Common Business Questions

Staying competitive in the market can prove profitable

Janet A. Harte
Small Business Development Center

Q: Sales are growing but I am not making any money. How do I improve my profit?

A: First, take a look at your selling price and, second, analyze your expenses. A selling price that is too low or expenses that are disproportionately high mean less money for you.

Q: What do I need to know about setting prices?

A: Two factors that affect price are competition and cost. If you are selling comparable products or services at a price lower than your competition, then you will attract market share. However, keeping market share depends on how your customers perceive value. Normally, low price means you can’t afford to offer other things like a convenient, attractive location and excellent service. A low price strategy means a "bare bones" cost strategy.

Q: What if the prices I use are similar to my competitors’ prices?

A: If prices are competitive, then your ability to improve profits means lowering costs to give you sufficient profit margin. Begin by analyzing the gross profit margin – selling price minus cost of sales. Gross profit must cover your overhead plus profit. To see if your costs are appropriate, compare them with industry standards. Good resources are the Risk Management Association’s "Annual Statement Studies 2006" and Dun and Bradstreet’s "Industry Norms and Key Business Ratios." They are available at the Fort Vancouver Regional Library. If you belong to a trade organization, look for statistics on appropriate cost of sales in your industry.

Q: Assuming the gross profit margin is OK, what about overhead?

A: First, make sure you are recording all of your overhead expenses. Overhead costs are those you have to pay whether you make a sale or not. Shop for the best deals on insurance, telephone plans, advertising and travel, as well as on industry-specific costs. Common large overhead expenses are leases for space and/or equipment. Negotiate the lowest cost per month by extending the terms or assuming the costs of improvements. Some expenses such as electricity, water, fuel, office supplies, and so on can be minimized by avoiding waste. Pay close attention to overhead costs and profit margin goals. Remember, sales must cover cost of sales and overhead, and provide profit to reinvest or distribute.

Q: Is there anything else I should do?

A: The best way to be competitive is to meet the needs of your customers. This means identifying opportunities to provide more or better products and services as customer needs evolve and change. Keep an eye on new products and trends, suppliers and competitors. However, to be profitable, you must adjust prices as necessary and always look for opportunities to reduce costs.

Visit your local library to research market trends or contact relevant trade associations. Visit competitors regularly to compare your business with theirs and assess your competitive advantage. Talk to your accountant or a business consultant about managing your finances. Your industry and market environment, your customers and your ability to manage your business all impact your goal of higher profits.

Janet A. Harte is a certified business advisor and center director of the Washington State University Small Business Development Center for Southwest Washington. The SBDC offers free, confidential business management advice to small and mid-sized businesses. It is a partnership program with the U.S. Small Business Administration. For questions or to make an appointment, call 360-260-6372 or e-mail For more information, visit