Time for a hard truth: you need to be better than each of your competitors in at least three ways if you want to survive. Yup, even if your competition is Tesco, Virgin and Coca Cola, you've got to find a way to do the dastardly devils a disservice. And now for the amazingly good news: you're a small business. Which means you're adaptable, you're already better than big brands in dozens of ways, and you've got more punches to pack than Muhammad Ali circa 1974.
But let's get something straight right now: being cheaper than a competitor is not your only weapon. All too often, we see business owners at their absolute wits' end because a rival is undercutting them on price, and they can't keep up. Trying to compete on cost is a race to the bottom - you squeeze your margins so paper-thin you're left with nothing. If you can compete on price, brilliant. If you can't, get on top with any combination of these babies:
1. Better quality/longer-lasting
A great one to fight off the price wars, because it makes a higher price justified. Plus, your smallness means you can put in that extra bit of TLC that really makes a better-quality product shine.
Sick of seeing the same mass-marketed products everywhere you go? So are we. Give the Ikea effect the cold shoulder by offering something your customers can't buy anywhere else.
3. Easier to use
Just keep it simple, a'ight? If a customer can figure out how to use your super-hydro-manu-sizer-gizmo in two seconds rather than two hours, you've got the edge.
4. Safer to use
This is a particularly strong one if your customers are likely to have kids - or if they are kids. It might take a bit of user testing, and it's worth getting an accreditation, but believe us, it'll work. No one wants to end up decapitated by the less-safe tin opener on the supermarket shelves to save a few pennies.
5. More efficient
Does your product get more done than its rivals? Is it quicker? Easier to set up and dissemble? Bonanza. Speed, these days, is ever more of the essence - and it's an incredibly powerful sales tool.
6. More compact
Never underestimate the magic of the Maglite effect. The maker of this mini-torch made their millions simply by shrinking the humble torch. Make it pocket-size, easier to carry and transport, or just all cute and diddy, and you're onto a winner.
Apply some common sense here: this will obviously depend on what your product's used for.
8. More retro
Remember when Wispa made that massive comeback? It played on the retro effect. Old is the new, er, new. If your target customers are under 30, over 50, or trendy, they'll appreciate the novelty of retro.
9. More modern
Of course, that leaves the 31 - 49-year-old bracket wide open. Either them, or anyone remotely interested in technology, cutting-edge design, or the like.
10. Design that is more beautiful/quirky/fun/edgy/stylish/simple/patterned/non-patterned/etc
We'll give our backslash key a break - you get the idea. Something as seemingly superficial as appearance can dramatically alter a customer's perception of its worth. Check out the price list at Bang & Olufsen to see what we mean.
11. More beautiful/quirky/etc packaging
Ah packaging, the marketing executive's closest ally. The power of packaging allows you to dress up any product to the price point you want. Benefit cosmetics are a textbook example of the way it can set the tone for your entire brand.
12. Designed by someone cool or endorsed by a celebrity
Not easy to secure, but very powerful. Think celebrity perfumes - they might smell like molten plastic, but they sell like hotcakes.
Applies to any product that makes noise when used, with the exception of speakers (especially subwoofers). Noise is annoying. Eradicate for customer zen - which equals repeat custom.
14. Fresher/tastier/healthier/more organic
If you sell food or drink, you can do what the supermarkets can't. You can make things on-the-spot, preservative-free, and downright delicious. Do it.
15. Greener/more ethical
Whether it's recycled, recyclable, or in some small way helps the plight of Tibetan goat farmers, it taps into the biggest consumer trend to hit the middle class since Boden.
16. Sourced in Britain/locally sourced/home-made
This holds ever-greater sway, not just because it cuts emissions, but also because people increasingly want to know where their stuff has come from.
17. Approved by a respected organisation
This holds similar kudos to celebrity endorsement, albeit probably with a different crowd. Jump through the hoops of a trade or standards organisation and then stick their approval seal on every bit of marketing material you've got.
