Competition or Colleagues?

Rethinking competitors in your recipe for success.
by : 

Jacki Smith

December 1, 2013
Competition or Colleagues?

What’s the difference between winning and achieving your personal best? Seeing your personal best as a victory is not an easy ideal to hold when faced with the prospect of “losing.” As you watch a store very much like yours move in down the street or find your customers have stopped ordering one of your products because someone else has a cheaper look-alike, it’s hard to enjoy the personal bests you achieved in your business last quarter. When you’re afraid your business is being damaged by another, that fear can take over any positive thoughts you’ve nurtured about your own victories and send you into a spiral of fussing about your competition.

Make the pie bigger

Heatherleigh Navarre from the Boston Tea Room in Michigan has colleagues, not competitors. She lives this philosophy by celebrating new businesses, even those similar to hers. She makes it a point to recommend her customers check out the “new kid in town.” Over the years, she has seen some of her employees and customers start similar businesses, sat on local business boards with owners of stores much like hers, and mentored others to help their stores become successful. “Similar businesses clustered in one area create a destination that will draw a wider crowd than just a single store of its type,” says Heatherleigh. She points out that antique stores, restaurants, and art galleries know this and use it as part of their overall strategy. They form their own associations to help each other grow and hold local events together to make a larger impact as a group than they could as single entities.

“Make the pie bigger rather than worrying about the size of your piece!” is one of Heatherleigh’s oft-repeated statements. When you fear you’re not getting enough of the market segment, not a large enough piece of the pie, you’re saying your customer base is finite. When you welcome competition or, as she likes to say, new colleagues, you’re opening up your potential market to include their spheres of influence, too.

Think about it this way: Everyone is bringing pie to the potluck; yours is apple and your neighbor’s is coconut cream. Instead of competing about whose pie is better, look at how many of your neighbor’s friends are in the mood for apple pie today and ready to sample your culinary talents. It’s okay if your friends want coconut cream today, they will come back to your apple pie later. Honestly, your apple pie will taste even better when you praise your neighbor’s pie. Inversely, your pie will be a little bitter for some if all they hear is how awful the coconut cream is and how offended you are that people are sampling it. Isn’t there room for all kinds of pie on the table? When there is a table filled with pie, everyone wins, and you can invite more people to the party!

When you fear someone is doing better than you or stealing your customers, you are no longer being the best you can be. When you are more focused on how you compare to another, you begin to lose your joy in your own unique identity.

Your signature pie

Competition brings blessings. The first blessing of competition is it helps you define your store. Yours is either the taken-for-granted default store or a stand-out destination. To stand out, you must embrace your vision for your store and fine tune it. Unless you are opening a territory-protected franchise, you will never have a cookie-cutter competitor. They may carry similar items, have a similar theme, and possibly even a similar name, but they can never be you. And, even the strictest franchises are defined by their management; we all know not every store in a franchise is created equal, and we go out of our way to avoid one that is sub-par.

When a perceived competitor moves into town and ratchets up your fears, it’s time to pull out your original vision for your store and make sure you are still on track. If your store no longer represents that original vision, it’s time to redefine who you are and create a brand-new vision for your store. Once you have a clear and easy-to-follow vision, everyone in your business can now get on board and help define the culture of your store.

Defining your store culture is important. It helps you weed through all the great ideas that cross your brain everyday, as well as all the “shoulds” served up by well-meaning family and friends. When you have a clear identity for your store, your customers respond quickly—and with their dollars. When your store’s identity isn’t up front and clear, customers get confused as to why they shop in your store. When you have defined your “signature pie,” your customers will rave about it and tell everyone where to get a piece of the pie you are known for.

When a new colleague comes to town, they are coming in with their identity clearly defined. Their signature pie is new and exciting to them, and they are energized to tell the world about it. They don’t have years of legacy bogging them down like you may, and, if you look at it the right way, the new kid in town will help you up your game and become a better store. Without competition to keep you on your toes, complacency can set in—a death knell for the independent store. Test your recipe every now and again, and make sure your “pie” still tastes great!

If you worry about your competition, take an afternoon with your key staff and have everyone assess your store’s SWOT—Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Every change offers a unique perspective into your business and an opportunity to learn more about your customers and community. Have everyone on your staff rate your SWOT independently, and then come together as a group to compare notes and make a master SWOT list. You will be surprised at the insight of your staff—their focus on your store is from their unique angle, and they will always bring something new to the table.

The community recipe book

There are a lot of signature pies: Dutch apple, cherry, blueberry, and even strawberry-rhubarb. It’s okay to like each other’s specialty pie; let them master theirs while you master yours, and every now and again you can trade tips.

Building relationships with other stores builds on one another’s success. The saying, “Your network equals your net worth,” reflects the idea that building positive relationships with your perceived competitors expands everyone’s customer base. No one store can be everything to everyone. When you celebrate the specialty of your colleagues, it frees up your inventory budget to focus on your specialty.

