The report this week that Subway tops McDonald’s in the restaurant unit race may seem surprising. Actually, Subway passed McDonald’s in number of stores six years ago and still holds onto that position. The score: Subway 34,239 vs. McDonald’s 32,737. But, just for the record, McDonald’s hauled in $24 billion last year compared to Subway’s $15.2 billion. 

Units or dollars, however, are not the point. Rather, it’s the ideas and lessons that may be adaptable to boat dealerships from Subway’s move to the top that are worth consideration. Like, how they do it?

One big answer is Subway’s innovative plan to connect with existing businesses. So, Subway outlets are now just about anywhere a foot-long will fit, such as in Walmarts, airports and gas stations in addition to strip centers or stand-alone stores.

For marine dealers, one thing the Subway example does is call attention to the potential of working with other businesses in a dealer’s market area. Not as sales outlets per se, but in creating joint displays and promotions with businesses like restaurants and big box stores; couponing with outdoor clothing stores, gas stations and movie theaters; in-store and in-mall cross-promotions or local sporting events, concerts and charity functions – any other business that wants to build its brand or traffic is a possible “partner.”

Subway was also recently cited by Anita Campbell, founder and editor of Small Business Trends, LLC, writing for American Express Open Forum. “Innovation can come from much simpler places, as I was reminded recently by a sub sandwich,” she wrote, putting down the idea that today we associate innovation with tech breakthroughs.

She referred to Subway’s director of development, Don Fertman, who appeared on the popular TV show “Undercover Boss.” Fertman worked alongside employees in the stores to see what really happens on the front line. He said that the experience revealed some "terrific best practices" that he planned to share throughout Subway.

Campbell’s contends that small businesses can learn from Fertman’s experience and, indeed, she’s right. First, the idea that a business is too small or ordinary for innovative thinking is wrong. It doesn’t get much simpler or more basic than placing cold cuts on bread, she points out. “There’s room for innovation everywhere."

Second, forget it if you think innovation means reading lofty books or taking expensive seminars. “As Fertman’s experience shows,” Campbell writes, “often the best way to innovate is to look right in front of you. How is your company doing things now, and what can it do better? There’s inspiration everywhere." How long, if ever, have you as a dealership owner or manager, spent time working “on the front line” to see and feel what really happens there?

Third, there’s innovation in everyone! “Have you ever tried to branstorm by yourself?,” Campbell asks. Ideas come much faster when more people are involved. Everyone in the dealership should be encouraged to think innovation. The best ideas can easily come from the bottom up.

Finally, my favorite of Campbell’s points – innovation is 99 percent observation. She writes, referring to Fertman’s experience: “He didn’t go into the situation pushing new ideas, his role was simply to watch, listen and learn – to observe.” I couldn’t agree more. Indeed, observing what’s happening inside a dealership, as well as always keeping an eye for ideas that could be successfully adapted from outside your business, is valuable time spent. After all, we’re not trying to “reinvent to wheel” - just trying to observe and adapt a new way to roll it!


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