18. Not tested on animals
This holds sway with plenty of non-veggies, so it's well worth shouting about.
19. More daring
Sex still sells. And as a small business, you can take far more risks than a large company confined by 50-year-old policies. Risqué appeals to a far-wider net of consumer than you might ever have imagined.
20. Better customer service
This is such an easy one - and it's free. Smile, be polite, build relationships with your customers and respond to complaints quickly and calmly. It's that simple. But it's something big companies find impossible to do well.
21. More favourable opening hours
Whether you go 24/7 or just open Saturdays when your rivals are shut, making a customer's life more convenient and shaping your business around their lifestyle is guaranteed to bring them through the doors.
22. Faster delivery
Hire a crew of Hell's Angels if need be, because this one can make or break a buying decision for time-poor customers.
23. Offer online ordering where competitors don't
As we said, convenience is a number one priority for an ever-growing number of consumers these days. So let them buy your products while they're browsing the web at work - and get sales coming in 24/7 too.
24. Your website is more efficient/reliable/quicker/simpler
We can't say it enough: websites are key these days. Get a good one, and you look professional and encourage people to get on there all the time. Read more here on how to get it spot-on.
25. Offer freebies that competitors don't
This can be something as simple - but as utterly charming - as offering customers a cup of tea. It really does make all the difference. Check out Supermarket Sarah, who does just that to entice weary Saturday shoppers in to her tiny premises.
26. Being UK-wide or international
A broader reach will win you more customers and give you an edge over those who only deliver down the road. It takes a lot of organisation and careful management, but can work wonders.
27. The gender or age of employees
See what we mean by checking out Smarta 100 winner Home Jane, whose women-only handyman (or handywoman!) force get the contracts from women's refuges and hostels that other companies couldn't. And watch our video interview with Livity founder Sam Conniff to find out how to leverage age.
28. Employees' expertise or demeanour
The best salespeople are those who know their subject matter inside-out. As a small business, you can nail this one, because you're most likely to employ people with a good dose of passion for what you're doing. Use it: train staff to know your product and be happy to explain it in-depth and make recommendations. Think of the service you get in independent wine shop for inspiration.
29. Employees wear uniform
A small thing, but a powerful one. It makes your business look more professional and trustworthy, which can go a very long way.
30. No frills deals
Some people like it straight-up. Take a leaf out of Ryanair's book, or just strip down your premises and packaging to their bare minimum to appeal to time-poor, fuss-free individuals.
31. Loads of frills deals
Of course, for every minimalist there is a, um, maximist. Chuck in lots of complimentary bits and bobs, pamper your customers, and make packaging nice and froufrou.
32. Wider range of products
Variety is the spice of life - but that doesn't mean your shelves need to rival Tesco's. Go niche, then go broad within your specialism. If you have more trowels than B&Q, the gardeners will come to you.
33. Better payment options
This is a difficult one if you're an early-stage business because cashflow is so key to your survival, but if you're longer-established and have enough in the bank to allow a 100-day payment period, you have a big edge over more stringent companies.
34. Better located
That can mean nearer public transport, or with parking facilities, right through to having a beautiful view. Or simply being the first of your kind in an area. Location, location, location applies just as much to commercial premises as private property.
35. More pleasant premises
Whether you go for a super-sweet old-fashioned tea-shop vibe, a vibrant wall mural, or ultra-chic interior design, surroundings doth maketh the experience. Make your premises memorable and beautiful, and customers will want to come back.
36. Having an outdoors
Sell food and drink? Have a garden or a pavement? Great - you've just doubled your covers for every single month of summer. And winter too, if you get a gas heater and a couple of pretty lamps.
37. Being charitable
Put in an hour or two a week at your local old people's home, donate 5% of your profits to charity, sponsor the local kids' football team - anything along these lines, modestly publicised, will win customers' hearts.
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