According to several electronics outlets, being available for clients is a key differentiator. Mike Merrigan, owner of Peak Audio in Halifax, says the fact his store has a service department on site goes a long way.
“Our staff know how things work, how to put things together, and how to take things apart,” says Merrigan. “You don’t really get service when you go to those warehouses - and you’re only as good as your sale.”
Merrigan says the business started with strictly mid-to high-end audio equipment, and over the years developed a reputation as selling quality products with a willingness to work around budgets.
Shaun Williams, sales manager at Kawartha TV & Stereo in Peterborough, Ontario, echoes Merrigan, saying, “Number one is customer service…Our staff have the knowledge, they’re trained directly from the manufacturer…We have things you can’t get with big-box stores.”
Williams’s store, recently celebrating its 42nd anniversary, still relies on word-of-mouth as well as traditional advertising alongside more modern marketing tools such as social media.
“Definitely social media will be important (in the future),” says Williams.
Sooin Kim, the owner of National Computer Resource in Kelowna, B.C., says the ability to purchase custom-made PCs among the products he sells gives him an advantage over big-box retailers. “Unlike when you buy an HP or a Dell (from a brand-name store), you can get a machine here based on the client’s needs. There’s no need to go for high-end specifications. But people who need higher-end specifications, we can help them also and fine tune to their needs,” says Kim.
Kim believes NCR has been in Kelowna for 19 years and has a history of meeting technology needs of other known Kelowna companies thanks to a key business driver: word-of-mouth.
Merrigan also is not so sure traditional advertising is the way to go for his store. “We have to do a lot of online stuff - things like Twitter and Facebook, and we have someone who does that,” says Merrigan. “I tried radio and that was ill-advised. I tried newspaper print ads in the last year and I don’t know [if] I’ll do it again.”
Neil Oates, chief operating officer at Carbon Computing in Toronto, says social media plays an important part in his company’s marketing strategy. “Based on our margins, we’re out-priced of traditional advertising with print and radio, which is why social media is important to us, particularly Facebook, Twitter and email blasts,” says Oates.
He adds they’ve tried different marketing techniques, such as cross-promotions with other businesses. Oates believes Carbon Computing stays competitive by marketing itself to a niche crowd of creative professionals, such as graphic designers, instead of regular home users.
Merrigan also branched out to selling contemporary furniture at his store two years ago. He says he saw the opportunity after spending a lot of time consulting clients about custom installations and getting a chance to “see their renovation plans through and through.”
Many smaller retailers are also concerned about offering flexible and cutting-edge financing options in order to remain competitive with big-box retailers. For instance, some financing companies offer iPad apps to retailers to help them process payment from customers, as well as more standard point-of-sale options. Providing flexibility for the customer, as well as a competitive edge for the retailer, can be a smart way to drive business.
The retailers we interviewed admit they do still have concerns when it comes to handling the future and facing off with corporate giants. “In the past, customers have been buying bigger, faster computers, now they’re interested in the portable and mobile devices, and they’re getting those through the telephone companies,” says Kim.
“I don’t have a crystal ball. Specifically for electronics, it’s tough right now,” admits Oates, noting Carbon Computing is in a re-evaluation period.
Merrigan is more concerned about the ability to keep up with industry and consumer trends. “There’s constant change, you can’t sit on a category for three months…There’s always a learning curve we have to keep up with alongside the sales.”