The Basis of Competition; How Do We Sell More Stuff?

It’s funny how the fundamentals of business never change. Three years ago at the Surf Industry Conference in Cabo, I facilitated a panel of people from the skateboard industry because skate was going off and the surf guys thought skate was going to have them for lunch or something. Then skate sales plummeted though, happily, they are recovering now.

Many of us were around when snowboarding was going to take over the world. It didn’t.  And last week at the first ever and hopefully annual Snowboard Industry Conference at Laax, there was a great gnashing of teeth and ringing of hands over the fact that snowboarding didn’t seem to be growing and might even be declining.
Business cycles are immutable and inevitable. That’s especially true because of the way companies in an industry choose to compete with each other. They bring those cycles on themselves. This article will look at how we bring this death spiral of competition on ourselves, how we compete, and finally suggest a general approach (there’s no room to outline it in detail) that describes how an individual company might change that and sell more stuff.
This article had its genesis on the last evening of the Snowboard conference, when Tim Petrick of K2 was kind enough to buy a couple of bottles of just excellent red wine.  We were talking about the snowboard market’s perceived stagnation. In a BGO (blinding glimpse of the obvious) I spewed out something like “We got to do some things differently!”
Well, everybody was kind enough not to say, “What the **** does that mean?” Still, it seemed they were waiting patiently (and reasonably) for me to explain what I meant and perhaps even to say something useful. I tried. I really did. But my thoughts were unformed. An attempt to expand on the idea just sort of died and the conversation moved on.
Still, the initial impulse was right. We do need to do some things differently so that our sales and margins can increase.
The Death Spiral of Competition
We’ve done it to ourselves you know. Declining prices, over distribution, some say stagnant participation, high marketing expenses, and the commoditization of the product. Inevitably there’s some search for blame. But at the end of the day we can all point the finger at each other and we’d be right. Every company does what it perceives to be in its own best interest. Of course. Me too.
 We all do things to try and grow the market, but at the end of the day we find ourselves battling each other for scraps from the other company’s table in a market that isn’t growing that much. And even if we succeed what have we accomplished? Probably just pushed prices down further or increased marketing expense. We’re left with the same circumstances and maybe we’ve made it even a little tougher to succeed. There’s no “sustainable competitive advantage” from anything we do. All we can think to do to grow is expand distribution, open retail stores, diversify or acquire somebody (often just a form of diversification).
It’s no wonder that maybe a little of the optimism has gone out of snowboarding. This is a hard business we keep making harder by our competitive actions.
How We Compete
Here are the things we all do to one extent or another: They aren’t listed in any particular order.
·         Sponsor contests and events
·         Teams
·         Advertising
·         Give away product
·         Prices, terms and conditions
·         Strategic alliances
·         Graphics
·         Product features
·         Distribution
·         Trade shows
·         Films
Are any of us really doing any of these things much, much better than our competitors? I’d say no, though some have the resources to do more, which doesn’t necessarily mean better.
And those larger companies seem to be applying more and more of those resources to diversifying or expanding into the larger fashion/lifestyle business.
Our competitive environment is largely a zero sum game. What one gets, the other loses.
When we’re not busy diversifying to reduce our dependence on this hard industry, we’re focused like a laser on what the other companies are doing. To some extent we go to trade shows because they go and make sure our displays are comparable. We price according to their pricing. We run similar ads in the same magazines. We benchmark our product lines against theirs.
We’ve expanded distribution so much that we’re putting the specialty shops, which we all seem to believe are a bedrock of snowboarding, at risk. We’re eating our young. Is this any way to run an industry? You bet it’s not.
 Has anybody noticed that my entire diatribe here hasn’t even mentioned the snowboarder? Kind of odd isn’t it?
The Consumer
You remember them. The person who actually buys the product and, hopefully slides down the mountain? The one without whom we would all have to get real jobs? How can I possibly have written two thirds of an article on how we compete and not have even mentioned them? Doesn’t that bother anybody? It sure bothers me.
The goal here, as I understand it in my simple way, is to create more snowboarders who snowboard more often so that we can sell more stuff (thanks Tim). Sorry to be quite so mercantilist about it, but that’s what we all want to do I think. Otherwise we’ll be working in industries that have their trade shows and conferences in Kansas City. I’m quite sure I like Laax better.
I’m not quite sure I think going to trade shows where we all talk to each other helps us sell more. I get concerned when companies say they only sell product their team riders approve, because I don’t think team riders, or riders of that caliber, make up a very large percentage of the customers to whom we want to sell more. I know that making stuff cheaper in China because everybody else is and so we have to do it (which is true) doesn’t help us sell more. I hate it when we make it cheap and convenient for people to rent equipment, make no money on it, and excuse that by calling it marketing. And end up selling less.
How Do We Sell More?
The first thing I’d ask you to do is stop focusing quite so much on your competitors. They aren’t the ones you need to impress. I know that sounds risky. But on the other hand, what’s more risky than trying to compete in an industry that, if you believe the people at the conference, is stagnant to declining and where the process of competing is apparently making things worse, if you think my analysis has any validity.
Second, I want you to figure out who your consumer is and why they buy your product. You already know that? Great. But if you were to explain it to me and it involved reps opinions, anecdotal evidence, and a discussion of the kinds of stores where your product is sold, I might think you didn’t really know, or at least that you weren’t really sure.
Third, look very, very closely at how you compete. Start by creating a list of the ways the industry competes. Include on the list things that you do that others don’t, if any. Which of these are more or less important? How does the way your company competes in these areas differ, if at all, from your competitors?
This is not quite so obvious at it seems.   You would put team riders on the list I’m sure. But sponsoring team riders is something you do- not how you use them to compete. “Why are they important?” I might ask. “They influence kids purchase decisions,” you declare. “Prove it,” I say. “How exactly do they do that?”
“Everybody knows” can not be part of an acceptable answer.
The slicing and dicing would continue. Do they just influence kids? What do you mean by “kid” anyway? What are the things they do that create this influence? What makes them successful at it? How do you measure that? How many riders do you need?
As you can see, the list of how you compete evolves pretty dramatically over the process and become more focused. Some things will come and some go. General competitive ideas will be broken down into a number of more specific ones.
And so would your sense of what was actually important. And what was not. When you were finished, and if you did it right, your spending would have become much more efficient.
That is a good thing, and it might even help you sell more stuff, but it doesn’t get your out of your competitive space and mindset.
The process of evaluating your competitive strategy in detail and of being forced to question sacred assumptions generally leads to new ways to compete. It also tends to eliminate unproductive ones and put more focus on those that really work. It changes your company’s strategic profile.
There was package delivery before Fed Ex. There was ocean shipping before somebody thought of containers. There were winter sports before somebody decided one plank might be more fun than two.
Overnight package delivery, containers, and snowboarding kind of seem like common sense now, don’t they? But they didn’t to industries that were focused more on their competitors than their customers and potential customers.
Want to sell more? Take a hard look at your customers, what they want, and why they buy from you. Just for the moment, forget your competitors. If the process leads to a new market space your issues with competitors will take care of itself.