There’s a saying: “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door” (Ralph Waldo Emerson). But there’s only so much you can do with a mousetrap, and what happens if you’re on a street of mousetrap sellers? How does your business stand out?
If you want one business that really managed it – with books, not mousetraps – look no further than the legendary Foyles bookstore of Charing Cross Road, London. Charing Cross Road is to the book trade what Madison Avenue is to advertising, so to stand out from the competition, a shop needs to be distinctive.
And Foyles certainly was. Up until the end of the 90s – and that’s the 1990s – to make a purchase, you had to take your selected title to a sales desk, then you took an invoice to take to the cash desk (where the sale was rung up on an old fashioned till; nothing electronic), and finally you took your receipt back to the sales desk, where they gave you your book to take away with you. And all three of those stages usually involved queuing, which even the English can get too much of eventually.
So it can truly be said that Foyles stood out among the other bookstores – just not in a good way. And yet, that’s how it was run for most of the twentieth century, and it flourished, for a couple of reasons. First, it was – and still is – a world-class specialist store for rare, hard-to-obtain titles, catering to a very specialist clientele, so it didn’t depend on drop-in trade. And second, people would shop at Foyles for the sheer experience, so that they too could say they had endured the legendary Foyles eccentricity.
So, despite its contrary reputation, Foyles was doing two things exactly right: it provided a service that its competitors couldn’t, and it gave its customers an experience to remember. The way they did it might not be to everyone’s taste, but they were enough for Foyles to achieve its aims.
Let’s assume that this is what you also want to do, but in a way that treats your customers with a modicum of respect. (And also your staff. One reason for the three-stage buying process was that Foyles only employed staff on short term contracts – never long enough to gain certain labor rights, and not long enough to gain the trust or skills to handle cash.) To make your pizza business stand out from the pie slinger next door, is there something that not only does the pie slinger not do, but can’t do?
Even if your customers just buy a pizza, can they come away with the feeling that they got something extra? It may just be the décor or the attitude of the staff. Where do most of your customers come from? Are they refugees on a lunch break from a corporate cubicle farm? They may enjoy something a little offbeat by contrast. Are they workers from the packing district? Maybe something a bit more rough and ready will make them feel at home.
Maybe you can offer them something extra, not from your store but from someone else’s? The owners of Tim’s Trainers and Harry’s Hockey Gear could do a deal that anyone who buys a trainer from Tim gets a discount from Harry on their next purchase. And vice versa. Everyone benefits.
Your customer wants their retail experience to be as seamless and easy as moving around their own home. Back home, if they want a coffee, or to take a shower, or put on the TV, they don’t even have to think about it. Everything is there at their fingertips, arranged to their satisfaction; they want it, it happens.
The more their experience in your store doesn’t match that ideal, the more you won’t stand out from all the other businesses that don’t match it either. Maybe the place is just a bit too laid out for the convenience of staff rather than customers; maybe the POS system is just the wrong side of clunky. The effect will be cumulative. One of our team was on a business trip to San Antonio, where it was very hard to spot the differences between the various outlets in the food mall at lunch time. So when it came to one pizza stand making its customers choose from pictures of the food, and one that actually had samples of each offering out on the hotplate, he chose the latter one for lunch each day. It made the choosing easier, and he got a little extra free food!
And last of all, if you’re doing something right, make sure people know about it. The difference in your offering might be obvious to you, but you’re on the inside and you know the business. Don’t just assume the world can recognize what you’ve done, and care enough to tell the difference. If they can’t, it may need pointing out – so, communicate the difference. Word will spread eventually if you rely on your customers discovering your better offering by accident, but it will spread a lot more quickly if you tell people.
A rival bookstore to Foyles was Dillons. They knew Foyles’ practices weren’t to everyone’s taste, and they had a large advert right across the street from the Foyles entrance. Foyled Again? Try Dillons …