Heatherleigh is not just a favorite store owner of mine; she’s a colleague I work with closely. In the winter of 2008, when the storefront across the hall from my store became vacant, I invited Heatherleigh to open a second Boston Tea Room there. We teamed up that first year so she could build her new location to a self-sustaining level. My store benefited greatly from the powerful customer draw generated by her business. It may have seemed more logical for me to take over that spot and bring in readers, but I didn’t have the time or the focus to create a new business. I had only been open for five months and was still figuring out my own signature recipe.

In the four years since Heatherleigh opened her store, we have shared tools, physical and metaphorical, as well as management when in crisis, plus camaraderie, displays, and frequent lunches. We have even swapped inventory! What has this relationship brought us in the long run? The Boston Tea Room is moving to a larger location across the street, and my store may expand and take over her old
This is not to say we never disagree, step on each other’s toes, make each other’s hair catch fire, or generally annoy each other regularly. We have done that and more, but we agreed early on that none of this is personal and the health of our own businesses comes first.

Ours is a rare case, but I have built relationships with all the stores in my area, some closer than others. The spiritual stores refer people to each other, the gift stores share vendor leads, and in my downtown area, we all work together to host shopping events. We even openly shop at each other’s businesses to see what is new and exciting, and we share event ideas that work.

No woman or man can be an island and have a store that thrives; we all rely on the expanding spheres of influence that community builds. You can be the example who actively builds alliances to create a strong community. Make colleagues out of your competitors by letting go of any bitterness over their success. Your actions, words, and attitude are all part of the recipe for your pie, and no one comes back for a second piece of bitter pie.

There will always be customer and inventory overlap in your surrounding area, from bookstores to gift shops to health food stores. Interact with these other business people as resources for your clients and as colleagues for yourself. Why try to be an exclusive club all by yourself? That will only lead to very sad block parties!

Teaching others how to bake

Heatherleigh holds the philosophy that you only hire staff with enthusiasm and interest in your vision. When you work with people who have your similar passion and drive, you can assume eventually they will want to be on their own. Although it can be challenging when their plans are not shared openly, honestly, and with integrity, letting them go with love allows a healing and the potential for a relationship in the future.

Heatherleigh has had several clients and employees branch off to open their own stores—some in the area and some farther out. She talks about the joy she gets in referring people to those stores and the relationship with the owner that grows every year. She says, “It is my job to get my customer what they need, and if what they gain from that is the courage and focus to pursue a dream similar to mine, then I am successfully doing my job.” When I asked if this philosophy has ever backfired on her, she replied an unwavering, “Never.” It has always worked out for the best for Heatherleigh, especially when she has been able to detach from the fear of limited abundance in the world. When she gets worried, hurt, or scared about others opening a similar store to hers, she turns her focus to her own front yard and being the best business owner she can be.

Admittedly, Heatherleigh’s most challenging competitor/colleague issues come from former employees. Most often, employees feel the need to be secretive about their moves. Usually, it is to maintain a form of stability for as long as possible while they open their new business or “borrow” your information, such as vendors, policies, and business practices. Ironically, a majority of that information is easily obtainable online, and much of it she would share willingly. As Heatherleigh has experienced, if an employee is honest and open about his or her intentions, the relationship has the potential to grow, and she has the opportunity to willingly share.

It’s great to have motivated, passionate, and enthusiastic employees to help you grow your business. If you recognize them for the work they do, help them feel invested in your business, and teach them how to bake pies, too, you will hold on to them longer and benefit from their employment with you. You may just create the perfect environment for them to stay with you for the long haul. But remember, the only permanent employee in your store is you.

When others are throwing pies

When your potential colleagues come at you from a competitive stance, threatening you on anything—inventory, staff, talent—you become stronger. Remember, what your competition is really doing is helping you clearly define your own identity. If you accept their challenge to make your store the best store it can be, you cannot rest on your laurels. Take the challenge as a reminder of why you opened your store in the first place, and get your excitement back. When others won’t play nice, it is a unique opportunity to become an example of higher standards, of taking—and maintaining—the high road.

When other store owners won’t play nice, Heatherleigh follows the philosophy of Dalton (Patrick Swayze) from the 80s cult-classic movie Roadhouse: “Be nice until it’s time to not be nice.” If you have tried to navigate the situation and communicate with people with no positive response, at a certain point you have to give up and let it go. These moments should be rare, but the best path forward is to be successful yourself. Focus on your own success and blow past them.

If you find yourself in serial negative relationships with other store owners, Heatherleigh suggests looking at the common denominator in the relationships—that would be you! Take the hint and understand it’s time to do the personal work to reach out and ensure you deserve a place in your community, with your focus on building a business that benefits both you and your community as a whole.

A recipe for success

So, competitors or colleagues? Remember, everyone has the right to follow their dream, and rarely is their dream about interfering with yours. Even if your competition starts out “throwing pies,” eventually they have to form their own identity to survive. Let yourself be the mentor, the subject expert in this process, and offer them the colleague status that paves the way for everyone to take the high road.

Jacki Smith is the founder and Enchantress of Coventry Creations and designer of the Blessed Herbal Candles. Jacki has a passion for small business (she owns three), has two books under her belt, and is a regular contributor to Retailing Insight. Contact her at jacki@coventrycreations.com.