Commodities: Now That’s Scary!

When I was a kid, one of my favorite late-night TV shows was “SCTV” out of Toronto. It was basically a Friday night sketch comedy show NBC picked up after cancelling “The Midnight Special.” It featured John Candy, Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Joe Flaherty and others. Even in retrospect, I think it was very funny.

And one of my favorite characters was Flaherty’s Count Floyd, a late-night B-movie horror film host that parodied the ones that seemed to be all over the place back then — from Vampira to Elvira to Morgus the Magnificent. Those were the days when the station manager or news anchor of the local affiliate had to double as the Saturday morning kids’ show host … or the late night ghoul.

Count Floyd & Co.
Count Floyd & Co.

What made Count Floyd different was that the films they showed on “Monster Chiller Horror Theatre” weren’t horror films — not even close. They were mostly slow-paced drawing room dramas or pensive foreign language films (think Ingmar Bergman). When no one jumped out of the bushes to attack a character, Count Floyd was left to howl like a wolf (while dressed like Dracula?) and compensate the best he could.

“Wow! Now that’s scary!” he’d say in a Transylvanian accent. “But you know what’s really scary? Loneliness … that’s scary! Or hardening of the arteries — when your arteries get so … hard.”

I made up the line, but you get the idea.

In honor of Halloween, I’m going to play “Count Ken” today. We’re not going to think about madmen loose in your store or even about uninsured losses or a big box store opening up across the street. We’re talking “commodity” here.

First let me define “commodity.” It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot, and I want to make sure we’re on the same page.

If you look up “commodity” in a dictionary, it’ll tell you that a commodity is “an article of trade or commerce,” but I mean something different — something derogatory.

In our context, “commodity” means “a product, service or business which is essentially indistinguishable from others in the marketplace.” A classic example of a commodity is pork bellies. Ever watch a movie and hear traders refer to buying or selling “pork bellies”? Well, those pork bellies haven’t been inspected by the parties, and as far as the buyers and sellers are concerned, they’re the same as every other pork belly out there.

That’s a commodity — something that’s the same as every other one of its kind. With apologies to the toothpick industry, I’d call a toothpick a commodity, too. Some are flat, some are round and some are mint-flavored, but one toothpick is pretty much the same as any other to most of us, and I wouldn’t want to be in the business of having to create product differentiation for toothpicks.

Being a commodity is scary. If you’re a commodity, you’re basically rudderless and subject to the winds and whims of the market. How do you distinguish yourself? About the only tool you have for that is price. And when margins get so thin you can no longer stay afloat, you’re finished.

Now let’s bring the horror home.

What are you doing to create differentiation in your retail tackle shop, in your lure manufacturing business, in your rod-building business, in your reel-making business? You might think you’re pretty special, and you might be doing pretty well, but if you’re planning a party at the haunted house known as Casa de Commodity, it’s not going to end well.

Are you at risk? Does your business model have horror movie potential?

Take a good hard look at how you market yourself. If part of your marketing is that you have a 10 percent off sale on crankbaits … or that your topwater lures come in 23 different colors … or that your rods are 8 percent lighter than your nearest competitor … or that your high-speed baitcasting reel brings in one more inch of line per turn of the handle than the No. 1 best seller … well, guess what? You’re already marketing yourself like a commodity.

And there’s about as much future in that as there is for the two teens making out in the spooky old house while the disfigured madman climbs the darkened stairs.

If you can’t find a message that’s worth talking about or thinking about, then no one’s going to talk or think about your business. That’s scary.

So, what’s your message? If you can’t say it simply and easily in 15 words or less, or if it mentions price or some boring technical specification, you should be frightened. The thing that’s going to get you is not hiding behind the counter or living in the dark recesses of the warehouse … it’s your own business model.