My parents owned a photography store in the small East Flemish town of Maldegem. Photo Video Van Belleghem had a solid reputation. My father took over the business from his father. For a few decades, the store was synonymous with good quality and friendly service until I broke the chain. I didn’t take over the family business – much to my parents’ delight by the way. After all, they had ringside seats as digitization claimed its first victim.
In the mid-80s – and certainly in a provincial town like Maldegem – parents traditionally called in a professional photographer to immortalize their son’s or daughter’s first communion. People would line up to get that perfect picture taken but by the mid-90s, the long queues had dwindled to the odd passer-by. Digital photography completely uprooted the sector. Almost overnight, the introduction of digital cameras improved the quality dramatically and made cameras affordable. The competition in this story didn’t come from a fellow photographer or a low-cost competitor but rather from consumers themselves. All of a sudden, mom or dad or uncle Tony could make their own high-quality pictures. Making your own pictures also added a degree of authenticity and pride. No one was expecting the customer to become a competitor.
Today, the process is repeating itself in the catering industry. A caterer’s biggest competitor is not the catering business that sets up shop nearby but the amateur chef at home. Serving catered food used to bring prestige but today it is a sign of culinary inadequacy. More and more industries are facing stiff competition from their own customers. The travel industry (with AirBnB), the clothes industry (eBay) and the media (YouTube) are just a few examples.
Competing with the consumer’s hobby is extremely difficult. Resistance is not the answer. The travel industry is trying to fight AirBnB in court but even if they are successful in the short term, stopping the consumer is all but impossible in the long run. The proper reflex is looking for ways of creating your own added value in this new world. Maybe you can make things easier for consumers by helping them with their hobby. Or perhaps you could start an alternative business to surf the new trend. When the dam bursts, all you can do is adapt to the new reality dictated by the competitor-consumer.
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