Is Your Small Business a “Mom & Pop” Operation?

In a local TV (You remember TV. It’s like YouTube but with fewer channels.) interview a manufacturer referred to his dealers as “mom and pop” stores. Some retailers called the term “demeaning”.

Here’s a question for you. Is “mom and pop” a derogatory term or does it imply “down home”, “warm and fuzzy”, or other positive images?

Let me know what you think.  I’d like to hear from you whether you consider yourself “mom and pop” or not.

Small Biz Advertising–One Size Doesn’t Fit All

I’ve been following a thread on a non-public forum.  Like most forum discussions, it began with one topic and  morphed into something else altogether.  As I write this, the discussion is about advertising.  The topic is retail store advertising, but it could just as well apply to any small business.

It’s actually a three-sided dialog (trialog?).  On the one hand you have the manufacturer who must put together an advertising program that satisfies the most retailers and generates the most sales to support the overall program.  Then you have the big-city retailers who have one set of issues and small-market retailers who face an entirely different challenge.

Here’s the thing.  At any level the goal of advertising is to drive consumers into the store (or other business) at the lowest possible cost.  Period.  That’s it.  Targeted advertising, that is advertising that reaches only those people who are your potential customers, is the best. At the most basic level, handing someone your business card (or better yet, a gift certificate) is very likely to create a future sale at very low cost.

If you sell lawn mowers, you’re wasting your money advertising to apartment dwellers.  But it’s very difficult to find traditional advertising media that are so specifically targeted.  If you operate in a major market, your job is even harder.  Because local radio, TV, and newspapers are delivered across demographic lines, you’re going to pay for a lot of impressions that are basically worthless to you unless your product or service is something everyone buys.

In a smaller market, the job is a little easier because you’re just not paying for that many impressions.  You can buy several spots on the local radio station and still get change back from your hundred dollar bill.  The same campaign in a major market can run into the thousands yet the number of potential customers for your store (based on geography and demographics) that you reach may be virtually the same.

Newspapers and other mass media are struggling.  Why?  Well, the economy isn’t helping them much.  But their decline has been going on for quite a while.  In fact, the fall of traditional media can be charted against the rise of the Internet.

If you’re reading this, you’re not reading the newspaper.  If you’re reading this, there’s almost a 100% chance that you either own or run a small business or non-profit.  MTS is very short on gardening tips, recipes, or fashion advice.  You can find those elsewhere.  For that matter, I can’t imagine a topic that isn’t covered somewhere on the web.

Web advertising can be done for little or even no money.  Sites like Facebook let you customize your advertising to reach exactly the right market and it’s very inexpensive.  If even that’s outside your budget, start a blog.  Sites like Blogger offer a free platform so your only expense is your time to write something that interests your customers and prospects.

If you’re not ready to commit to regular posting then comment on other people’s blogs.  Let people who might be interested in your business  see that you’re an expert in your field.  And make sure to include a link to your web site.  (You do have a web site, don’t you?)

I’m not going to get into any more specifics here because there are so many sources for information on on-line advertising and promotions, including the archives of this blog.  The point is this.  One size does not fit all.  You have to analyze your particular situation and create your own plan.  Suppliers may provide you with ad slicks, radio scripts, and other tools, but only you know who your customers are and how to reach them.

Small Business Planning in a Recession

Wayne Rivers is a small business consultant based in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina.  He recently appeared on CNN to discuss small business issues during a recession.  He discusses things you can do with the extra time you may have on your hands during the slowdown including taking a good, hard look at how you spend your time.

He also talks about having a contingency plan and my favorite,  what to do if you need to lay off a family member.  He calls it “pruning the family tree” and I imagine most of us know a business that could use some pruning.  Very intreresting.  Check it out.

Wayne has also appeared on MSNBC where he discussed tips to turn a business around.

Keeping Loyal Customers Loyal

It’s always been a mystery to me that retailers will actually spend money to make their customers angry. For example, there was once a regional discount store chain, based here in St. Louis, who had a reputation for never having advertised items in stock.  Notice I said “was”.  Their failure to back up their ads with adequate inventory was one of the reasons that we speak of them in the past tense.

If your business plan includes regularly ticking off your customers, there are cheaper ways of doing it than running full color newspaper inserts and buying expensive TV time.  If Venture had just figured out a way to make their customers mad without spending so much money on ads, they might still be with us today.

I thought of this dearly departed discount chain the other day when I tried to buy a book at Borders.  [Note that shopping at Borders goes against my crusade to support local merchants.  Unfortunately, Borders and Barnes and Noble have effectively eliminated the local competition here.  There are a few specialty book stores, but to buy the book I was looking for, the chains, or Amazon, seem to be my only choices.  Besides, I’m trying to make a point here about customer service.  As your intrepid reporter, I have to shop the competition occasionally to find out what a lousy job they’re really doing.  mb] I had received an email coupon  for 40% off any single item and there’s a book I’ve been wanting to read so it seemed reasonable to take advantage of the savings.

The only problem is that none of the local Borders stores has the book in stock.  Being a patient man, I thought “OK, I’ll order the book.  I’ll still get the discount and I’m kind of busy right now anyway, so I don’t mind waiting.”

WRONG!!!

