This past week I went hunting for a flip-flop sandal, and a BlArticle™ appeared out of thin air. Don’t think for a second you are entering into a “fluff piece.” Through this harmless search, I ended up finding a critical business lesson. Let me bring you up to speed with the particulars.

We start at Zappos.com, the number one website retailer for shoes, with over a billion gross in sales. If you want to see what’s selling, you’ll find it here. If you are the number one retailer, you carry a lot of flip-flops. Rather than sift through the 726 different flip-flops they carry, I decided to use one of my favorite filters; “Most Popular.” That’s when I came face to face with the #1 selling, Reef Fanning Flip-Flop. As a matter of fact, with multiple colors to choose from, it was holding down the #1, #2, #3, and #4 positions. I was thinking: “This must be some flip-flop”, so I decided to investigate and find out where they were sold.

The Reef Fanning Flip-Flop

My search took me to REI, where I got to see these magic flip-flops in person. As the salesman came walking by I asked him what he thought of these Reef Fanning flip-flops. “That’s our #1 selling sandal. We can’t keep them in stock!” Of course the real question I wanted to ask was, “Why?” I took matters into my own hands, (literally,) and I looked at the small label attached.

Was it the “comfortable, water friendly synthetic nubuck upper?” No, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a few of those. Maybe it was the “contoured compression molded EVA footbed with anatomical arch support.” No, if you’ve seen one anatomical arch support, you’ve seen them all. “Rubber outsole?” I don’t think the product would sell well without one of those. I tried it on. Nothing special. I was stumped so I snagged the salesman again, and amped up my question with an exasperated, “I don’t get it. This flip-flop feels like all the others, looks like all the others, cost more, and you can’t keep them on the shelves – Why?!”

He smiled, turned the flip-flop over, and said, “You might be right, but none of the flip-flops or sandals have one of these.” It took a second to register, and then I realized what I was looking at. In the middle of the sole sits a church key to open your “soda” bottle.

The secret to Reef's success


That’s right! The secret to the Reef Fanning Flip-Flop, which is dominating the top four spots in sales and is priced higher than over 500 of its competitors, is that it has a bottle opener stuck in its sole. But this bottle opener – that happens to be a flip-flop – teaches us something else that’s very important.

You can’t be everything to everyone, so you must identify your unique niche… or in this case, you create one. I’d venture to guess if you investigate the number one anything, you’d see a unique and well-defined niche. A car’s a car, but what do you think when you think of a Volvo? Safety. As a matter of fact, if you go looking for a Volvo, don’t be surprised if you see some toys sitting in the corner of the showroom floor for the kids. You would be surprised to find toys on the showroom floor at Porsche… but you’ll probably see some driving gloves! They have a different niche. Nordstrom has its niche: feet on the floor, no risk purchasing. K-Mart has its niche too: Find it yourself, wait in lines, low pricing.

What’s your niche? I have helped many companies develop sales strategies for over 25 years, and that’s always my first question. You would be shocked at how many Fortune 500 Companies struggle with this question.

This niche concept is far more important than you might think. Positioned properly, it’s this niche that usually provides the impetus to create change. It’s this niche that explains why clients will pay more for a new product than they have been paying for the old product.

Who knows how often a happy owner of the magic Reef Fanning Flip-Flop with its Secret Hip-Hop-Sole-Pop-Top, (I came up with that one,) will actually use the bottle opener. That’s not the lesson here. The lesson here is to figure out what your niche is, and if you can’t come up with one, think harder. Every sales and marketing move begins right here. It might just be the most important business question you will ever answer.

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