Products are the stars. Without them, you don't have a business. You have to have products that people want. Products typically fall into three categories:
- Commodities - the products everyone wants and most stores carry. Products designed for the masses (and usually sold at the masses).
- Niche - the products that are different, maybe with special features, that appeal to only a small but loyal segment of the market.
- Custom - the unique, one-of-a-kind products such as hand-crafted artwork, customer-customized products, and items so different you wouldn't expect to sell more than one.
To own the traffic driver of Product, you have to own at least one of those three categories.
This is probably the toughest for an independent to own, because the mass market wants this category big time. They believe this is their category so much that they try to commoditize products that might otherwise seem niche.
The other problem with this category is that price drives more of the purchasing decisions for commodities. The mass advertises the price constantly, which sets the perceived worth in the customer's mind.
But if you own the Commodities (at the right price), you can draw the masses.
This used to be the domain of the independent toy store. Our model was easy. Carry the stuff Toys R Us and Wal-Mart didn't carry and you can compete easily with the mass. The profit margin was better on these toys, and there was plenty of product available that wasn't in the big boxes.
Toys R Us and Target changed that game as they kept buying more and more of the niche products. Now the Internet is trying to take over this category. The Internet is built for the niche market. One website can reach all 500 potential customers for a niche product much more easily than trying to get that product into stores in the 500 markets where those people live.
There are still plenty of niche products out there not carried in the big boxes, but the list of products not sold online gets smaller every year. If you can find niche products that are also MAP protected (see the discussion on Price), then you can still own the Product driver.
Own this category if you want to attract customers who are less price-focused and more solution-oriented.
This is still a wide-open category. The big boxes don't want it. Not a high enough turn-ratio. The Internet is struggling with this category because it is hard to attract people to check out product they don't know they want, and in most cases they prefer to see and touch first before falling in love with it. Individual artists can be successful online, but mainly because they have built a tribe of followers. The independent retailers are also wary because it takes a lot of commitment and cash to get into the world of custom, one-of-a-kind offerings. Do it poorly and you'll go broke.
To own this category, you need a savvy buyer who can guess the wants and desires of the customers before they walk through the door, and can hunt down those products and fill your store with them. If you have a buyer like that, keep her. They are a rare breed.
The fun part of owning a store full of custom products is that the mix is always changing, the delight factor is high, and your most loyal customers will come back often just to see what is new. If you can own this category, you can earn a lot of word-of-mouth, too.
If you want to own Product as a driver of traffic, choose one of those three categories and own it lock, stock and barrel. They each draw a different type of crowd and require a different type of advertising.
Then again, there is some wisdom in not worrying about owning any of the categories of Product but just dabbling in all three.
- Carry some Commodities to draw the masses.
- Carry some Niche for the people wanting something different (and to make some profit.)
- Carry some Custom to keep the store ever changing and unique.
If you can afford the lower profits on the commodities and the lower turn ratios on the customs, you can have a fun mix that has something for everyone. Focus on owning one of the other major drivers of traffic.
PS Some of you might wonder why I spent the first 90% of this post telling you how to own a category, and then end it with a paragraph about why not to own any of them. I do so because I want you to consciously make that choice. I want you to decide what you want to be, and be it by choice, not happenstance. Knowledge is Power (France is Bacon).