January 29, 2018

Brick and Mortar Isn’t Dead: Jason Wilson


Amazon and online shopping have changed the nature of retail, but Jason believes that brick and mortar stores can still thrive. Jason Wilson, author of Brick and Mortar Isn’t Dead and a consultant at The Pawn Shop Experts, is the owner of Riverside Pawnshop, a chain of seven stores that does more than $8 million in revenue per year.

In this episode, you’ll learn how to start your own local business that will outshine the digital competition. Jason provides useful insight on the phases of business growth, the value of patience, and the power of human connection in running a successful and fulfilling business for yourself and your community.

I was a high school dropout. I was bullied in school pretty badly. School wasn’t really my thing. Eventually, I got a job at a local pawnshop working for an hourly wage, and I really liked the job. I saw ways that I thought the business should be run that were different from the owner’s vision.

He and I eventually had a falling out and decided not to work together anymore. I had a decision to make: since I had no education and no background, I could get a regular job. But I’ve been working at this pawnshop for five or six years, I really like it, I know a lot of the people that come in, I have my own ideas about how the business could run better, and I could succeed and help customers.

That night, I made the decision to open my own store.

Charlie Hoehn: What kind of lessons were you hit with in the early stages after you opened?

Jason Wilson: The pawn industry has not always been painted in the best light. We fight stereotypes all the time. When you see pawnshops in movies or books or on TV, they’re old looking stores in dingy back alleys where criminal activity takes place.

“The truth couldn’t be further from that. We run a business that’s very helpful to people.”

My focus, and one of the things that I like to tell people, is that if you want to open a business, you have to find a way to stand out. To us, standing out in the pawn industry was flipping those stereotypes and putting the focus on to helping people and customer service, developing relationships with people that would ultimately help our business grow down the road.

That’s what we wanted to implement when we first opened: customer service and helping people.

Brick and Mortar is About the Customer

Charlie Hoehn: How did you focus on customer service?

Jason Wilson: It’s about developing and cultivating those relationships with customers. When a customer comes into our store, we take time to get to know them.

“It’s not about the one transaction on the one day.”

You have to put a focus on developing a relationship that’s going to ultimately lead to business for years and years to come. We’re at a point now where we’re dealing with second generation customers because we’ve had relationships with the parents for so long that now we have people to come to us with their kids.

It’s not trying to make as much money off of a single person that you can, but trying to empathize with them and help them. Because ultimately, any business—not just ours, but every business—is in the problem-solving business.

It’s not different for us. Everyone that comes in our door has a problem that needs to be solved. Most people that come in need a short-term loan, they need help with making ends meet. We try to take care of that problem and help them with that. Other people, maybe their television broke so they need a new one. That’s a problem that we help them with.

“The bottom line for us is to be problem solvers.”

Our business, the focus is on what we can help the customer with, and profits and money come as a byproduct of that.

Charlie Hoehn: How did you solve customer’s problem that led to the lifelong or second-generation type of customer?

Jason Wilson: Very early on, when we opened our first door, I was the only employee, so I was there every day, all day. A little lady comes in—probably seventy, seventy-five years old, four foot eight, eighty pounds, and she had some jewelry that she wants to get a loan on.

The way our business works is people bring in items to use as collateral for short-term loans. I talked to her when she came in, and she wanted to get a loan against her jewelry collection to help her daughter open a vitamin store.

“She said, ‘I’ve dealt with pawnshops in the past. I don’t really expect you to be able to help me with what I need, but here’s what I’m trying to do.'”

I loaned her the money she needed on the items, and she was very grateful. She was happy with what we did for her, and the way that we treated her on the first day that—not just to do more business in the future, but for the next seven, eight years—she would come in two times a week just to see me. She became a friend.

We have many stories of customers that we’ve developed lifelong relationships with them. The relationship that I had with her—her name is Mrs. Willis—was beneficial to me in multiple ways and our business. Her kids ended up doing business with us and still do to this day. They come in to buy things from us, they come in to say hello, and she became the best advertisement that any business could have.

“She became a brand advocate and gave us great word of mouth advertisement.”

She would come into the store, she would talk to customers, tell them how great she thought we were. When you do things like that and cultivate relationships with people, you’ll find that not only your business becomes successful, but it’s really fulfilling in your life.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Willis passed away a few years ago. When she did, her daughters remembered me. They gave me a laminated obituary of hers that I still keep on my desk to this day. I still see her daughter a couple of times a week.

It makes me feel sorry for people who just want to open a business to make money, because they’re missing out on so much more that they could do.

Jason Wilson’s Advice in Brick and Mortar Isn’t Dead

Charlie Hoehn: Did you write Brick and Mortar Isn’t Dead to encourage others to be focused on the people?

