The Journey: Competition Versus Being Competitive Laura McCullough-DeLorme

9 09 2008

I want to open this by assuring you that it eventually leads into my art and current work, but begins with an important lesson learned on my journey in another business.

I used to own a successful body, mind and spirit focused bookstore and gift shop. In addition to the retail store overflowing with herbs, teas, books, jewelry, candles, gemstones, music, soaps, lotions and trinkets of all kinds, we also had a healing center with massage therapists and we offered classes and hosted lots of community events.

I had a fairly loose business plan (by most people’s standards) and even so, things seemed to fall into place. It was just the right time and it didn’t take long before the rather new-age shop became “the place to be” even in our fairly conservative area.

When a couple of other shops similar in nature began to spring up around us, many of my customers expressed concern. “What are you going to do to stay ahead of the competition?” they’d ask. Or, “Are you afraid they’re going to take your customers?”.

While I understood their concerns on some level, on another level I found the whole thing puzzling. I’d never even viewed other stores as competition and in all honesty, as naive as it may seem, I viewed us all as part of the same team and thought there were enough customers for everyone.  The idea that someone could “take” customers seemed foreign to me because I guess I never thought of them as mine and only mine anyway.

I’d say as much in response to customers concerned about a new shop a few blocks away and people usually accepted my answer until one day a customer began to press me very hard about how important it was to “be smart” about my business and the “competition.”

I had a hard time explaining why I wasn’t concerned, so he began to lecture me about how assessing competition is “just plain good business smarts“.

It was then that I realized that he was a real jerk…HA! Just kidding! No really, I understood his concern and later thanked him because that afternoon he forced me to pull together my thoughts on the subject and clarify them for myself right there, in the middle of the shop.  He was a long-term customer who wasn’t trying to offend me and it helped me understand in less than ten minutes that I did have business smarts, but that mine were intuitive rather than clearly formulated.

I explained that being competitive within a market and competing for customers are two different things. I didn’t view other stores as competition or enemies because to expend energy on that pulled attention away from my own shop.  However, I was also aware that to remain competitive in the market of rose quartz massage wands, for example, it would also (with only a few exceptions) be unwise for me to drop my price to match another shop’s price.  I’d already set a fair one based on a good understanding of how much the wand cost, not just in terms of what I paid for it, but in terms of what it cost to have an employee nearby and ready to explain to a customer how it could be used or to gift wrap it.  If I dropped the price, I’d have to make up for it somewhere else by raising the price on another item or by lowering my expectations of the level of customer service we could provide. Unless you’re a Wal-Mart price checker, this kind of managing takes time, wastes energy and usually fails to pay off in the long run.

However, if I made sure customers were aware that the wands came prettily wrapped at no added charge and set out a few wrapped examples next to the display along with little cards explaining how they were made and what country the rose quartz came from, I was being competitive in the market by offering knowledge, service and convenience along with their purchase. Believe me, free gift wrap goes a long way with men around the holidays!  And, if I had an item that sold for less somewhere else and I couldn’t afford sell it for less or with an extra service, then a competitive business decision would be to sell out the item and not offer it again.  I liked making room for new and unique things anyway.

I also stayed competitive by considering every person who called the shop a customer even if we didn’t have what they were looking for and the “competition” did.  If someone called looking for a book and we didn’t have it in stock or coming soon in an order, my employees and I referred them to any place in town that might.  We weren’t vague and we were very clear about making sure they knew it was important to us that they find what they needed.

I can’t tell you how this helped my store to remain competitive.  It was a real strategy and it worked.  We gained customers because of our helpfulness on the phone and if a customer walked in looking for something we didn’t carry (or were out of) they waited appreciativly while we called around town to help them find it.

Other businesses who viewed my shop as “the competition” weren’t so helpful and can you imagine how it looked in contrast to our generosity about such things?

I explained that while much of my business philosophy was spiritual and heart centered, that there was strategy.  It was a strategic decision to educate current customers on the inventory of other shops; it helped them and made us look good.  We may have lost a sale on the day of the call, but more often than not we were remembered for our helpfulness and they paid us a visit later.

My rather pushy male customer was beginning to understand, but he said something about how if a customer called and we sent them somewhere else, we might never get them into the store and wasn’t that a loss in the long run? I told him that I never once worried about this. That if they went into a store that we sent them to, (usually calling in advance so the seller could have the item ready) the customer would almost always mention that we’d referred them and the other shop owner would take a moment to comment on how nice it was that we sent them over and how lovely our shop was and how supportive I was of other businesses. That in itself is a great endorsement and happened because we took the time to make sure they learned of the shop that had what they needed on a particular day.

In one case, an owner, speaking from her own fear of “competition” took the opportunity to take a swipe at our shop and said something negative about me and how “irresponsible” it was for us to be out of a particular book and that she’d “never let such an important volume be out of stock.”  The customer, who we had sent to her and who before that day had never heard of her shop or mine, put the book down and walked out.  She called us, told us that she’d wait a week for our order to come in and that she’d been shocked by the other shopkeeper’s comment.  We were surprised, but said nothing negative in response, only that we were happy she’d found us in the phone book that day, we were sorry it didn’t go well at the other store and we’d call her when her book came in.  She told many friends this story and while it was an unfortunate loss for the other shop, it was a gain for us and if the other shop owner had not allowed herself to get caught up in fear, she could have made a sale, gained a new customer and prevented bad word of mouth.

Being helpful and positive enabled me to stay above the stress of daily worries about other businesses and helped me to focus on what we offered and the environment I wanted to create.  Eventually, when the shop close by went out of business, our regular customers knew there was no gloating on our end and that we had been as supportive to another business as we could be and stayed true to ourselves in the process.

