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Distinguish Your Business From Your Competition Develop a "major sales advantage" (MSA) to create lasting business growth.

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Q:I'm considering opening a gift shop and calling it "TheGift Box." Although the market for gifts in my area is verystrong, I'm concerned about competition from other, alreadyexisting gift shops. How can I be successful entering a marketcontaining other, similar well-established businesses?

A:Crucial to the success of any small business is the ability of thebusiness owner to distinguish that business from its competitors.In your case, not only do you have to concern yourself with directcompetition from existing gift shops, but no doubt you'll alsobe faced with a degree of competition from other businesses thatsell gift items in addition to their other products.

The best way to distinguish your business from its competitionis to develop your business's "major sales advantage"(MSA). Your business's MSA is merely a statement describingwhat distinguishes your business from all of its competitors, butit must be compelling enough to convert prospects into customers.Your MSA must be limited to a single item; it should not consist ofa laundry list of things that positively describe what yourbusiness does that's special. It isn't just a slogan or acatchy phrase (although you could use a slogan or catchy phrase todeliver the message behind your business's MSA).

An example of a well-known MSA is that of Enterprise(automobile) Leasing: "We pick you up." Enterprise wasthe first automobile leasing company to establish the policy ofsending a driver with your rental car to wherever you were to pickyou up. Then all you have to do is drop off the driver at theEnterprise Leasing location that activated the rental. This policy,which became Enterprise's MSA, differentiates the company fromall of its competitors. And in this instance, not only areEnterprise's customers physically picked up, but so are theirspirits, since the company has made life a little easier for them.This is one of the most successful MSAs every implemented.

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In order to establish and operate a successful gift shop, youmust develop and implement an MSA that compels prospects to dobusiness with your shop. One example of an MSA that you mightconsider is one that describes how your gift shop is the"personal gift shop" of its customers. To personalizeyour service, you could not only collect customer demographicinformation such as names, addresses and other common information,but you could also collect and maintain records of eachcustomer's previous purchases, for whom the gift was bought,when and the nature of the specific occasion for each gift theypurchased. In this manner, your business would be functioning aseach customer's "personal gift shop."

As your customers' "personal gift shop," you'dbe maintaining records in your customer database that would enableyou to proactively suggest specific gift items. Your businessbecomes a reminder to your customers that it's again time to dobusiness with your shop. Furthermore, as your customers'"personal gift shop," you could also providegift-wrapping, greeting cards and shipping--for theirconvenience.

Over time, your business's MSA must be completely integratedinto all your business's conversion marketing efforts andbecome the central focus of its advertising, as well as uniquelyand permanently identified with your business. Every one of yourmarketing and operational efforts must contain language and actionsthat relate back to this central theme. In fact, one way tocommunicate the "personal" nature of your gift shop mightbe to add a tag line to your business's name: "The GiftBox.Your Personal Gift Shop." Over time, it's thiscontinuity of message that your MSA delivers that will be the bestway to convert prospects into customers, and customers intolife-long members of your business's customer database.

David Meier received an MBA in Finance from Loyola ofBaltimore, and spent much of the 1970s teaching business courses;later, he created a consulting group, and for the next two decades,provided accounting and tax services to small-business owners. Heis currently the founder and COO of Small Business 411, whichprovides small-business owners with ongoing business coaching andthe knowledge and support required to enable them to become trulysuccessful entrepreneurs. Visit the Small Business 411 site at

The opinions expressed in this column are thoseof the author, not of All answers are intended tobe general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areasor circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consultingan appropriate expert, such as an attorney oraccountant.

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