6 Ways to Stand Out in a Crowded Market

Last Updated Dec 2, 2010 3:58 PM EST

Many small businesses struggle to compete against bigger, more visible, and better-resourced companies, but it's even tougher to survive when what you sell is basically a commodity. That's why I'm so impressed with the scrappy independent booksellers who have wholeheartedly embraced the philosophy that it's not the "what" of business that really matters but the "how." I can buy a copy of Faithful Place by Tana French, my new favorite mystery writer, just about anywhere, but my strong preference is to head to my local independent.

That doesn't surprise Len Vlahos, COO of the American Booksellers Association. "We're experiencing a renaissance in independent bookselling," he says. "Indies can be nimble -- they don't have to answer to shareholders. And customers are craving that personal, one-on-one connection. These are all things the big guys have trouble with." That applies to all small companies. So here are just a few things you can learn from some of the top independent booksellers in the country:

  • Expand your reach to a national market. Roxanne Coady, the owner of RJ Julia Booksellers in Madison, CT started a new program called Just the Right Book. Customers can order a customized series of books, chosen by the store and based on the answers to a few questions about the recipients' tastes and interests. Books can be sent once a month or more infrequently. "We've honed our skills over the last twenty years while running the store and now, for the first time, we can bring what we have to offer - our in-depth knowledge of books and readers - to people across the country," says Coady.
  • Go green. Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, MA is "oh so pleased to announce its super speedy, environmentally responsible, and inexpensive delivery service to the Boston area." The store is partnering with MetroPed, Boston's human-powered delivery service, to deliver all local orders for as little as $5, six days a week, using emissions-free vehicles. What about those icy Boston winters? The store and MetroPed are unfazed by snow, sleet and rain, just like the mailman, but better.
  • Create a store within a store. At Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, VT, you might be browsing in the children's book section and be sorely tempted to spring for some fashionable new duds for junior as well. That's because Northshire hosts a concept store for Zutano, a locally owned children's clothing company. It's great cross marketing for the two local establishments and give customers one more reason to choose Northshire over a larger competitor.
  • Open your doors to the community. Third Place Books in Seattle offers free meeting space, a stage available for community use, and in-store live music on the weekends. Plenty of other independents, such as Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe AZ, do the same. The practice establishes indie bookstores as anchors in their communities.
  • Cultivate the next generation of customers. Book People in Austin, TX runs a series of weeklong literary-themed summer camps for young readers. Favorite books, like the Ranger's Apprentice, come to life as kids actually become their favorite characters while learning skills such as archery, orienteering, plant identification, field first aid, self defense and diplomacy. Sound like fun? Book People also hopes the program helps foster a life long love of reading among participants.
  • Get social. The Booksmith, in San Francisco, hosts a 'Bookswap" event every two months. Owners Praveen Madan and Christin Evans sell $25 tickets for the event - a social evening at the store with food, wine, and free-flowing literary discourse. Attendees meet, chat about their favorite books in groups of five or six, and bring along a book to swap at the end of the evening. To keep things intimate, attendance is limited to 30 people, who also receive 20% off any purchases for the evening.
What about you? What are you doing in your small business to distinguish yourself from your competitors? Tell us.

Bookstore image courtesy of The Booksmith

sunflower image courtesy of Flickr user Stig Nygaard, CC 2.0