My wife and I recently completed a cross-country road trip, roughly 5,000 miles and more than a dozen states. And while the National Parks and family visits were the highlights, we did run into quite a few retail businesses that were doing things a little bit differently than most, a little more creatively, and – as far as I could tell – a bit more successfully. Let’s start in Charleston, S.C. One of the great cities in this country, proud of their heritage and in many ways, still living the same way they did 100, or 200 years ago. On one of our walks, I stopped in a local bookstore, Buxton Books. I’m a sucker for almost any small bookstore and as soon as I walked in, I fell in love. It was open, airy and all of the books were easily accessible. The woman working behind the counter happened to be the owner and we got to talking. She was selling new books only, which is unusual for a small, non-chain store these days and I wanted to find out how they were doing. She said they’d been open a year and a half and things were going extremely well, but only since they had made a major shift. They started out selling all the same books you find at any chain bookstore and they discovered quickly they couldn’t compete on price with large chains and Amazon, and people weren’t willing to pay much of a premium for great service and atmosphere. So, she came up with another idea. All of the books in her store are new and all are Charleston-related — either about Charleston (current or historical), or by a Charleston-based author (living or dead). She had carved out a niche, did a great job of serving it and was rewarded with a successful business that provided the community with a valuable asset. The second notable retail idea I came across was also from a Charleston store, Savannah’s Candy Kitchen. As we walked down Market Street, I was struck by two signs on the outside of the store. The first: “Free Praline Samples!” “Free” almost always catches the eye and giving away free candy samples is almost always a guaranteed recipe for success. The second sign was equally important and probably just as large of a draw: “Public Restrooms” In most tourist areas, the single most common sign is: “Bathrooms for Customers Only.” While understandable, it is still off-putting. The good people at Savannah’s went the other way and offered free candy and access to a bathroom for my wife. Guess who sold a whole bunch of candy? Now BP Gas is not a small company, as a matter of fact it is huge, but it was still quite creative. As we drove by one of their stations in South Holland, Ill., I was so taken by their sign as I passed it that I went to the next light, did a U-turn, came back and took a picture. I happen to have never had a cup of coffee in my life, but that puts me in a distinct minority. Most people love coffee, or at least drink plenty of it, especially to get their days started. As a coffee drinker, if you had a choice of two gas stations (all things being equal with regards to convenience, price and clean bathrooms) and one offered free coffee and one either didn’t have coffee or charged for it – where would you go? I don’t know what the average sale is at a gas pump, but $40 to $70 has to be close. How many extra tanks do you think BP fills as a result of giving away pennies worth of coffee? Great concept! And last, closer to home, allow me to mention maybe my favorite (even though it’s a national chain) – See’s Candies. Dating back to when I was little kid and my grandmother, every year, would give me a 2-pound box of See’s, I have loved them. And as I got a bit older I discovered their “free sample” philosophy hasn’t changed. I don’t always buy a box when I partake in enjoying a sample, but it reinforces the relationship and, especially around the holidays, I find myself buying quite a bit of See’s. It’s a great loyalty builder, a reminder of how good their candies are, and fortunately for us, there are seven – count ’em, seven! – See’s Candies stores in the San Fernando Valley. There are plenty of other ideas that we ran across on this trip and even more since I’ve been back and actively looked for them. It doesn’t matter if you’re a single retail store or a huge retail chain, the opportunity exists to do things a little differently than your competition and a little differently than your current and potential customers might expect. And when you do, you run the very real risk of being more successful. So, if you own or manage a retail business, step back, take a look at what you’re doing, take a look at what your competitors are doing and come up with something just a little bit different and see what happens. Scott Harris is the founder and president of Mustang Marketing in Thousand Oaks.