'Scouting' Your Retail Competition

I'm happy to declare that April is here again. It's a month with different meanings for different people. To me, it spells a new beginning. No, not just to spring, but rather to a new baseball season.

Baseball, you see, is a favorite of mine and as a fun, motivational device, I equate my work to it. I approach my business as a game and, just like baseball, my goal is to win each day's competition.

In that endeavor, there are many features and strategies that can cross over from baseball to business. One of the most valuable is scouting.
In baseball, the most successfully managed teams put a tremendous amount of effort into scouting. They know which teams they'll play during the season, and they spend time and money scouting the other teams' strengths and weaknesses. When game time arrives, the best teams already know the weaknesses of their opponents that they need to exploit, and the strengths they need to negate. Their advance scouting allows them to approach the game with a well-developed plan that gives them the best chance to win.

As a kitchen and bath dealer, it's imperative to do the same. Open up your local phone book and go over the list of kitchen and bath dealers in your market. In effect, they're the "teams" that you will "play" this season; at some point, you'll compete with each of those companies for at least one customer. To be successful and win, you'll need a good game plan.

Developing a plan
A good kitchen and bath game plan starts with scouting the competition's strengths and weakness in four primary areas: products, services, pricing and people.

1. Products. When trying to win a customer, you need to know what products your competition is bringing to the field. What are the features and specifications of their lines? Research this well and create a chart, listing product dimensions, materials, options, hardware, door styles and finishes.

Once you have a complete scouting report on your competition's products, you can develop an educated game plan. If a prospect has been to see one of your competitors, pull out the "strengths-and-weaknesses" analysis you've developed and zero in on the competition's weaknesses. If their product has, for example, a vinyl-wrapped drawer, pitch your dovetailed drawer. If they're looking at a door style with a veneered center panel, bring a solid wood center panel to the plate. Avoid being negative about your opponent's product. Instead, show confidence in your product and sell your strengths.

2. Services. Knowing the competition's services is as important as knowing their products. Do they offer free design services? Do they do their own installations? Do they make their own countertops? Gather your scouting reports and know what strengths you need to sell as soon as you know who you're competing against.

3. Pricing. When competing for a customer, knowing where your products are priced in comparison to other products is essential. An effective method to accomplish this is to keep spreadsheets showing where your products price when compared to the competition. Since prices are always changing, it's difficult to keep the information current, so you need to be diligent in your scouting. Having reliable comparisons allows you to discover your pricing strengths and weaknesses. If you discover that you have an advantage in pricing for particular products, it's to your benefit to market this to your customer. If, on the other hand, you find that you're at a pricing disadvantage, you know that you need to adjust your game plan. You could move the customer to a different product or you could employ the product knowledge that you've collected and use product differences that are in your favor as a good offense.

4. People. In baseball, scouts are often looking for new players to add to their team. As a kitchen and bath dealer you, too, need to scout for new additions to your team. Scout well so that when "free agents" become available, you sign the right ones.

How to 'scout'
There are many ways to scout your competitors ranging from visiting Web sites to visiting showrooms.

Web sites are one of the quickest and easiest ways to collect product information. The majority of manufacturers present their product specifications, features, door styles, finishes and related information on their Web sites. All of these items can be easily printed out and added to your scouting report.

Manufacturer's reps are another great source for competitive product information. Good reps do a great deal of scouting themselves. Spec books, literature and other information are collected by reps. Just like you, we have competitors that we contend with daily, and it's imperative for us to know how our products, services, pricing and people compare to them. When scouting your competition's products, call your rep. He or she may have already done the legwork for you.

Being a good listener when out in the field can also be a very useful way to collect your data. People share information liberally. When dealing with builders or contractors, let them share information with you about your competitors. Weigh what you hear, however. If you hear a recurring theme, you know that you've probably collected valid information. You can harvest the same type of information from customers who visit your showroom, and from conversations at industry-related events.

Many of you are reading this column at the annual K/BIS. If this is the case, you have an incredible opportunity to collect a plethora of information. When you walk down the aisles, stop at booths, collect literature, open doors and drawers, rub finishes and take notes. Trade shows are a treasure trove of information. Don't waste your chance.
One last scouting method is visiting your competitor's showrooms. Spec books, literature and other data are important, but nothing compares to actually seeing your "opponent" in action. Get a feel for how they operate. See their products and services.

Remember, the successful companies in your town are already scouting you.
When game time comes and you're playing for the customer's business, have that scouting report ready. Have all of your strengths in your lineup and play them to your advantage. Great scouting and a well-developed game plan will allow you to field the team with the best chance of winning.

Printable version may be for personal use only. Content may not be duplicated, re-used or otherwise replicated without expressed, written consent from KitchenBathDesign.com and/or Morgan Pinnacle LLC.

This article originally appeared in Kitchen and Bath Design News 4/2002

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