Finding Your Competitive Advantage


In an overcrowded, hypercompetitive marketplace, what operator worth their weight isn’t looking for a competitive advantage? Show me an operator who’s complacent and I’ll show you a soon-to-be irrelevant business. It doesn’t matter what the competitive advantage is -- big or small -- anything that creates separation from your competition and is valued by your customers is a good thing.

When you look out over the convenience store industry landscape (149,000-plus stores), you’ll see a sea of sameness. For the most part, everyone looks the same and sells the same stuff. Sure, there are a handful of chains that have differentiated themselves with larger stores and a robust foodservice offering, but these chains are the exception.

The great thing about these innovative chains is they are pushing the boundaries and raising the bar for the industry, and that’s a good thing. But if you’re a small operator and don’t have the financial means to build a 5,000-square-foot store with eight MPDs, a car wash and a killer foodservice program, what do you do?

Look for Competitive Loose Bricks
Study your competition. There are some areas you simply cannot go head to head with them on and win. For example, product selection, which is a function of store size, or pricing (e.g. two loaves of bread for $1), which is a function of economies of scale, or the fact that they make their own products.

When sizing up your competition, look for loose bricks; kinks in your competition’s armor. Loose bricks are those areas of the business in which your competition is not so good; areas you can exploit to gain a competitive advantage. It’s easy to see which battles you will lose if you try to wage a head-to-head assault, so don’t go there. Be strategic. Why charge the battle hill head on when strategically your advantage is to attack from the rear?

Which Bricks to Attack
Competitive areas of assessment include facility, product offering, location, pricing, appearance, retailing, merchandising and service. But before you start looking for competitive loose bricks, make sure that your price of entry fundamentals (ante to get into the game) are sound: competitive prices, hours of operation, service and appearance. Never lose sight of and be excellent at executing the basics.

As a matter of fact, you can gain a competitive advantage just by consistently executing the basics. You don’t believe me? Look around.

This month’s column, though, is about going beyond the basics. All great brands stand for something. In the c-store industry, certain brands have captured the competitive ground in store facilities, foodservice and number of stores. But if you were to survey customers and ask the question, “Who stands for customer service in the c-store industry?” you would not hear a dominant brand. You would hear the usual cast of characters, but not a dominating brand like Wal-Mart stands for low prices.

No one has captured the customer service battlefield; for good reason, customer service is hard. If customer service was easy, great service would be the norm, not the exception. So for my money, the loose brick is customer service. If your employees are friendlier, helpful, fun and know their customers on a personal level, you will have gained a competitive advantage. Customers always remember how you make them feel.

It’s not always about money. Sure, it would be nice to build that big bad store that would blow the competition away. But big stores and great offerings don’t guarantee success. Don’t focus on what you don’t have, focus on what you do have -- your employees. Position your employees as your competitive weapon, not as expense items that represent the cost of doing business.

If your employees treat your customers like the staff at “Cheers” treated their customers Norm, Cliff and Frazier, you will have created a distinct competitive advantage for yourself; an advantage that will be hard to replicate by your competitors.

Terry McKenna is principal and co-founder of Convenience Store Coaches & Employee Performance Strategies Inc., where he helps convenience retailers achieve greater financial results by optimizing their workforce. McKenna can be reached at (910) 458-5227 or [email protected]. He also maintains a blog at

Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News for the Single Store Owner.

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