phenomenon — not unlike Cabbage Patch Dolls, Tickle-Me Elmo or other products that retailers could not keep on the shelf.

Some holiday seasons thrive on “gotta-have” stuff like this — or, in the CE business, on the latest, greatest, “gotta-have” tech or products, such as Blu-ray, 3D, HDTVs, or to show my age, the wonderful VCR.  (I paid $1,200 for my first Betamax in the mid ’70s.)

Christmas is only 90 days away. Black Friday comes in about 2 months.

And, from what I see, there are no Pet Rocks, Elmos or VCRs making people itch to line up late on Thanksgiving night to catch that latest, greatest, “gotta have” thing when doors open early the next morning.

Oh, they will be there.  They will be there if only because retailers are offering 55-inch TVs for $1,000.  (And you know someone will.) They will be there because someone will be offering a $50 or $20 Blu-ray, or a deep discount on the stuff consumers were willing to pay a premium for last year (3DTV?).

They will be there for the bargains.  They will be there for this year’s Pet Rocks, Elmos or Cabbage Patch dolls.  If we had them.

We don’t.

What we have is an economy that seems to slip every day.  We have unemployment numbers that can’t break below the 9 percent reports.   We have chaos in Washington.

And we have empty stores.

The CE market, as well as any retail market, is staring down the barrel of what looks to be a difficult season.

Perhaps some, as we’ve seen in recent times, will not survive.

There have been years of innovation.  There have been years of new technologies – or even gimmicks like the Pet Rock.  From where I sit, we have neither this season.

We have fear, trepidation, failing economics and a lot of customers who are “just looking.”  (But even they are slimming in numbers.)

I’ve spent more than a few years in the CE world, and even more in the marketing and publishing industry.  I’ve seen companies (sometimes my clients) recoil from down markets and cut budgets, drop advertising, reduce prices … and panic.

Hand-wringing is certainly appropriate.

Creativity is what might win the day.

I’m not suggesting that anyone, be they on a sales floor or a board room, has the answer that can make this holiday season soar. But, I can say, unequivocally, that someone (on the floor and on the corporate balance sheet) will turn this season into positive results.

I’ve seen companies cut their top staff to save a few bucks. (Mistake.) I’ve watched companies cut their advertising budgets because sales are falling. (Bigger mistake.) And I’ve seen vendors drop prices to try to maintain volume and market share. (Huge mistake.)

I’ve also seen some who realize there are opportunities in a down economy and a market that doesn’t have that “gotta-have” this or that and find profits — and competitive advantage — at a time when others are spending too much time hand-wringing — and panicking.

No, there is no Pet Rock to drive sales. There is fear and trepidation in the marketplace.  There is high unemployment.   There are shrinking, perhaps vanishing margins.

We may be facing a reinvention of our industry, but we can’t do that in the next 90 days.

What we can do is be smart.

We can realize there is, and will always, be a market for the products we make and sell.

We can remind ourselves that we have customers who are not impacted by the financial headlines of the day.

We can admit that this season is one of survival, or marginal profits, and perhaps, if we pay attention, watching and listening to our customer base to learn what they want of us in the future.

I have no great expectations for this season.   I suspect that when we read the financial reports in January, they will be mostly negative.

But someone, some company — even some kid on a sales floor — will excel and prove me wrong.  Someone will get it right.

If you think you have it, please post a response.John Rice is a writer, consultant and occasional sales professional. Komedia Group provides marketing, training and informational services to companies in the electronics, automotive and pharmaceutical fields. He can be reached at (267) 980-5919, via email at [email protected] or at