With justifiable alarm, owners of all sizes of physical businesses are witnessing the white-hot holiday shopping battle, where the front lines are increasingly conducted as real time price wars. Amazon leads the way with "Lightning Deals" and a Price Check app, though few may actually ask for a price match. Yet there are at least five ways how we, as consumers, can get better value (and give meaningful gifts) and independent business owners can thrive.
1. Only Available Here: Let Customers Customize -- the Rise of the Maker Movement
Rather than buy more mass-produced stuff, many of us prefer to customize what we give as meaningfully unique presents, especially since it is increasingly easy to do so. Some astute people are placing their bets on that desire, fueling "the next big wave in the global economy," the Maker Movement, including Chris Anderson (who left Wired magazine to devote his full-time attention to it), e-commerce website Etsy, and Anthony Flynn and Emily Flynn Vencat, co-authors of Custom Nation.
Have an idea of what you'd like to make, sell or co-make? Like Spark Devices and other start-ups, you may turn to Kickstarter to crowdsource your funding.
If you sell one-of-a-kind products or services -- or enable consumers to custom create them through your business -- you'll have a built-in firewall against competition by price. To elaborate, you have two ways to capture this opportunity as a seller:
• Create products that are available through you or your limited distribution partners who agree to your pricing.
For example, to fight online competition, some retailers are increasingly relying on exclusive gear. Brookstone manufactures or arranges for such exclusives. They now make up 75 percent of the store's sales, according to CEO Stephen Bebis.
• Make it easy for your customers to use your online site, like Gemvara, or your physical place like Techshop to customize what they buy. Gemvara has experienced rapid growth by providing an extremely easy online place for us to design the exact jewelry we want, from the gems to the setting.
By touring TechShop, VentureBeat reporter, Jolie O'Dell, realized that with "all kinds of makers, from sewers and designers and papercrafters to welders and carpenters and painters, under a single roof... the cross-pollination effects are huge." And so are the opportunities to create one-of-a-kind products that can often withstand price wars.
2. Co-offer Gift Cards
Sell gift cards as Compete reports "close to 40 percent of consumers are purchasing the category." Better yet, co-create a gift card with other vendors that serve the same situation as you, offering comparably priced products or services. That way you gain access to each other's customers. Number the gift cards to track the behavior of those who purchase them. Split the profits from the sale of the cards, regardless of which partner sells the cards.
Possible local partnerships:
• Landscaper and plant nursery
• Bakery, wine shop and charcuterie
• Hair salon and women's clothing store
• Pet food store and veterinarian
As an added incentive to spur more gift card buying, both partners could give a free coupon to those who those who buy a certain number of gift cards.
3. Serve a Very Specific Situation
Give first-ever presents. After watching her mother staining clothes while taking her dialysis treatments several times a week, Megan Stengel and her partners began designing functional yet attractive clothing with hidden zippers and other alterations.
Their firm, Libre Clothing, now partners with grateful dialysis clinics, hospitals and the National Kidney Foundation to make it easier and more comfortable for their "mutual market" of patients to undergo chemotherapy, dialysis or other treatments requiring intravenous lines, catheters or infusion tubes.
What specific situation do you know very well, and what's missing to make the situation easier for all or some of the stakeholders involved?
4. Create the Customer-Attracting Ritual They'll Brag About
Offer one-of-a-kind experiences that we'll want to give our friends. If, for example, a hotel can become famous for leading ducks across their lobby at 11:00, then certainly your business can become more well-known for some simple ritual that customers like to photograph and tell others about, and that reporters love to cover. In fact, it's surprising that so few businesses and other organizations see the power of memory-making rituals, and we keep talking about the few that do. And, instead of creating a new ritual, a sister hotel and others simply imitate the duck walk. You can do better.
• Think quirky
As all actors know, a cute kid or animal almost always steals the show. For example the annual ritual that raised $120,000 one year in a town of just 2,404 is the wiener dog race. That's right. Long, cute dogs. People and their pets came from all over the country for the chance to compete.
• Create community around your ritual
The race is a great example of what the beneficiary of the race, the Lions Club, calls a "core belief -- community is what we make it." It has been an annual tradition around which dog owners (and their families and friends) meet to compare notes and catch-up. Hint: The more fervent the community, the more valuable your participation can be for your organization.
• Offer the unexpected
Instead of "just" offering a loaner car like the one you are getting serviced, a British Volvo dealership also offers bikes as loaners. The dealership enjoys two benefits -- deepening the loyalty of its eco-minded customers and attracting worldwide media coverage.
• Reduce your cost of providing that ritual by partnering
Volvo's ritual was then topped by Fiat in Spain. By partnering with electric bicycle maker Trek, it could make the same offer, yet without the cost of buying and maintaining the bikes. Trek benefits by getting a warmed-up introduction to possible customers. The bonus benefits? Many of the people who saw the cyclists heard also saw the message on the bike and many of the cyclists told their friends about their experience.
• Give a souvenir sample whereever people have to wait... or even pause
For a client, I once set up an experiment in which those waiting in a movie theater line were greeted by smiling, attractive college students and offered free custom fudge and caramel Wonderbars on silver trays. One each. The students simply walked down the line, saying, "Like a tasty Wonderbar while you're waiting? If you like it there are more inside."
The results of that study were so positive that the theater chain intermittently continued the practice. (Intermittent rewards create more happiness, perhaps because of the hedonic treadmill effect yet we crave the certainty of constancy, such as "the ducks will walk across at 11 o'clock.″ When the cookies were offered outside movie theaters, the snacks sales inside went up an average of 26 percent.
For the owner of seven upscale restaurants in London, we crafted a similar experiment with wine. Per customer sales went up an average of 23 percent. Then we suggested that the restaurateur approach his wine distributers to offer them the opportunity to provide their wine at a cost. Several agreed so he could rotate the kinds of wine he gave waiting guests. For this sampling ritual, the wait staff, while offering the tray with the glasses of wine, showed the bottle and said the vintner's name.
That was so successful that wine makers now vie for the opportunity to give their wine for such samplings. They also began offering samplings to delighted diners during their meal. That way more customers get free wine and often wind up ordering more wine. The participating vintners get their wines introduced in a relaxed, convivial atmosphere.
Cost-saving Hint: Make your ritual so popular that you can attract partners that want to participate in it. That way you can offer your customers that ritual more often yet at a lower cost to you.
Conclusion -- most any consumer-serving place can create a small, simple-to-execute ritual that:
• Gives an unexpected experience to customers, one they can brag about and others can see them enjoying.
• Increases sales.
• Attracts media coverage.
• Demonstrates the value of partners participating so the cost of offering that ritual go down for each partner as more of them get involved
5. Give Special Treatment to Likely Buyers
Withstand price wars by staying top of mind for your kind of product. How? Stay in touch with past and potential customers in ways they find helpful rather than intrusive. Build community or at least a fan base of individuals who find it worthwhile to open your emails, and follow your tweets and blog posts. Stay top-of-mind with your current and prospective customers by inviting them to sign up to receive notices of special deals. Use the free "Weekly Deals" service provided by Payvment and cited by my fellow Forbes columnist Lydia Dishman.
Pull nearby shoppers through your doors. From contests to coupons engage prospective buyers, using the social tools recommended by Makers Going Pro guru, TJ McCue.
How will you customize the one-of-a-kind gifts for your one-of-a-kind family members, friends and work colleagues -- or start or alter your business to withstand price wars, with one-of-a-kind and/or customizable products or services?
Follow Kare Anderson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kareanderson