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It takes different folks to rule the world

There has been a very depressing debate over the past week in one of the comment threads on drapersblog.com. It centres on the issue of what independent retailers are doing to steady and even grow their businesses in the face of increased competition and increased rent and interest rates.

One retailer seems to have given up the ghost altogether, claiming that despite having a store that is loved by its customers, is well run and has embraced the etail opportunity (along with the "860,000" other retailers, apparently - I'm not sure there was any science behind that statistic), the return it makes is less than the owner would earn if she worked on the checkout at their local Tesco supermarket.

Another seemed more upbeat, saying her business has picked up since she ditched branded clothing, but that in order to generate sufficient profits the staff needed to work every hour God sends and then some.

Glimmers of hope were offered by other contributors, who urged the depressed retailers to keep the faith. One suggested: "Your reward is knowing you are a good and kind employer, that you trade in a moral way and that you have happy customers." Many of us, I'm sure, would take comfort in such reward. But it would be something of a cold comfort if, at the same time as feeling good about what we did, we weren't making enough money to pay the rent or, better still, invest in our business. And a bit of extra cash for the occasional holiday here and there wouldn't go amiss.

But how do you achieve that? If I knew the answer, it would be me, and not Mary Portas, fronting a successful TV series and securing a book deal.

However, one word that independents should always keep at the front of their minds is "differentiation". You'd be on a hiding to nothing if you tried to beat Marks & Spencer or Primark at their own game, so don't put yourself through the anguish of trying. This goes for all areas of industry, not just retail. There will always be the Davids and the Goliaths and the former can survive, thrive and even win by being more fleet of foot and wily than their adversaries.

Differentiation can take many forms, but one of the most obvious is to offer your customers products that they can't find anywhere else. On my way to work one day this week, I saw no less than five women wearing the same M&S pumps; at one point two of them were sitting next to each other on the tube.

There's no doubt that these shoes represented great quality and good value for money, but they certainly don't offer any form of exclusivity (M&S itself - that is, the pre-Stuart Rose M&S - quickly realised that its "exclusively for everyone" ad campaign of old was a bit of a nonsense).

All of this makes it so puzzling that we saw so few Brits attending the season's inaugural trade show, Pitti Uomo in Florence, last week. There were plenty of highly desirable menswear brands at the show that would help to set any independent apart from the pack and keep the customers coming back for more.

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