Observation is key to being leading-edge

Keeping an eye on what your competitors are doing can help you make the best innovative decisions, says Leslie Kossoff.

For the past few years, the garden retail sector has been going through one of the most intense learning experiences imaginable - and the curve is steeper than ever.

That's not going to change. In the world of "what's next" there is only one mantra that you can work to in order to ensure success: "Whatever we've done, it's not enough."

The good news is there is so much opportunity for you, both immediately and on the horizon - the success of your business is there for the taking. You just have to be smart, consistent and innovative enough to make sure you're one of the ones who win.

Messages from customers and competitors

If you play poker then you must know that as important as the cards you have in your hand is your ability to see "tells" in the other players. Tells are the small but visible manifestations that show the other guy is bluffing, or perhaps that he has a hand that is so good you've got to get out before you're out of the game.

Your customers have been - and always are - giving you tells. The questions you need to be asking are:

- What are they telling us?

- What can we do about it?

- How can we wow them so that we're consistently their go-to provider?

At the same time, your competitors - both large and small - are also giving you tells, only theirs look like everything from copycat tactics to world-changing strategies. The questions you should ask in looking at that side of the equation are:

- What have other centres adopted that we are already doing successfully?

- What are they doing that we are not?

- How do we build on or create something that is different from what they are doing which does even more and is better than theirs so that we can wow our current customers ... and take theirs away?

You are probably thinking that you always ask yourself those questions. You probably do. You may even think they are so basic that they are a waste of your time to be reading. Maybe. But that would only be so if your answers to the next set of questions demonstrate that your centre - and, most importantly, your management of that centre - is so on top of its game that you are leaving everyone in the dust. All the time.

Try these and see how you do:

- How consistently do we gather customer and competitor information?

- What do we do with that information once we have obtained it?

- How fast is our speed of innovation?

- How well and to what extent do we work with others - strategic allies and suppliers - to create new customer experiences?

- When we see the shelf-life of one of our services expiring - not least because it has been co-opted by our competitors - how long do we stay in that game, even though it has passed its sell-by date?

- Are we as innovative in our way of doing business as we are in the products that we sell?

- Is every experience for every customer a "wow"?

- Are we the go-to guys for everyone from customers to our competitors' mystery shoppers to see how it's done right?

You probably did well on some of these questions and not on others. That's okay - because that's where innovation ultimately comes from: recognising a need and then acting on it. This includes aspects of your own management and the strategy of your organisation.

- The supplier contribution

To a great extent, that's where your suppliers come into your picture as innovation partners. One of the values your suppliers can bring is non-proprietary trend data on what's going on in the industry about what you are doing - or not. Because they turn that data into innovations of their own.

Good suppliers and their salespeople know that it's not about this sale. It's about doing what they can on an ongoing basis to help you create success. That is - or should be - the direction of their product innovation and it definitely should be a value-add service they provide you. Because they need you more than you need them - and they know it.

Done well, this is innovation collaboration at its best - with each of you having skin in the others' game.

Next is now

The greatest challenge you have over the next year is that your sector is doing well in a downturn. It's great news for the immediate future - but that makes it psychologically and instinctively harder for you to spend the time looking ahead to see what you need to do next.

Because next is now. Not only do you have to figure out a consistent trend of incremental innovations, you need to be looking even further out into the horizon to determine what the next big thing is going to be.

Do it. Now and next. If you take this approach, you will win.

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