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NEW YORK - Standing out from big business presents a large challenge to many small-business owners, but those who are able to do so can experience large returns. At the National Retail Federation's 101st Big Show held here today, several medium- and large-size retailers with big names revealed some tricks of the trade for competing in a competitive marketplace.
Online branding advice from Ralph Lauren
Small-business owners looking to take advantage of consumers moving to mobile and online shopping platforms had better have a clear idea of who they are before moving online, according to David Lauren, executive vice president of advertising, marketing and corporate communications at Ralph Lauren. Speaking to a crowd at the Big Show's morning session, Lauren noted the potential that the new technologies can bring a business, but only if their brand identity is strong.
"We invested in the Internet at a time when the dot-com bubble was bursting," said Lauren. "We are not going online to just sell a shirt when we can tell a story. It was about our philosophy. The Internet was not just a cheap place or place to get coupons (as competition said), but it was a place to build a brand."
Building that brand, however, was not a simple process, according to Lauren, who spoke about the challenges of keeping a classic brand modern. Lauren noted various campaigns the company had run over the past years to take advantage of new and emerging technologies, including QR-code campaigns and the integration of mobile applications by the company. However, according to Lauren, it all starts with staying true to your brand.
"There is no secret," said Lauren. "There is no cool technology that is going to answer your question. There are a million technologies out there. It is about understanding who you are, telling your brand story in a compelling way and finding the right technology and the right team to tell that story in the right way. A lot of people look at the Internet and see it as the answer, but the Internet doesn't work without everything else. You have to have great products, you have to have a message and you have to have multiple ways to do it."
Social responsibility advice from Whole Foods
Small businesses looking to compete with big business can also be aided by moving towards operating in a socially responsible way. In a panel discussion about "Conscious Capitalism," Kip Tindell, CEO of The Container Store; Walter Robb, co-CEO of Whole Foods, and Jonathan Sokoloff, managing partner at Leonard Green & Partners, L.P., all spoke about social responsibility's potential for businesses.
"People grow up thinking that business is a zero-sum game, which means that you can't gain without taking something away from the person you are doing business with," said Tindell. "I think that is patently false. I think the most powerful and value-generating thing in business is synergy which creates the most profitable endeavors and longest lasting, truly enduring relationships. Business is not a zero-sum game. People want to do business with people they trust."
That trust comes from equal treatment of all people involved within a corporation, from employees and customers all the way to vendors and suppliers. According to Tindell, those relationships can pay large dividends for small businesses looking to compete with larger retailers.
"It is hard for people to tell the difference between our vendors, our customers and our employees because we are balancing the needs of all our stakeholders," said Tindell. "This is also a huge competitive advantage for a small- and medium-sized retailer, like the Container Store. We can't always beat the mass merchants on volume, but it is a hell of a lot easier to beat them on relationships with vendors and that is a huge competitive advantage there. It also allows for a more long-lasting relationship and it creates more innovation than your typical business-retailer relationship."
Small businesses looking to emulate this successful business model can start with the foundation upon which they build their company, according to Tindell.
"A conscious business can be built on love, as crazy as that sounds," said Tindell. "Southwest Airline's founder, Herb Kelleher, used to say, 'you can build a company on love better than you can fear,' and that was 30 years ago when no one spoke about business in that way. Everything you do and everything you don't do affects your business more than you realize it. "
Hospitality advice from restauranteur Danny Meyer
Another major advantage small businesses can and have used in the past to distinguish themselves from big businesses is the ability they have to connect with individual customers. Danny Meyer, who owns and operates 11 New York City restaurants as CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, spoke in particular about the part hospitality plays in running a business that can create, realize and take advantage of opportunities.
"We try to blur the line for people between going out and coming home," said Meyer. "It all begins with teamwork. Hospitality is a team sport. The very first thing we teach our team is that, while the entire world today has come around to thinking they understand that service is the secret ingredient in the sauce, we tell our staff that that is not true. Service represents one part of the equation."
Speaking at the NRF Annual Retail Industry Luncheon, which announced the 2011 Customers' Choice Award winners, Meyer identified the other part of that equation as hospitality.
"If you are looking to get a 100 on your test, 49 points is based on performance, but what is great is that the other 51 points that it takes to get a 100 has nothing to do with how well you do the things you do," said Meyer. "It has nothing to do with quality or technical delivery of the product. It has everything to do with hospitality."
Great customer service and hospitality, above all else, is the secret to sticking out from the crowd in a congested market, according to Meyer.
"In hospitality, one size fits one, because hospitality only exists if the person on the receiving end of our performance truly feels like we are on their side," said Meyer. "The most powerful differentiator in our business is hospitality, where people feel like if they don't come to our place of business, they are missing out on an experience. A hug is a perfect metaphor for hospitality, because you can't get one without giving one and you can't give one without getting one. We want to know that the exchange of this transaction is creating mutual pleasure."