As in any competitive situation, the more you know about your opponents, the more successful you're likely to be – and this is just as true in the retail world as it is anywhere else. When you combine a careful analysis of your competitors with some honest self-awareness about your own business, you'll be able to apply their most successful techniques while avoiding the pitfalls that they have discovered along the way. Think of your competitors as part of your own research and development wing, although working for you unknowingly – but you must, of course, keep a close eye on them.
To start the monitoring process, gather all the information you can about your competitors and how they do business. Gather any print materials you can find, especially advertisements and reviews in the media. Additionally, the active online presence that most retailers now maintain can give you great insight into their operations, without letting them realize you're watching.
Begin with the homepage of their website, pretend that you're a potential customer, and ask yourself some basic questions. What appeals to you? What seems uninteresting? What do they offer that you would like to see on other retail websites? And, if you're investigating a number of competitors, what could separate your website from the pack? It may help to keep a list of notes, by this point.
Click deeper into the site, scanning product pages for pricing information, and any user reviews or comment feedback. Do their price points match your own? Is there anything that customers are asking for that you could implement in your own business? Expand your search to social media and other online websites that specialise in customer reviews to make sure you don't miss important info.
Don't forget the more technical aspects of their website, either. What keywords do they rank highly for in search engines? Who is linking to their website? Consider the possibility of approaching sites that have linked to them with a similar offer.
Now you've built of a basic profile of how their business works, their strengths and weaknesses, and how they structure their marketing campaigns, it's important to keep tabs on them in the future in order to maintain the competitive advantage that you're in the process of building with all this strategising. Google news alerts, RSS feeds, email newsletters and website change detection services can all help you to build an ongoing picture of their activities, giving you the chance to respond quickly to new possibilities.