Article: Bob McElwain

The Small Business Library

February 9, 2001

Define A Niche, Then Conquer!

Looking for a quality baseball cap? Hey, it's easy. Check out the material and workmanship. Grab a color you like, and maybe a team logo. You don't even have to try it on! Thanks to the little strap in the back, one size fits all. A marketer's dream.

You can still buy baseball caps that are sized. But they cost a good deal more and you have to buy in quantity. That little strap put a lot of cap manufactures flat out of business.

Declining Options

You see this happening across the spectrum of manufactured products.

There is need now and then for me to spend serious time in the kitchen. Which includes washing dishes. I found a great sponge some years back. Dark green on one side with a roughness to it that really does a number on a pot or frying pan. The other side is yellow, a more typical kind of manufactured sponge. Softer and thicker, it's great for polishing off the heavy scrub. Each lasts about a month, longer if you don't mind some frayed edges.

The last batch I bought looked identical to what I had been getting. But they don't last but about a week. And they do not do nearly as good a job, which means more work. No doubt I paid less, but in the long run, the cheaper version may cost me more. Yet they will likely put the original manufacturer out of business.

Will People Pay For Quality?

My answer is a resounding, "Yes!" If I can find the original sponge mentioned above, I will buy it without even a glance at the price. It's a tool that simplifies a task. When it comes to tools, I want the best, for they last longer and make the job easier all the while. A lot of people feel the same way.

Quality tools of any kind can become the basis of a profitable niche market. Sized baseball caps sell only on style and comfort. Thus this is not as good a starting point. There are not nearly as many people willing to pay twice the going rate for comfort as there are who will do so for quality tools.

A Difficult Task

Defining a niche is tough to do. But those who intend to succeed on the Web into the future, must find and conquer one. They must become the dominant name within it. They must provide great content that demonstrates expertise, over-deliver with quality products, and provide extremely high levels of support to all.

The best approach I've read for finding a niche was written by Ken Evoy. I put together a digest of these notes. You can read it at:

But Where Do I Start?

The article above helps in this. But here's another approach.

Throughout the offline world, independent merchants have been forced to join hands with large suppliers to the extent many are not free to stock in areas which conflict with the wishes of the suppliers. This may be most obvious in your local hardware store. Most of the stock comes through Ace Hardware or True Value Hardware.

When the owner of the store you favor says, "We can't get those any more," he usually means the supplier no longer handles the item. And because of agreements, he is not free to go elsewhere for it. More than likely, the supplier has replaced what you want with a less expensive product that may or may not measure up to its predecessor in performance.

Quality Is Available

The drill bits available in your local store are not very expensive. But they are not great tools. Those who use bits regularly as a part of their work, may pay twice as much as you will pay. But the bits they buy will outperform and outlast their less expensive cousins many, many times over.

Hardware Stores And Niche Marketing

Tools are a major item in a hardware store. But the store's target is Mr. and Mrs. Average Consumer. Most do not need great quality and would not pay the greater price even if the better item was available. But some would. Therein lies the key.

While your local hardware store may find it unprofitable to stock professional tools, may even be prevented by contracts from doing so, many customers would like the option to buy better quality.

The Web makes it possible to profitably offer only the best. The few who would buy top of the line in a given shop if it were available are collectively a target of considerable size.

Starting Small

Several years back I discovered bricks of fire starter cubes. Just touch a match to one, and you can ignite a pretty good sized chunk of firewood, provided it is split. Joy! No more kindling. No more nursing things along. No frustrating restarts. Just stack it, add a cube, and touch it with a lighted match.

About eight years back, the hardware store changed brands. (Translate: Supplier changed brands.) They look the same. Cost the same. But it usually takes several matches. (And scorched fingers!) Further, it often takes several cubes.

Make Money Starting Fires?

I can almost hear what you are saying. "Stuff and nonsense," would be one of the kindlier remarks. But a successful Web business can be built upon just such a simple tool.

If you live in a city, a fire in the evening is likely not a necessity, only something that adds ambiance to other activity. For those who live with the first snowfall of winter lying about them until spring, a fire is often much more than a luxury. Most everyone who lives in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas as I do uses a wood stove throughout the winter. Many have no other source of heat.

Okay, so there are a lot of people who start wood fires. But fire starter cubes? Get serious! Where's the buck in this?

Have You Got What I Want?

If you can provide good fire starter cubes, the kind I have not been able to find locally for many years, I will visit your site once each year as a minimum. Think of the accessories you can offer me when I do.

    Wood boxes. All sorts of items in which wood can be stored.

    Moving wood is a pain. An effective dolly or cart would be a great help. Something that moves easily over icy snow will be in great demand in some places.

    Few would buy a stove from you for most need the support of installation. So turn this to your advantage. Let your expertise regarding stoves become the central core of your site. The differences between stoves are enormous. And defining a best choice according to needs is extremely difficult.

    Along the path to expertise there are many helpful resources. Company sales presentations and specifications are a good beginning point. Write a good article about a particular stove, then call the company and ask for someone to read it before you publish. Most will jump at the opportunity. And you will discover details of importance overlooked or not available earlier. You may even take this first contact into a drop shipment arrangement for an occasional sale. Do it right, and advertising revenue can be generated.

    But getting back to other products you can offer, add the best wax for a tiled hearth. Brick bracer. And all it takes to keep a stove looking great. And something to deal effectively with those bugs that sneak in with the wood.

    Then there are teapots to be perched on top of the stove, to add a bit of welcome humidity. Tools to clear the ashes within the stove. Then there's chimney cleaning gear.

    Even attractive pillows for the pup. which keeps the carpet clean. And something for the cat as well, though I've no idea what.

Wrapping Up

While the above notion has merit, it is flawed in that it is seasonal. Were I to tackle this, I would probably search for another niche that was summer based, and work this through another site. Maybe barbecues and outdoor cooking.

Tools came to mind because I like good ones and they are not easy to find. Since lots of people feel the same way, this is a good starting point. Cook ware comes to mind.

Yes, I know the Web is loaded with cook ware shopping malls. But have you looked at the products? They are virtually all the same. There is not only an opportunity here to sell quality, but to sell specialty items. What's out there now kind of reminds me of baseball caps in a way. We hope you agree that a eight inch frying pan is as small as is needed.

Since I only fry a couple eggs at a time, I'd rather have a five inch pan. Show me one of quality and I'll pay your price.

Bob McElwain. Want to build a winning site? Improve one you already have? Fix one that's busted? Get ANSWERS. Subscribe to "STAT News" now! Web marketing and consulting since 1993 Site: Phone: 209-742-6783