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5 Truths Of Competing With Big Box Stores

by Chip Averwater, author of “Retail Truths

Many independent retailers despair when faced with superstores taking chunks of their market; meanwhile those determined to stay and willing to adapt find ways to coexist and thrive.

Here are five retail truths local retailers can employ in competing against big box stores.

1. Every market makes room for energy and determination.

There’s always a place for a retailer with enthusiasm and a willingness to work. An energetic retailer looks for what the community needs and finds ways to provide it.  His smaller scale along with his dedication and persistence allow him to get more details right and attract an appreciative and loyal clientele.

A local retailer is also more agile. Big chains are bound by rules and operating systems; an independent retailer can accumulate information, make a decision, and begin implementation all in the same day.

2. A niche is an invitation to be outstanding.

While it’s not possible to offer more merchandise than a big box store, it’s usually not difficult to offer some of it better.

Most big stores have such a broad spectrum of products they can’t go deep in any of them, nor can their employees have specific expertise. The big-box market strategy is aimed at average shoppers and excludes many profitable customers who want more. They leave lots of niches for smaller retailers to focus on.

The niche can be products or services, or it could be specialized knowledge and expertise, demographics, relationships, terms, or even a contrasting image.

Often we find the niches are much bigger and more profitable than we ever suspected.

3. A company is the people it hires.

Everything in a store happens through its employees — displays, selections, organization… and especially sales and customer interactions. Customer experiences, good and bad, are the products of our people and their skills.

The quality of people working in stores is far from homogenous — it extends off the scale in both directions. The best employees find ways to make the right things happen; poor employees find excuses to keep anything from happening.

But hiring good people requires effort, patience, and skill. The applicant pool is not a cross section of the population and is full of snares and deceptions. While it’s not hard to spot many undesirables and unemployables, identifying those with the motivation and determination we need requires persistence.

Our large competitors face the same hiring challenges we do. We seize the advantage when we hone our hiring skills, dedicate sufficient attention and effort to the process, and hold on to our best finds long term.

4. Expertise is conspicuously scarce in retail.

Whether fair or not, the public has a powerful image of mass merchandisers as being frustratingly short on knowledgeable employees. The big stores’ challenge is compounded by famously high employee turnover.

That creates one of the readiest opportunities for smaller, specialized retailers. We can train our people thoroughly and continuously — on products, salesmanship, systems, methods, customer interaction, display, merchandising, and every detail that matters in the operation of our stores. Every customer who walks in to our store should be met by a knowledgeable, well prepared employee.

5. Relationships are powerful salesmanship.

Large chains are notorious for impersonal service, inflexible policies, and callous business decisions. As a result shoppers who need personal attention or have a product or service problem have learned to expect frustration.

A local retailer gets to know many of his customers and develops a reputation as a community member. He can and should be more attentive, flexible, and empathetic with his customers.

Shoppers want to do business with stores, retailers, and salespeople they know, trust, and like.


Big box stores have some unique advantages, but local retailers have sufficient ways to offset them and thrive.


Chip Averwater is a third-generation retailer and author of Retail Truths: The Unconventional Wisdom of Retailing. The book consists of 427 retail truths and is available at local booksellers, Amazon, B&, iTunes iBookstore, and





This is an article contributed to Young Upstarts and published or republished here with permission. All rights of this work belong to the authors named in the article above.

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