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“Think local, buy local.” It’s a popular ideology that casts mom-and-pop businesses as friendly neighbors that play a vital role in the local economy. By patronizing local businesses, consumers are not only supporting those businesses, but also the community as a whole.
And for an industry that competes against big box stores and online vendors, the “think local” philosophy isn’t just a nice platitude — it’s a solid strategy for better business. One person who knows is Blair Lynch, director of operations at Mermaid Pool, Spa & Patio, which has locations in Anderson and Muncie, Ind.
“It’s harder to keep customers loyal, especially the new customers,” he says. “So we have to find a way for the people that are ‘new water,’ who have never owned a pool before or owned a spa before, to stay interested in purchasing from us.”
Below, Lynch tells us a few different ways Mermaid reaches out within the community and how it helps the business thrive.
“We’ve been in business now for 35 years, and one of the things we know is that we have to be involved within our community,” Lynch says. “We have to have that face-to-face presence, because people do business with the people they know.”
To start, Mermaid aligns itself with causes that excite and engage local interest. For example, 2012 saw the Walking Man event, a program that unites artists, small businesses and the local community. For the event, local businesses purchase a blank 15-foot-tall sculpture — as the name implies, each statue is shaped like a walking man — and collaborate with a local artist, who transforms the blank canvas into a one-of-a-kind creation. The statues are then placed in front of each sponsoring establishment, drawing new attention to the business. It demonstrates solidarity with local arts groups and the community at large, Lynch says.
The staff at Mermaid is also encouraged to participate in community efforts on their own. Lynch, for example, volunteers on the executive committee for a local tennis tournament, which requires year-round planning.
“It’s an opportunity for me to promote our business through advertising as well as promote our business by just being at the courts and talking to people,” he says. “Through our research, we’ve found that tends to be a pretty good demographic for us. It’s worked out pretty well and it’s something I enjoy.”
In recent years, Mermaid has begun a new tradition: an annual customer appreciation night, which serves as both a fun night for guests and a chance for Mermaid staff to get some of that precious face-to-face time. Each year has a different theme and corresponding food and drinks; this year’s bash was Jimmy Buffet/Margaritaville themed and saw about 150 guests.
“It’s kind of become one of those things that our customers look forward to. At the start of the summer, they ask, ‘What’s your theme this year?’ It’s always a lot of fun for us to put on the event. It’s a lot of work, but I think it pays off in the long run.”
The cash register is also open to assist customers who wish to make a purchase, yet Lynch emphasizes that making sales isn’t the point of the evening.
“The purpose is for us to thank our customers and also for them to invite their friends if they would like,” he says. “It’s really kind of a hands-off approach to a sale where we’re just spending time with our customers who have always been loyal to us. It’s always one of the funnest nights of the year.”
Smaller customer appreciation events happen more frequently. “We’ll do spot promotions throughout the summer; we’ll send customers a mass email and say, ‘Stop in next Thursday for lunch on us. We’ll be cooking on our Big Green Egg.’ We do little things that you might think don’t matter, but customers really respect those efforts, and I think that’s why they want to come back to the store.”
While these events are great for customer retention, drawing in entirely new customers takes real creativity, Lynch says. “You kind of have to think outside the box to catch business outside the pool store.”
One way Mermaid does this is by partnering with the local meat shop in a form of cross-promotion. The meat store promotes the Big Green Egg grills found at Mermaid, and in turn, Mermaid gives a gift certificate to the meat shop with each grill purchase.
“Last year, we raffled off a Big Green Egg at the meat market store, so people that normally wouldn’t come into Mermaid Pools because they don’t think we sell grills are going into a meat market and they’re seeing the Big Green Egg sitting there. It works out for both parties.”
Lynch says all these events, both in the store and outside it, the volunteer work and the cross-promotion with other small businesses are more than just good for business — they’re good things to do, and they get people talking.
“What we’ve always found is that the main goal of our business isn’t advertising and promotion. That’s part of it, but where we really get new business is through word of mouth, through people telling people what we’ve done,” he says.
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