Looking at the obvious Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2009

When Michael Feuer founded OfficeMax, he used to work all day and head into his stores at night to scope out the activity and observe customers. He noticed little things, such as they constantly checked the clocks to see what time they came in and how long they had been there. He also noticed that the large paper boxes that were on the first aisle often would fill their carts, and when the carts were filled, much like you know dinner is over when your plate is empty, their shopping trip ended, as well.

So he immediately took the clocks down in the stores and made the shopping carts 20 percent larger to encourage people to shop more, and sales went up 20 percent after doing so.

“The real way to drive innovation in any business is to first look at the obvious,” the CEO of the consulting firm Max-Ventures LLC says. “I think most people spend way too much time trying to find the (way) to get to the moon or the cure for cancer, when, in fact, the answers for innovation are there, but what you have to do to drive innovation is to stop thinking like an operator or an entrepreneur and think like the customer.”

As co-founder and former chairman and CEO of the office products chain OfficeMax and co-founder and CEO of Max-Wellness, a new retail chain to promote wellness products, Feuer has spent a good amount of time looking for low-hanging fruit. The key to this is an approach that he read in a book years ago called GOYA — get off your ass.

“There’s not a business in this world that I know that doesn’t have customers, so you have to figure out what they want,” Feuer says. “If you have a retail store or you make a widget, you still have customers or would-be customers, so that means get off your rear-end, go out and talk to customers. But when you’re talking to them, you have to listen to what they’re saying. Then the same thing applies — translate what they’re saying and put it into words.”

For instance, if people say they’re too hot, you have to dig deeper. Are they too hot because they’re wearing a coat? Are they too hot because the sun is out, and it’s 95 degrees? Or are they too hot because the air-conditioning isn’t low enough?

“Whatever they’re saying, you have to ask a couple of questions with it or make some observations with it,” he says.

He says that his approach to business is very simple: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man or woman is king or queen.

“All that really means is you just have to do a little bit better than anybody else to win big,” Feuer says. “You can win huge when you do it, so ask a question or hypothesize the question — you don’t even have to ask it.”

For example, Feuer serves on the board at University Hospitals, and while there for a meeting, he noticed that the water faucets in the bathroom only stayed on for five seconds at a time. But you’re supposed to wash them for about 20 seconds or the length of singing a song, such as “Happy Birthday.” Clearly, it needed to be reprogrammed, and he asked some people about it, and nobody had an answer. It’s those kinds of things that can lead to better ideas.

“Wisdom is the ability to see things differently than most people see it, and then come up with solutions,” he says.

This is key to surviving in business. He says that you always have to be one step ahead of the sheriff.

“This is a wonderful country and wonderful world, and someone is always looking for more innovation, so as you have a product, instead of resting on your laurels — there are very few products that are perennial that they’re never going to change because people’s lives change,” he says.

You have to constantly be looking for a different way.

“I think the real key in terms of this whole process is if there’s a wall in front of you, most people walk up to that wall and say, ‘Damn, there’s a wall. That means someone else has thought of it before,’” Feuer says. “While the innovative people look at the wall and say, ‘OK, there are different ways to get past this wall, and it’s very simple — go over it, under it, around or knock the damn thing down.’ That’s the way you innovate products and invent products.”

How to reach: Max-Wellness, (216) 765-2500 or www.max-wellness.com