What better way to start the beginning of your week with...a story about funerals! But actually there is much to glean from the New York Times's report on the death industry, which, even in this economy, will likely grow this year. Any type of business that's doing that, we'd say, is a business worth emulating.
Of course, there is one aspect of the funeral industry that most small business owners (well, except those whose small businesses are funeral parlors and the like) cannot replicate: its heroically inelastic demand. Fact is, even though people may be cutting back now, they are still going to honor their recently-deceased beloved with funerals. And, it goes without saying, the stream of the recently-deceased will never abate.
But the funeral industry is not just the proverbial bucket-holder in a rainstorm. Its secret, according to the Times, has been "A growing willingness to cater to individual tastes." Perhaps the most memorable example is the motorcycle lover who had his hearse towed by a Harley-Davidson. Well, and also the urn pictured.
In fact, the story is a bit more complicated. The rise of secular services as well as cremations (which tend to be half as cheap as non-cremation funerals), plus Americans' increased mobility are posing something of a threat to the long-term status quo and growth of the industry. Then again, in an example of what one person refers to as funeral directors' being "early adapters," when cremations started to become more prevalent, many funeral homes figured out they could still rent out coffins for a one-day viewing. In one stroke, they created a way to make more money and to transform the phrase "rented coffin" from an oxymoron into reality.
So how does this apply to you? The lesson is obvious: adapt--adapt to the times, adapt to new technologies and trends, but above all adapt to your customers' desires, which is what all other adaptions are ultimately about anyway. The good news is that, if they are diligent and flexible and good listeners, small businesses are nearly always going to be better at adapting to shifting consumer demand than large corporations are: it is in their nature to have their ears closer to the ground and to be more ready and able to change accordingly. You may not have the funeral industry's enviable demand, but there's no reason you can't share its laudable business wisdom.