1. Plan your differentiation strategy
Step back and think strategically about your business, customers and competition. Plot a strategy to stand out in a competitive, quickly changing market and drive customers to your product, whether online or in-store.
“Think about the correct differentiators to focus on,” Ganie-Hobbs says. “This comes from having a clear understanding of what customers want. You can develop your strategy from there.”
She gives the example of a burger restaurant. “Lots of burger places open and close,” she says. “How do you differentiate yourself in such a competitive market? You can’t just offer the same old, same old.”
Standing out may involve offering customized toppings and service with a smile—“a mom-and-pop experience where people remember your name and it feels warm and welcoming,” she says.
Ask yourself a few questions: How are you making your online and in-store experience the best it can be for customers? How are you positioned in the market? How are you staying on top of trends?
“Are you being the best at what you do?” Ganie-Hobbs asks. “If not, you have to figure out how to get there.”
2. Offer exceptional experience
It’s vital to offer clients an excellent and memorable experience, whether online or in-store. This applies both to customer experience (how it feels to buy something from you) and brand experience (the feelings people have in general about your business and products).
Both should be geared to make people want more. “One of the most important differentiators is a memorable customer and brand experience,” Ganie-Hobbs says. “If I’m always going back, it really has to be a quality product and I have to love the experience. The goal is for customers to want to give you their money and want you to succeed.”
Ways to provide an exceptional experience:
Ease of doing business
It’s critically important for your store to be easy to do business with, particularly online. This means making your website user-friendly, ensuring products are easy to find on your site or elsewhere online, and making it easy for customers to buy things, do returns and manage their account.
Welcoming and attractive
All your properties, both in-store and online, should be welcoming, attractive and project your brand.
Offer impeccable service in every customer interaction. “In today’s world, service isn’t a given,” Ganie-Hobbs says. “How often do you go somewhere where the service wasn’t the best it could have been?”
Shoppers often use mobile devices to research products and shop, so your website should be mobile-friendly on a variety of devices. Consider creating an app for your store.
Customers are also increasingly seeking personalized attention. Think about ways to offer tailored deals and product recommendations based on past purchases and customer profile.
Promptly address issues
Customers are less forgiving than ever about mistakes or problems with an order. They can quickly sully your reputation with a bad review.
It’s important to monitor customer feedback and be transparent and quick to address issues. Be polite and professional—even, for example, if a customer uses harsh language in a review.
“If mistakes happen, you have to go out of your way to correct them,” Ganie-Hobbs says. “Customers online are very unforgiving. The margin of error is really thin.”
Customers love getting perks, such as free samples, discounts or loyalty benefits. If you have a mobile app, you can send customers a coupon for a discount when they enter your brick-and-mortar store.
A key part of customer experience is what happens post-sale. Strong follow-up can help ensure repeat business. For example, you can collect customer emails to send newsletters and sales alerts, or offer customers a coupon with a discount for the next purchase.
Your brand is your image, telling the world who you are. Decide what feelings you want customers to have when they think about your business. Explore what you can do to make them feel even more special about you.
It’s critically important for your store to be easy to do business with, particularly online.
3. Train your team and learn
A well-trained front-line team is vital for retail businesses. “You have to put the customer first,” Ganie-Hobbs says. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into a store ready to spend money and left when no one helped me for 10 minutes, while a clerk was stacking shelves. The staff weren’t trained properly.”
Also recognize that you may need outside advice on how differentiate your business in today’s quickly changing world. Get advice from a digital marketing consultant, mentor, advisory board or professional coach.
4. Constantly evolve
As change accelerates, you can never rest. Your business must continually adapt, or it can be at risk. Stay aware of trends by listening to customers online and in-store, monitoring the competition, and attending conferences and other business events.
Also, gather data on your efforts to improve your differentiation efforts and help you personalize customer experiences.
“We have more data than ever today to get insight into customers, optimize their experience and retain them,” Ganie-Hobbs says. “It’s important to stop doing the same thing over and over again, and find data that can help you stand out.”