One of the things that distinguishes a mediocre business from one that shines in fulfilling customer expectations is the ability to predict and prepare for trends in the market.
I have stated before that your goal in whatever niche your business is in is to be the authoritative source for your customers. If you are, your customers will think of you first when they have questions about a product or about general concerns in your industry. For example, I used to own a 1973 Ford Mustang. I know that there is only one place in town to take a Mustang if you want work done on it right – Mustang Paradise. For a paradise, it's really a dive: A run-down storefront in an industrial area next to the dog track filled with cast-off Mustang parts that looks anything like paradise. The thing is, these guys know their stuff. The cars that come out of there are beautiful. You go there if you want Mustang work because these guys actually know how to tune a carburetor and set the timing on a car with a distributor cap.
You want to be the Mustang Paradise of your industry – at least in knowledge. Don't imitate their presentation. So how do you do that?
First, you have to know what industry you are in. “Oh, come on, that's too obvious,” you say. Is it really? We sell Catholic stuff so we are in the Catholic goods industry. But that's not all we are in. There are several ways to sell a product – on-line, retail, wholesale, import, electronic downloads, etc. You can't just end with the product and assume you have the whole picture. You have to stay on top of trends in retail, sales and marketing if you want your business to grow.
Second, you have to care about the industry you are in. If you aren't going to be passionate about the things you sell (services or physical products), it is very unlikely that you are going to go the extra mile to watch industry trends. People who are at a job just to have a job are very unlikely to come up with ways to make the company better or to spot trends that the company should do something about. If you could care less about your product, it's time to start looking for a new line of work.
Third, you have to have knowledge of your industry. If you run a car repair shop but haven't spent time getting good and grimy changing oil filters and dismantling engines, how are you going to know when something is a real trend / good product or just a bunch of hype? There is a story frequently told that when Federal Treasury Officers go through counterfeit training, they never look at counterfeit bills. All they do is learn every minutia about what makes a bill authentic. If you have a firm grasp on what is right, you can spot something wrong even if you can't point to the specific thing that makes it wrong. You almost develop an extra sense.
Fourth, you have to know where to find news about your industry. Are there trade journals? Is there a newspaper either entirely devoted to your niche or at least one that has a section about your niche? Are there websites and blogs that track your industry? Finding blogs in your niche is a goldmine of information because these people are passionate about your product and provide you with tons of free information about industry trends.
Fifth, you have to know where to find information about the products you sell. These can frequently be the same sources as where you find industry trends but they may not completely overlap. There are many magazines and newspapers that do product reviews that don't cover trends in an industry. They just happen to have someone on staff who likes to give opinions about products. This is an area where you have to do a little background research to make sure that the publication is trustworthy as a source for product hype. For example, take reviews of Catholic products in secular newspapers with a grain of salt. These reviews are typically by people who don't have a very good grasp on true Catholicism but have a very concrete (and wrong) idea of what they think/wish Catholicism is.
Sixth, you have to either be or find someone who can pull all these different threads of information into a workable action plan for your business. Spotting a trend and failing to act on it is a good way to lose credibility with your customers. When they storm your business looking for a new product that is all over the news and you can't provide it or don't have the information necessary to answer their questions, they will look elsewhere for that authoritative source and you will have lost their business.
Here is an example of how Aquinas and More tries to stay on top of the Catholic retail / web industry.
First, define your industry. We are primarily an on-line Catholic store that sells direct to consumers. We also have a retail location, sell Church supplies and sell wholesale and offer a website storefront program for other Catholic stores.
Second, passion. I have been selling Catholic stuff for seven years now and planning for it for longer than that. Our family has always been passionate about Catholicism and about authentic Catholicism in particular. We have several bookcases full of Catholic titles in our home and have subscribed to some Catholic publication non-stop for the last twelve years.
Third, knowledge of the industry. We have been selling Catholic stuff for seven years. During that time we have learned plenty about what sells, when to sell it and who to buy from. This isn't just some gut feeling. We actually track sales by category and season so we can say that, yes, Christmas cards started selling in October last year even though we weren't promoting them. This year, guess what we started putting on the website and promoting at the beginning of October? The effect? A 280% increase in Christmas card sales in October.
Fourth, where to find industry trends. In our market, there are a couple of useful trade journals – Catholic Marketing Network and Christian Retailing. There are also several ecommerce journals that have some useful information including Practical Ecommerce and Website Magazine. Because we program our website in ColdFusion, I also subscribe to the Fusion Authority magazine. If you subscribe to these publications, you would have known five years ago that the Christian retail market was going soft and that the stores were consolidating and shifting from books to gifts to compensate. You would also have learned that the Internet is taking a large chunk of business from Christian stores that don't have their own web presence. I also read the Colorado Springs Business Journal to see what is going on here locally.
Fifth, where to find out about new products. This list could get very long because you really need to watch all different forms of media (radio, television, newspapers, magazines and websites to see what people are talking about. A short list for the Catholic retail world:
- Television – EWTN
- Radio – Your local Catholic station.
- National Catholic Register (not Reporter)
- The Wanderer
- Our Sunday Visitor
- Your local diocesan paper
- Faith and Family Magazine
- Catholic World Report
- Homiletic and Pastoral Review
- This Rock
- Inside the Vatican
- Lay Witness
- St. Anthony Messenger (carefully)
Sixth, finding someone to pull it all together. We have been fortunate in finding a staff that is always on the lookout for new things and have been able to stay on top of some, if not all of the trends that have come down the pike in the last few years. I recommend that part of your job application form should include a section asking an applicant what Catholic publications he reads and what Catholic websites he visits.