Do you remember what you were doing 30 years ago, in 1986?  

You might have been on a date watching “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Top Gun” or “Aliens.” On the way to the movies, you might have been listening to Prince’s “Purple Rain,” Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” or Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Afterward, you might have been talking about Prince Harry being born. When you got home, you might have turned on the TV and watched “The Cosby Show.” Bill Cosby was America’s dad back then. Seriously!

Back then, I was starting a new company by the name of Paragon that served a fledgling new industry: convenience stores. At the time, I had big dreams of changing the industry. Radical ideas such as hot- and cold-dispensed beverages and foodservice were all the rage. I had no idea what kind of ride I was getting on.

Fast-forward 30 years, and my, how things have changed. “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Top Gun” and “Aliens” DVDs are in the bargain bin at Wal-Mart. Prince is dead, Madonna is no longer like a virgin (was she then?) and Cyndi Lauper is 63 years old. The royal family has moved on to the next generation. Bill Cosby is no longer America’s dad and may end up in prison.

And finally, President Bill Clinton’s wife is running against Donald Trump for president of the United States. Pigs are flying, and hell is getting chilly.

History Lesson

In the convenience industry, things have changed just as dramatically. The average size of a typical store has more than doubled. We read about 10,000-, 20,000- and 30,000-square-foot stores selling everything from great food to barbecue grills and antiques. Stores no longer are strictly for gas and something to drink. They have become a part of our lifestyle. We go to our favorite store for a variety of reasons, and everyone’s reasons are different.

When you look back over 30 years, it is easy to see the changes and how the industry reinvented itself continuously over time. The best of the best were (and are) the companies that were quick to change and then change again. Embracing the change as a part of their culture was the way to stay ahead. On the other hand, history is filled with retailers who fought change and strived for the status quo, trying to eke out just one more year before having to deal with the next change. Which one are you? I would guess that you are somewhere in the middle.

It’s fun to reminisce, but how are you going to use your knowledge going forward? One of my history professors used to say that history repeats itself and that you can learn from history. I didn’t believe him at the time, but I said I did on the final to pass the course. I passed! After 30 years in business, I have to give my old professor props: He was right. We’re in the constant cycle of a changing marketplace, and the great retailers modify their approach and offering to take advantage of the change around us.

That is certainly the case in my business. Design has taken a leading role in reflecting the changing marketplace. Good design seamlessly married to good merchandising that meets the needs of the marketplace is a beautiful thing. It is also a profitable thing. Customers are always looking either consciously or subconsciously to see if a retailer is staying with the times, then making buying decisions based on that.

No More ‘Food Mart’

Thirty years ago, our stores were filled with Cokes, smokes, and Twinkies and had no card readers or other technology. Color schemes were tied into the major oil companies. Gray tile, red bands, and the universal “Food Mart” adorned almost every store.

Today’s stores are a fascinating blend of design, technology, new products and services, foodservice and a culture that embraces change to create that destination experience. They have their own brands, distinct and different than that of the major oil companies. Today’s stores offer all generations options that meet their unique needs.

I can honestly say that in the design business, the more I embraced change, the more successful we have been as a company. As an interested observer, I see the same is true for retailers in our industry. As history continues to repeat itself, which retailer are you going to be? Will you hold on tight against the onslaught of change, or will you open yourself up to an exciting ride filled with new surprises at every turn? I can tell you that the second option is not only more fun but also more profitable!