I have trouble getting myself to go to the movie theater these days. Everything just seems so uninspiring and average, like a series of recycled products in slightly different packaging – the same advertisements and storylines, but with different titles and lead actors. As a movie-goer, it almost feels like Hollywood isn’t even trying to earn my money at the box office. But when a unique and authentic movie is released, such as La La Land or It, it doesn’t just get my $10 - it breaks box office records.
The way I feel about going to the movie theater today is similar to the way consumers feel when they go shopping. They want to see something different than the same strategies, average products, and stale marketing campaigns over and over again. Perhaps we can learn a thing or two from the movie industry?
The Law of Average
Retail today is filled with average – everyone looks exactly the same. You can literally see versions of the same millennial pink, ruffle off the shoulder blouse in every store. You’ll notice the same inspiration in everyone’s assortment too - from online trend services utilized, to magazine tears pulled, into online influencers leveraged, and so on. It’s become prescriptive and almost entirely predictable, to the point where sameness and average appear to be the true “trend” in today’s market – and the consumer sees it too.
So what is the Law of Average? It’s actually quite simple, “Average Out = Below Average In.” (For example, an average product will yield below-average sales.) Think about it – when was the last time you said, “I must have those average shoes!” or told someone, “Go to Store-X, they have really average customer service.”? Most likely, never. That’s because consumers are unwilling to settle for average, they demand the best – whether it’s pricing, value, uniqueness, excitement, security, rarity, customer service, etc.
So in a market filled with average, how do you break the Law of Average? How can you create a more exciting customer experience, stand apart from your competitors, grow your business at the same time?
One word… Differentiation.
In a nutshell, differentiation is offering something that sets you apart from companies similar to you. It can be implemented in many various forms across strategy, product, or marketing – or in a perfect scenario, all three collectively. When done thoughtfully, and with vision, it is an absolute game changer for any retail business.
Differentiation unto itself is can be a grand strategy to execute - in fact, I specialize in helping companies with this as a consultant. But you don’t need to wait for my assistance to begin gaining results - here are 3 simple ways you can begin incorporating differentiation into your strategy today.
1. You Want It, I Got It
Differentiation is a simple, yet effective, way to stand out from your competition.
Offer something your competitors don’t – it’s that easy!
Find a product that your customers want, but your competitors don’t have. Not only does it make your assortment more appealing to your customer, it keeps everything looking fresh and interesting, as well. You now have the opportunity to merchandise your floor with a personal touch that will provide a visually compelling experience for your customer.
It’s great that the millennial pink, ruffle off the shoulder blouse is a key item but how do you make it right for your customer? Think about whom your customer is and how they might want to adapt to the trend. Maybe your customers aren’t millennials and would prefer a different shade of pink or a totally different color all together - Gen X gray anyone? Or perhaps the off the shoulder silhouette isn’t right for your customer who isn’t as comfortable baring so much skin - change up the silhouette and keep the trendy color. The trick is to understand your customer and offer the right product for them.
Differentiation is why your customers will come back to you again and again. It’s the reason your customers love your store and tell everyone why it is better than the competitor down the street.
2. Your Customer Needs Servicing
Great customer service is on the critical path towards achieving success in today’s retail market – hopefully I’m not telling you anything new here. However, customer service goes beyond the store – it includes the total customer experience from end to end, and you can use differentiation to enhance this experience.
The concept is simple - build strategies based on your customers’ needs and offer them what they want. Knowing exactly what your customer desires - whether it’s through value, quality, styling, technology, or merchandising - and actually having it available to them delivers an exceptional customer experience.
Going back to your new and improved millennial pink blouse from the example I mentioned earlier… Now you have a unique product for your customer, showcase it! Don’t let it go unnoticed hanging on an overcrowded rack in the back of your store. You’ve created a product strategy; now create a merchandising strategy for your specially curated assortment to get the customer to buy. Keep your customer coming back by getting them excited about your unique product - creating an experience to inspire your customers to shop.
Using a real life example, I love shopping Anthropologie for this reason. I’ll spend hours in their stores studying all the different products they feature, as well as how they’re merchandised. Shopping there is incredibly stimulating because it’s visually stunning, the products are unique, and the merchandising strategy is different from any other mainstream retailers today.
3. Know Your Niche
A strong differentiation strategy will often create your biggest opportunities for growth through an increased customer base and incremental sales. The key is to create a strategy for your current customers, while also attracting new ones. New customers who may be underserviced, misunderstood, or even totally ignored. It’s identifying a niche and proactively going after it.
Those winning in today’s market are finding an untapped niche, strategizing around it, and aggressively pursuing their dream customers. REI has done a phenomenal job of this. They are laser focused on their current customers but want to identify untapped niches in the market. For REI, it was a market representing about 50% of the population, women.
The outdoor market has been traditionally male focused and REI identified a huge gap in the women’s outdoor market, and they were going to be the ones to fill it. REI put together strategies, product, and a huge marketing campaign - and it’s paying off.
I myself recently purchased a brand new sleeping bag from REI, developed with a shape made especially for women. After three (sleepless) nights during a backpacking trip in Yosemite last summer, I knew the borrowed, mummy shaped sleeping bag I used wasn’t for me. Ergonomically, the mummy shape didn’t make sense for someone who actually has hips so I decided it was time for a purchase. I didn’t shop around because I knew the type of sleeping bag I wanted, with a more comfortable spoon shape, was made just for REI and I wasn’t going to find anything that fit my needs, or my shape, better than this one.
When you achieve differentiation successfully you not only gain sales, customer engagement, and growth opportunities, you also gain brand loyalty. By building something special just for your customer you will gain a customer that keeps coming back and THAT is why differentiation is so crucial and powerful in today’s retail environment.