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When examining the competition, I find it helpful to remember through whose eyes I'm looking. Mine? The competitor's? The customer's? Each view has merit, but the vantage point of the customer is by far the most valid.

The customer actually is the driver of your image (and you thought you were in the driver's seat!) and the sculptor of your store. It is his or her perceptions of your environment that determine whether a return visit is warranted. And those perceptions should influence the direction in which your physical and emotional environment should veer.

So, my team at LaMar's Donuts and I peered through our customer's perceptual periscope to address the third step -- see the Journal of Retailing's eight steps identified in the August issue's "Field Report" -- in building an image: determine how other stores rank on the dimensions that are perceived, sensed and sought by potential customers.

Our research, conducted over a period of weeks, has identified the following about "Competitor A": 1) a dated and unappealing store environment; 2) inconsistent product quality; 3) wide array of product choices; and 4) lack of emphasis on service.

"Competitor B" elicits a much different response: 1) impressive appearance; 2) an emphasis on automated entertainment; and 3) overall lack of product quality.

Fine. We now have an increasingly clear picture of how donut buyers perceive the competitive donut shops. But, what do we do with that information? We tear it apart bit by bit, confirm each point's validity and relevance, as well as each one's short- and long-term impact on our concept.

Our next task, according to the Journal of Retailing, is to determine the opinions and impressions held of LaMar's stores by all kinds of customers.

If you are wondering whether we plan to follow the Journal's eight steps through to completion, I'll give you an unequivocal "yes." Why not? The program clearly directs the way to a cohesive image and ultimate success.

Katherine Field, president & CEO of LaMar's Franchising Inc., offers a unique insider's perspective each month on building a retail image step by step , store by store.

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