Shopping for Ideas — How to learn from similar businesses


Would it surprise you to learn that most major retail operations have entire departments within their company whose main purpose is to “spy” on the competition? It’s true.

It brings a few thoughts immediately to mind:

  • There must be some value in doing this. It must add to the bottom line.
  • I’m happy to be online where visiting similar businesses is just a click away.
  • No wonder unique new ideas are so rare… they just copy each other.

As you can see, the last idea is a little bit contradictory to the first. Here’s another contradiction for you: the idea of similar businesses being called competition is wrong for creative online businesses. They are just similar. They aren’t you, and nobody has to lose for you to win. There is no competition. (read more)

So no further use of the word “competition” on this blog.

However, there is so much to be learned by watching what others do! Especially when those others are experienced and have paid the high price of learning the hard way. To not go out there and take a close look would be really kind of foolish.

How to learn from similar businesses

Reaching back to the comparison with a “real world” retailer, imagine yourself as the person assigned to “shop” the store down the block. You head over there, pull into the parking lot, and do your thing.

The key to doing your thing well is in being very, very, very observant. Every input your five senses receive can teach you something from the moment you approach the property.

We talked the other day about finding out who your customers are by looking at the customers who buy from similar businesses. But that’s not all you see when you visit.

  • How are the products arranged and presented?
  • Is the feel of the store more discount or more luxurious and high-end?
  • What is the apparent quality of the products?
  • How does the pricing compare to the quality?
  • Does staff welcome you?
  • Are you drawn in, or do you feel the urge to leave?
  • Is the store bright, or darkened for mood?

You also see who’s buying.

  • Who are the customers?
  • What do they wear?
  • How old are they?
  • Are they predominantly male or female?
  • Observe how they interact with the store and the products.
  • Observe everything you can about them.

Are you still with me? I’m giving you the keys to the kingdom here. I know you can daydream about shopping. Do it! I know you might not see the correlation between a real store and an Etsy shop, but trust me, there is one and it’s not tiny.

Imagine the job of shopping a real world store, or even go out and give it a try if you’re serious enough about this. Then you can bring that experience online.

Then when you visit similar shops to your own, you’ll know what to look for.

When you find an area that you see in the real world, but not online, such as “Does the staff welcome you?”; ask yourself this:

“How can I?”

“How can I make it feel like someone is welcoming people to my shop?” You’re creative, you’ll figure out something awesome.

Learn about your target market, but don’t stop there.

The genesis of this post was a discussion on identifying your target market. The great news is that you can learn much more while you’re out looking around.

Find and visit similar Etsy sellers. Read similar blogs. Pay attention to items similar to yours in regular stores while you’re out.

The whole-entire-time let your brain be a sponge for information. Absorb everything you can about what you like, what you don’t, and why.

Then, when you put your own unique and personal creativity into it and put it all together, you’ll end up with something far greater than you ever would have imagined!

Go for it! Pretty soon, you’ll be the success story and new sellers will be shopping you for ideas!


  1. says

    Tim, once again you have taken a subject that has been confusing to me, and made it clear, understandable, and most of all DO-able! Thank you!!

    • Tim Layton says

      I aims to please! It IS DO-able! That’s why I mentioned “the keys to the kingdom”. It really doesn’t require any kind of particular genius. Whatever kind of genius you have is the right kind for your business. What it requires is a little faith, a little trust, a little effort, and a little patience. (or a lot …)

      Thanks for your thoughts on this.


  2. says

    Wise words and a balanced approach for sure! What I love about being on an Etsy team is that we not only have the opportunity to learn from each other, but the focus is more on how we can promote our team as a whole, instead of competing with one another. Much less cutthroat that the ‘corporate world’. More my style for sure! Thank you for this insightful article. Micki – a leader of the Vancouver Island Etsy Team

  3. says

    Wish we could have our shops critiqued, using your guidelines. Know it is not possible , since there are
    so many. I am a well-seasoned shopper, but not a well-seasoned seller. Started on Etsy in Nov. 2010.

    Think I may end my short career in Nov. 2012, if not sooner.

    I have tried very hard to make my shop as friendly and appealing as possible.
    Friends and family have critiqued my items, and said they look even better in person.

    I am not an average Etsian, since I am quite a bit older than most. I try to capture youthful ideas,
    in my products and to offer as much versatility in my jewelry as possible.

    I find your suggestions very useful, but I think I have already incorporated most of these ides in my shop.

    I have to sell online, as I am no longer young enough to “pound the pavement” and take care of
    my home, as well. I have no one to help me with my business, it is all me. It wears me down.

    I was recently wondering if I should just consider this a “hobby” and not a “business. I feel guilty selling
    as a “hobbyist”. Is it possible to do so on Etsy? At least until I have enough commerce to warrant a license and all that goes with it?

    I hate leaving Etsy, because I have done so much work, to set up and maintain my shop. It seems a shame.

    I would appreciate any feedback you could send me. I am way beyond being “hurt” by criticism, especially that which is as helpful as that from Etsy.

    All the Best tol “Etsypreneurs”


    • says

      I hear you Judith. I place myself in the hobbyist category. I do what I do because I enjoy it and want others to enjoy it as well. I want to grow into a business and I am learning the ins-and-outs of that. I have been going outside of Etsy to help me learn more. I still do all the Etsy “stuff”; I have made treasuries, favorite many items and shops, joined several teams and commented in them etc. I believe that only helps us to a point because we are all Etsyians with that goal of growing a business. Etsyprenuer and Everything Etsy have given some great advise and helped me expand out into the web. I am still working on all of that, it is a lot of work, but I am learning so much.
      Best to you, Tammy

  4. says

    Great post, Tim! I think a lot of sellers (online or off) don’t take the time to be customers (real or pretend) and thus never see things from their customers’ perspective. Thus, “shopping” at others’ stores is a great idea… and don’t you think that “shopping” at your own store would be a great idea, too?

  5. says

    Thanks for posting this article. I don’t often come up with something original, I tend to take an idea and make it my own. My fashion design teacher told me that if I went into fashion design, I would end up as a seamstress for someone else because I was a bread-and-butter designer. At first I was a little hurt by that and then I realized that I just enjoy sewing and I can do with it what I choose. Needless to say, I went back and pursued my education degree and love every minute I am teaching kids. In this realm, we often say to each other, ‘don’t reinvent the wheel, just make it your own! Hey, I love that idea. Life is all about learning from those who came before us and improving upon it or making it unique to us.

  6. says

    Hi Tim,

    I have just heard about you and am very impressed with what I have been reading. My mother, sister and I are all about to have our own website, We each do so many different things, it would take too long to describe in this reply.
    Anyway, I have a BS in Business with emphasis in Marketing and even Statistics. Just too stagnet – need to release those creative juices, ya know? The reason I tell you this is because I graduated long ago in the early 90’s and obviously what we have available (computers,etc.) now – was unheard of then! Your article reminded me of all the things that go into marketing, learning who our target audiences are, focus groups and so on. I do shop around to see lots of others’ creative ideas with journals of sketches and tons of pics just waiting for me to get to “one of these days.” In closing, thanks for your logical and concise writing, excellent ideas, and for just “getting it!” I’m impressed.