Jason Wilson: It’s about the people and the relationships. We live in an age now where e-commerce is the big thing and you can buy something right now and have in your doorstep tomorrow.

If people want to open a brick and mortar store, the focus needs to be on things that e-commerce can’t provide, and that’s that one-on-one interaction and developing those relationships. You can buy a book off amazon and have it tomorrow, but if you want to meet people and talk to people, you need to go to the local bookstore.

“If people want to own brick and mortar businesses in the age of e-commerce, they have to focus on those strengths.”

It’s about those one-on-one interactions and developing those relationships, because that’s the strength that strength that brick-and-mortar will always have over e-commerce.

Charlie Hoehn: What do you say to people who just want to just run a business to make money?

Jason Wilson: Online business is great, and e-commerce can be very profitable for people. And if that’s what they want to do, that’s great. But they’re going to be missing out on a lot that a brick and mortar store could provide. They’re going to be missing out on those relationships.

One problem that I see with the younger generation—I have an 18-year-old daughter—is they believe in get rich quick schemes. That’s not really how business works.

They see people developing apps and things like that and selling them for a ton of money. I tell people that they really need to slow down and put the focus on working day to day and being patient. If you want to open a business, it’s going to take time.

“You’re not going to be making a ton of money the first month.”

Those stories that you hear are one in 10,000. That’s not really how the real world works. Most people who are successful have put in years of work. It’s about putting blinders on and just working hard every single day trying to meet those goals.

Charlie Hoehn: What is the core message of your book, that you really want people to take away?

Jason Wilson: I’ll share a story with you that I talked to my daughter about recently. I told you that she’s 18 and she’s just out of high school, she hasn’t gone to college yet, she’s not sure what she wants to do. I told her that she needs to have a plan of action.

“If you have a dream or a goal that you want to achieve, you have to implement the goal and actually act on it.”

No one’s ever going to grab your hand and say “Hey, this is the time that you can do this.” You have to be the person that sets your mind to it and actually starts on the path to reaching your goals.

She told me she wants to be a nurse, and I said it’s great to have that dream. Unfortunately, you’re not going to wake up one morning and be a nurse. You have to implement the steps ahead of time that are going to lead you. Actually take action to make that happen.

The Struggles of Starting a Business

Charlie Hoehn: How do I know I have the right brick and mortar business to launch?

Jason Wilson: For me, I love dealing with people, and I love dealing with items. But you have to play to your strengths. LeBron James doesn’t sell ice cream. He knows what he’s good at, he knows what he loves to do, so that’s what he does.

The good thing about that is no matter what you love and no matter what you are good at, there’s a market for it. No matter where you are right now, if you look around the room, every item that you see, everything in the room began in the mind of someone that wanted to make it a reality. More often than not, they probably made a lot of money doing it.

“To make sure that you are on the right track, you need to chase your passion and not money.”

If you love cooking food, you don’t want to open a jewelry store because you think there’s more money selling gold than selling tacos.

You want to make food, that’s your passion, and when you chase the passion, the money comes as a byproduct. That’s what I told my daughter: chase the passion, don’t worry about the money. The money comes as a result of that.

If you love video, you can start a camera store, you can start a service where you make videos for people, they come in and maybe want you to film commercials for them or want you to help with home movies, transferring those over to blue ray and DVDs.

“No matter what you love, you can translate that into a business.”

In translating that into a business, you can put the focus on helping people, solving people’s problems, cultivating relationships with them, and that’s what brick and mortar businesses should be all about in this age of e-commerce.

Charlie Hoehn: Walk me through how the book is structured, what is it at the beginning and where do we end up?

Jason Wilson: I have seen my business graduate through three levels, and I call them the toddler, the teen, and the adult phase of business. We start the book talking about when you first opened a business, how it’s a toddler that needs your constant attention and you have to be there to hold its hand every day, and it relies on you for everything.

Then gradually, when you stick to that and you work hard and a few years pass, you graduate to the teen phase. For me, the teen phase became when we were making a little money and we could hire people, we could set a team in place, and I could delegate some of the tasks that were going on every day.

“Eventually, if you stick with it, your business grows into the adult phase where it doesn’t need you as much.”

It can kind of run on its own, and you can focus on other things like expansion or being the CEO rather than the front line of the company, where you’re setting the vision and setting the goals and protocols. The book follows that path from the first day that you open, all the way through possibly expanding into multiple locations.

You’re going to have problems that you haven’t had before. Like everything we do, every stage of business goes through and every new thing we try, there are new issues that we haven’t dealt with before.

