"I don't want a bunch of people walking into my business with no intention of purchasing anything." This mentality drives me crazy.
Once I was in my favorite store, Apple, spending a great deal of time and money. As I was on my spending spree, I needed a bathroom. I asked the Apple associate where the nearest public restroom was, and she responded, "You can use the one at the smoothie place next door." So I ran next door and did so. As I was leaving I saw that they had smoothies and wraps, it was lunchtime, and I was pretty hungry. After I wrapped up my Apple purchase I went right back to the smoothie place and ordered my lunch and a smoothie.
As I was eating, I asked if the owner or operator was available. When he came out to my table, I thanked him for allowing people to use his restroom. His face changed to agitated. He said, "Did Apple tell you that you could use our restroom? Our restrooms are only for our paying customers." I said, "But I didn't even know your business existed until I ran in here to use the bathroom, and as a result I purchased my lunch here." He responded, "Well, we've been here for nine years." Now I was sorry I purchased anything from this location, even though both the smoothie and wrap were pretty good.
This operator didn't get it. The entire reason you pay such high rent to be next to an Apple store is for increased awareness and foot traffic. The only thing better than foot traffic outside your store is foot traffic inside your store. I would take it one step further and give free smoothies to the Apple associates who tell their customers to use my restrooms. Drive traffic in my doors, please! Businesses must stop being worried about being taken advantage of and instead take advantage of opportunities to increase their brand awareness and demonstrate their friendliness.
In 2003, Jeff and Bill Smith opened Easy Money, a payday and check cashing financial institution based in Birmingham, Ala. Payday loan centers typically charge high interest rates to customers who may have fallen on hard times, need cash fast, and are limited in their options. The Smith brothers did something totally unconventional almost from the start: they put a Coke dispenser in the waiting area in each location so customers could enjoy a free soda as they waited. This became popular with customers and the neighborhood. Asked why they offered free Coke, Jeff said, "We wanted to get our name out there in the community. We wanted a way to connect with local people. We became known as the place that gives away free drinks." They also told customers who had paid off their loans to stop by, say hello, and have a free Coke.
People started coming in for a Coke -- sometimes only for a Coke -- which made managers concerned they were being taken advantage of. "I would have managers calling me all the time saying that people were asking if they could have more than one. And I would tell the managers to tell them to take as many as they wanted," Jeff said. "A manager would call and say a woman pulled up to the store and her kids ran in and grabbed some Cokes and ran out. I would say 'That is totally okay. More and more people are becoming aware of us, and we are training them to come in. Don't worry about how many Cokes people are taking.' Most people are skeptical about walking into a payday loan center. This humanized Easy Money to the neighborhood."
Not everyone in the neighborhood liked it. The local gas stations and C-stores started to complain that Easy Money was taking a bite out of their Coke business. Easy Money gave away so much Coke -- about 2 million drinks per year -- that the Smiths were earning trips reserved only for Coke's top customers. This became a $400,000 expense on their P&L. Even I was blown away by this. I asked Jeff if he ever thought about stopping the free Cokes and adding $400,000 to his bottom line. He said, "No way. I can't measure the goodwill and foot traffic we get, as well as being an integral part of the community."
How did this work out? Easy Money's revenues grew on average between 80 and 100 percent every year. They went from 4 employees and 2 locations to more than 250 employees and 21 locations before selling the company.
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