It seems that the coupon had to be used within 48 hours and the book wouldn’t be in for at least ten days.  I couldn’t use it.  Then things got interesting.  The girl behind the counter suggested that I order the book from Borders.com.  But wait, the coupon is only good for in-store purchases.  Besides,  Borders.com didn’t have the book either.

So here’s what the helpful bookista suggested I do.  (1) “Wait a couple of weeks.  By the time the book comes in there will probably be another coupon.”  or (2) “Have you tried Sam’s or Costco?”

Like I said, here’s a national chain.  They seem to be reasonably successful.  They’ve eliminated most of their competitors, at least in this market.  Yet they have this bone-headed policy about handling coupons.  They say I”m a “preferred customer”.  That’s why I got the coupon in the first place.  Yet, when I tried to use it, I’m told I can’t.  Not because of anything I did wrong, but because they failed to have the book in stock.  [Another note.  This isn’t some fringe book that nobody’s buying.  In fact, as I write this the book is number 1 on Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.com.]

Here’s the thing.  If you successfully manage to get me into your place of business, either by a traditional ad, by email marketing, through social media, or by word of mouth, do everything in your power to satisfy me, to sell me, and to keep me coming back.  Whatever you do, don’t penalize me for your mistake.  Not only should Borders have ordered the book and honored the discount, they should have offered me something extra for my trouble.

“Gee, Mr. Customer, we’re sorry you have to wait.  We’ll honor your coupon and for your trouble, how about having a cup of coffee on us?”  makes a heck of a lot more sense than “Sorry we can’t help you.  Why don’t you try the warehouse club?  Maybe, while you’re there, you might find some other books that you would have bought from us.”

In this economy can any of us afford to alienate even one loyal customer?  I don’t think so.

Wall Street Isn’t Main Street

Irrefutable fact:  You can’t sell a stock unless someone else buys it.

Many of us, myself included, look at the Dow Jones Industrial Average every day to see how the market’s doing.  Generally we’re happy when it’s up and unhappy when it’s down.  The exception would be those who bet against the market, but I’m talking about the average person here, not the professional investor.  In fact, I’m even talking about people who own no stock at all.  The DJIA is just a way of keeping score.

But admit it, when the market goes down don’t we sometimes feel just a little relieved?  After all, if the stock market is down doesn’t that make our own business problems seem a little less “our fault”.  If the market’s down, how can I blame myself for my bad day?  It’s a dangerous thought pattern to fall into.  I’ll go back to my opening statement, “You can’t sell a stock unless someone else buys it.”

In the market, as in many other areas of commerce, one man’s (woman’s) loss is another’s gain.  If I sell my stock at a loss, the person who buys it gets a bargain (unless the company’s on the verge of going out of business.)

What I’m suggesting today, and what I’d like to hear from you on, is this.  Whether the dow is up 200 points or down 200 points should have absolutely no bearing on how many widgets you sell or how much service you provide today.  Barring a total market collapse the two have absolutely nothing to do with one another.

Unlessyou let the ups and downs of the market color your attitude.  If you believe a drop in the Dow is going to keep you from having a good day chances are you’ll be right.  It’s your attitude, not the numbers on the ticker, that affect your success.

Try this experiment.  Avoid market numbers until you go home each evening.  Wait until your  business day is over before you check on the DJIA.  Keep a chart.  After two weeks compare Wall Street’s ups and downs with your own.  You’ll see that the two sets of numbers have no correlation.  In fact, by avoiding the ticker during your work day you should find that your overall numbers improve.

April Fool? No Apparent Ill Effects from Conficker

According to CNET there is no visible sign that Conficker has done any damage so far today.  AP reports that the worm may have gotten more aggressive in trying to contact it’s maker but that so far there have been no visible problems.

The April 1 date written in the code may have been a red herring to get everybody all excited.  When we’ve seen that nothing happened we may let our guard down for an attack at a later date.

It’s also possible that the worm might not show itself while it’s silently stealing all your valuable information or using your machine as a “bot” to send thousands of emails without your knowledge.

Several sources are reporting that infected machines have been trying to contact their “masters” for further instructions, but that they don’t seem to be getting an answer.  However, they will keep trying until they do.  That could happen yet today, tomorrow, or at some other future date.

The worm is still out there.  Millions of machines may be infected.  And the worm is still capable of spreading.  Whatever you do, don’t let your guard down.  Quoting the CNET article:

“The funny thing is that every one has these expectations that come to them from science fiction viruses. In the movies they blow up the terminal, tip over an oil tanker and bring aliens out of the sky,” said Perry [David Perry, global director of security education at Trend Micro]. “In reality, the kind of thing a botnet does is much less visible. It’s a lot more insidious of them to steal your bank password than to blow up your computer.”

Here’s the bottom line:  Keep your software up-to-date.  Use Windows Update to keep your operating system current.  Install and use a good anti-virus software.  And whatevere you do, backup your critical files.

You wouldn’t leave your paper files lying around where anyone could see them.  You’d keep them in a locked cabinet.  Most likely you’d keep a duplicate set at another location for protection against a fire or other disaster.  You should do no less with your digital files.

The CNET piece is short but informative.  Take a few minutes to read it and listen to the related podcast.