The aroma of grilled hot dogs filled the cool, fall air. Inside the store, my cashiers handed out plastic bags of donated promotional items. Each bag contained a coffee mug, a pink T-shirt that said Boot Camp 2006, a small, plastic calculator and a screwdriver.
Down the street, our new competitors were holding a much-advertised grand opening. Their glossy brochures, mailed to every home within a 20-mile radius, advertised numerous giveaways, including a flat screen TV, an iPad and restaurant coupons. They were also serving a catered lunch and ice cream.
Would my customers laugh at our Boot Camp T-shirts and plastic calculators? Would our small, nonprofit thrift store be able to compete with the spacious new store a few blocks away?
How to compete when the odds are against you
I didn’t have an advertising budget. My store operated on a shoestring. I couldn’t order competitive merchandise, since all our merchandise was donated. I could only focus on the things that were within my power to control.
I held a Customer Appreciation Day, even though I couldn’t afford expensive prizes. Instead of sending out glossy mailers, I printed store flyers on my office copier and handed them out two weeks prior to our event. I couldn’t pay for a catered lunch, but I found volunteers who were willing to grill hot dogs on the sidewalk in front of our store.
But the question continued to bother me: Would we be able to compete?
I was to discover in coming months that not only would we be able to compete. My store’s revenue would exceed the revenue of every thrift store in our area. But success didn’t stem from being grander and bigger than the other businesses. Success came from focusing on our mission, our customers, and on what our customers and donors wanted.
Success was the by-product of day-to-day excellence in small things.
Small things net big results
“I haven’t been shopping here in a long time,” a customer remarked as she munched on her free hot dog. “But I remember you used to have great books.”
She mentioned James Patterson as one of her favorite authors, so I searched our donation receiving area and found five James Patterson titles that hadn’t been put on the sales floor yet.
“Why haven’t you been shopping here lately?” I asked as I handed her the books.
She described a recent illness that had kept her housebound. I told her how good it was to see her again, and she enveloped me in a big hug. “You’re the best, and I’m so excited about these books! I’ll be back to shop a lot from now on, and I’m bringing my friends.”
This interaction was part of my answer to the question, How can we compete? We might not be able to give away a flat screen TV, but we could provide excellent customer service. Books didn’t bring in much revenue, but by going the extra mile to find books this customer wanted, I showed her we cared. Now we had a repeat customer.
“Be genuine. Be remarkable. Be worth connecting with.” Seth Godin
Later that afternoon, one of my volunteers overheard a customer say, “This thrift store is still the best place for bargains. I was at the grand opening down the street, and their prices are too high.”
Another answer! We could compete by offering better bargains. Because we operated with low overhead and didn’t need to purchase our inventory, we were able to offer good value.
Providing what people want
I was at the donation receiving door when a woman in a silver Lexus pulled up with several bags.
As I thanked her and handed her a receipt, she said, “I always bring my donations here, because I know your charity helps local people. You do good work.”
She chose us because of our mission. She viewed our work as worthwhile, and she wanted to support us. Since donations were crucial to maintaining a well-stocked store, gaining community support was crucial.
Personalized customer service and great bargains were significant aspects of my competitive strategy, but the other component, providing merchandise people wanted, was essential. With the quality of our donations being vital to success, we had to attract donors by convincing them of the importance of our mission.
The importance of a mission statement
The charity already had a mission statement, but I decided to create a separate mission statement that articulated our thrift store goals.
My statement read: Our goals are to increase income available to the charity for its nonprofit work, to provide an arena for volunteers and staff to find fulfillment through service, and to be a place where everyone is treated with dignity, kindness and respect.
With each business decision, I tried to fulfill all three tenets of my mission statement. Sometimes there was pressure from our directors to increase revenue by decreasing client services. Other times, there was pressure in the other direction; to give away too much merchandise, which would have meant insufficient funds for assisting people with rent and utility payments.
My mission statement kept me from succumbing to pressure from board members and directors to compromise long-term goals for short-term gains.
Trying to fulfill all three parts of my mission kept me from sacrificing any one aspect of it. Focusing exclusively on revenue would have been to abandon my focus on clients, but minimizing the significance of revenue would have been detrimental to client services.
A focus on excellence
I read somewhere that focusing too much on competition leads to mediocrity. Rather than obssessing about how our competition could beat us, I decided to concentrate on running an excellent business.
Focusing on excellence rather than results is the key to becoming great at whatever you do.
When you focus on excellence, your success might not be immediate, but you’ll be developing something with long-term value. Whether you’re writing, starting a business or working for an organization, you’ll make an impact for good.
In the thrift store, our sales eventually increased from $180,000 annually to over $1.3 million. By the time I left the job in 2017, several thrift stores in our area had gone out of business while ours flourished.
As a writer, my mission is to publish stories that are uplifting, entertaining, enlightening or informative, to interact with and support other writers, and to continue improving as I work on my craft.
Keeping the different aspects of my goals in mind helps me balance my time between reading, writing and responding. If one part of my mission is to support others, none of the time I spend reading and responding is time wasted.
In the thrift store, we focused on the wants and needs of others with the result being that we attained significant revenue increases. My ultimate goals, as outlined in the mission statement, kept me from compromising on priorities.
As a writer, focusing on my mission serves as a buffer against rejection and failure. Rather than concentrating on making money and getting published, my emphasis is on becoming a person and writer of excellence.
Do my words uplift, entertain, inform or inspire? Am I trying to improve my craft? Do I spend enough time supporting other writers? These are the questions I ask myself.
Maybe your mission is different, and that’s fine. We all have different life experiences and goals. But whatever your goals are, define them and allow them to shape the daily, incremental steps you take toward reaching them.
Colin Powell said, “If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.”
By focusing on excellence rather than results, you are focusing on the things you can control. Those small, day-to-day decisions and interactions can be the steppingstones to greatness.