WOLFBITES - Issue 37

The marketing miracle that is Lee Valley

Lee Valley catalogue, featuring winning small business marketing and advertising strategies, presented by Toronto copywriter Wolfgang Franke, who also does freelance copywriting for other ad agencies, marketing companies and PR firms.

Lee Valley is the little department store that could. They do things their way. Always have.

The small business marketing experts would have you believe that there is no room for a bricks and mortar retailer like Lee Valley that dares to be traditional when everyone else is striving to be new age. But they are wrong.

If you have never heard of Lee Valley, here is a quick introduction to the quirky, wonderful Lee Valley business model: They have brick and mortar locations across Canada, where they serve a devoted customer base. Online ordering is also available, but not nearly as much fun. They do no national advertising (at least none I have ever seen). The product selection is a little of this, a little of that (how can that work?). They have a print catalogue. That's right, a print catalogue (isn't that what doomed Sears? To get customer service, you have to take a number. I am not kidding. You have to take a number.

Visiting a Lee Valley location is a little like going to a one-of-a-kind show. There are just so many things you don't see anywhere else (remember that). I mean, where else are you going to find, in one place, music box kits, Tension Rod Nuts, Extruded Escutcheons, a Desk Cable Clip and a Steerable Rolling Seat with Tool Tray!

Lee Valley made its name by selling a superior line of woodworking and gardening tools. They later branched out to power tools and hard-to-find hardware items, ranging from brackets and fasteners to wheels and casters. That should not be a winning marketing strategy, yet Lee Valley is thriving by executing a sound business plan built on six pillars:

Click here to reveal the six pillars of Lee Valley

  1. Quality sells – While others retailers compete (unsuccessfully) on price, Lee Valley sells quality. Look at the toys on the cover of the latest print catalogue (see photo above) and you will see what I mean. The quality and craftsmanship is unmistakable – and the same standard is applied to everything that is designed and manufactured by Lee Valley, which represents about one third of sales.
  2. Customer satisfaction (No matter what) - Who else is so committed to customer satisfaction that they make this commitment:

    Any product may be returned within 3 months at no cost to the customer; we return every penny you paid us, plus, for shipments within North America, we will refund your return parcel post costs.

  3. Lee Valley location in Vaughan, Ontario, where the company uses marketing strategies, based on old fashion values, a blue print for success that should be followed by every small business owner looking for a new small business marketing strategy.
    Being human - You will never find the cold, hard-sell corporate text that is the default for so many other retailers.  Instead, there is a relaxed conversational tone that puts the visitor/reader at ease. Take, for example, this text excerpt on Decorative Piping Tips (Page 3):

    Fun to try and easy to master, these tips give impressive results – be prepared for compliments.

  4. Clear product differentiation While other department store retailers were killed off by competitors who could sell the same products for less, Lee Valley has scads of products that are only available at Lee Valley.   For example, I have never seen a hand-cranked device that will peel, core and slice an apple in five seconds, but Lee Valley has one. It is on page 10.  And if you are expecting something made of cheap plastic, think again. The Lee Valley Apple Peeler features "rugged, all-metal construction."
  5. One-on-one marketing – The smart people who run Lee Valley know that there is no such thing as mass sales. Every sale is an individual sale – and no single sale is important enough to compromise the core values of the company.   That's why everyone who works at Lee Valley is told to follow this mantra:

    "We treat the customer like a friend. We do everything for you that we would do for a friend, including, where necessary, telling you if you are being unreasonable. Nobody is on commission here and there are no minimum sales targets built into anybody's job description. We have found them to be in conflict with good advice.

  6. After sale service and support – Lee Valley extends customer relationships by offering videos and seminars that are not just educational and fun, but are also natural extensions of the company's values and standards.   Here are just three examples of the seminars:

    Make a Walking Dog Pull Toy
    Beginner Carving: a Caricature Bear
    Sharpen your Kitchen Tools


The Lee Valley success story should be studied by every small business (Lee Valley was once a small business!). The key marketing strategies are easily imported into a small business and all but one (product quality) can be implemented with little or no investment.

So what are you waiting for?


Wolfgang Franke is President & Creative Director of Words at Work Advertising & Marketing, a full service communications company established in 1988. Our growing list of valued clients are found throughout our local market, Markham and the Greater Toronto area, across Canada in cities such as London, Ontario, and Edmonton, Alberta, and an expanding list of international locations ranging from The Big Apple in New York to Kanturk, Ireland.




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