Last Wednesday evening I had the opportunity to attend at MetroIBA Teach-In, titled: Surviving the Economy. This panel discussion, led by Dan Marshall of Peapods Natural Toys & Baby Goods, featured local and small business owners including:
Melanee Meegan from Peace Coffee
Jennifer Pritchett from Smitten Kitten
Jeff Warner from Warners’ Stellian
Marge Christiansen from SCORE (and former owner of a gifts distribution company)
Keith Covart from Electric Fetus
Panelists suggested tips for adapting their business in the face of changing consumer habits. Here are some highlights:
- Hold events to reach your target market. For example, Peace Coffee holds coffee brewing workshops, in part to respond to the rising trend of people saving money by brewing their coffee at home. Electric Fetus hosts in-store local music events to educate listeners about local artists and drive traffic to their stores.
- Create a market for your products. Jennifer from Smitten Kitten suggested focusing on creating a market where one didn’t exist before by educating consumers about their products and more importantly, the problem they solve. How to reach your markets? Networking (events and online social networking), attending trade shows, and speaking to targeted groups helps to get the word out.
- Hit the road. Marge Christiansen remarked that ongoing face-to-face client communication helps to establish loyalty between suppliers and buyers, a key to weathering a weak economy.
- Renegotiate. Several of the panelists mentioned renegotiating everything from lease agreements to vendor contracts to reduce costs. Other possible renegotiation items: gas for trucks, vehicle leases, cleaning services, media placement, and more. Smitten Kitten owner, Jennifer Pritchett, encouraged small businesses to not be afraid to negotiate—even with big distributors—commenting, “You don’t get what you don’t ask for!”
- Stay the course for advertising. While the instinct may be to cut costs in marketing, Peace Coffee representative Melanee Meegan cautions against it: “We want people to know we’re still here!” Halting advertising could cause the misperception that your business isn’t doing well, or allow your competitors to fill the niche you’ve created in the market.
- Boost company morale. With tough times often comes employee insecurity and poor morale. Panelists suggested setting an example by willing to roll up your sleeves and pitch in wherever help is needed, socializing at work with inexpensive treats, or even stepping out after work to bond over drinks. Solicit suggestions from employees and encourage creativity in ways to save money or make new customers.
- Share costs. Jeff from Warners’ Stellian spoke of joining a buying group with similar businesses in your industry to increase your purchase power to get reduced credit rates and insurance, or discounts on products. Peace Coffee also belongs to a buying group—they are part of a cooperative buying group that imports their own fair-trade coffee beans. According to their website, “We have also changed the supply chain by co-founding Cooperative Coffees (www.cooperativecoffees.com), a coop of roasters formed to import 100 percent fair trade coffee direct from the farmer coops that grow it.”
- Know your customer. Keith from the Electric Fetus said the best question you can ask a customer is “is there something you didn’t find?” Knowing your customers’ tastes and buying habits will help you selectively stock your store to keep the items the move and reduce overstock on less popular items.
- Collaborate with other small businesses. Recently, the Electric Fetus participated with a number of other small, independent record stores to promote National Record Store day, which resulted in great PR for the stores involved. Electric Fetus also reaches out to local bands and labels, and has even featured Peace Coffee at their events. Owner Keith Covart encourages this type of collaboration as a way to strengthen the local economy and build relationships between like-minded businesses.
- Distinguish yourself. The last tip from our panel was to distinguish your small business in the marketplace, from your brand (logo/design/name) to your products, your quality focus, your independent status, and even your principles and values.
A sincere thank you to all of the panelists and to MetroIBA for this forum. For more information about upcoming MetroIBA events or to become a member, visit www.metroiba.org.