How your small business can compete against the big boys

When Starbucks or Wal-Mart or Home Depot comes to town, how can a small business successfully compete? That’s a tough question, one that’s been the subject of numerous magazine articles, Internet blogs, and doctoral theses. One strategy that doesn’t work is doing nothing — sitting back to watch what happens. By the time your rival’s doors open, it may be too late to prevent your profit margins and market share from disappearing.

While one answer doesn’t fit all cases, certain strategies have proven effective for many small firms.

* Compete on your own terms. As a small business, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to compete with larger competitors on the basis of price alone. Give your customers something other than bargain prices.

* Capitalize on your advantages. Establish close bonds with customers and provide services tailored to their individual needs. If you own a hardware store, for example, you might provide free delivery and assembly for some items. The key is to develop innovative ways to satisfy your customers’ needs and retain their loyalty.

* Hire (and keep) the best employees. Small businesses can be great places to work. By providing in-depth training and an enjoyable work environment, your employees will generally return the favor by treating customers well. On the flip side, we’ve all met staff at nationwide chains who were inattentive or just plain rude. Small businesses can’t afford to ignore complaints or allow poor customer service. Don’t let one obnoxious employee create a bad reputation for your business.

* Expand your sources of revenue. Maybe you own a coffee shop and Starbucks is moving in. Don’t throw in the towel. Add catering to the services you offer. If a larger competitor comes to town, you may lose some market share, but new sources of revenue can offset those losses.

* Differentiate your product or service. Maybe you provide fresher produce because it’s grown locally. Or perhaps you offer specialty items that the other guys don’t carry. Let your customers know about these differences, and they’ll come to you when something special is needed.

Remember, there will always be room in the marketplace for firms — whether big or small — that provide quality products at a reasonable price and friendly knowledgeable service.

David Bradsher, CPA