How Some Philadelphia Businesses Are Surviving the Bad Economy

Secrets from those who have weathered the storm.

In this summer of lousy economic news it was good to hear Tuesday that retail sales finally had a nice jump. It was the first increase in the past three months and a four percent rise over the prior year. The numbers for Philadelphia aren’t available yet, but my guess is that the region did equally as well.

Driving around the Philadelphia area I’ve noticed more than a few stores that have managed to not only survive these tough economic times, but seem to prosper as well. These are small shops and restaurants run by smart business people. These are the people who have likely benefited from the recently positive retail sales numbers. What are their secrets? I know what they are. I work with some of them. I shop with others. Here’s a few interesting things I’ve seen.

A Japanese restaurant I know well has a VIP List. Do you have one? It’s not very hard. They ask their customers to sign up with their name and email or leave a business card. They enter each name into an inexpensive database (try ACT or Zoho). And then once a month they send an email to their VIPs using an email service like Constant Contact or MailChimp. They offer coupons. They share new menu items. They wish customers a happy birthday. This kind of service keeps people coming back. And who’s going to turn down a dollar off a California roll, right?

A Chinese restaurant I occasionally go to does a lot of takeout business. They’ve configured their system so that when you call in you give them your phone number (I’m assuming some day soon the system will automatically recognize the caller ID), and they immediately know your last order. “Would you like the same as last time, Mr. Marks?” I’m often asked. A quick yes, or a slight modification, and I’m on my way.

Just by taking a look at my photo I’m sure it will come as no surprise to you that my visits to a barber are about as frequent as Ryan Howard’s visits to a batting cage. But my wife goes to the salon a lot, and one hair salon we know takes online reservations. I can imagine that it’s annoying to go to your hair stylist or barber and wait forever for them to take you. An online reservations system allows customers to make their requests, find a suitable time and date, and check prices all from their home computer or mobile device. It shows open times and even offers incentives to those customers who want to sign up at the salon’s slower periods. It’s convenient. It’s helpful to customers. It’s respectful of their busy schedules. And it’s useful for those business people who like to look at ahead at their bookings so they can schedule their employees or forecast cash flow. These systems are all readily available too. I like There are more complex systems, but this is a good service for the shopkeeper looking to start.

There’s an auto mechanic shop I know of that teaches its customers how to fix their own cars. Each Saturday they hold a car-repair class for beginners. They get anywhere from five to 15 people a week to show, and the numbers are growing. Are they giving away their closely held secrets? Not at all; they’re teaching their customers (particularly dopes like me who barely know how to change a tire) the very basics of the vehicle that they rely on every day. The classes improve customer relations and draw new people into their shop.

I love the retailers who respect their customers’ time. And as much as the “geniuses” at the Apple store in Suburban Square annoy me, I do admire the ease of doing a transaction there. Everything is mobile from either a device or a smart phone. You give a credit card; they swipe and email you the receipt. All the banking is automatically done. Restaurants in London do this. Starbucks just partnered with tech company Square to accomplish the same result. Getting your customers in and out of your shop as quickly as they desire makes them want to come back because they know it’s easy to do business with you. And collecting customer data (like email addresses) helps you keep them updated on sales and special offers. Just make sure you have their permission. Embracing mobile payments are helping smart retailers increase their revenues.

Retail sales are looking up, and I hope they keep going in that direction. Technology and a little common sense are helping some retailers in the area succeed. How about you?