This was the sales pitch of the young man working the hot and dusty marketplace in the Cambodian countryside. Holding up the trinkets on offer, he had been impersonating my shadow for the last two or three minutes since he had profiled me as a tourist — and a fresh target for a sale.
If you have ever been to one of these markets, you know that when you enter the square, you are immediately surrounded by children who want to sell you things. It’s almost like wading through chest-deep, squirming mud, keeping your arms above the head levels of the crowd as you try to make your way to a distant oasis of calm. Small hands hold up everything from pencils to woodcarvings, and the shouts of “Mister, Mister” is quite the cacophony. Most times, I smile and keep moving forward, hoping to outpace them.
As a tourist, I wasn’t looking to buy anything of real substance. I did not need any home goods, live animals or fresh produce since I would be leaving town the next day. I was on the hunt for some type of souvenir I could take back to remind me of my visit — a tangible memory, if you will.
“Finest quality and hand made. Just one dollar!” became his mantra as we walked, him loping along beside me while his head swiveled, keeping an eye out for the police. When I stopped to inspect the items, I saw that they were hand-carved soapstone elephant figures that fit into the palm of my hand. Each elephant had its own identity and personality; a reflection of the time it took to make it and of the craftsman.
Feeling relatively assured that the items had not been mass produced in China, I took the bait. “OK, tell me about these items. Where are they from?” The young man said his name was Samang and that he and his family lived in a village about five miles outside of town. According to Samang, he was a descendent of a long line of stoneworkers who created the temples and carved stone ornaments in the region. The figurines he was selling were made from local stones and were hand cut and carved by members of his family from the rubble that was left behind when the commercial quarriers finished their work with trucks and bulldozers.
Samang said he had a family of two brothers and four sisters and that he was No. 5 in the line. His job was to take the carvings that the family and their friends made to the market every day. His sales proceeds were used to buy food for the family and pay the school fees of his siblings.
He then stopped his narrative, looked up at me from his 4-foot height, and held out his hands with the herd of pachyderms delicately balanced between his outstretched thumbs.
Over the years, I have collected elephant figures during my travels. The figurines stand guard on my bookcase shelf and each time I look at one or pick one up, it viscerally reminds me of the location and the time when it was acquired.
Now, I’m fully aware that Samang was probably an excellent salesman, and that the veracity of his story may be a little tenuous. However, I like to believe in the goodness of human nature, and I decided that I would take his story as true. I ended up buying a delightful green elephant with an intricate carving of a rug on its back and the faint shadows of eyelashes. I also bought three more to take back as souvenirs for some friends. To this day, that elephant sits on my shelf keeping guard over the stacks of papers and books on my desk.
Young Samang did not sell me an elephant figurine. He sold me a story.
There are dozens of other vendors selling soapstone carvings in the market who I could have bought from. However, Samang gave me the context and understanding of what he was doing and why he was doing it. Instead of just buying a souvenir from a shop, I could now believe I was supporting a family of ancient artisans who are still plying their craft despite the encroachment of modern technology. That is what made me buy from Samang and not someone else.
The same principle applies to any type of retailing. The customer wants to know the story behind the store, as it were. What is it about this retail transaction that makes it different from any other store on the street or in town?
As brick-and-mortar retailing is faced with increasing challenges from online platforms and delivery services, we need a way to bring customers into our shops rather than have them go to someone else’s location. Most of us sell pretty much the same things: soft drinks, coffee, candy, chips, cigarettes, and the like. What can you do to distinguish yourself? How do you create your story?
I recommend carrying products from local producers and artisans, or specializing in a selection of products that are either culturally or ethnically significant for your community and your customers. Be serious about it — dedicate at least 30 percent of your shelf space to these types of items. More importantly, you and your staff need to know the details about the products: where they came from, who made them, and what they are used for. There should be a wide selection of products to show the customer that you’re committed.
It is critical that you promote the products and let people know you have them in stock. In addition to promotional signage, think about samplings, supplier demonstrations, or “meet the producer” days where you have the local producer set up a pop-up store at your location.
Your story becomes one of helping local people succeed, or recognizing and supporting the local cultural or ethnic communities.
A couple of examples I have seen recently:
On weekends, a c-store serves Indian food made from family recipes while a sitar player performs, and their craft beer selection is featured;
A store owner near a dog park carries a wide range of pet supplies and gives out free dog treats to his canine customers; and
A retailer promotes the fact that he is the third generation of his family to run the store and features promotions based around family members and events. (“You’ve got to try Uncle Dave’s cheeseburger.”)
If sourcing new products is not a viable strategy, then deeply embrace the local community. Support local organizations such as youth sports teams, a school, a food bank, a community center, or some other entity that has a direct impact on the people who live around your store and shop there.
Hold events that help your neighbors such as fundraising car washes or local producers market days. If you have an event on your site, you’ll not only attract the friends and family of the participants, but also the people who support their causes or products. Many of these people might be new to your store and when they see you in the future, they will associate you with supporting their friends and families, which will give you an advantage.
For example, take Bloom Healthy, a pop-up grocery concept developed by Marion Henson in New York. Marion’s mission is to make organic fruit and vegetables available to everyone, whether they can afford them or not. Her program allows customers to “pay it forward” and purchase produce on behalf of neighbors experiencing hard times. Helping people to help others eat healthily is a great story.
Whatever you do, be consistent and be sincere. The story you tell should be your own and be evident when someone looks around your store. Of course, you also must be a good retailer and provide products that have a value to your customer. You can tell the best story in the world, but if the retail experience is bad, your customers won’t care about your story.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.