We’re learning on the fly, and this book is about things that we’ve learned that people are going to encounter that they may not see coming. We share our experiences and talk problems that we ran into and how we solve them and put out fires on a daily basis.

Dealing with Setbacks in a Brick and Mortar

Charlie Hoehn: Tell me a story about some of the problems you’ve had to face, because I’d imagine you seen some crazy stuff.

Jason Wilson: One of the biggest things for me was probably nine to ten months after we opened our first store. You never think that this would happen, but we had a break in, and it really hurt us. We had almost all of our gold inventory stolen overnight. People that broke in were able to bypass our security system.

I had been working for nine or ten months, like I said. I had started to see that momentum building, and I was working on a daily basis, focusing on building relationships with customers that I knew were going to pay off long-term.

“All of a sudden, that momentum had stopped.”

Something like that, you never foresee coming. We talk about how we dealt with that and how we moved forward. We didn’t quit and didn’t give up and kept our eye on the long-term goal and stuck with it.

Charlie Hoehn: What happened immediately after that and how did you guys recover?

Jason Wilson: In our business, people bring in items to use as collateral, so we have to hold them for them until they can come back and repay them. When this happened to us, we had probably over $150,000 worth of customers’ jewelry that was stolen and we had to replace.

This becomes a twofold problem for us. We have to come to a satisfactory agreement with the customer and replacing their items, but the more important thing to me was getting them to trust they could still do business with us in the future, right? For weeks and weeks after that, every time a customer would come in that I knew had had their items stolen, I pulled them to the side and had the uncomfortable conversation.

“‘This happened, here’s what we need to do, and here’s why I need you to believe in me going forward that this won’t happen again. We’re going to have better security measures, we’re going to have better security system.'”

It could have ended the momentum and it almost bankrupted our business like that night, I had to make a decision like, is this going to be it or am I going to keep going? Meeting with the customers over the next few weeks, we had already started developing relationships with them. Since we were so upfront and honest, multiple people were like, “This is fine, we believe in you, you’re going to take care of it.”

Almost all those people still do business with us to this day because of how we handled that problem.

Charlie Hoehn: When things go wrong, how do you communicate tough news?

Jason Wilson: Yeah, honesty is huge part of our business and any business. You can try to sugar coat it all you want but to me, the easiest way to handle that problem was with direct, honest communication.

“Here’s what happened, here’s how we’re going to make it better, and here’s why you should trust us going forward.”

Like any business, any industry, everyone that comes through your door has an option. You’re not the only game in town. It’s very important to me to meet with each person individually and make sure that they were happy with what had happened and how we’re going to handle it. Be very honest and upfront with them.

When Brick and Mortar Isn’t for You

Charlie Hoehn: What type of person should definitely not own a brick and mortar business?

Jason Wilson: The person who should stay away from owning any business probably is a person who thinks that they’re immediately going to be successful. That they have the best idea in the world and they’re going to make a million dollars in the first year. It’s just not going to happen.

I used to have a friend, an older guy in his eighties, who used to come see us at the pawnshop I worked at all the time. He owned a little restaurant in town. It was one of these old school, you walk up to the window, you place an order, you get your food and you leave, right? He had run this business for like forty years, and he had made enough money and retired comfortably.

As I started thinking about wanting to open my business, I went to him and said, “You’ve been successful, what’s the best piece of advice that you can give me?”

“He said, ‘I don’t know why I was so successful in the restaurant business, because all I did was focus on selling good food every day.'”

That struck a chord with me. If you put your head down and handle the day-to-day business, win every day, don’t focus on what the end goal is, then you’re winning without even knowing it and you’re going to ultimately lead yourself to success. Keep your eye on the big picture and not think that you’re going to get rich in any business in six months.

I wanted to help people. If I was helping people on a daily basis, I knew that that was going to pay off long-term.

Have you heard of the Stanford marshmallow?

Researchers from Stanford put kids in a room. They give each kid a marshmallow and say “Look, you can eat the marshmallow, or I’m going to leave the room, you can wait, I’m going to bring another one in ten minutes, and you’ll have two marshmallows.”

“It’s about focusing on the long term. Can you sacrifice short term to have success in the long term?”

In the follow up study, they found that the kids who could wait and have two marshmallows ended up being more successful in careers and in school. They could see the big picture and not just worry about what’s happening right now.

The problem is, we live in such an instant-gratification society. Everything is right there when you need it, whenever you need it, no matter what it is. Younger generations, millennials maybe, can’t see that.

They want something right now, and if it’s not right now then it’s not good enough. The key to all success is it’s got to be sustainable, it’s got to be long term. Unfortunately, the way people are wired now is, “If I want it, it’s right now.”

