Refighting the last war is tantamount to losing the next.
France fell within months of the assault Germany launched across Europe in September 1939. Driving forward with a mechanized army and a modern air force, the Third Reich unleashed its blitzkrieg on the French Republic's large standing army and impressive defensive fortifications.
Despite Germany's high-tech war machine, the world was dumbstruck when France collapsed in June 1940. World War I had ended just 22 years before, draining Germany to a pauper state and leaving France scarred but victorious.
What went wrong so soon after amounted to winning the war but losing the peace. France learned too well from what it suffered on the battlefield. In the '20s and '30s, the French prepared as if they would have to refight the last war -- but a new "lightning war" rained down on them instead. France's military was woefully out of step.
Successful retailers can be likened to warring generals. In the marketplace, as on the battlefield, outsmarting foes can be more effective than outgunning them.
Word that one of America's old soldiers of retailing is fading away should remind all of us in business of the danger of working in the past.
It would be reckless to render 117 years of corporate history too hastily. Despite the headlines, F.W. Woolworth & Co. is not "going out of business," even though it is shutting down its last 400 Woolworth-brand "five-and-dime stores" in the U.S. The company says it will continue to operate the various other retail chains it owns across the country. And it will let "Woolworth" live on as a store name in several foreign markets.
The final departure of Woolworth from the old shopping districts of major cities and the main streets of big towns will leave a psychological hole of sorts.
But there won't be much of a retail void to fill in the wake of Woolworth's passing. The chain peaked only in 1992, when sales reached $9.9-billion annually and 8,386 stores were open worldwide. A year later, Woolworth lost $500 million.
Changing times finally decked the slumbering giant. The pioneer of reliable discounting was eclipsed by nimbler competitors that reacted more sharply to shifting demographics and new customer-service demands.
Like the guy who doesn't take care of himself over the years only to one day find his health gone to hell in a handcart, Woolworth aged proudly -- but had years before stopped doing itself any long-term good.
The obits detailing the demise of one of America's most familiar and historic brand names outline a text on how not to succeed in business, especially without really trying. To wit, here are some key chapter headings:
1. Maintain customer loyalty but cultivate new customers, too. People move on. Any business enterprise that remains wedded to its original customers -- after they've split the scene -- risks being doomed to serving ghosts. Finding new customers is one way to beat the cycle of life.
2. Location, location, location. Not only did Woolworth lose out by not following many of its customers' suburban flight, it did not adapt to the "malling" of America that has redefined shopping behavior.
3. Give buyers what they want at prices they'll pay. The other mass retailers offered modern merchandise at the lower prices their volume purchasing could support.
Having shed its weakest domestic link, Woolworth is expected to focus on its Foot Locker and Kinney Shoes footwear divisions, as well as several specialty retail chains whose stores reside inside shopping malls. In fact, analysts expect the sale of store real estate will enable Woolworth to acquire other retail operations.
That the whole company isn't going down in defeat is credited to CEO Roger N. Farah, who took command just three years ago. Still, an enterprise of tremendous potential not so long ago has been reduced to an historical footnote.
Time marches on and we must keep pace with the changes it brings. As the heirs to Frank Winfield Woolworth's innovations might attest, a success yesterday is no guarantee of victory tomorrow.