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What Makes a Specialty Store Special?

July 24, 2008

In my last blog, I talked about ways to compete with etailers. I mentioned you have to find a way to differentiate yourself from your competition. Perhaps you could offer a higher level of service, same day delivery, or a different or more interesting product than your competition. Before I knew it, time and space had run out and I couldn’t mention an example. I saw this store on a recent trip to Palm Springs (Which, by the way, is in California not Florida. Who knew!) I tripped on this store accidentally while walking down the main street looking for a convenient bar. Don’t judge, I was on vacation and it can get very hot out there. It wasn’t hot, but it can get very hot!

The name of the store is d.i.g.s.

It is one of several stores located on the perimeter of what can best be described as a pocket park. To get to it, you have to turn off of the main street, walk through a shopping arcade, which leads to the park, and then walk to one side of the park. Had I not seen various pieces of outdoor furniture placed near the entrance to the store, I would not have known outdoor furniture was sold there. But I recognized some of the pieces as being very high-end and I got curious.

I found the front door and, even though it was closing time, the owner, Paula Walters, let me in. Even when she found out I wasn’t a customer; she was kind enough to show me around. And, boy, am I glad she did. In the middle of the first of a series of small rooms that made up her showroom stood two Mallin Ring Chairs that looked brand new. Now, I haven’t seen these chairs since the 60’s and I didn’t know anyone was making them anymore. It turns out, they aren’t. She gets the chairs used from various sources and has them refinished and restrung. They looked brand new and even better than I remember them.

Then I saw a set of Brown Jordan laced chairs, which I think Brown Jordan, stopped making in the 80’s if not earlier. Again, she had gotten them used; refinished and relaced them in juicy new colors appropriate for this century. Besides looking great, they were just right for the style of most of the houses in Palm Springs. . . think Liberace or Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack.

A lot of Paula’s furniture is like that but she also carries new furniture in a retro design. New Orleans is notorious for its conservative taste in outdoor furniture. Every time I bring in something that is contemporary or retro, I end up practically giving it away. Customers admire it, but it doesn’t fit into the old world aesthetic of the city. But I have an appreciation for those designs and was blown away by Paula’s exquisite taste.

And, so it went as I walked from room to room in this small shop. She had fire pits that I hadn’t seen at any market. Turns out, she is having those made, too. There were different items everywhere. I don’t remember everything I saw; but, I do remember this as being one of the most interesting outdoor furniture stores I had seen in a very long time.
When I asked Paula why she didn’t carry lines we all see at market, her reply was simple, "Her competition, a very large hardware store just down the street, did." She knew she couldn’t compete with their prices; so, she had to find a niche for herself.

Let’s review. The store is small. It is out of the way. It doesn’t conform to any one’s idea of what a thriving outdoor store should look like. Sounds challenging; but, consider what she did oh-so-right. She merchandised her store so that I knew I would find something I had to own as soon as I walked in. Most of her inventory was one-off or so well chosen that you couldn’t find it on the Internet. She made sure she wasn’t carrying the same thing as her local competition. She placed pieces of furniture in the outdoor spaces of her store so they looked like sculptures.

Paula’s business model is unusual and some of her ideas may not work for all of us. After all, where are you going to find "antique" outdoor furniture to refurbish? Even if you can find it, it may not be the right design for your market. But, if you look beyond the details of her business model, you realize the first line of her business plan must be: Provide consumers something they want that no one else in the area is providing. That’s what makes a "specialty" store special.

If you are concerned about your competition, particularly the Internet, you should ask yourself, “What makes my ‘specialty’ store special?” If you can’t come up with the answer, don’t expect your customers to be able to.

Yours in confused retailing, Bruce