Share this article

Commerce blog | Marketing

Novel Business-Building Advice

Lessons learned from a most unlikely source

As a novel, The Tea Rose isn't very good. The writing is pedestrian, the protagonist is the very definition of a Mary Sue, and the abundance of coincidences would have made even Charles Dickens roll his eyes.


As a guide for anyone in the business of selling products, though, The Tea Rose is surprisingly insightful. Fiona, the impossibly beautiful, intelligent, gutsy, charming, and lucky heroine, wants to own her own teashop. Her childhood sweetheart, the impossibly handsome, intelligent, gutsy, charming, and marginally less lucky Joe, wants his own fruit-and-veg business. And while they suffer a few setbacks along the way (that Jack the Ripper was a real meanie), they get much more than they dreamed of, due in part to some savvy marketing, merchandising, and management decisions.


Among the lessons imparted:



When seeking improvements and efficiencies, be sure to ask the hands-on employees for input.

While still working for an evil tea importer as a packer, Fiona suggests a way the company can produce more packages without adding workers. People who perform tasks generally have great insight into how to improve the process—yet it's scary how many managers fail to ask for or listen to their suggestions.



Use service as a point of differentiation.

When Fiona reopens her uncle's shuttered grocery store, she can't afford to engage in a price war. But she is able to offer free delivery, courtesy of her younger brother (who needs child-labour laws, eh?). Today's time-pressed consumers prize convenience even more highly than 19th-century shoppers did, and many are willing to pay a bit extra for it. (We recently bought a mattress from a local store rather than online, even though it cost a bit more, because the delivery team offered to away our old mattress, saving us from having to figure out how to get rid of it ourselves.) For bricks-and-mortar retailers in particular, services such as delivery, installation, and repairs provide an edge over online-only sellers. And for multichannel merchants, options such online ordering with in-store pickup work well. Even just sending good customers handwritten thank-you notes or birthday cards can serve as a unique marketing proposition.



Appearances count.

A fresh coat of paint, new curtains, and an inviting window display in which the groceries are beautifully propped rather than crowded together help draw passersby into Fiona's store—as does the smell of freshly baked goodies. Making sure your store, catalogue, and website look their best would seem to be common sense... but haven't we all been in stores where dust coats the top of boxes on the highest shelves and visited websites where links no longer work? Back when I worked at McDonald's, one of the training films included the mantra "If you've got time to lean, you've got time to clean." I was hardly an exemplary employee (I was known for service with a snarl), but damn if my grill and counter areas didn't sparkling. If this snarky teenager could take the message to heart, so can you and your team.



Make your customers feel like insiders.

Let me quote from the book:


"'It's an excellent tea, Mrs. Owens. It's T-G-F-O-P,' she said with a meaningful nod. 'Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe.' She'd seen Joe do that. Drop some rarefied term into the conversation. It implied a shared, superior understanding of the product, made a customer feel in the know."


A skillful copywriter knows how to craft a product description rich in information that not only distinguishes the item but also lets the shopper feel smart for choosing such a clearly superior product. Shelf talkers in stores can do the same, as can properly trained floor staff.



Offer exclusive merchandise whenever possible.

Working with the grocery store's tea supplier, Fiona creates a custom blend that is (of course) far better than the standard blends. Just as important, her store is the only one that carries it. Exclusivity is a retailer's best weapon in the competitive wars. Even if you can boast of being the only seller of a particular colourway or bundle in a certain region, you've got a unique selling proposition.



Go to where your target market is.

According to The Tea Rose, Yanks aren't especially fussy about their tea. British and Irish immigrants, on the other hand, apparently seek a good cuppa as soon as they make their way through immigration. So Fiona hires folks to wear sandwich boards outside Ellis Island and greet the emerging newcomers to New York with samples of her branded brew, which tastes like the tea back home and is available only from her shop. In other words, don't wait for your market to find you—go out and find it.



Study the markets you're not succeeding in, then adapt to their needs accordingly.

Fiona invents the tea bag (sorry, Thomas Sullivan) because she realises that younger tea-drinkers won't fuss with leaves and teapots when all they want is a single quick cup. She also invents iced tea (sorry, Richard Blechynden) when she realises that people in the steamy Southern states prefer cold drinks over hot ones. If you notice that you can't unload larger sofas, say, or sleeveless dresses, maybe it's because a significant portion of your audience lives in small homes or belongs to a religion or culture that frowns on skimpy clothing. Once you figure out why certain items or categories aren't selling, you can modify your merchandise mix to offer additional items (smaller-scale furniture, more-modest apparel) that address your market's particular needs.



Be nice to everybody.

You never know when that man struggling with his luggage is going to be a millionaire with extra space in his first-class transatlantic suite, or when your next-door neighbours might be a genius advertising team, or when that gentleman at the bank is actually yet another millionaire who will force the bank to give you a loan... (Yes, it's that kind of book.)


author: Sherry Chiger

Sherry Chiger

The editorial director of Your Commerce, Sherry Chiger is an award-winning writer and editor. She was formerly editorial director of Multichannel Merchant and Catalogue e-business magazines.


Share this article

Commerce blog

A selection of catalogue covers

Direct Marketing

Cover Stories