In the fall of 1974, I got my first real job, with a real paycheck. It was during what historians have come to call the 1973-75 Recession, the worst economic time for the USA since the Great Depression, with record high unemployment and inflation, capped with the oil crisis.
In short, not the best of times in many ways for many people, and certainly tough on small businesses.
But I was lucky, and got a job in the neighborhood dry cleaning shop, one store of a small locally-owned chain. My boss was a tough old gal with cat-eye glasses, a bleached blonde beehive, and a will to succeed like I'd never seen. As she trained me, I asked a bunch of (naturally) stupid questions, and learned about much more than just how to run the cash register--this as my first lesson in marketing, and I learned three recession-proof marketing strategies.
The first thing I noticed was that there were tons of clothes coming in from a late summer promotion. These were bulk clean-only orders, with no pressing or steaming. Who in the world would want their clothes cleaned but not pressed, I wondered. And why would a dry cleaning shop want to clean so many clothes for practically nothing?
When I asked Esther about this, she explained that in the dry cleaning business, you had to establish a habit of going to the dry cleaners with your customers. She said that if a customer came in three times, you had a good customer until they moved, died, or we screwed up. She summed it up in an elegant "rule of three" sort of way: "You've got to bring 'em in, bring 'em back, and get them to bring their friends" to make money, she told me.
And it was a tough market, she reminded me. There were two other dry cleaning establishments within one block of this one, and she was determined to have the most clientele, the busiest shop, and the best buzz in the neighborhood. Esther was one sharp cookie; she had a rock-solid strategic marketing plan with three recession-proof strategies that still work today.
Since dry cleaning was considered relatively expensive, the best way to "bring 'em in" was to run bulk dry cleaning specials, she told me. Her first strategy included a direct mailing of 100 postcards to homeowners within one mile of the shop announcing the special offer of dry cleaning at 49 cents a pound, as well as a big sign in the front window with the same message. This was all she had to do to get a line new customers holding bundles, baskets and boxes of clothes that had been waiting to go to the dry cleaners (sometimes for years).
At the first visit to drop off the clothes, Esther added an upsell message to boost the overall ticket price as we took the orders: "Is there anything special in this bundle that you'd like pressed as well? I can offer you pressing at just $1 per piece." If the answer was no, no problem. If yes, we'd just increased the ticket price.
The second visit kicked in Esther's "bring 'em back" strategy: Since bulk cleaning didn't include pressing and steaming, we would ask (again) when the customers came in to pick up their cleaning if there is anything in this bundle that they wanted steamed and pressed, plus we gave them a coupon for two-for-one cleaning and pressing of any garment (including wedding dresses) that expired in two weeks.
Now, most people didn't bring in two wedding dresses, but that offer got their attention, so many folks would return for a third visit to drop off two suits, two winter coats, two silk blouses, or two other items for cleaning and pressing. This brought them back to the shop for the critical third visit that Esther said was the one that created the habit.
The fourth visit was to pick up the two-for-one offer, and that's when Esther hit them with the "bring their friends" (the retention and referral) strategy: She gave each customer a little business card size coupon with some special offer with a space they could write in their own name, that they could give their friends. For each coupon returned, we credited the giver with $1 off their order.
Yes, this required that we keep a little card file at the counter, but the customers loved the fact that we rewarded their referrals with discounts, and they were pleased to offer their friends the coupons with unadvertised special offers from us. Many customers became almost evangelical in their recruitment of new customers for us with this program, because they were delighted to be rewarded so well and so often.
Esther's powerful three-part recession-proof strategies worked like a charm. The shop became one of the highest earning in the small chain, and we blew the doors off the neighborhood competition, becoming the dry cleaner of choice for the neighborhood.
Esther's "bring 'em in, bring 'em back, and get 'em to bring their friends" strategies were powerful enough to triumph over the harshest economic environment the country had seen in decades, and they can work in this economic environment too.
The only question now is, how will you "bring 'em in, bring 'em back, and get 'em to bring their friends"?