GRAND HAVEN – After 20 years in the business, Bob Negen figures he’s learned a few things about retailing.
Negen, the former owner of a successful kite and toy store, The Mackinaw Kite Co., wants to help other retailers learn from his mistakes, hopefully a little quicker than it took him, by sharing his experiences and the “nuts and bolts” techniques that worked for his business.
“You won’t find any book in any college that talks to you about nuts and bolts,” said Negen, president and co-owner of Whiz Bang Training, a Grand Haven-based retail training company.
“What we teach are things that are nuts and bolts that work,” Negen said.
Negen formed the company two years ago with his wife and business partner, Susan Negen, a former department store executive who’s worked at retail icons Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and Lord and Taylor.
His move away from running a retail store to offering training to retailers stems from what he says was a large void he found when he went looking for help himself. While he knew his product and was “passionate” about doing all he could to keep the customer happy, Negen found himself needing help learning about things such as how to find and hire the right employees, controlling inventory, and marketing and advertising.
Unable to readily find that help, and with retailing accounting for two-thirds of the gross domestic product in America, Negen saw an unmet need and formed WhizBang with Susan after selling his remaining shares in Mackinaw Kite Co. to his younger brother Steve, who had worked with him for years.
WhizBang, originally known as Specialty Retail Solutions, works largely through chambers of commerce and downtown development authorities throughout Michigan to organize retail workshops. The company offers a full range of workshops on a variety of topics that involve marketing, staff management, customer service, inventory management and sales.
Training videos, interactive CD-ROMs, and Web-based presentations for downloading are on the way for WhizBang, which also offers clients a free weekly retail tip via e-mail.
Negen’s clients go beyond retailers. He counts among his customers service-industry businesses such as hotels, banks and insurance companies.
“It’s such as huge part of the American economy and nobody’s servicing it. I know because I went looking for it,” Negen said. “Since I didn’t find it, it represented a business opportunity.”
Mackinaw Kite Co., with stores in Grand Haven and Mackinaw City, is known for its inviting atmosphere where customers, particularly children, are openly encouraged to play with the games and toys on display, often with store clerks.
Like many retailers, Negen got into the retail trade when he turned a hobby, in this case stunt kites, into his business.
When attending Calving College, where he earned a degree in sociology, Negen once bought an ex-girlfriend a kite for her birthday. That led him to take up the hobby.
He later began considering opening a kite store. After all, he reasoned, you didn’t see many of them around in the early 1980s.
When a college friend told him that he was moving to Mackinaw City to open a photography store, the then-23-year-old Negen followed along and opened the first Mackinaw Kite Co. store in 1981. Looking to start a second location in West Michigan, where his parents lived, Negen opened the Grand Haven store in 1986.
At one point he had four stores in Michigan, plus several “Yo-Yo Universe” outlets operated at temporary kiosks at shopping malls throughout the state when yo-yos were a hot item.
In time, after he “struggled, and struggled and struggled to figure this stuff out,” Negen found other retailers coming to him for advice. He was asked to speak and trade shows and share his experiences about what works.
That, along with the inability to find help when he started out, led Negen to consider forming a retail-training firm.
Quite often, he says, a person starts a retail store because they see a potential to make a living off of a particular hobby. While passionate about what they do, they typically end up struggling because they lack the “tricks of the trade” to running the other aspects of the business.
“Instead of it becoming this wonderful experience they expect it to be, it becomes this morass because they don’t have the skills,” Negen said. “It takes an incredibly long time to make the mistakes, to learn the lessons and to figure it out.”