Common-sense marketing for the man next door

Candice O'Sullivan
March 25, 2015

Marketing strategy

A new café has just opened up in my town. It had its ‘grand opening’ yesterday, yet I predict that it will take just four weeks before I see a ‘for lease’ sign in the window.

My husband – who has no business or marketing expertise – came to the same conclusion as we walked past it for the first time yesterday. So why will this café fail, and why is it so obvious to us, as consumers, but not to the already desperate owner hanging out the door trying to hail our custom?

Location is everything

One of the age-old rules of marketing is to sell your goods and services in a place that is convenient for people to access.

This particular café is located on a street with little passing foot traffic compared to the rest of town. To be successful in this kind of environment, your business must become a ‘destination venue’ that people actively seek out due to advertising or word of mouth. If you expect people to go out of their way to get to you, you are implying that your business offers something pretty special. Unfortunately, this one does not.

Now, technically speaking, this café is across the street from the town’s railway station. That’s a goldmine for a coffee shop, right? Not in this case. A commuter’s coffee will have gone cold by the time she has managed to cross the busy, four-lane highway out the front, walked through the park on the other side of the road and navigated the station to reach the platform.

What’s more, the railway’s bus stop, car park and drop-off zone are on the opposite side of the station, meaning that the café’s street is not a thoroughfare for commuters. So although these retail premises were probably sold as prime real estate ‘just across the road from the station’, the café is simply not convenient, especially when there is a reasonably good café on (yes, on!) the station platform.

It’s human nature to look, compare and contrast

This café sits next to a family-owned Greek cafe/bar that has been in business since 1961 and is consistently busy. After recent renovations, it is fitted out with modern furniture and fixtures but still has that warm, cosy, taverna feel.

Like the railway station, this should be a relatively good omen for a neighbouring business; you could reasonably expect to pick up any overflow in custom and maybe even snag some impulse trade from your neighbour’s reservation list – if, that is, both cafés exuded similar street appeal. In this case, there is clearly a disparity.

The incumbent café not only has a long heritage with local residents but also oozes ambience. This is a place that invites you in and, with its Greek theme and stone-baked pizzas, also provides a distinctive reason for people to visit. Businesses have come and gone along this retail strip over the years but this place has survived, refurbishing and modernising itself from time to time but always remaining true to its Greek heritage and family history.

In contrast, the new café has no obvious theme to cue me as to what it stands for.

Now, you might argue that a café shouldn’t have to stand for anything but good food and coffee, but there is nothing – in the way of street signage or menu choices – to signal this either. To me, a marketer, this place looks and feels amateurish. To my husband, a coffee lover, it looks like the home of cheap (a.k.a. bad) coffee. To both of us, it’s the kind of place you don’t even try once because you just know it’s going to be bad.

Unfortunately, for the business owner, it’s not just the Greek place next door that he faces competition from. A number of stylish, well fitted-out eateries with distinctive offerings (organic produce, single-origin coffee beans, etc.) have opened up in the main streets of town recently and are highly successful. They are excellent models of what this town now has a taste for and wants more of.

Yet even with these precedents staring him in the face, the new café’s owner has failed to observe the obvious. For that he will pay the price.

What’s most disappointing is that this is a country town calling out for more places like the Greek place next door, as it seeks to serve a growing population on an ever-expanding city fringe. With some well-conceived tweaks, the new café could play right into the hands of the town’s Melbourne-bred tree-changers. Even just a few small, simple changes – a selection of produce on the bare shelves, some second-hand furniture with a bit of character, an indication of the café’s approach to food or how it is different from every other café in town – would be a vast improvement and would help to do some of the selling for them.

Whatever business you’re in, the quality of your product is irrelevant if you can’t get people through the door.

By Candice O’Sullivan, Director and Head of Strategy at Wellmark.

Image credit: ‘Open Sign Board‘ by Mark Moz, courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons under a CC BY 2.0 attribution license.

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