Live From ACCM: Power Forum Panel Says Differentiate To Survive

New Orleans – Got a unique product line? Do you sell something your customers consider to be a must-have item? Then there’s a good chance that is you’re going to survive the economic recession, agreed the panelists at the Power Forum Monday at ACCM in New Orleans.

Differentiation – not free shipping and promotional pricing – is what will make consumers be repeat customers, and not just one-time buyers.

Sheryl Clark, president of women’s apparel merchant Boston Proper, said that for every e-mail her contact center gets asking why they don’t have free shipping, they get an e-mail thanking them for offering something they couldn’t find anywhere else.

“If we can offer the customer unique must-have merchandise that they won’t find anywhere else, she will respond,” Clarke said. “But we have to make sure our catalog covers are making our customers say, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to have this,’ and that we put all our unique items in the front of the book.”

Though multititle cataloger Potpourri Group has seen some of its hard goods titles take a hit during the recession, chairman Jack Rosenfeld said the company has not put a promotional strategy in place and has no intention to do so.

Terry Jukes, president of e-commerce systems provider Ability Commerce, laughed about the notion of free shipping, and that any way you slice it, someone is paying to ship orders.

Merchants also have to make sure that their shipping charges are in line with actual costs, he said.

“If you’re charging a customer $11.95 to ship a $25 item, you’re not going to pass the ‘smell’ test,” Jukes said. “If you have to rely on shipping costs to make a profit, you’re not focusing enough on the core offer and need to spend time beefing that up a bit.”

Potpouri’s special interest titles such as equine enthusiast products book Back in the Saddle are holding up well because of the novelty, Rosenfeld said.

Product differentiation is a key to success, Rosenfeld said, adding that merchants with niche offerings always seem to do well, especially in this economic environment.

“Free shipping and other promotions can weaken the value of your customer,” Rosenfeld said. “The focus should be on unique merchandise.”

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