Thursday, November 19, 2009

Local brands that won't be bullied

Recently, one of Australia's dominant retailers, Woolworths, announced its entry into the 'big box' hardware space. This is a sector absolutely dominated over the past decade by the Wesfarmer conglomerate's Bunnings stores. Following the announcement, we have had acres of financial media space dedicated to studying the tea leaves to analyse what all this means for retail hardware and the players within it.

Smaller operators, already battered by Bunnings, have stared fearfully into the future and seen a screen fading to black. But is this necessarily the right response? I can quote a few examples within 10 km of my home in Melbourne that have defied the power of the leviathans. Not only that, they have thrived under the competition, as increased trafffic swirls around their stores.

Three examples come immediately to mind: fruit and vegetable specialist, Toscano's, boutique superamarket group, Leo's, and garden nursery and landscaping specialist, The Greenery. All of these local brands are thriving because they have three things in common - high quality produce, specialist knowledge and service and the offer of a unique buying experience.

The fruit and veges at Toscano's beg to be picked up and eaten. It's actually surprising many of the items actually make it out of the store. Go to Toscano's and you admire the bright colours, crisp feel and fresh fragrance of an astounding array of common and rare produce. This is a fruit and vege store where you're happy to pay more to reconnect with the land - a place that sells produce that radiates the Sun's rays stored over months of tender nurture (here's a list of Victoria's award-winning local operators).

And Leo's thrives and grows, despite the hulking presence of neighbouring Safeway, owned by Woolworths. The delicatessen is renowned through the land (or at least the locality), there is a rich array of niche brands not stocked by the neighbour and, most of all, the store has more of a community feel than a supermarket. This is a place where you're likely to see someone you know and have space and time to pause without being run over by a herd of trolleys, unaided by those wheels that resist straight-line navigation.

And finally The Greenery. It has competitors all over the place - from big box hardware stores with discounted plants, to brick and tile merchants, to landscaping suppliers and local hobby retailers. Even school fund raisers compete. But The Greenery is different. Not for them the plants that are cracking the pots in their desperate need to expand, or the narrow aisles between displays. No. They present their wares in a garden setting, with people manning the information desk who.... surprise! surprise!... know about what to plant where and when, what fertilisers to use and so on. This is a garden for gardeners, a place where people are prepared to spend an extra buck to enjoy the experience of buying from people who understand their addiction.

These are brands that many who read this will never have heard of. But they highlight to me the value of knowing your niche, sticking to it and, above all else, making the customer feel better for the brand experience. So quake not you local hardware people as you face another big box bully. Work out how you can create a unique experience for your communities and they will come to you.

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