Big Ideas for Small Business

LC-big-ideas-sm Positioning your business for the holidays; creative publicity and advertising; acknowledging excellent service.

July 4th has come and gone, and if you were like most of us you were looking for a place to enjoy the fireworks and enjoy the height of summer.

This year, instead of joining 30,000 at Empire State Plaza in Albany, NY, I opted for Saratoga Springs, about 30 miles north.  I got to see my friend Tony play in the Spa City Band in front of 5,000 other spectators. I enjoyed the reading of the Declaration of Independence and a little about the history of our country. It helped me realize how our ancestors fought for what we take for granted. Of course while this was going on, Joey Chestnut (great name) just won the 92nd annual hot-dog-eating contest at Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island. He downed 66 hot dogs—and buns–in 12 minutes. The question remains: why would anyone want to do this?

Craig Wilson at USA Today is saying that now that Tiger Woods is on the sidelines, maybe he could enter into the hot dog competition. He certainly could use a pound or two. All of this makes me think that holidays are an opportunity for retailers to join in on the celebration, create a little fun and a chance to provide an experience for your customers. CNN tells about a family in Chicago that decided to help our troops. For July 4th they sent pizzas to Iraq. They spoke with the local pizzerias, put it all together and off the pizzas  went, in time for the holiday.  The family is now on CNN. You can’t pay for that kind of publicity and you can’t get it!.

There are so many ways to “do good” and give you and your business some notoriety. If you are going to open on a holiday you are competing with whatever the season brings. Stop competing and join in. I remember how depressing it was to work on a holiday and wait for that stray customer. We finally started having our own celebrations, work became fun, we had lots more customers and customers had something to do—with us.

Now that it's back to school, how about a party for the kids to mark the start of the year? I’m sure the parents would love it!

And then comes Halloween. Why not have everyone gets dressed in their favorite costume? Why not put pumpkins outside your store and create a drawing for the best costume?

As the dollar drops, one wonders who has all the money. According to USA Today, millionaires are up 22% in India, up 20% in China, up 19% Brazil and up 6% in USA. Hmn, doesn’t look like we top that chart either. High prices are nothing new but somehow this looks a lot different to me. I remember the fuel rationing in the 70’s but somehow it seemed “way less serious.” Coupled with high gas prices, heating oil and food prices, I’m wondering if I should put my SUV on Will it ever stop? There’s no getting around it. If you live in Florida it looks like every house is for sale. I guess things will never be like the good old days. But were they good or are they just old and we can’t remember? The key is that there isn’t much you can do except “hunker down” and do what you know is right. Go after your customers and support your employees who are scared to death.

These times require different strategies if your business is to make it. It’s not time to pull up the tent stakes, pack the mules and take off, but it is time to go back to basics: to look at what’s profitable, do more of it and clean out the dead wood. “Dead wood” refers to merchandise that’s not moving as well as employees that aren’t moving. An interesting book, “Bounce,” by Molz, talks about risk taking. He talks about two F words: failure and fear.  Failure gives us choices while fear and uncertainty hold us back. He also invokes the R word—resilience. Dan O’Brien in his book the Art of the Come Back talks about winning and loosing. He says success is part of the life cycle as is failure—neither success or failure is forever. If you really listen to your heart you’ll probably get to do the right thing. He mentions that you want to think like a boxer, recognizing the most dangerous punch is the counter punch. Why?  Because that’s when you’re wide open! Check out for more thoughts like these.

By the way, what are yours?

Publicity Begets Publicity

Speaking of big ideas, this brings me to an interesting tidbit that’s going on right now in little Albany, NY—my home town.

A store by the name of Huck Finn’s Warehouse (warehouse with junk and furniture and lots of good stuff) is running a commercial that runs along the lines of: “Come up with a commercial for our store and you’ll win two tickets to NYC to the Conan O’Brien Show!”

Is this a big deal? Well, it sure got to be one, because on Conan’s show he said “Come up with a commercial for me and I’ll give you two free tickets and a trip to Huck Finn’s Warehouse in Albany.” How much publicity do you think this created for Huck Finn’s?

A lot.

