I recently read some of the works of C.K Prahalad, one of the titans of business management theory, and a proponent of the concept of doing business with one customer at a time, i.e. being prepared to adapt your business practices to the needs of the individual.

I recently had a very telling consumer experience that precisely fits into Prahalad’s model.

I gave up caffeine last year because it simply sends me through the roof with agitation and “the shakes”. But I love my Greek coffee and have seriously struggled – until that is, I learned that my favorite brand, Loumidis Papagalos, is available in a decaf version.

Our large Greek supermarket, Mourelatos, sporadically carries it and I’ve been buying out their stock whenever it comes in. Unfortunately, they seem to be constantly out of stock for the last 6 months, as are all their other outlets on and off the island of Montreal. I spoke to the managers of two of their stores and offered to buy any quantity they could bring in. They promised to call but never did. I called them and they promised to follow up with the wholesaler and call me with news, and, you guessed it, they never did.

You see, these are huge stores and frankly, my piddly request is a pain in the butt. But what they don’t realize is that each time I visited one of their stores to buy the coffee, I naturally did all my other grocery shopping there at the same time. I was getting into the habit of doing my groceries there instead of at our local Metro chain.

I expressed my frustration around the coffee issue to a friend, who advised me to try a little neighborhood Greek supermarket in Laval, an off-island suburb about 15 minutes from home. The supermarket is called, of all things, Hawaii. It’s a shabby little hole in the wall about twice the size of my modest living room.

I called them and lo and behold they had 4 bags of the coffee. I zipped over there and cleaned them out. I asked the manager if he could order more. He said he would try. A few days later, he called to say he had received 20 bags. I rushed over and once again cleaned him out. I told him I wanted a regular supply, to which he replied, “If I can’t get any more locally, I’ll have them shipped for you from my store in Athens directly”.

A few days later, another call from the manager. He had more stock and would keep an ongoing reserve for me based on my monthly consumption.

Now, interestingly enough, each time I’ve gone to the store, I’ve discovered more great stuff that they carry. They have an outstanding meat counter with fresh goat, lamb, and veal. They carry brands of Greek cheeses I’ve never seen before in Canada. And their olives are the best I’ve ever tried (I suspect that he brings in a lot of stuff directly from his store in Athens, bypassing the middle-man). Their fruits and vegetables are also excellent, catering to a pretty demanding crowd of Greeks who have congregated in that area of Laval. Now, I find myself going there for more and more of my weekly groceries, not minding the extra 20 minutes travel time vs. our local supermarket – the stuff is that good!

On my last visit, I asked the young lady at the check-out counter if she could give me directions to a well-known Greek pastry shop I’d heard about from a few friends. She kindly told me where it was, but added, “You know, Serano is very good, but the place next door is really terrific too”. I took her advice and she was right. The bakery, Artopolis (which means “bread city”) is among the best I’ve tried. Their spanakopita rivals my grandmother’s, and their breads are wonderfully airy in the traditional Greek style (reminiscent of Portuguese breads if you’ve ever tried them).

All this to say that the simple act of diligently catering to one customer’s needs has caused a substantial shift and redistribution of business and money. Our grocery bill averages around $1500/month, of which I would say that about 1/3 now goes to Hawaii and other stores in its neighborhood.

Prahalad makes the case that there is vast opportunity waiting for companies ready to serve the N=1