Be the Best in YOUR World by Making the Rules

What are you good at?

I went to Home Depot last week to return the toilet guts I had bought nine months earlier that had stopped working. Turns out they knew what they were selling didn’t work locally but that didn’t stop them. It’s really hard to be the best nationally and locally. As a local business owner, you’ve got an unfair advantage.

I was more frustrated with myself than with Home Depot because I’d replaced the guts to four different toilets in our house every 12-18 months for the last 15 years without thinking about the five year warranty. I talked to the manager and asked why the innards were failing so often and he replied, “The water is really hard in Highlands Ranch and makes the plastic parts brittle.”

I asked why, if they knew all this time that the parts don’t work in Highlands Ranch, that they were still selling them. He replied “The buying decisions are all made in our headquarters in Atlanta.” We then went back to the plumbing parts department and he asked the plumbing expert if he knew if they had anything that resisted the hard water problems here (the store is in Highlands Ranch), and his short answer was “No”.

Apparently it’s widely and long held knowledge among local Home Depot staff that the parts they sell don’t work in our town, but since the buying decisions are made in Atlanta, it doesn’t dawn on them to look for a local solution, or at least post a sign that says “these are great parts but not here.”

A locally owned store has an unfair advantage over big box stores. While the manager of the big box may live locally and care deeply, he or she can’t often customize their offering to meet the unique needs of a local community.

Big box stores win when you play by their rules, so don’t do that. What are you good at that they can’t begin to replicate? Walmart may have low prices but have you ever tried to find someone to help you find the right tool or ask about which bicycle to buy? If you offer great and knowledgeable service, it’s a rule they can’t play by – it would cost too much for their low price rule. They can’t play by your rule – you win.

What are you really good at that the big box stores can’t touch? While they do some things well, what are the things that they just can’t do? Low prices usually mean lower service. Centralized national buying usually means parts that are good for everyone and not great for your particular town. I know a lot of local owners who are killing it by simply refusing to play by the big box store’s rules.

He who makes the rules wins.

Make some rules they can’t touch. You don’t have to be the best in the world to compete with the big box stores. Being local puts you in the best position to be the best in YOUR world, and when somebody wants a toilet part, that’s the only world that matters.


In July of last year, Home Depot gave me the guts to the toilet. Those guts failed this week – eleven months later. The kit has a five-year warranty.

I took the failed kit back to Home Depot, explained to the manager that I had been given this free by the previous manager, so I didn’t have a receipt. He wouldn’t replace the failed kit without a receipt and told me to contact the manufacturer.

Since I have to buy a new kit, I’ll be doing so from a locally owned plumbing supply store, and will go out of my way to avoid Home Depot in the coming years for all other purchases.

I’m pretty sure a local business owner would have had a different response. Don’t you?

I’m also pretty sure I’ll be telling this customer service story worldwide in my keynotes and workshops for years to come. It’s a great example of why you should buy locally.