Sally sells seashells by the seashore. The shells Sally sells are surely from the sea.
Not only that, but Sally lovingly hand paints each one. A graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, Sally's shells are tiny masterpieces. She set up her little shop on Martha's Vineyard in lieu of accepting a graphic design offer from Ogilvy. She had to follow her passion.
Sally's only problem is Susan.
Susan also sells seashells by the seashore. Unschooled but equipped with a natural gift for painting shells, Susan has hung her shingle a couple hundred yards down the beach from Sally.
Susan's only problem is Sally.
Amazingly, the two women opened their seashell start-ups within a month of each other. Both women's shells are so beautiful that they merit mentions in every Martha's Vineyard travel guide. Locals and tourists alike find themselves paralyzed by the choice of purchasing a shell from one woman over the other -- none of the shells are cheap.
With price, quality and accessibility all equal, how can Sally separate her shells from Susan's, and vice-versa?
When I was 11 years old, I faced a similar conundrum. I delivered the Daily News every morning in my Brooklyn neighborhood and the paper had a contest every week: the kid who opened the most new accounts won a box of candy bars.
My problem was that subscriptions to the paper cost the same as buying it at the newsstand -- plus you were obliged to tip the paperboy. I was competing with every newsstand in the neighborhood to sell the same product, not to mention that it cost a little more with tip.
I explained this obstacle to my mother one night and she asked me a simple question: "What else can you do for these people, besides sell them newspapers?"
The next morning, I re-canvassed the apartments of people who had declined me before. The first person I visited was an elderly lady.
"If I go to the newsstand to get the paper, it cost me the same eight cents," she said. "If I have you deliver it, I have to tip you on top of that. Why should I do that?"
"Because if you get the paper from me," I said, "I'll bring you milk twice a week and bagels on Sunday."
Back then, bagel stores were not ubiquitous in New York like they are now. But my family lived by one. Adding bagels and milk to my route wouldn't make my job much harder, but it would make a huge difference to many of the older and busier people on my route.
"Wow," the lady said. "You'd do that for me?"
I explained that I'd bring the bagels on Sunday and when she paid me for the News on Thursday, she could add in the dough for them.
That pitch worked with her, and with dozens of other customers up and down my route. Pretty soon, I was a paperboy powerhouse. I won that candy bar contest countless times.
As entrepreneurs, we're always thinking about added value and how we can separate our product from that of our competitors. But when it's impossible to differentiate the product itself, hope is not lost. I told you my "What else?" story to show you that added value doesn't always come in the product itself.
Let's take Sally and Susan. They're offering essentially the same products, at the same price, in the same place. Each would do well to ask: "What else can I do to get people in my store? What else can I do to form an emotional bond with potential customers?"
When I'm at the beach on a hot day, I like nothing more than a cold glass of lemonade. Perhaps either Sally or Susan could make a refreshing batch of lemonade every morning, and give away cups of it outside her store. The upfront costs might prove negligible compared to the benefits of additional foot traffic and the added affection customers might feel on account of a cold, delicious beverage.
Or maybe Sally has noticed that the tourists have trouble navigating the town. She could use her drawing skills to make a charming map of the place, and give that away. Or maybe brownies. Or maybe a promotion wherein random shells have coupons stuffed into them that entitle the purchaser to a second, free shell. (There, the "thrill" of the lottery itself is the added value.)
The key is to think about what your customers might need -- or at least enjoy -- beyond your offerings. The possibilities are endless. You just need to be a bit creative.
Who are your customers? What can you give, rather than sell, to them? Focus on that and the selling will take care of itself.