Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The customer is always right, isn't she?

          If a woman comes into your store wanting a white top, should you try to convince her she looks better in a blue top?

          That's a key question in marketing. For years, the Chicago merchant Marshall Field's answer seemed perfect: "give the lady what she wants." Mr. Field was a pioneer in merchandising, a retail genius. Yet his philosophy was incredibly simple, and it worked.

         In the last few decades, stores were our purchasing agents. They bought what they thought we wanted and offered it to us. They and the manufacturers were in control, because they had the computers. They knew what they sold, in what quantity, at what time of year, and more about you than most of your relatives.

          Today, it's the customer who has the resources. With the Internet and social media, she can find alternatives, compare prices, go the store, note the price and find it cheaper on the Web, make requests, get advice from friends and experts, get reviews from strangers, and in many ways, get products customized to fit her tastes and needs.

          That top she wants can be cotton, silk, bamboo, nylon, acrylic, or a hundred other fabrics and combinations. It can button, zip or tie in every which way or not at all. It can be ridiculously cheap, average price, or outrageously expensive. You can see what it looks like from various angles, and have it shipped the regular way, the faster way, or the fastest way. You can have it held in your "wish list" till you get the money, or charge it to your credit card that still has room on it. And you will receive reminders that you have looked at it in the past.

          So if you want to go into the white top business, what should you do? Your research. Does the world really need another white top?

          Next, think of a way you can give your white top what venture capitalists call "an unfair advantage".  Which is to say, something that competitors can't easily copy, at least for a good long time. Maybe it's a unique way to shop for a white top, or a unique guarantee. Maybe you can come up with a unique way of selling it, or seeing yourself in it, or a white top app. In other words, in a world of white tops, yours has to be the most satisfying purchase.

          Shopping has to be a gratifying experience. Give your customer what she wants --- and if you're not sure, she'll tell you.


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