It’s an instant gratification society that we live in, unfortunately, that doesn’t translate over into business very well.

Charlie Hoehn: How did you keep pushing through?

Jason Wilson: Just to focus on your long-term goal. When I first opened the business, I knew I was the only employee, and I knew how much I needed to make every day to pay the bills.

“Some days I made that much money, and some days I didn’t. But I put my blinders on and I focused on what was right in front of me.”

In a horse race, there’s a reason they put blinders on the horses so they can only see what’s right in front of them. They’re not distracted by what’s going on the sides, they’re not distracted by all the outside interference. They are focused on what’s right in front of them, they’re handling the day to day instead of worrying about next year, next month, or six months down the road.

They’re focused on taking care of the here and now.

Scaling Brick and Mortar Up

Charlie Hoehn: What do I need to do to get to the level you are where I can start scaling up?

Jason Wilson: My best advice will probably be to be patient. If what you’re doing is not working right now, focus on things that make it work. Focus on solving people’s problems. Maybe they’re having other problems and need other things from you that you’re not really providing. Maybe they’re happy with their co-working space, so they don’t need to change it.

Put the focus on talking to the people that you’re trying to work with and finding out, “What exactly do you need from me?”

We had our first location for seven years before we ever opened a second one, and that’s because we were trying to perfect what we were doing, we were trying to get it down to a science of how our business needs to be run.

“It took a long time for us to get to the point where we thought that we could expand and branch out.”

Be patient and focus on improving your business the best you can before you start worrying about expanding to other locales.

Charlie Hoehn: When did for sure that you were ready to expand?

Jason Wilson: For me, expansion came when I had a great team in place. When I started hiring a couple of people to work at our first location, I had to transform from being the sole employee to being a leader.

That was hard for me, at a younger age, to lead employees—because I’d never done it before. But if I wanted my company to embody customer service, it needed to flow from me. The best way that I can show you what is important to me is to actually do it.

“They see me every day helping customers, helping people, developing relationships.”

I could expand my business when they had realized, “Hey, this is what our company does.” We help people that come in, we develop relationships, and when the people that we’re working at our store started to take on that personality and could do it without me, that’s when I knew that I could branch out.

We were helping so many people that at our single store that I knew that if we branched out to other locations, it would increase our market and increase our ability to help people in other cities.

The Struggles of Success

Charlie Hoehn: What kind of challenges did you run into with expansion that you didn’t expect?

Jason Wilson: Making sure you hire the right people, making sure you invest in developing relationships. In a business, it’s not just about developing relationships with customers, it’s about developing relationships with your team members. Investing in them, caring about them, making sure they’re invested in you and your company and the culture.

Making sure that you have the right people working with you is extremely important in expansion because you can expand too quickly in any business. It can get out of hand and you can get in over your head.

“The most important thing is making sure you have good people on your team.”

Charlie Hoehn: What’s your test for making sure you have the right person who is invested in you for the right reasons?

When we sit down to interview someone, you never know if that’s the right person. We’ve interviewed people and they’ve had great resumes and they’ve been very intelligent and seemed like they really want to work, and then it doesn’t work out. They might last a week or whatever.

For me, there’s the opposite of that, too, you can’t judge a book by its cover. One of my first employees was a nineteen-year-old kid who has slight cerebral palsy, wasn’t very articulate, was kind of messy and immature. But he’s become one of our most important assets in our company. He’s still with us in a managerial role because he’s dedicated to working hard every day and because he’s a superstar at customer service. If I can’t help a customer—and these days, I can’t—I rely on him to do it.

“Really, it’s just recognizing the key people that can help you expand once they start working for your company.”

Recognizing those traits that show you they really care and are invested. Then you can trust them to run a business in your stead while you’re trying to expand.

Connect with Jason Wilson

Charlie Hoehn: How can listeners decide if brick and mortar might be right for them?

Jason Wilson: Starting your own business is a huge risk, it’s not easy, and it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. What put me over the top and led me to decide to do it is, I pictured myself when I’m seventy years old and just sitting around, thinking about what I’ve done in my life.

If I just went and got a regular job, maybe I would have thought, yeah, I was a successful car salesman, or I had good job and retired.

But I would have regretted never following through on my dream to open a business. The fear of living with that regret down the road is what led me to just go ahead, give this a shot, and give it 100%.

It would be a nightmare to look back and have to live with regret.

Charlie Hoehn: Jason, what is the best way for listeners to reach you?

Jason Wilson: Sure, you can reach me, I have a personal website, it is JasonDeanWilson.com or you can reach us at our consulting website which is up now which is ThePawnShopExperts.com and you can find the contact info for me on either of those.