Small businesses, especially small retailers, have long struggled to compete in a world of Big Boxes.
Well, with the recent news out of Bentonville, Ark., many small funeral homes will be doing that literally. Wal-Mart recently started selling caskets on its Web site at discount prices, following a similar move by Costco a few years back.
For those in the funeral home business, the news may as well have been delivered by the Grim Reaper himself—or at least that’s what one would think. I was surprised to hear an industry spokesperson downplay the move, saying that Wal-Mart can’t offer one thing that small funeral homes can offer: the ability to comfort someone during a stressful and emotional time. Remember that.
Usually when a plan for a new development that’s filled with national chain tenants is unveiled, local businesses begin to panic, fearing the mega-competition. The reaction is not entirely unwarranted. Many small businesses do lose business to these bigger competitors. And some, from booksellers to clothiers to small hardware store owners, find the intrusion of the national brands to be the final nail in their coffin, so to speak.
Yet small retailers and service providers have been competing successfully alongside major chains for decades, and we could all benefit by reviewing their survival strategies.
First, get serious about customer service, if you’re not already. Which brings us back to the funeral industry spokesman who said that one thing they offer is the ability to comfort someone during a stressful time. What can you do to provide a level of service that your customers can’t find anywhere else?
Of course, that means knowing your competition, what they offer and what they don’t. What they’re doing well and what they’re missing. Forget price. Where can you go deeper in terms of product offering, and with better quality?
Can you partner with others to achieve economies of scale or to refer business to each other?
What kind of experience can you offer your employees so you can keep the best and brightest and pass their expertise on to the customer?
Finally, make sure your own house is in order. Sometimes the arrival of the Big Box just hastens the demise of a small business that was already in bad shape. Do you have your costs under control, is cash flowing, is your inventory and payroll where it should be for your size business and industry? Of course, that’s assuming you know your industry.
Whether you’re a small retailer or any other type of small business, the ability to compete successfully rests with you, your vision and your strategies. If you focus on your customers, on what you can do and on what you can control rather than on “me-tooing” your larger competitors, you’ll live to tell a tale of success.