Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Selling buggy whips on the Internet – an example of using competition to your advantage

Jim Gould
I recently needed to ship a box to New Zealand so I went to the UPS Store only to learn that their least expensive service was over $400.  My next stop was the US Post Office which I dreaded as I envisioned the stereotypical long lines and bureaucratic employees waiting to collect their pensions. Did I mention this is a stereotype? I was surprised to find the post office relatively empty and I walked directly to the counter where Bob was waiting for me with a smile. 

I knew the smile would disappear as soon as I explained that I wanted to ship to New Zealand without it costing an arm and a leg. Surprisingly, Bob took the challenge seriously; weighing, measuring and explaining all of my options - which ranged from $30 to $48! I waited for him to tell me that at this price it would take 4-6 weeks to get there, but instead I learned the box would travel via Fed-Ex and whether I spent $30 or $48 it would arrive on the same day. Paying only $30 depended upon reducing my shipment weight by one ounce; four pounds or less was the limit, Bob explained, as he set about to find a way to save me the 18 bucks. 

Bob looked around for a slightly smaller box but it was still too heavy; an over sized envelope didn’t work; finally he found an over sized box and cut it down to exactly the size I needed, but we were still one ounce over weight.  I finally told him the $48 option was okay but he was disappointed to have not found the solution.

I was blown away by Bob’s conscientious and friendly service which would have been appreciated regardless of what product he was offering; I figured the least I could do was to write him a letter of commendation.

Not knowing the address of "The Big Kahuna for the US Post Office," I searched the Internet for the USPS Customer Service and was surprised to find a site for Compliments. I filled out the online form and with one click my message was emailed to the BigHahuna@PostOffice#1.com - well maybe that is a bit of a stretch but it was emailed to the Post Office Customer Service Department.  Then, this question popped on the screen: “Would you like a response sent to you by Email, Phone or Mail?”  I clicked Email and thought, “Wow, how ironic is this?  The Post Office is going to send me an email!”

I think I understand why the post office was so empty – everyone is using electronic mail; one statistic  prevalent on the Internet now says electronic mail out paces snail mail 81 to 1. But more to my point...

Just because you sell buggy whips doesn’t mean you can’t adapt the way you sell them and that’s a lesson for every business to keep in mind.

While the US Post office cannot eliminate the primary service that is losing market share to the Internet - snail mail -  it has adapted to use the Internet to its advantage. From the Internet you can now plan a shipment, order supplies, print postage and order a pick up.

If you have a business that can’t (or won’t) adapt to changes around you - for example your primary product is buggy whips - at least look for ways to use new innovations to your advantage. Put your catalog of buggy whips on the Internet, ask a marketing expert how to integrate social media, talk about your business on line, consult with an expert to find out what others are doing…  As Yogi Berra would say, “You can see a lot just by watching.”  I know I did. Thanks, Bob.


Jim Gould is President of the Floor Covering Institute

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