February 1, 2019
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Winning the game: Wow


Rod McDonald It was the beginning of the Christmas season, and a fellow I mentor was ready to do business. He had his trees, points and décor on display. I stopped by early in the morning, as no one appreciates a visit from the ‘old man’ when the customers are lined up six deep at the till. We had time to talk before the day’s rush began.

He wanted to know how to compete with Canadian Tire, which has a store at the end of his road, especially in the spring.

HERE IS THE FIRST STORY I shared with him and his family. I tell this story often, as it illustrates niche marketing perfectly. Canadian Tire sells toilets and sinks. Lots of them. Prices are really great. Their prices on taps and fixtures are attractive as well. Question: Have you ever seen the toilets and sinks they sell at Canadian Tire? If you have, then you will understand the next part of my story.

Years ago, the kids had left home and we were renovating the house. A typical story for empty nesters. The smallest bedroom was being turned into a spa for my wife and me. Seven-head shower, soaker tub, sauna, granite counters, hardwood floors, you get the picture. Did we head off to Canadian Tire or any of the box stores for our tub, toilet, sink, fixtures or any of our supplies? No, we wanted something nice for ourselves. This was a special room for us, and we still enjoy the space 15 years later.

We wanted, for lack of better words, the good stuff. We went to the specialty shop and paid a thousand bucks for the sink, twelve hundred for the toilet and four grand for the soaker tub. We not only wanted the good stuff, we were prepared to pay for it. The shop where we purchased our fixtures, did not carry any of the low-end toilets. That was not their market. They were engaged in niche marketing and we were their target audience.

The box stores do an excellent job of selling cheap goods cheaply. They cater to a price-sensitive market and that market accepts (grudgingly) a limited service concept. Every now and again when I encountered a staff member at a box store, who either knew about a product or knew where it was stocked, I have been greatly surprised. I suspect each reader has shared this experience.

The question I ask is: Why compete with a store that already does a great job of selling cheap goods cheaply? My ’60s roots could be showing, but ‘it is not your thing.’ Walmart sells hanging baskets for as low as 10 bucks and they are not worth even that amount. The baskets were planted one week before sale with three petunias, and if that is your idea of a good value, then knock yourself out.

MY SECOND STORY is about an independent who reinvented a very old wheel and found success. There was a confectionary in Regina, on the edge of downtown, that sold the traditional product line-up of bread, milk, soup, beans, chocolate bars and cigarettes. They had been in business since the 60s. The owners were Italian immigrants and they sold imported food stuffs including sausage, cheese, pasta and olive oil. They sold mainly to other Italians, as these edibles were difficult to find in Regina. I, myself, shopped there for cheese and olives. The things my kids call “Dad’s stinky stuff,” and they were not referencing my old socks though the comparison could be made.

As the store passed to the next generation, they realized the writing was on the wall for confectionaries and small groceries. They had to make some changes or else go under. The store already stocked deli meats and cheeses as well as pickles, mustard and peppers. They ordered in oversized buns from a local bakery and started selling sandwiches at lunch time.

It was a great idea, what with office buildings being close by and lots of hungry employees. It was slow going the first year. Very slow. Few sandwiches sold but those who did buy them thought they were tasty. Word spread and more people started coming by at lunch time. Long story short, on a big day they now sell hundreds over an extended lunch hour. One of the players for The Calgary Stampeders had a sandwich. He told his team mates how good it was. When they flew into Regina to play The Riders, they called ahead to have sandwiches ready upon arrival. Quite the endorsement.

The confectionary started to change its product mix on the shelves as well. Slowly, beans and soup disappeared, replaced with imported and unusual items. Factory bread was replaced with artisanal bread. McCain Pizzas were replaced with hand-made, local pizzas. Food items that could not be found elsewhere became the norm. Today, it is no longer a confectionary but a full-fledged deli with thousands of specialty items — and the place is busy. It has become a destination store with people driving from all parts of the city and out-of-towners now have it on their list of shopping stops.

SUCCESS BY INNOVATING. Success by not competing with other food stores offering cans of beans and soup. Niche marketing at its finest. All of us in the green trades can learn a lesson from The Italian Star, a confectionary turned deli.
Our garden centres, greenhouses, supply yards and shops need to be destinations. We have to give people a reason to drive across town. We have to give people who live in other communities a reason to stop into our places of business. We are not going to encourage traffic by offering what is readily available at box stores. We have to work with suppliers to avoid duplicating what is sold elsewhere. Keeping it simple, we have to be different.

One of my favourite ads, running every spring, had a headline: ‘Thirty-five plants available exclusively from us!’ Competing when there is no competition has always appealed to me. Let the public know you have those special items they read about in magazines. Items no one else carries. Ads such as this enforce your place as a true destination shop, worth the drive.

We cannot compete with the box stores by playing their game. Box stores have a much lower overhead than we do as they offer little in the way of service. Box stores operate with three to five percent of gross sales allocated to labour. This explains why customers wait for a long time in Rona to get assistance loading a heavy item. Let the box stores offer a no-frills approach, let us sell service.

The main objective of our operations is to ensure the customer walking through our doors utters the word, ‘Wow!’ The Wow factor means someone is impressed, and if that person is impressed, chances are excellent they will be purchasing. This is why building wonderful and innovative displays is so important for independents. Displays are an important part of our ‘Wow’ factor.

Find your niche and distinguish yourself from all others. Stay on the Road to Success by being special and ensure your guests say “Wow!”
Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years. He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.