Competition and the Wal-Mart Equation

I’ve heard people complain that “Wal-Mart comes into a town and drives small businesses out.” I do not think this is true. There are those who resent me for saying this. But I think it is simply a matter of competition.

People buy from Wal-Mart because they sell things people want. Any business can do that. Any business that fails to do that should not BE in business.

A town near here refuses to let Wal-Mart in, though the company has made multiple attempts to do so. The town has one grocery store that maintains a monopoly, and two variety stores with bad service and poorly maintained stock. There is a sense of entitlement in the town, and a fear of competition. The residents dislike being held hostage by these businesses, and people who live in outlying areas drive up to a hundred miles out of their way to avoid shopping in this town. The businesses in town succeed not because they are good, but because the residents have no choice. That hurts the town by driving away other potential business.

I have always maintained that any business that does their job right has no need to fear the competition. You can’t always do the job cheaper, but you can usually do the job better than a company that is focusing on doing it “cheaper”. For every person who will doggedly go to Wal-Mart to buy, there is one who refuses to, and another who will go where they feel best about buying. Wal-Mart can’t put any business under that is paying attention to the market, and really giving the customer what they want.

A town in the opposite direction from the first one has three major grocery stores – one of which is Wal-Mart – and a K-Mart, and many other thriving businesses that overlap into those businesses. The service level through the town is much better, businesses are better maintained, and most are thriving. The two other grocery stores have specialized – offering variety that Wal-Mart does not offer (they spotted that Wal-Mart only carries what is most popular, in volume). They simply adapted, and went on doing what they did best – creating an environment where their customers feel good about shopping. Two other grocery stores went under when Wal-Mart brought in the grocery department. They had been struggling to begin with, and their corporate model was too similar to Wal-Mart’s. Wal-Mart simply did it better, and the others could not compete (in fact, one of them went under and was sold out as a corporation around that time).

My competition isn’t Wal-Mart, it is GoDaddy. The big, inconsiderate, cheap and shoddy company that outguns every small web service provider on marketing. I can’t compete with them on their terms, and I don’t even try. I just do the job better, offer better value, and give my clients personal attention that a big corporation can’t begin to compete with.

Any business can do that. They often get caught up in price wars though, which puts them in a losing position to begin with. You can’t compete with big business on their terms. You can’t fight fire with fire in this instance. You have to figure out how to fight fire with water – do it differently than they do it. Do it better where they CANNOT do it better. Corporations operate within a set of strict limitations. They have their course, their methods, their policies. Changing them is like trying to turn a ship under full steam – it doesn’t happen very fast, and it can only happen in small degrees. If they try to compete with you on terms other than their existing corporate policies, they will capsize and undermine their entire success model. So it is pretty simple for you to adapt and maneuver into a position of successful competition, just by doing what they CANNOT do.

When businesses blame Wal-Mart for driving them under, they’ve misplaced the blame. They didn’t go under due to the presence of another business in town. They went under because they did not respond in an effective way, and chances are, their business model was flawed to begin with. When people have no choice, they’ll settle for mediocre. When they have a choice, they won’t. High quality and truly good service DO win out even in a highly competitive market. A good business model will succeed in spite of competition, a bad or shaky one can only succeed when there are no other options.

Look to yourself, and stop blaming the competition.

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