Small Local Companies Versus Mainland-Based Giants

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As a student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Tom Park had worked in a high-end shoe store, cultivating a passion for the products. He knew he wanted to open his own shop but had to figure out a way to differentiate it from the more established department stores and specialty retailers.

He decided to be different. Very different.

Instead of carrying the usual brands of men’s footwear, he focused on specialty and exclusive lines in an intimate setting that made customers feel comfortable and important.

“My goal was always to create a classy, comfortable place for men to shop for shoes,” says Park, who owns Leather Soul, a specialty shoe store for men, with locations in Waikiki and Beverly Hills, Calif. “Our product mix is curated and unique.”

The boutique carries some of the best brands from around the world, including exclusive models available only at Leather Soul. It’s even the exclusive retailer of three U.S. brands, making it a destination for men who are particular about their footwear.

Keeping his business fairly small – 10 employees and two locations with a third expected to open by the end of the year – has had its benefits, too. It’s given him more control over his business.

"Don’t try to compete. try to innovate and improve."
- Tom Park, Leather Soul
Photo: David Croxford

“I’m able to move on a dime, versus dealing with corporate politics and structure to get something done,” Park says. “I can make quick changes and improvements immediately.”

Like Park, Jarvis knows and understands his competition, but he doesn’t focus on it. The focus, instead, is on customers and what they need and want. That shift in attention and effort has helped Mobi PCS become, despite its size, a bonafide player in Hawaii’s wireless industry.

“We knew we could never play the game by imitating our competition,” Jarvis says. “We wanted to be a disruption. It was an opportunity to do something different. And better.”

• Be different:

That’s the mantra for many local businesses, including Leather Soul, a retailer of exclusive men’s footwear and accessories in Waikiki. “We offer better service, genuine relationships, more product offerings, exclusive models and a blog-based website,” says owner Tom Park. “Don’t try to compete. Try to innovate and improve.”

• Know yourcompetition:

This holds true for any business: Knowing your rivals is a way to better position yourself in the marketplace. What do they offer? What’s their service like? What are their prices? When you figure that out, you can try to do things better. “We looked for the flaws in their business models and we positioned against them to compete,” says Bill Jarvis, president of Mobi PCS, a Hawaii-based wireless telephone company. “We differentiated ourselves from them and found out what the customers wanted, and that’s what we gave them.”

• Use word of mouth:

Small local businesses often can’t compete with the big advertising budgets of their mainland counterparts. But there’s a benefit to doing business in Hawaii: the power of word-of-mouth marketing. “This is so much a part of Hawaii’s culture, more than anywhere else,” says Bill Jarvis, president and COO of Mobi PCS. “We saw it as a really good opportunity and took advantage of that.”

• Reward loyalty:

One of the reasons City Mill and Title Guaranty have lasted despite mainland competition is the loyalty of local customers. “What makes it fun is I’m getting calls from clients that my grandfather serviced,” says Michael Pietsch, VP of operations at Title Guaranty. For its 115th anniversary, the company gave out Scott Hawaii slippers to its staff and clients. City Mill offers a reward program for its employees.

• Focus on service:

The 10 employees at Leather Soul aren’t typical salespeople. They remember your name, your last order and your taste in shoes. That has set the boutique apart from big department stores and has contributed to its growing customer base. “We strive to make long-term relationships with our customers and offer the best and most comfortable customer service,” Park says. 

• Stay local:

Know your customers and give them what they want. That includes stocking the right products and following local customs. “Local people are ferociously loyal to the businesses they like,” says real estate expert and consultant Stephany Sofos. “And City Mill, like Foodland and Longs Drugs, has a big, loyal group. And they’ve been able to compete by keeping it local. They know what their customers like and need.”

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