Business lesson: Go where the people are

[In business] you shouldn’t swim upstream. Don’t try to change people’s behavior. Go to where your customers are. – Ramit

Like Ramit, I learned this lesson the hard way. Growing up in a small town, I always wished there was a small, local shop I could visit to buy clothing, skateboards, and snowboard equipment.

The Real DealAfter graduating from university, I decided to make it happen. Together with two partners, we launched The Real Deal: a local skateboard shop in a small town. Our mantra was: “You don’t need to go to the city to shop, you can shop local!”

And our shop was awesome. We really cared about our customers. We had a well designed store interior. We stocked the best brands.

Here’s the problem: our customers, skateboarders, were already used to driving to the city. They would make a day of it on Saturday or Sunday. With a whole day of shopping, they could visit multiple shops, with a bigger selection than we could ever have. Our customers weren’t shopping local.

Once we discovered this, we tried to change their behavior. We launched “shop local” campaigns, we developed relationships, and we offered competitive pricing. We also sponsored local athletes, put on shows, and even launched our own magazine. But none of that mattered, because local consumers liked going into the big city for shopping.

Don’t ever lose track of the idea that a business needs to make money. In retail, that means lots and lots of traffic. If there’s no traffic at your proposed location, in doesn’t matter how awesome your shop is or how good your idea is, it’s not going to fly. This applies to other businesses as well: you can’t change the way an entire market operates.

Don’t go into business because of a particular ideal (ie. “shopping local is better”).  Instead, identify a group of people who need a particular product or service… and then go where they are.  Once you’re there, you need to test out your business.  I will discuss that in my next post.

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  1. Yep, exactly. It’s possible to change people’s habits, but it takes either A) a really long time, or B) a product or service that’s so revolutionary that people decide they need it even though they never needed it before.

    I see businesses forget this all the time: have you ever noticed that there are restaurant dead zones? In every town I’ve ever lived in or visited, there’s always that one location that’s had 5 or 6 different restaurants, all of which ended up going out of business. But every time, someone else swoops in and thinks, “I’ll make it work here!”

    Good post, Justin.

  2. Hey Justin,
    Sorry to hear that things didn’t work out but it sounds like you guys did everything possible to make it happen. I’m from a small town and the same thing happened with us. Small boutiques would open up and years later be closed. The problem is that people want variety. That’s why online shopping has taken off. Look at websites like They came out of nowhere and are now one of the largest retailers in the world.

    When I shop I compare prices and specs of everything online and then make the choice to where I want to buy from. Sometimes it helps to have that relationship but often it comes down to the money left over in your jeans.

  3. Spot on. Changing customer / market behavior only works if there is a drastic, distinct and immediate benefit and a wow factor that makes people talk about the experience. The iPod is a good example, there were lot’s of mobile mp3 players before but non of them could provide a complete experience of ease of use with the device and software and an integrated music store as well as the option to get your existing CDs onto the device in a straight forward way. The stylish design and coolness factors of Apple’s marketing helped as well.

    However, this took careful planning, great engineering (= big $), clever marketing (even bigger $$) and was still a leap of faith for Apple at the time (they were far from being sure that it would work).

    So unless you are an already well established ‘super brand’ with a healthy chequebook at hand, go with Justin’s advice and go where the customers are and adapt to their behavior – trying to change the world leads to changing your quality of life (by loosing a lot of $$) more often then not.

    Only if you can’t help but try anyways – against all the odds – then go for it and never look back 😉

    On a side note, I actually disagree with Jackie’s comment above for the most part. With today’s state of customer service that we find in retail (especially in Alberta) it makes me cringe every time I have to go to a real-world store to get something. From the big chains like Canadian Tire (teenage customer service rep that doesn’t know the answer to the most simple questions i.e. where do I find cleaning supplies and self-serve checkout counters with no-one is sight when the whole thing crashes on you) to the mom and pop shop that appears to have never heard the word customer service in their entire live before…. you get everything.

    My trusted online stores on the other hand usually carry the largest selection of merchandise, provide a consistent customer experience and are very tolerant with returns and exchanges …. the only downside is the Canadian disadvantage with increased shipping cost and hassle and cost with customs when ordering form the states.

    Too bad I am such an impulse buyer and often cant wait for online orders to arrive 😉

  4. Justin – great article. It’s why mall retail space is so expensive.

    I find I am buying more and more on Amazon etc. I can’t believe how much Christmas shopping I did that way last year. The on line shopping thing is a different way of going where the customers are – they’re on line.

  5. Bob,

    Exactly: and there’s no use fighting that. I was trying to fight a philosophical battle, using real world economics; it doesn’t work.

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