Expert Speak

Independent or Specialty?

Lately, I have been asked to do several interviews with various media and journalists about the state of today's retailer. It amazes me that in all of these conversations, they use the term “independent” and “specialty” interchangeably when describing retailers. In other words, they assume that being an independent retailer and a specialty retailer are the same thing – and that is not true at all!
And this is the #1 reason why independent retailers don't make it today – they stay independent, but they never become specialty.
It has often been said, the first word in specialty is special and most retailers forget that. 
You see, you can be an independent without being a specialty store and you can be a specialty store without being independent. But the key principle of specialty is not focused merchandise selection (which is a must) rather it is the ability for the retailer to be recognized as the local EXPERT.
Is your store considered by the marketplace to be the premium place for your products and services? When people ask their friends, do they recommend your store? Are your customers evangelists for your brand and store? Let's face it, a customer has a ton of choices today where to shop and the truth is that if they need shoes and you are a shoe store, most customers will drive by several places to buy shoes before they get to your store. So in today's world of ever increasing gas prices, why would someone drive past all of those other places just to buy from you?
Well, you could say price, in other words, you have the lowest price in town. But a specialty retailer is not known for price. If you want to be known for price, that is fine; you will just work harder than everyone else to make the same money. It takes more merchandise to get the same revenue, so you will have more bills to pay, more orders to make, more boxes to unpack, more shelves to stock (you get the picture.) But if you want to be a specialty retailer, then you will focus on being the local expert and not on price.
To be the expert, you need highly trained people. You can call yourself the expert, but that does not make it so. I visited a store one time simply because the ad in the newspaper in the hotel said, “We are the Experts.” But when I arrived, I find an awesome, focused selection, but no people who could answer my questions. I am sure the owner was a great expert, but how often does the owner serve the customer versus the staff?
To be the expert, you need to act like the expert. And the best way to do this is through education. Offer free classes in your store. Bring in vendors for trunk shows. Keep a regular blog on your website where you add tips and advice for free to your customers. This is an amazing way for people to see you as an expert.
Just yesterday, Rick and I were discussing a change we wanted to make in one of our software tools. Instead of searching for software companies, we searched for “advice on best tools for ________” and guess what we got? That is right, someone's blog post where they gave the pros and cons to several options. We found an expert and not a software company. And the same is true for your store.
Think about the type of questions you get asked by customers on a regular basis and then write a blog post about each. You will see results from this approach. But you have to be consistent and it takes time. So, don't start out trying to post every day. Start once a week and then as you get a rhythm you can add more.
My stores were independent, but I was more proud of the fact that they were specialty and that we got people who drove from 50 miles away just to work with our staff in the store because we were known as the local experts. While some people buy from a retailer because they are independent, more buy because they are specialty.
We just bought a bike for my 4-year-old daughter's birthday present. And sitting here writing this now, I counted 14 places we could have purchased her a bike (and cheaper) between our home and the store we purchased from. But it was her first bike and dad wanted to talk to the experts to make sure he was getting her the best bike for her and the safest bike for dad. 

Experts make the most money.