First, let me give a nod of support to Country Business as it transforms to Smart Retailer.  I know the magazine team is working hard to make sure the transition is smooth and successful.  From VHC, Inc. our team wishes you the best in 2012.

Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with the Country Business/Smart Retailer team, and talking frequently with editor Susan Wagner about industry happenings and the general state of things. One of our favorite activities is to get together over dinner and exchange a lot of ideas, and see if anything sticks. We have an unspoken rule, which I will now speak (sorry Susan!): there is no dumb or ridiculous idea, and the worst thing you can do is not put it out there. We usually exchange 20-30 ideas a session. Some are big, some are easy, some are ideas that don’t have enough glue and need to sit a while.

No, we never did the national tour of independent retailers in a custom RV with video coverage and “pimp my display” contests, but the idea led to a Display Challenge in early 2011 with CWI Wholesale in Ohio, and everyone had a lot of fun and there were some great retail displays.

Here’s the simple lesson for me, and for you as a retailer: Don’t be afraid to get stakeholders together and DREAM.

It’s important to circulate your thoughts and get feedback and suggestions. The original brainstorm doesn’t have to be the end result, but you do need to start the process, whether it’s with your suppliers, staff, landlord, business partner, or some combination of all of them. I find that most people who say they aren’t creative, really DO have some level of creativity–but they aren’t PLANNING for creative output. A regular meeting or session to talk about mixing up displays, taking inspiration from a different context, or just to let conversation spark ideas, is a key part of the process. Very, very few people are both hugely creative and able to get everything done on their own with zero peripheral input. Remember, even Steve Jobs had the Macintosh Team, and frequently scheduled lunches with interesting people entirely outside his industry for the express purpose of sparking insights.

Recently, a group of us here at VHC were working some pretty long days on photo shoots. (It was very strange to mentally gear up for Halloween, Harvest and Christmas textile displays in one business week, but I’ll save that for another post). Some of our best ideas, and the most fun and “easy to replicate” display ideas, were off the wall and group-formed. We strung country-style Christmas ornaments across a mantel with cheap twine and antique clothespins for a no-expense and cool merchandise plan. (Try that on that Plain Jane extra spot you have back toward the bathroom with zero floor space.) We hung spooky tea towels from a creepy branch I found in a vacant lot, stuck it in a glass vase (again, no expense), and put Martha Stewart to shame.

By allowing the free flow of ideas, and inserting the “no idea is dumb” rule, we achieved better results. The ideas that were truly bad we laughed at after the fact, and cut those photos as they were obvious to everyone. The next time it’s a slow day or slow week or otherwise, in general, you’re mentally challenged and want to take a fresh approach, here’s my suggestion: Schedule a meeting called “Crazy Ideas That Might Work.”  DREAM and think of possibilities, even if you don’t know quite how to get there. As you assess 2011, and make your plans for 2012, you and your team will be more creative and excited than you think.

Ken Kline is CEO and co-owner of VHC, Inc., a multi-brand wholesale textile design, import and distribution business based in Branson, Missouri, that serves independent, gift, catalog and e-commerce retailers. Major brands include Bella Taylor handbags designed by Ken’s wife, Julie; Nancy’s Nook kitchen, window and seasonal (named after company founder Nancy Kline, Ken’s mother); and Lasting Impressions bedding, throws and accessories. New products and lines launch every six months via web and catalog. Visit to learn more.