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How To Neutralize The Competition

Sunday, June 1, 2008

(GIFTBEAT)Want to leave your retailing competition in the proverbial dust? If so, you'll need to outpace their efforts by increasing yours, establishing and building your store's brand, and more. Take a deep breath, roll up your retailing sleeves and get ready to work harder than ever before, as speakers, authors and consultants Georgeanne Bender (GB) and Rich Kizer (RK) of Illinois-based KIZER & BENDER SPEAKING! talk about ways to neutralize your competitors.

Q. Why must today's stores develop unique - and even outrageous - ways to "neutralize their competition"?

GB: If retailers are really honest with themselves, the majority of stores are not doing everything they're capable of to be more successful. In good and bad times, we all get tunnel vision where we don't see the store the way customers do. Many retailers are content to do the same old thing. They're sliding, rolling with the times and keeping pace with the economy. If everybody says their business is off by 10% and [the retailer's is too], then business isn't really that bad. Author Tom Peters says if you're willing to do 1% more than your competition, you can reverse the slide and start to trend up. When retailers are doing better, their attitude says, "I not only can succeed, but exceed." Attitude creates action. But so many indies have a wait-and-see attitude. The 1% see what happens after they make it happen!

RK: A National Retail Federation study showed that 78% of a store's loyal customers will go someplace else to shop if that someplace else is more fun. When we work with retailers we ask, "Why should I do business with you?" Each owner typically says, "Look at all this beautiful product, quality product and my great employees." When you compare your store with others, they're pretty much the same. The questions to ask are "What makes you DIFFERENT?" and "What are you capitalizing on?"

GB: You can neutralize the competition by objectively looking at your store every single day. Then you don't have to worry about playing catch-up with other competitors or a new competitor. The second you hear that a new competitor is coming into town, you need to beef up everything you're doing in the store. You can't sit back and see what happens. We recently traveled to a new scrapbook store on the East Coast that is capitalizing on new and exciting events. The store's competitor was there for seven years, and did nothing in those seven years. Now she’s losing customers. [After that much time,] you can't play catch-up.

Q. How does branding help store owners defuse their competition?

GB: Many people think a brand is the name of their store or the logo on their business card. Big-time brand consultant Adrian Weiss defines a brand as a country that has its own culture, language, customs and traditions. Most stores don't have their own cultures or complete customer experiences. Those that do include Build-A-Bear Workshop, IKEA, Target, Starbucks and Harley-Davidson. These are businesses where things happen there that don't happen at any other stores.

RK: For example, Harley-Davidson has a culture where all stores go through the Harley-Davidson "filter" to properly represent what Harley Davidson is. The largest challenges [for retailers] are the cultural setting and the emotions customers feel when they walk in the door. A cup of coffee is a cup of coffee, but there is a difference between Starbucks and Caribou Coffee or Dunkin' Donuts. At every Starbucks, everybody looks the same and has the same attitude. Lighting and displays are similar, too.

GB: I often have Rich take this branding test: We're in the center of a mall, and I tell him to close his eyes. I take him into a gift store, twirl him around two or three times and ask him to tell me where we are. Based on the signage, he might tell me we're in a Hallmark store. We could be in 15 different stores in 15 different states, and you couldn't tell them apart. But your store brand better not stand for a vendor's name. It better stand for yours!

[Nowadays,] the question is: "What do you do beyond Webkinz or Crocs to bring customers into your store?" This is the crux of where media's job ends and the retailer's job begins. Whatever customers see in the first 15 feet of the store sets the example for the entire store. When we walk in and see Webkinz or Crocs [upfront], we think "Big deal, those are commodities that can be bought anywhere." You have to stand for more than the hot item of the month. Instead, do co-branding [where you also] put your name and tagline discreetly and tastefully throughout the store. Here's the acid test: If customers say, "Who do I make this check out to?" you have a problem.

Q. How can "Story Selling" help an owner develop her/his brand?

GB: There's a reason that every retailer opened [her/his] store. Most retailers have a great story. Sit down and write why you opened yours. Take that and build your brand from there. Take the example of Baby Alexandra in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. The original owner opened her store because she had two young children at home and couldn't find kids' items that weren't the same as those found in other stores. Every single item in the store tells her story. Gift certificates are on parchment paper and rolled up in baby bottles. Hangers are hand painted. These are your brand's starting points. They are something unique for people to care about. Then, you do events and promotions and everything circles around your brand story.

Q. Explain the "extreme" idea you have about how retailers can offer experiences that elevate themselves above the competition.

GB: We recommend that, every month, store owners have one major event that brings in 100 people, and 2 to 3 minor events. We know it's a lot of work, but it can reap big benefits! You absolutely have to do these events even though they're hard. If not, you're just another store. [Plus,] other retailers will give up when you do these events because they are so hard.

The events have to be something that other retailers don't do. A scrapbook and gift store in Mineral Wells, Texas called Cat's Creations ran a "Get Tanked at Cat's" promotion. For every mile [Mapquest verified] it took customers to travel to the store, they received 15 cents/mile [a maximum of $20] toward their purchase of $25 or more. The offer had an end date, was good for one offer per customer and was not valid with other promotions.

Or invite ladies in for an open house where decorators give ideas for staging your home. At the same event, have a nail technician do manicures and pedicures. How hard is that to do? About as hard as emailing an invitation, determining what night to do the event and setting up the store.

RK: Another store ran our “Cash Register Receipt Auction." From the day after Thanksgiving until December 17, customers saved their receipts. On the 17th, the store owner had hundreds of items on display for auction. Customers could use the value of their receipts as bids. There was an auctioneer, and staff members wore long gowns and tiaras. A consortium of women customers [even pooled] their receipts to buy a wreath that they share throughout the year. Customers had a ball! Even better, the store owner received $4,000 in donated vendor products to use for the auction.

GB: Another store held a "Parking Lot Olympics" with lots of kids' activities. Activities like The Toilet Toss, where you throw a ball in a toilet dressed up to look like a king’s throne. The cost was $1 for three tries. Every penny raised went to Lids for Kids, a group that provides bicycle helmets for children who can't afford them.

Q. What types of community involvement can neutralize the competition?

GB: When you get involved in the community, that becomes a part of who you are. Hold chamber of commerce mixers in your store, or invite groups like the Red Hat Society to have meetings there. This shows that you are going out for business and looking for new ways to do it. You may want to reach out to some [need] you see in the community.

RK: One store created "Bags of Holiday Hope." They gave white, blank shopping bags to grade school kids. The kids decorated the bags with holiday themes, the bags were then hung in the store during an open house, and each was numbered so relatives and friends could vote for their favorite. The winner won a savings bond that a bank had donated and a gift certificate from the store. Everyone had to bring a box of food goods and two canned items to get in the store. Later, kids, customers and staffers filled the bags with the donated items and took them to a local charity.

Note: To contact KIZER & BENDER SPEAKING!, phone (888) 215-1839 or log on to Drop an e-mail to for a free "Cash Register Receipt Auction" template.

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