In our “speed of light” markets, corporate or economic espionage is common, though in most places it’s illegal. On the other hand, keeping an eye on the competition is a great (and legal) way to discover what moves products and services, and which promotional practices don’t work.

So, how can you keep an eye on your competition across the street and across the globe? Here are some suggestions.

1. Subscribe to the local newspaper. Newspapers may be becoming irrelevant in the Internet Age, but the local press is still a great source for information on competitors operating in your service region. You probably won’t get much information on a competitor overseas from the local daily, but you’ll discover what competitors are doing nearby.

If you find a competitor who regularly takes a full-page, four-color advert in the local newspaper week after week, you’ve learned a valuable lesson: this print advertising works. If it didn’t work, the competitor wouldn’t spend the money on that big spread in the local paper.

2. Go to trade shows. Competitors go. You should, too. Stop by each booth and pick up brochures, sell sheets, and a free key chain. At trade shows, larger companies roll out new initiatives for the coming months and year. Take notes. Take pictures. Get contact information. You’ll discover more in a few days at a trade show than you will focusing your binoculars on the competition down the street.

Once again, take the best ideas, reshape them a bit, and use them as your own – legally.

3. Talk to industry insiders. The company that sells you raw materials may also provide those materials to the competition. Cultivate a relationship with their sales representative and engage him a discussion about what the competition is up to. You may learn a valuable secret that gives your business a boost.

Don’t be surprised if your subs and vendors aren’t comfortable talking to you about competitors, because it might be construed as unethical. It’s worth a shot, however, so take the sales rep to lunch and see what you can discover about your competitors.

4. Become a “secret shopper”. You don’t need a disguise. Just walk into the retail outlet or restaurant and shop like all the other shoppers.

What items are on sale? What are the day’s specials? Floors and shelves clean? Window displays eye-catching? How’s the competitor’s pricing? Are they under-cutting your prices for the same quality? How?

Engage competitors like any customer would, to discover just what your business is up against. If the competitor’s store is dingy and smells bad, make sure to clean your store more often so you’ll look better in comparison. If customers seem to like their piped-in music, consider getting some of your own.

5. Go to the town hall. The local town or city hall is a gold mine of information about your competitors. There are public documents of incorporation, a list of owners and shareholders, and other information that might be useful to your business. Again, this is public information – inspection reports, property evaluations and other data that can reveal a great deal about the competition – legally!

6. What does the competitor company’s website look like? Is it professional? Easy to navigate? Easy to conduct comparison shopping? Read the “about us” page. This usually contains biographical info on company stakeholders.

7. Use sites like LinkedIn® to learn more about the management of competitor businesses. It’s all there on the Internet. Track competitors and sign up as followers of competing companies on social media sites. Companies often post future plans on sites like LinkedIn, Twitter®, Facebook®, and other social media sites.

8. Create Google® alerts. Create alerts using Google’s Chrome browser. Create alerts for competing businesses globally and locally. Google will send links to stories about competitors right to your email.

9. Subscribe to industry journals. Most industries and professions have a print publication reporting all the latest news – including what the competition is doing. By subscribing, you might read how your competitors plan to eliminate you as a competitor.

10. Place an order. Order something from a competitor. Who answers the phone? Is the person knowledgeable? Do you get stuck in one of those annoying phone trees? Track how long it takes for your item to arrive. A day? A week? Is the box in good shape? Is your order packed securely?

You could also see how the business handles returns. Do you need permission to return an item? Is there a “restocking fee?” In other words, undertake the customer experience to see how the competition handles its customers. Then, develop the tools and operational systems that show customers and clients that your business does it better than the competition.

Successful competitors don’t want to share the secrets of their success, but they don’t have to. Just watch what they do. Learn from their successes and their failures.


The information provided is presented for general informational purposes only and does not constitute tax, legal or business advice. Any views expressed in this article may not necessarily be those of Nevada State Bank, a division of ZB, N.A.