A market in Moshi, Tanzania

It was a clear, hot morning in Moshi, Tanzania when my daughters and I walked through the market.  The warm breeze was blowing the brightly coloured Masai blankets like so many waving flags. Rows upon rows of vendors were showing their wares waiting for the few tourists to walk by and notice.  I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of sympathy looking at it all – rows and rows of stalls all selling much the same thing.

I stopped at one stall where a serious looking man stood with his young son and picked out several salad spoons sets and a small statue for my family back home.  I had seen similar spoons and statues in almost every shop.  The store at the park gate was selling them for about $6 to $10 each.

“How much?”  I asked with a smile, mentally tallying about a hundred dollars worth of goods.

“Six hundred dollars” he replied quite seriously.

I gasped.  “Are you joking with me?” I asked.  Wondering if this was Tanzanian humour.  I looked over to my guide for help.

“A lot of work goes into the things” the guide said.  “You should pay that.”

“Are they somehow different that the spoons we see in other shops?”  I asked.

“No” the guide said.  “But he worked hard on these things.  You should pay him for his work.”

The interaction stuck with me in a powerful painful way.  I went back to my hotel and tore up my speaker notes I had been planning to present at the Umoja Vocational Centre later that day.  How could I teach word of mouth marketing when business owners were evidently missing the basics of supply and demand, or, more specifically, that over-supply drives down price.

When I walked up to present at the Umoja Centre, the faces in the room were eager and expectant.  Having a business expert from North America speak to them was a big deal.  On the board I wrote in bold letters the Keith Cunningham quote:

“A business owner is someone who solves a problem.

The bigger the problem, the bigger the profit”.

A hush fell over the room and the students stared.  Then as a unit they started scribbling madly in their notes.  This was not a concept to be forgotten.

The next hour turned into a group discussion on supply and demand, asking the students to come up with examples of where over-supply in the local markets could be driving prices down.  Faces were lighting up like light bulbs all over the room.

It’s easy to look at this situation with empathy.  But ask yourself this.  Are you selling the same spoons as everyone else?   The irony is, surf the Internet and you will see hundreds of websites all saying and selling the same thing.  When everyone is the same or “Vanilla” as Cidnee Stephen would call it, the only factor that consumers based their decision on is price.

Today’s tip? – look at your services offerings and take stock of what makes you different from everyone else?   Stop being a spoon seller and solve a bigger more unique problem.