If we hadn’t been generous in spirit to that shop and my customers had sensed this, it would have forever tarnished our image in a business that sold tools for spiritual development.  While they might have continued to shop there, the energy wouldn’t have matched our message and they wouldn’t have trusted us on some level.  It would have only been a matter of time before a new shop with a more positive energy opened and the customers would have gravitated towards it.

Eventually, I needed a change, sold my business and began to focus on a different kind of creativiity.  I learned quickly that many things change when the majority of your business is done on the internet, working only with shop owners who carry my work as opposed to the retail buyers or face to face in a booth, but not in a brick and mortar.

I struggled earlier this year when I saw there was a woman making her wallets out of paper and vinyl, but differently than I do. I got a little caught up in my prices and even went as far as to comment to a friend (not a customer) that I questioned the quality of her items. For shame! Hadn’t I learned anything about my own views as I had explained them to that customer a few years ago?  In reality, I didn’t question her quality…I was insecure about my own work and prices.

I think we all understand the sinking feeling we have as artists and crafters when we see something on the market similar to our own. Most of us don’t want to admit to it, but it can be hard not to compare another’s work to what we’re doing, but at the end of the day, we have to remind ourselves that if we start to see fellow artists as “competition” we lose our ability to be competitive. In our work, creativity is key and by keeping our heads in our own businesses, we keep our energy focused and our creative juices flowing.

While we do have to be aware of what’s out there and be somewhat aware of what others are charging in whatever category of art we’re pursuing, ultimately this matters less than us realistically determining what we need to price an item at to cover our needs and if it’s higher than someone else’s, we have to be OK with it.

We also stand to gain more by encouraging our customers to check our the great work being done by other artists.  Recently, I was contacted by a woman who’d retained a PR firm to help her market her gorgeous line of stationary. She contacted me to see if I could partner with her on a project to make little purse sized notebook holders.  At first, I was excited because I had planned to make them anyway, but after I thought about it, I realized that I was months away from a good design and that I really wanted to focus on my passport cases first.  I was only thinking of taking the project out of fear of missing an opportunity and someone else getting it rather than because I really wanted to take it on. I thought of the other woman making the paper and vinyl wallets and decided to refer the woman offering me the project to her.

There are some that would say it is a mistake not to grab every opportunity, but it’s better to let one pass if your heart isn’t in it.  There are others who might turn it down, but not give another artist a referral and even with all my lessons learned, I did hesitate, but then remembered that the same principles should apply to my new business as did to my old one.

These days, I spread the word about Etsy to anyone who will listen and I know that customers will find other wallets out there, but I also know that as long as I keep my work fresh and my eye on my own business goals that I’ll be OK and that I feel great when I can help a customer find a paper and vinyl wristlet from another seller because I don’t make them yet.  It’s so much less stressful to be positive about your own business than it is to worry about the impact of someone else’s.

Whew, thanks for reading…it was a long one!

Laura

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11 responses

9 09 2008
Lori Anderson

This is an amazing article. I’m going to share it on a Yahoo group I belong to, because it’s such good advice. I’d also encourage you to send it in to a magazine like The Crafts Report — it’s worthy of that audience!

9 09 2008
Teri

Great information, and lots to think about in how you build your business and consider opportunities—THANKS! Teri http:/www.sandtcreations.com/wordpress

9 09 2008
Lois

Wow Laura. Very powerful message. I have always believed in the Pay It Forward principal, even before it had the name. Do the right thing, do the honest thing and eventually it all comes back to you. It’s one of the things that makes Etsy work, I think. There is far more of an attitude of pay it forward than undercutting. You don’t find that at other online venues. Perhaps because we are mostly crafters ourselves and someone had to teach us we are more willing to share and give back. Keep writing. I love your style and your message.
Lois
http://www.abeadedaffair.com

9 09 2008
Susan Sheehan

Laura, I am so glad you wrote this. Your business approach is full of integrity and genuine good. You have put into words so many things I wish to embrace. Thank you.

9 09 2008
ChezChani

Thanks for so generously sharing your experience and knowledge. But that’s really what you’re writing about after all.

9 09 2008
Wezz

Hi Laura,
Thank you so much for writing this! it’s good advice for anyone, business or not. Like Lois, I’ve been a believer of “do to others as you would like them to do to you”, or the pay-it-forward idea, long before it had a name. And this is just that. Live and let live. Thank you so much for making us think about it, and keeping our feet firmly on the ground in the process.
Hugs,
Wezz

10 09 2008
Kim Ries

Great article Laura. Proof that what goes around comes around. The good will you worked hard to create came back to you. I’m a strong believer in “what goes around comes around.” Thanks for reminding us all what is important as we grow our business.

Kim
http://kimberlyries.blogspot.com

10 09 2008
Michele Cook

That was amazing! I feel as though I see where my journey through the development of my talent is taking me. That is the place I want to reach with my own work. That is the way to be focused, open and in touch.

Thank you so much for writing that post.

Michele

10 09 2008
joolzbylisa

Such a great article! It’s full of the philosophy of business that was never taught in business courses! Little things count! And people remember (and reward) excellent customer service and they tell others over and over about poor customer service!

12 09 2008
Susan

This is an excellent post! Your view that we don’t have to take every opportunity that comes along applies to so many things. I say this to my kids as we try to balance their organized activities. And it’s a hard lesson I’ve been learning in my own business, where in the past I’ve taken on too much work at once out of fear of turning away a potential client. In the end it doesn’t really pay off. Thanks, Laura, for helping me to clarify my own feelings on this.

13 09 2008
Christine Marie

Great article…
Principles for LIFE…not just ‘business’.

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