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Posted December 13, 2008 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Business owners get lesson in tough times

By James Heffernan -- Daily Staff Writer

FRONT ROYAL -- Window dressing. A clean appearance. Service with a smile. Rewarding your loyal customers.

These are just a few of the basic strategies that small businesses can initiate at little to no cost to boost their earning potential.

And during these tough economic times, they can be the difference between being able to ride out the storm and getting swept away by the tide.

"There are no harder working people in America than small-business owners, and there's no government bailout for you guys," Casey Wilson, a consultant with the Maryland Small Business Development Centers network, told a group of local business leaders during a presentation Wednesday in the Warren County Economic Development Authority conference room.

Americans are increasingly rejecting the notion of hyperconsumption that big-box stores and strip malls tend to perpetuate, Wilson said. And with the economy in a tailspin, retail pundits have suggested that much of the action will be in smaller cities and towns.

"The silver lining is the consumer's preference for green, local and sustainable businesses," he said. "That's where small businesses have an opportunity."

But studies have also shown that shoppers don't necessarily reward mom-and-pops in their community just for being there, he said. In an oversaturated market, retail shops and restaurants have to differentiate themselves through unique product offerings, quality customer service and creative marketing.

"The biggest mistake small-business owners make is that they haven't captured their customer information over time," Wilson said.

Simple remedies can include putting a guest book at the door, conducting shopper surveys, or asking for a phone number or e-mail address at the time of purchase to keep loyal customers informed of new product lines and sales, he said.

"I'm old-fashioned enough to think that if you've got a good solid customer base, you should be able to pick up the phone and make a few calls to those people," said Wilson, who got his start in retail 35 years ago selling shoes.

Effective marketing doesn't have to be costly, either, Wilson said. It can be a content-rich Web site, a fresh coat of paint or a repackaging of the contents in your store window.

With independent restaurants, he said, patrons are most often looking for an experience -- a clean place with good food, upbeat service and a strong management presence.

Prior to joining Maryland Small Business Development Centers in 2001, Wilson served as founder and president of The Wilson Co., a consulting firm recognized by the International Council of Shopping Centers for its innovative training and customer-service programs. The company's client list included The Clyde's Restaurant Group, Britches of Georgetown, Georgetown Leather Design, Chicken Out Rotisserie, Tyson's Corner Center, Potomac Mills Outlet, Reston Town Center and ZipCar.

After the presentation, Wilson was asked by several participants to visit their businesses and make recommendations for improvements.

* Contact James Heffernan at jheffernan@nvdaily.com

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