Merchandising: Don’t Be Boring
“The greatest potential for profitability rests in highly focused, niche products that surpass customer expectations,” Vitek says. “There are more niches to succeed in today than ever before. The big companies will always leave a lot of scraps on the table, for whatever reason. A small, flexible, fast company or division that knows how to listen well to its customers can be extremely profitable in even the smallest niche markets.”
Although micromarket merchandising has intensified, some best practices aren’t so new. For instance, Jon Medved, recently retired president of Chef’s Catalog, once sold a small U-shaped alligator clip as a jeweler’s tool when he was a merchandiser at Brookstone. “We discovered that this product was being purchased by model builders as well as jewelers,” he recalls. “A little product found a small, but important, underserved micromarket.”
3. Invite customers to help you merchandise. This is no time to be a “do-it-yourself” merchant. Your customers want to be involved; invite them to the collaborative process.
Sometimes customer collaboration can happen serendipitously. Steve Leveen, president of Levenger, a multichannel merchant of “tools for serious readers,” says his customers use the company’s products to create their own methods for note taking and organizing.
“We sell lots of 3-inch-by-5-inch index cards, and tools to hold and organize them,” Leveen says. “We also sell lots of our Circa notebooks. They use discs and specially punched paper so you can rearrange papers to easily customize your note-taking experience and tools.” He says that customers have been taking index cards and Circa punching them to make a new kind of notebook they somewhat ironically refer to as a Hipster personal digital assistant (PDA), paper PDA or Circa PDA. They do this to “de-tech” from all the life-simplifying gizmos available on the market.
While most of these customers also make heavy use of technology, they’re avid explorers in the new frontier of old fashioned paper, Leveen says. Some customers write blogs and network with others online to share ideas, photos, complaints and reviews. “People on our staff have been listening and responding to some of the innovators out there, and asking if we can give them more ingredients to experiment with and if they would give us feedback,” Leveen says. “We’re developing products now based on their feedback and advice.” As such, he soon plans to add the Circa PDA to the catalog.