A pharmacy store was looking at their sales data for their retail products and saw an unusual spike in sales of rubbing alcohol during the summer months. Intrigued, they talked to a few of their customers to understand what was going on.

The customers told them because it was hot, using rubbing alcohol had a nice cooling effect. It was also inexpensive. These customers didn’t have access to fans, air conditioning, or water. If you’ve used rubbing alcohol, after a bit of pain in the wound you are trying to clean, you will notice how you can feel the skin around your wound feel nice and cool. Customers were using the rubbing alcohol all over their body, not to clean wounds, but to get the cooling effects of the rubbing alcohol drying.

The pharmacy chain, understanding this, launched their own line of rubbing alcohol and added aloe vera to help moisturize the skin. They took advantage of this niche customer need and were able to create additional revenue from this insight.

What can we learn from this story?

  • Creativity doesn’t have to be from an individual in a black box in your organization – you can look at how your customers are using your products or services in different ways and offer new products or services to address their needs
  • No amount of planning could have told the pharmacy that their customers would use rubbing alcohol this way. And sometimes, you launch your product or service expecting one thing, but getting another.
  • As Adam Robinson says, “One of the key things to investing is to be aware when you hear a voice in your head that says it doesn’t make sense. That’s where the gold mine is — things that don’t make sense”. It doesn’t just apply to investing. It made little sense rubbing alcohol was being sold in higher volumes in the summer months. When you think of rubbing alcohol, you think of topical treatments of scratches, wounds, scrapes and other small injuries – but just the weather couldn’t account for the higher volume of sales.

How can you use this in your life?

  • If you’re a writer, run towards complexity. As Austin Kleon says, the ordinary + extra attention = the extraordinary. Things that you take for granted or that would have otherwise been a black box can be opened, with enough attention, research and observation. For me recently, one idea that didn’t make sense was the notion that feedback is always good and helpful. In fact, there are better ways of asking for feedback.
  • If you’re an investor, note this story from Sam Zell, a billionaire investor. He was looking at the newspaper one day and he saw they were opening a Gucci store in Mongolia. He asked why they would do that, so he flew to Mongolia and saw several Gucci locations open next to mines. This hinted at China’s construction boom. Sam realized this was a hint towards China’s future economy.
  • If you’re a leader of an organization looking for new product or service lines, look at your data for unexpected blips. Are there particular months where the data makes little sense (because it is unexpectedly high or low)? Do your customers complain about things that you would not have anticipated? Is there a black market for your product or service you can take advantage of (Ikea has a whole sub-culture of Ikea furniture hackers – those that take Ikea furniture and turn it into other products)?

Look for things that don’t make sense. They are gold mines for ideas. Because while most people would pause, shake their heads, and then move on with their lives, things that don’t make sense represent opportunities to fine-tune your mental model. The world always makes sense – it’s your model that doesn’t.