I just returned from a great adventure organized by an outfit called Backroads that consisted of hiking, biking, and rafting in Costa Rica (hence my absence from this blog). In the group of 20 there was a doctor who established the guidelines for screening prostrate cancer, a V.P. of Coldwater Creek, which has opened up hundreds of retail stores as the chain has expanded beyond catalog operations, and a founder of the retailer The Finish Line. Needless to say, I was every bit as curious about what these people had to say as I was about the Costa Rican rain forest interacting with the native wildlife. I was particularly interested in the viewpoints of David Klapper, one of the three founders of The Finish Line, an athletic apparel and shoe retailer with more than 700 stores and $1.2 billion dollars in sales. If anyone could offer some real world wisdom on Aquascape's distribution strategy, he could.

In 2007 we opened up our distribution model, going from 71 locations across the country to just shy of 500 today. One general theme drove this model shift … increased access points would mean increased exposure and thus lead to more installations of water features. How's it working one year later? So far, so good, as product sales increased and our end user, the contractor, had more convenient options from which to choose.

One large question still loomed, however. How would the distributors, who had little or no competition in our old model, fare in a new world where Aquascape product was much more available? Considering that The Finish Line has been around since the mid 70's -- David remembers hearing Phil Knight explain how to pronounce Nike -- and has seen its share of competition, I asked David what he thought of our model shift. His answer was as profound as it was simple: Every company has to find it's niche and in so doing become the best at it or risk anonymity or even non-existence. He talked about how The Finish Line had to do that as it jockeyed against national players that were more established (at the time) like The Athletes Foot and even smaller regional mom and pops who all had similar or the exact same product lines. Hmmm. Maybe athletic footwear and ponds ain't that different after all.

And I'd speculate that your business or industry probably isn't that different either. It's a universal truism that all businesses need to find their own niche and align their strengths around it. Aquascape's strength is in its products, training and education, marketing and brand. Our distributors' strengths run the gamut, and it's up to each and every one of them to figure out for themselves how they want to leverage those to service the customer. And the customer, after all, is the only one who truly matters in the end. As for our original distributors who chose to stay on ... so far so good! Almost every one increased sales in an open market, further validating that free market economies work. That is, provided you find your niche!