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“Competing with the big box stores hasn’t been as challenging as it sounds.”

Say what?

That was my initial reaction to Guitar Stop (Cambridge, Massachusetts) owner Jeanne Oster’s comments that appear in this July’s profile of the Greater Boston MI market.

But, upon consideration, I’ve been hearing and reading more and more folks expressing similar sentiment in recent years.

“Big box retail stores are losing relevance, while e-commerce and specialty stores grow in appeal,” noted Denise Lee Yohn, in a piece she penned for the Harvard Business Review last June (‘Big-Box Retailers Have Two Options if They Want to Survive’). “Big box retail must shift its strategy – from competing on access and selection to staging big experiences and providing big discounts.”

I’m not uncorking any rich vintage of truth for any MMR reader when I assert that the real and growing challenge to brick & mortar retail operations isn’t the big box retailers, but rather online sales. Hop on the internet, search around for a bit, and a few clicks later you’ve purchased whatever you need – all without having to leave the comfort of home. And, depending on the online dealer and your relationship with that vendor, you likely don’t even have to pay for shipping. How can you argue with (or beat) that type of convenience?

Well, as already (and often!) discussed, the larger-ticket items your own store may stock represent the types of purchases any but the most wealthy amongst us would think twice about pulling the “online trigger” on without some in-person, hands-on trial. So you’ve got that going for you. But what else?

As PricewaterhouseCoopers noted in a 2015 report, “Consumers will put heightened emphasis on personalization, look for opportunities where their input matters, and value product and service solutions.”

MI retailers need to aim to replace – and exceed, value-wise – the ease (and, quite frankly, inherent laziness) of a few casual clicks on a laptop or smartphone with comprehensive, personalized customer service and human relationships.

Going back to Jeanne Oster: How is she doing it? Why is competing with big box and online competition not “as challenging as it sounds?”

“Our prices are usually lower than the big box stores,” she offers. “We stand behind everything we sell. Everyone who works here can do minor repairs, set-ups, and adjustments on the spot if they are needed.” Oster’s Guitar Stop also has a “robust website” and a thriving lesson program.

These aren’t “big guys” and nobody at this store is reinventing the wheel, but they’re crafting and making use of a damn fine wheel: they do their job and have successfully cultivated loyal, repeat customers.

So there it is, the formula for success – even in today’s complex market: personalization and catering to a niche. Figure out what you can offer that distinguishes you from the competition – competition of all sizes – and then do that, and do it well. Again, hardly breaking news, but a simple truth that can sometimes get lost amidst the frequent cries of “unfair” competition.

 



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