NFDA Editorial: Where do the families you serve buy their shoes?

Ed Defort, editor of The Director magazine was kind enough to run an editorial piece I wrote in the May 2012 issue. The Director is the monthly periodical produced by the National Funeral Directors Association.

I wrote the piece to speak to funeral service vendors and leaders but thought I would document it here as well for future reference. To date, it has generated more than the usual amount of buzz in the industry.

You can find a PDF version here, Shoes Editorial — NFDA May 2012, or read the full text below the fold.

Editorial for The Director Magazine, May 2012
By: William “BT” Hathaway

Have you ever purchased a pair of hand measured, hand sewn, custom made dress shoes? Not specialized medical devices mind you, but normal shoes made for typical feet. Would you even know where to get measured if the desire suddenly hit you?

If not, then how many of your consumers buy custom made shoes which would cost them anywhere from $500.00 to a $1,000.00 per pair–or more?

Any? If you can honestly answer “yes” then congratulations, you probably live in a rarified part of the country and maybe you get to perform those $30,000 hyper-personalized funeral extravaganzas that funeral thinkers have dreamed about for years. I honestly hope you exist and hope you have a very profitable business. Again, congratulations.

So what about the rest of you, the 80 or 90 or perhaps even 99 percent of you who wouldn’t spend half that much on a pair of shoes for yourself, and who’s consumers shop to cover their feet at places like Marshalls, Payless, Walmart and even the Salvation Army Store? Could your consumers afford a $30,000 funeral–without going hungry for the next five or ten years–even if they wanted all the bells and whistles?

Look around. How do your consumers dress? Where do your consumers shop? Haven’t thought about it? Well according to one source, 138 million people visit Walmart every WEEK, and supposedly 84% of Americans have shopped at Walmart in the last year.

That’s a lot of people shopping for a bargain and that’s only one brand of store. So let’s face facts, the Walmart shopper, the Staples, Chili’s, McDonalds, Marshalls, Home Depot shopper is the kind of person most funeral directors serve every day of the week. These consumers live in a prepackaged, fast-food, do-it-yourself–dare I say “cookie cutter”–sort of world. They aren’t tuned and primed to appreciate extraordinary levels of personalization, and they certainly aren’t prepared to pay for it. Just ask a typical Payless shoe store customer if they would pay $700 for a pair of shoes, or try to get a full markup on a custom casket panel (admit it, you usually give those away because it feels good) when you offer them to families.

During my 20+ years in funeral service I have heard numerous industry pundits, leaders, consultants and sales representatives try to teach me the supposed necessity of personalization and customization. I’ve heard the jargon our industry has created such as “personalized legacy celebrations” and I have bought into the hopes which accompanied the words. Yet all the while, the local cobblers and tailors, and butchers, and bakers and florists have all but disappeared, replaced by corporatized facsimiles or “departments” in Walmart or the grocery super store. In other words the consumer world has become less and less customized while we in funeral service were too busy to notice. And all the while consumers continue to put less time, energy and money into funerals, not more.

So what comes next? To be honest, I’m not quite sure. I have barely begun to experiment and I have yet to find a vendor or thinker who understands the direction I’ve started to take. But the more I look around, the more I acknowledge the consumer world in which we operate, and the more quickly families transition to cremation; the more I think of Target and Panera Bread as potential examples, rather than Saks Fifth Avenue and the hand built shoe makers of the world.

In other words, Target makes money in my neighborhood. Saks? Not so much.

We need to make our families feel important and comforted. That part hasn’t changed. At the same time we need to remain in business, and as margins shrink, we need methods and resources which let us serve people appropriately while consuming less time and less money. We need thinkers and more importantly vendors who can help us learn the lessons of the modern consumer world. And we need associations and leaders who more quickly adapt to our 21st century challenges.


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