Ask an Expert: Don't fall into the buggy-whip mentality

ByABC News
August 4, 2008, 5:28 AM

— -- Q: I own an upper-end shop in New York and we, too, are being hit by the economic slowdown. With people looking for bargains, how to we compete without hurting our brand? Jenna

A: There is no doubt everyone is feeling the pinch of the economic downturn these days and woe to the business that doesn't react in accordance with the times.

Back at the turn of the 20th century, the automobile was a newfangled contraption. But even so, it was apparent almost immediately that it was also a revolutionary item that was here to stay. That is one reason why, if you Google the term "buggy whip manufacturer," you end up with zilch.

Why did all of the buggy whip makers go out of business? Because they thought they were in the business of making buggy whips.


Sure, when the automobile supplanted the horse-drawn buggy, the need for buggy whips evaporated, but it wasn't the car that killed the buggy whip maker, it was the buggy whip maker's thinking that did it.

Literary essayist George Steiner once put it this way: Had a buggy whip manufacturer in 1910 rethought things and concluded that rather than being in the buggy whip business he was instead in the business of creating "transportation starting devices," he just might have been able to survive the challenge of the new economy and make the transition into a new era.

You gotta go with the times, my friends. Unlike our fallen buggy whip business brethren, you must avoid what is known as "marketing myopia."

Marketing Myopia was an influential business paper written by Theodore Levitt for the Harvard Business Review. The essential idea put forth was that too many businesses think like the old buggy whip makers, with a far too narrow an analysis of what their business is.

The proposition instead was to Think Bigger, to be more expansive, to broaden one's definition of what business they are in. A broader, more unrestrained criteria offers opportunities that otherwise might have been missed.

Here is a current example: I just read a story that the Whole Foods marketing chain is trying to lure more people into their stores by showing customers that Whole Foods is in fact an economical place to shop. I don't know about you, but when I think of shopping at Whole Foods, "economical" is not one of the adjectives that pops into my mind (and of course that is not all bad, with words like "healthy" and "organic" being more prominent.)