February 1, 2012

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Utah’s Small Retailers are Meeting the Tough Times Head On

Dianne Lewis

February 1, 2012

Small businesses are often living on the edge.

They have tighter margins, smaller cash reserves, more to lose in hard times and fewer back-up plans if something goes wrong. So it’s no wonder with all the belt-tightening during the recession, many people expected small, locally owned businesses to take the biggest hit. And some have.

There are small businesses around the state wondering if they can afford to stay open for another month, but there are also many who’ve made bold moves, expanding and taking risks to stay open and position themselves for even bigger growth. Their fiercely loyal customers keep coming back and many are bringing in new business, proving people are still willing to pay for quality and service.

With the discounts and convenience big-box stores offer, it’s easy to see why many people shifted their shopping dollars as gas prices rose and the economy tanked. But several small business owners from around the state say they have good customers who like to spend their money where it makes a difference.

At Your Service
More than anything else, small business owners cite great customer service as a key to their success.

In the jewelry business, having someone to trust is key. That’s why at McArthur Jewelers in St. George, employees remember customer names and take as much time as needed to help someone pick out the right piece. “We stand behind everything. People know that we’re not a come-and-go. We won’t sell out and we’re here,” says Manager Keena McArther. “Our customer service is pretty incredible. We remember people and I have employees that have been here 20, 30 years.”

Carrie Young, co-owner of The Flower Shoppe in Logan, says the lesson they’ve learned is to always put customer service and quality first before worrying about the price. Whether the customer has $10 or $100 to spend, Young says if she can provide a great experience, they will come back the next time they need flowers.

It’s especially important in the realm of small business, says Rich Van Dyke, co-owner of Brigham City’s Idle Isle. Treating customers well can save or sink a small business. Every customer will go tell people about their experience, good or bad, and word spreads quickly.

Idle Isle, a candy store originally started by Van Dyke’s grandparents, has been in business for 90 years, and he says, “[W]ord of mouth is the most successful advertising we’ve had. Word spreads pretty quickly when there’s a new store opening and word spreads if it’s good or bad. We have to bend over backwards to make sure the people that walk in the front door walk out with a smile on their face.”

Van Dyke says there are two main reasons to buy his candy over someone else’s: the quality of the product and customer service. He says that applies to most small businesses. What they can offer that a big-box store doesn’t is a phenomenal experience and a product that tastes better or lasts longer and has the owner backing that guarantee.

High quality is a big part of what keeps people coming back to McArthur Jewelers, McArther says. Because all the work is done onsite, people have a trust that isn’t there with national retailers. “People want to trust who they go to.”

Joel LaSalle, co-owner of Salt Lake-based Golden Braid Books, agrees, saying people get a feeling for what a store is about when they step in the door. If it’s a place that feels welcoming and instantly comfortable, they want to come back. “There’s a certain amount of authenticity and service our customers get and I look for when I go elsewhere,” he says.

Enduring Traditions
What all that good customer service eventually builds is family tradition. Longtime businesses know that as great as a product can be, sometimes it’s the “It’s where my family always goes” factor that makes the difference.

“It’s definitely customer loyalty, definitely traditions (that bring people back),” says Kelly Alba, the employee who makes petit fours at Glaus Bakery in Salt Lake City. “We have people coming in saying, ‘My grandma used to send me here.’”

McArthur says she sees a lot of that loyalty. Her grandfather founded the jewelry store in 1950 as a watch sales and repair shop. Now they get customers whose families have bought jewelry there for three generations. Having that kind of history means a lot, especially for sentimental items like jewelry, she says.

It helps that her grandfather and father showed the community the same loyalty they saw. McArthur says the men worked hard at giving back to others. “When you’re always giving back, people trust you. We are their friends.”

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