If you take a trip to pretty much anywhere there are always those areas that are tourist traps full of t-shirts, magnets, key chains, and “I was here” merchandise with the name of your destination labeled on everything.
Recently, I vacationed to the gorgeous island of St. Lucia and traveled to its capital city, Castries, where I visited their vendor markets packed with colorful mementos, vibrant island crafts, and handmade gifts. You’ve probably visited a market such as these where vendors have small stalls they rent – a tiny square footage with every surface covered in goods and a watchful peddler trying to earn your business as you walk by – and where most all of the vendors sell the very same goods. I’ve been to many of these when playing tourist in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Europe but on this particular trip, I took a step back and looked at the markets for the lessons I could absorb from the buyer and seller perspective.
I was traveling with my mother and sister – both seasoned travelers and skilled negotiators, so I trailed behind them making mental notes of how they shopped, made buying decisions, and how the sellers’ actions influenced their decisions.
Of course, my traveling companions threatened to throw my tablet into the aqua blue Caribbean waters if I dared work and write this blog post while on the island! So, I wrote this on the long plane ride home, regretting the lack of palm trees in my view and immediate and constant access to frozen rum drinks! You may not think you have much in common with island market vendors but stick with me here. You may be surprised at how this sales environment mirrors your competitive landscape and how your behaviors and actions can influence buyers as these sellers do.
Sales Truths from the Island Markets:
Being the first stop is not a sure thing. Many times over, I watched people enter the market and look at what the first vendors had to offer and move on to the dozens of other booths filled with the EXACT same items. They’re “just browsing”- in other words, not committed to making a purchase yet until they know their options. Most buyers don’t buy the first thing they see – they fear missing a better option or a better deal, or, they’re not quite sure what they’re looking for (or need) yet because they don’t feel like they have quite all the information they need. I’ve picked up and examined bracelets, bags, hats . . . set them down and then bought the very same thing from the 18th vendor I met who had the same item. My sister bought her “banana ketchup” from the 8th vendor who sold it (yes, banana ketchup is a thing – an awesome thing if you really like bananas). Putting your product or offer in front of a buyer before they’re committed to purchasing is a big time waste for you. If they have not determined the criteria they need to make a decision, examined and qualified all their options yet, and decided that the timing or budget fits, you’re jumping the gun. Don’t rush in before you do your homework, establish a relationship and earn the right to make the ask!
Asking the right questions is key. Time and time again, you walk into a retail store and in this case, an open air market, and are greeted with the “What are you looking for” question. Unless you’re a really highly specialized niche business such as “Meow Milliners – Maker of Fine Feline Top hats”, chances are good that your customer doesn’t exactly know what they’re looking for – be it a consumer or a business to business buyer. I watched one savvy vendor size up my sister and engage her kindly with, “Do you have any sweet babies back at home?” and she replied “Yes, three!” which produced from her an automatic smile and softening in her body language when she spoke of her children. The woman then asked their ages and what types of gifts did my sister think they would enjoy. That was a far cry from jumping on her and trying to push things into her hands. This seller was warm and genuine and asked questions to be helpful in her suggestions – both serving to arm her with the right suggestions and to endear her to my sister, making my sister want to purchase from her. Knowing how to engage people with the right questions and conversations is key to understanding how and what to sell to them.
Adding value provides a distinct advantage. With these markets, much like many commodity sales, every vendor carries the same items and stock inventory from all of the same places. We ran into a few smart “negotiators” that did more than offer discounts when we walked away from their booths. One man observed my sister eyeing his sampling of spice baskets and various sizes of hand-made nutmeg graters (St. Lucia produces fantastic spices!) and remarked that if she were to purchase a spice basket, he would add one of the small graters. He also offered to re-wrap the basket with the grater so she had a ready-made gift. These were the same two items dozens of others at the market carried, but he upped the ante and added both a tangible good and intangible value to his offer, giving him the edge for the buy. Adding value doesn’t mean discounting. Where can your services, processes or experiences give you the edge in a highly competitive or commoditized market?
Establishing relationships can’t be faked. Many of the vendors served up greetings and gratuitous compliments. After the first few “Hello Darlings” and “My Beautiful” and “Sweet Lady” – I could appreciate that everyone got the same greeting. The compliments and smiles don’t (all) feel genuine. We’re savvy enough to know it’s an engagement technique and “Hey, beautiful, come see what special things I have for you” is not fooling anyone (didn’t work on me in high school, either). It reminds me of the way cold emails and cold calls begin: Generic professional greeting, Standard Introduction, Vague and general statement of self-serving value, Ask for time/resources. Sound familiar? Genuine and meaningful relationships take more effort than a form letter. If your prospective customers feel like you’re phoning it in and they’re just another prospect, they’re probably not going to respond.
Spending the afternoon in the Castries Central Market was a delightful experience. I packed my return bags with musical instruments, a colorful doll, coconut carved beads, and rich multicolored spices – all of which I was happy to negotiate and purchase from the savviest of vendors. These vendors carried most all the same things at the same prices as everyone else but knew how to engage their buyers in a way that made them stand out from their dozens of competitors.
I’m sure you can list the 37 ways your business, your products, or your services are better, superior, or different than your competitors. But if your customers don’t see and feel those differences quickly you’re lumped into the same boat as all their other options.
Take this simple overarching lesson from this experience shopping and observing in the island markets:
Yes, your customers assume you sell the same stuff as everyone else – so don’t act like everyone else and you’ll see different results!
Until next time, stop hoping, start SELLING!