So even better this week, a woman was having trouble paying for her wedding so she put an ad on eBay—looking for a bridesmaid that would pay to be in her wedding. The fee to be in the wedding was one cent! The bidding went crazy, even she was amazed until she got a $5000.00 bid from Smuckers. You know them, the jam people. The Smuckers people said they would give her $10,000 if she would let them choose the bridesmaid. I doubt if it’s Mr. Smucker’s spinster aunt—but isn’t this cute. And the bride was on national TV with her bridesmaids.

Can you imagine, Smuckers goes from marketing to the centenarians, to the brides—how clever? Will the bridesmaid start a new trend for Smuckers? Will she be on the jar? Stay tuned! The lesson in all this is: are you looking out for crazy opportunities or are you worried about the price of toilet paper like the rest of the country?

Airlines are Starting to Get It

It seems more important to “partner up” with your customers—something the airlines could do if they were into it. I guess if you can raise prices every week you don’t have to be into it.  June 30th I was traveling through Newark Airport and lo and behold Continental had set up a table with “free”, yes I said “free” bottled water for anyone! I was truly amazed, I had to ask twice before I took one but it sure made me feel different. How about recognizing customer’s birthdays, or marriages or anything to keep our mind off the lack of snacks and dirty bathrooms?

And later getting on to my flight I noticed again that the pillows and blankets were neatly folded in the overhead bin. I think I mentioned before that I got on a Continental flight last year and all the pillows were neatly arranged between the seats. What a wonderful sight: cute little rows of pillows. It  makes you think of the airlines as clean. Speaking of the airlines, I was traveling through Hopkins (Cleveland) the other day and noticed a sign that said, “Young Traveler’s Club,” ages 5-14, on the door. Of course I went in and was told that children traveling alone need a place to hang out—is this like the club for grownups I asked? Of course the charge is a $100.00 service fee—c’est la vie but it shows how important kids have become and everyone’s after their money.

So who’s training your employees, and what’s going on with them? I wonder who’s doing what. Tom Boschwitz from Home Valu in Minnesota has instituted the “Tuesday with Tom” telephone call with all his stores where they discuss pertinent issues every Tuesday afternoon. Apparently it’s going great. There’s less talk about the awful economy and more about what we should do.

Acknowledging Excellent Customer Service

I started thinking about employees the other day—I try to write notes to companies and recognize them when I receive great service and here’s what I’ve noticed. I wrote to Payless about one of their managers named Jim. He calls me when he gets new shoes in stock, and we discuss the company’s stock price as well as special offers and it just goes on and on. I enter every contest they have. I even have my pin that says I Luv Shoes! Anyhow, I write a note to the district manager showing my appreciating for their manager Jim and they read my letter over their “nationwide conference call.” Jim, as you can imagine, was beaming they were so proud of him. But they had one concern. Who was I and was I trying to steal him!

By the way, Collective Brands has the stock symbol PSS on NYS Exchange. Did they call me? No, so they missed an opportunity. But I saw an interview with Matthew Rubel,, President and CEO of Collective Brands. He seemed like a positive and a move-forward type of guy. Interesting credentials, with a stint at Revlon and an MBA from the University of Miami. I should try and interview him.

The moral of all this? Take every opportunity you can to thank a loyal customesr and to recognize great  employees. I do the same thing for Jay at Radio Shack who is tired of my AT&T 8545 phone but always fixes it and of course his boss never calls him and tells him about my glowing letters. Same thing at my Key Bank where I spent an hour with a customer service person retrieving some 2007 checks. I wrote the letter to Tonita’s boss but of course they never thanked her either.

Is there a cost associated with thanking an employee and recognizing them for providing the customer service that you think is so important? Companies seem stingy when they don’t.  Funny how some businesses get it and some don’t. If you get a note from someone who raves about your employee, put it in the newspaper and on your web site for goodness sake! Spiffs are tough to get these days and cost someone money but a pat on the back is free and can go a long way.

The other day the kid at the drive–thru at Dunkin’ Donuts asked if I would like a “buttered bagel” – just out of the blue. So I got one and asked him which training class suggested he offer the bagel. He said not his training class but coffee needs something to go with it! He says he sells tons. This is a candidate for director of training of Dunkin’ Donuts if anyone is paying attention. Which leads me to ask, do you pay attention?

Don’t forget to get involved with the holidays, make it fun for your employees and profitable for your business. Read what others are doing and see how you can apply these things to your business. Don’t forget to bring your digital camera/video with you to catch some great events. How about a blog for your business?

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