Thoughts from the Publisher

by Neena Strichart

I find it refreshing that so many of our local small businesses and restaurants (including our loyal advertisers) are stepping up their efforts to offer superior customer service as well as to keep their places of business in tip-top shape. With our lousy economy, it is difficult for independent business owners to keep slashing their prices in order to attract customers, but it is possible for them to make sure that they make their shops and eateries places that welcome both current and new patrons.
I don’t always shop or dine based on price. Many times my decisions are made because I know that a certain restaurateur, service provider or merchant understands my needs. Those businesses make me feel special and appreciated, and, in turn, I prefer to spend my hard-earned cash with them.
What exactly do I mean by “understands my needs?” Well, my having celiac disease makes it a pain in the neck for Steve and me to dine out. People like Jack Skandalakis at Café Bixby understand my gluten intolerance, and he makes sure that his cooks do the best they can to not contaminate with flour the food they prepare for me. Jack understands that when I say “no croutons” on my salad I mean NO CROUTONS ON MY SALAD. I am so sensitive to gluten that simply removing the delicate little squares of toast from the bowl will not do me any good because the residue left behind is going to make me sick as a dog. Therefore, Café Bixby always serves me a salad that has never been contaminated with even a crumb of bread! Now that’s service! Delius Restaurant provides the same type of care in their service.
Besides my food-preparation needs, I have other issues that other business owners are helpful with addressing. I work during the week, sometimes until 6pm or later, and it is so wonderful to be able to stop for a haircut or pedicure on the way home. Oh, I understand that many service providers would rather be home with their families at that time of evening, but having to do all my personal business on weekends is so very difficult to do– the list is neverending! And, if I feel that way, I know that others do as well.
These days it is important that we accommodate our customers and give them what they need. For instance, at Bixby Knolls Car Wash they offer “early bird” car washing, full service, outside only, deluxe detailing as well as do-it-yourself bays. Talk about a variety of services. The Grossmans (owners of the car wash) understand what the people want and then give it to them.
We love our advertisers and do the best we can to meet with them before or after hours, or even on the weekend if necessary. We understand what it’s like to be busy. We aren’t perfect, but we sure strive to be.
Back nearly three years ago I wrote my column about small-business customer service and included a portion that I called Small Retail Ownership 101. I am reprinting that portion of the column below. I hope it helps some of our local small businesses cater to their customers and therefore increase their chances to survive in this tough financial climate:

I have noticed an increased amount of apathy and lack of enthusiasm by some local shop owners. Here is what I consider to be a short list of eight action items that should be included in a course called Small Retail Ownership 101:
1. Smile and greet your customers. They don’t want you to hover, but they all appreciate being acknowledged and greeted. It makes them feel appreciated.
2. Keep regular hours. Don’t open late or close early. Shoppers and patrons want to be able to count on you. Also, try to keep your hours consistent. If you can, choose hours and stick to them. Example: Tuesday–Friday 9am–7pm, Saturday 10am–6pm. NOT Tuesday 10am–6pm, Wednesday noon–5pm, closed Thursday, Friday 11am–7pm. Your customers don’t want to have to memorize your elaborately detailed and ever changing schedule. If you want their business, make it easy for them. If you don’t, your competitors will.
3. Go that extra mile to meet your customers’ needs. If you don’t have what they are looking for, can you order it? Can you recommend where they can find it?
4. Offer features and benefits that your competitors don’t, and I don’t necessarily mean cheaper prices. Do you gift-wrap, ship, deliver, or…? If parking is scarce, can your clients order from you by phone, online, by fax?
5. Know your customers’ needs. What do they want? What don’t they want? Call them when you receive items you know they will enjoy.
6. Is your shop clean? Inside and out? Are your shelves dusted, carpets clean and swept, light bulbs changed? How’s your outside street and landscaping? Keep your sidewalk swept, windows washed and your weeds pulled. Unkempt frontage (or backdoor entrances) will discourage business before folks even get out of their cars. Keeping your shop neat and tidy is just as important as offering superior customer service.
7. Does your business look open? Are the lights on? Do you have an open sign? Too much reflective film, dark drapes or heavy shutters give the appearance of a store that is closed for business. Open it up; look ready for business.
8. Give your place of business the sniff test, or ask a friend to do it for you. Watch out for heavily perfumed candles or sprays. Strong “pleasant” scents can be as big a turn-off for some as cigarette smoke, onions or garbage.

The bottom line here is to do everything you can to encourage folks to shop with you, dine with you or use your services.
This is no time to relax and just wait for folks to show up. Business owners need to do everything they can to attract clients. Be a magnet, and the customer will be drawn to you.

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