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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Working through local market rules
Yesterday morning, I flew to Toronto, picked up a rental car, and spent a couple of days visiting developers, association executives, and building product manufacturers to gather materials for our upcoming editions.
These trips are always useful for insights. One of the most interesting observations occurred at the head office of a successful building products manufacturer and distributor. (As my interviews were conducted for an advertising feature, and the company has not cleared these observations for publication, I will not identify the business or specific product.) The company has innovated and patented a product with a special feature that truly reduces costs.
A good idea, indeed. But the company, which has a large share of the market in the Greater Toronto Area, hasn't sold much if any of its innovative product in Ottawa (just five hours away by car), even though it owns a successful related distributor and manufacturing facility in the second Ontario city.
Why can this product, then, sell so well in Toronto, but not Ottawa, I asked. It turns that in the Ottawa market, larger sizes of this product are in common use. These are uneconomical to ship from Toronto -- and in the price-sensitive market, where just a few cents makes all the difference, the transport costs are great enough that the manufactured product in Toronto won't sell well in Ottawa. Why not manufacture a similar product in Ottawa? (The company has a manufacturing facility in Ottawa.) Turns out the production runs wouldn't be economical in the smaller market.
Why does Ottawa use the larger product sizes than Toronto? In the normal market conditions, the larger product sizes can be less expensive, special patented feature or not, and in Ottawa, houses are generally built to order, with enough room nearby to store the larger pieces, while in Toronto, the subdivisions are built as a single block, and space on the work sites is small -- thus precluding the use of the larger sizes.
There are other issues, including the work habits and procedures of local tradespeople.
Why was I asking all these questions? I wanted to know why something both innovative and effective and truly well-liked by users (lots of repeat business) could sell so well in one market, and not in another, close relatively geographically and economically. And the answers I received reminded me that the construction industry, despite globalization, standard practices, and common values and traditions, is still in many ways very much a local and regional business.
So, if you wish to expand outside your 'home' market, be careful, research carefully, and don't bet your business on the expansion (but don't necessarily give up -- you may just blow the local competition away with better practices, more efficient processes and lower costs.)

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