Cloak and Dagger

by Ian on May 4, 2011

Spying is your friend

Spying is your friend

It was a foggy, dark night. The mist dripped from my overcoat like a leaky roof in an old apartment. I was standing in front of a large store that I knew well. I tried to shed the memories of the place like I’d shed a cheap coat but the former Shoe Carnival store still had a lingering ambiance that wasn’t easy to leave behind in spite of the purple Family Christian logo that now adorned the front.

I pulled my collar higher and my hat down, hoping that the heavy out front wouldn’t recognize me. He probably wouldn’t, the store was owned by a new company and this guy hadn’t crossed my path before. I took a deep breath and walked towards the door.

Actually, it was the middle of the afternoon, I had never been to the store’s previous incarnation as Shoe Carnival and the heavy was actually a nice, tall, thin guy who said “hello” when I walked in. But, hey, competitive research sounds much more exciting when you think of yourself as Sam Smart, PI.

If you don’t occasionally take walks around your competitors’ stores, you are missing out on some major things that would help your company.

First, if you want your store to stay competitive locally, you have to know what your competition is doing. You should pay attention to ads they run, articles that show up in the local paper and things they are doing in their stores. For example, the Family Christian store just moved from a much smaller location a couple blocks away to the current location.

Second, walking through your competitors’ stores and even completely unrelated retailers with an eye towards layout, product placement and promotions is a great way to get new ideas. Here are some tips for making anonymous shopper visits.

  • Take your time. To truly observe how a store works and what it carries, you can’t rush through.
  • Shopping starts before you walk it. Look at the signs at the street. Look at what’s in the front window.
  • When you first walk in the door, stop. Look at what is immediately near you. Next, take a slow look over the store as a whole. What can you see on the back wall? Where is the pos? Can you identify where things are right off the bat?
  • Walk around the store paying careful attention to how things are merchandised. Does the store know seasonality? Does the store have a focus? Are popular items front and center?
  • Does the merchandise make sense? The store I visited has a heavy focus on Evangelical product. Most non-Catholic Christian groups are in the “Catholics worship Mary and statues are idols” camp. This store had a whole section of Chinese saint statues as well as First Communion, Confirmation and Baptism gifts which included rosaries, scapulars and missals. All I could think is that this company is willing to sell things that they purportedly would condemn people for using just to make a buck. I wasn’t impressed.
  • Take a look at the signs in the store. Is there anything about the company, special features they offer or any other material that says “You should shop here and tell all your friends about us.”?
  • Is there anything about the store that invites you to take your time browsing? A reading area? A play area for the kids? Music playing that doesn’t make you want to leave quickly?

Okay, now it’s your turn. What “spying” tips do you have?

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