Friday, March 20, 2009

How to compete with Wal-Mart

WSJ's Independant Street blog has an interesting post today about what small businesses can do to survive when Wal-Mart comes to town. The data shows that if businesses try to compete on price, they loose.  Small biz just can't beat Wal-Mart at the game that they own and have perfected over the decades.

What small business CAN do is differentiate:
  1. Better service. Who gets great service at Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Best Buy or any other big box store? Small businesses can differentiate by providing exceptional customer service. By doing this, prices can be kept high and possibly even be raised. Better service will also drive customer loyalty and referred business.

  2. Unique products. Wal-Mart and other big box stores only cary mainstream products. Local stores can differentiate by providing products that will never be available at the big box stores.

  3. Focus. Wal-Mart excels at providing something for everyone. What they don't excel at is deep focus in single product categories. Small businesses should look to find a specific niche and become experts at servicing that niche. In this case, less is more - a very different strategy than Wal-Mart's "more is more" strategy.
I'm sure there are plenty of other ways to compete against Wal-Mart. What are yours?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Where are Borders and B&N in the ebook game?

I have to admit, I'm drooling over the new Kindle from Amazon. I wasn't that interested in the first version, but this second edition looks like it has fixed a lot of the issues. I still wish it had backlighting, though. Having to clip on a normal book light to read at night seems a little kludgy.

That's why I'm very excited about the forthcoming ebook reader for the iPhone from Shortcovers. I know there are other ebook readers for the iphone out there, but this will be one of the first ones connected to a large library of ebooks for purchase. In fact, you can even buy one chapter at a time in a "pay as you read" model.

But, my real question in all of this is why are Borders and Barnes & Noble not in this market? They ceeded the online book sales market to Amazon in the 90s. Now they're going to miss the boat on digital distribution as well. Amazon knows full well (and I believe this too) that physical books are going to be sold less and less over the next decade. E-ink and flexible displays are going to make book and newspaper reading an entirely digital experience. It's really just a matter of time.

So, if Borders and Barnes & Noble want to survive, they should be working with their publishing contacts (the same ones Amazon has) to build a digital book marketplace. They should hire some iPhone developers and put together a great ebook reader application. If they don't, they will become dinasours and miss this market completely. They don't need to go the hardware route as Amazon has done. Afterall, that is expensive and time consuming. Instead, they should work with the hardware platforms that are in millions of pockets already - iphones, blackberries, etc.

As I write this, I think about Tim's post today about Netflix and how much guts (and smarts) it takes to work on a new busienss model that destroys your old one. This is what Borders and B&N need to do to survive.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Design Patterns

User interface design has always been one of my passions and I enjoy checking out new design resources as I stumble accross them.

Today, Cale pointed me towards Quince, a "UX Patterns Explorer." This very cool Silverlight application allows you to search through design solutions to data sorting and navigation. While not every solution is perfect, it's a great resource to explore options as you are developing your own web sites and applications.

Friday, January 30, 2009

92% of Americans Employed

I'm usually a glass-half-empty kind of person. I can't help it, but I'm generally a pessimist.

But, right now I'm a firm believer that one of the only ways we as Americans can help lead ourselves out of our financial crisis is to be optimists. As Aaron Patzer points out in his guest post on TechCrunch today, Americans (who use are spending an average of $400/month less. Of course, layoffs aren't helping. But, the fact remains that 92% of Americans have their jobs still. Many of these people haven't even taken any pay cuts. They are just spending less - maybe out of fear of what's to come, acknowledgment that they should have been saving more in the past, or just from a lack of optimism.

I'm not an economist (far from it) but it seems pretty clear that the country could start turning itself around if the 92% of employed Americans simply started spending again - maybe not all of the $400/month they aren't spending now, but how about half of that. Of course, in the long term Americans need to have better savings habits, but now is not the time to go that route. We need money flowing through our economy and getting average Americans to spend is one of the best ways to do that.

In fact, Finland is on the cutting edge of this scenario. They are running a national ad campaign that encourages people to start spending. Read more about that story at

Free webinar on simple marketing tactics

John Jantsch of Duct Tape Marketing fame will be giving a free webinar on Simple Marketing Tactics on February 11, 2009 at 12:00pm CST.

"Let's get back to basics and start utilizing simple, effective and affordable marketing tactics to create momentum that carries your business through the tough times and allows it soar in the good times."

Reserve your spot today!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Fail Gracefully

Tim Berry's blog post today on "failing forward" reminded me of one of my favorite engineering/application design phrases: fail gracefully.

What does this mean? It means that you should design your applications and web sites to provide the end user with useful and informative information when it runs into a problem. Failing gracefully means:
  • Providing useful 404 pages on your web site
  • Not displaying only error codes when your application crashes. Provide information that will help the user fix the problem.
  • Not letting engineers write your error messages. (see point 2)
  • Making sure errors behind the scenes don't bring everything else to a screeching halt
Beyond writing code and developing applications, the "fail gracefully"concept is useful in business. This means:
  • Having good backup plans if things don't go as you originally planned.
  • Knowing what your alternatives are.
  • Planning ahead for optimistic and pessimistic scenarios
  • Learning from your mistakes
Not that any of us ever want to fail, but it's inevitable in business, entrepreneurship and life. So, failing gracefully is a much better option than just failing.