In a Crowded Niche, Personality and Values Matter

Let’s get down to brass tacks: It’s all well and good to say that brick-and-mortar stores need great customer service in order to compete in an e-commerce world but how do pull it off?

small business differentiation, small business customer service, small business social responsibilityDifferentiation, that’s how.

My neighborhood has three upscale toy stores in a 3-block stretch of one street. You might think this is overkill but in a neighborhood teeming with children, they give mothers a choice. In some ways, they’re all the same: toy stores selling some of the same brands for the same folks: babies to toddlers. But in ways that count, they are different. That’s how they all survive.

A Time for Children first is owned and operated by a foundation to raise money for a nonprofit. An A-frame sign outside announces that it gives 100% of its profits to the Children’s Aid Society of New York and provides on-the-job retail training for teens from the Children’s Aid Society. They must be doing a good job because service is friendly and the store is inviting. The stock is eclectic, from knee pads for crawling babies to tutus for aspiring ballerinas. But the most enticing aspect is that A-frame sign. If I’m going to pay for high-end toys for my relatives, isn’t it nice to know that I’m helping other children and getting young people trained to be productive?

Westside Kids is a melange of toys, books, games, and puzzles; some you could get at Toys R Us, most you couldn’t. Some plastic, lots of sturdy wood, most with an educational bent. But this store is set apart by its staff. My favorite staffer is a vibrant older woman who guides me with unerring instinct to just the right gift for my nephew. She sets the tone; her personality permeates the service at the store. She knows the stock, she know kids, and she’ll know you if you come back more than once. If she’s busy guiding someone else, the other staff members are equally capable and friendly.

The shop is also festooned with signs reminding you that if you really love New York, you’ll shop locally. It’s got attitude and a cause. You feel kind of guilty if you’ve just ordered from Amazon.

Finally, just down the street is a tiny store, Area Kids, with a BYOB policy, that is, bring your own bag. It is so green that it provides neither plastic nor paper. It hangs its socially responsible hat on being green. It’s got an arty feel in both the toys it offers and the look of its clothes. Lots of pens, paints, and make believe as well as an online presence that prompted one mother to tell me that the best place to shop for toys is online … at this store’s website. Although the clerks are helpful, the customers are more so, willingly sharing recommendations and experiences.

Personality, that’s what it’s all about. Well, not quite all. Did you notice that each one also has a social conscience?

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