August 8-10, 2023 | Wisconsin Center | Milwaukee, WI

Differentiation Strategies: How to Be the Same But Different

What does it mean to differentiate your Independent Garden Center, and how can you differentiate enough to matter, without going so far out of the box that you confuse your customers? Read on to learn some differentiation strategies that will help set you apart and simultaneously build trust.
The only way to get noticed is to offer a noticeable difference.
Your most powerful differentiating factor is usually your team!

When you’re looking to make a local purchase, but aren’t sure where to go, what do you do? Chances are you ask a trusted friend or family member for a recommendation. But in the absence of a solid recommendation, you’ll probably pick up your phone and search online. It’s true whether you’re looking for something to eat or for a new pair of pants, and it’s no different for consumers looking for plants, seeds, soil and other garden center merchandise.

The answers consumers are looking for are online, but the typical Google search can lead to some serious information overload. Results will include every local business within so many miles as well as the big-box stores in the area, and the option of just buying from Amazon or other online marketplace will surely be looming in the background the more overwhelming the choice becomes. So with all of these options available to a potential customer, how do you make your business stand out?

In the face of all of this information, an independent business has to show that they have something different to offer customers, or they have to call out to a specific group of customers. A consciously articulated differentiation strategy can help you understand what makes your business special and connect with consumers looking for what you have to offer.

What is Differentiation?

Differentiation is a marketing strategy that emphasizes the differences between one product or company and another. Notice that the emphasis is on difference, not superiority. A differentiation strategy doesn’t necessarily entail claiming that you are better at everything than another business, just that you offer something different, and that you can meet the specific needs of specific consumers better than another business. It’s not about capturing every consumer, but making sure that the majority of consumers who want something specific will come to you.

A differentiation strategy solves the paralysis problem created by too much choice. It also allows you to compete on something other than price. An IGC probably cannot compete with the big-box stores on price. But when it comes to capturing consumers concerned with quality or other criteria, a differentiation strategy will help you build a consumer base, a brand identity and brand loyalty.

Differentiating Yourself from Other IGCs

In your local market, you face competition from other IGCs as well as from big-box stores and online retailers. Differentiating yourself from these competitors presents different challenges and opportunities.

Every independent business has its own character. While you can expect more or less the same quality, price, and service at any Walmart in the country, each IGC has its own look and feel, its own browsing experience, its own personality. In order to differentiate yourself from your competitors, it is important to figure out what your business’s character is. Strive for authenticity in this regard. Don’t try to be something or someone you’re not. Consumers know when a salesperson is inauthentic, and younger consumers in particular value authenticity. What are the values you live by that will help you connect with others? How do you exemplify those values through your work?

Maybe you have a particularly warm and outgoing personality, and you seek out or bring out these same qualities in your staff. Everything from the design of your website to the layout of your store can bring out this characteristic. Customers will choose your store not only for high-quality merchandise, but for the welcoming atmosphere, which you do better than anyone else. You could even host community events centered on something like flower arrangements to emphasize the warmth and affability of your business.

Or maybe you value expertise, and the ability to share that expertise with others, above all. You employ knowledgeable staff in a number of areas, and you can direct customers to the appropriate staff member depending on their specific needs. You and your staff are passionate about planting and growing, and you’re eager to share that knowledge with your customers. While you might offer the same products at the same prices as another store, yours will stand out for consumers interested in getting exactly the right product, or those who are interested in learning more about gardening and becoming experts themselves. Such a differentiation strategy might involve holding gardening classes at your store.

Your expertise may manifest itself in a more specific way: there is one aspect of the business that you are particularly knowledgeable and passionate about. Your differentiation strategy might involve presenting your garden center as the place to go for vegetable gardens, or for patio furniture, decorations and stone, or for flowers and houseplants—whatever you specialize in. With this type of strategy, you’re working to draw in a specific customer base looking for the best quality, widest selection, or most knowledgeable staff in a more narrow niche.

Just as your website can convey a particular personality to potential customers, it can also be a platform for your expertise. You might share your knowledge in a blog, podcast, or YouTube video series to raise awareness, build trust and draw customers in.

Differentiating Yourself from Big-Box Stores and Online Shopping

The differences between IGCs and big-box stores should be obvious, though they might not be as apparent to consumers. While you can’t compete with the big corporations on price, you should have the advantage of quality, expertise and customer service. In fact, higher prices could be an effective differentiator if you can show that they signify higher quality or exclusivity: when you shop here, you’re part of the select few who know quality when they see it and are willing to pay for it.

By the same token, it’s hard to compete with online shopping on price, convenience and selection. But just being a local business is an advantage in the eyes of many consumers. In just the past 20 years, we’ve seen downtown shopping districts decimated by big-box stores, and we’ve seen consumers revitalize these areas with calls to support local businesses. One advantage any local business has over national or international chains is that they are part of the community.

Finally, a more out-of-the-box differentiation strategy is to change the game. In marketing parlance, this is called “category creation.” Rather than competing with other similar shops, you position yourself as offering a unique experience that solves a problem that consumers didn’t know they had. One successful example of this is Slack, which effectively created the category of intra-office chat tools. There are plenty of chat and messaging tools, but Slack positioned themselves as a tool specifically for offices.

This approach won’t work for everyone, however; while some consumers will be drawn to something different, it still has to feel familiar enough. It’s the reason why all pop music sounds roughly the same, and why the most successful pop artists give audiences more of the same, but with a slight twist, rather than offering something radically different or unheard-of. Just a little difference is intriguing; too much difference can be confusing and unapproachable.

It's Your Story

Whatever your differentiation strategy, a successful implementation will be borne out by customer reviews, word-of-mouth and repeat customers. If you promise and deliver service that goes beyond expectations, if you’re directing customers efficiently to exactly what they need, if you’re passing on expert tips to your customers, reviews will reflect those facts and reinforce your brand identity. Rather than being just another IGC, you’ll be the one with high-quality products and great service plus something extra, something consumers feel they can only get from you.

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