A couple days before my 27th birthday I took a solo business trip across the southern border of the United States. I was working for a duty free company—you know those stores you see at the borders of Canada and Mexico and at airports that advertise discounted liquor, tobacco, and luxury goods—and the owner of the company wanted me to see more locations.

The most efficient way to see the stores in California is to fly into San Diego and drive to the border. I had my map and thought I was following my directions correctly. The duty free store is the last stop before the border. The parking lots of duty free stores are designed so that you exit into either Canada or Mexico. You do not have the option of reentering the United States.


I was chatting with my sorority sister on my cell phone and then I saw the sign welcoming me to Mexico. I swore. I was panic stricken. I didn’t just miss an exit…I just left the country! I had a flight out of San Diego within five or six hours and I realized that it might take me hours to get back into the United States since there are typically really long lines of traffic at the US border. I immediately called the local store manager and asked him what to do.

The store manager told me to tell the Mexican customs agent right away what happened and ask if he would open the partition between the areas of traffic entering into Mexico and the United States. I also asked the manager if I had to bribe him and how much. I think the store manager did not think a bribe was necessary but I could offer him five dollars. I was not going to take any chances and was grateful that I had a twenty dollar bill in my wallet.

I explained the situation to the customs agent and shyly revealed the $20 folded in my palm. He shook his head…and then he walked away. I started to breathe deeply wondering if I had just made the matter worse by showing him the money. Could I be arrested for bribery? As I watched him walk away, I realized that he was not walking away from me but walking toward the gate. It opened and he signaled me to approach the gate. I crossed it enabling my car to join the swarm of folks that were entering the United States. The gate was really close to the border and my wait time was perhaps twenty minutes. Within an hour, I was able to get to the store.


I realized during my 40 or so minutes in Mexico how crucial billboards are for directions to the duty free stores. I had been made aware that we had billboards advertising our store next to the Mexican border but other more strategically located billboards were already under contract and would not likely become available. I started to wonder how much revenue we were losing on account of customers who like me, missed the exit, but had intended to go to the store.

Six months later, I am now reporting to a new director of marketing. I informed her that some of our billboards in Buffalo were up for renewal. I showed her the both photos of the actual location as well as printouts of the actual billboard graphic from the designer. Additionally, I showed her the spreadsheet containing the contract details and locations of the billboards. She looked at the quantity of billboards and simply said that we did not need all of these billboards. She had never worked with billboards in her previous jobs.


There are two things you need to know about billboards. There is a finite amount of billboards. You cannot just build a new one. Also, contracts are lengthy—normally around a year. Once you get out it can be very difficult to get back in since other advertisers will likely sign one year contracts. It is very easy to be entirely shut out of a market for an indefinite length of time.

Part of our strategy for having the same billboards year after year was that we were always able to negotiate very modest rate increases. If we were to not renew a billboard, we might have to pay far more in the future for the same board or we may not be able to afford the same billboards. If there is demand for the board from wealthy advertisers, the price will go up. Moreover, the directions to the store on these billboards helped ensure that we were not losing customers. If a customer cannot find the store, he will not be able to shop there.

From my Mexico experience and my billboard knowledge, you can see how having a strong billboard presence in a market would be a natural part of our marketing strategy. Since the director failed to inquire about the rationale of the billboards, she set herself up for a painful lesson. If sales declined after the billboards came down, the store could easily blame her single handed decision.


I left the company before the billboards came down so I cannot speak on how the decision affected sales. However, I did learn a valuable lesson: ask before you suggest. The more you know about why a particular practice or protocol occurs in your company the better chance you have of making a successful process improvement since your recommendation will take into account the relevant details.

Have you ever stepped into a role at a company where you made a significant change without asking enough questions and it backfired on you? Perhaps you would rather share what is the most interesting lesson you learned on a business trip?

Photo: Mexican Shots, SD.

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