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How to Buy Air Time, Whether to Sue or Prosecute Shoplifters and How Much Time to Spend Volunteering

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Our Main Street is scheduled to undergo major roadwork for three months. What can we do to limit the disruption?

Sound the trumpet. This is an issue that requires a united and well-organized front from local businesses to negotiate with city officials and the contractors to ease the impact. Generally, contractors are willing to work with small businesses to negotiate sidewalk access, change routes and signage, and alter schedules or even suspend work to accommodate special events, critical business days or other peak shopping periods — they just need lots of notice.
Your local chamber of commerce or merchants association can try any or all of these tactics: Be sure there is a business-community representative at every planning meeting. Set up a communications system — a Facebook page, a regular email or SMS alert — to update everyone on the project’s progress. Start planning special events or awareness campaigns to let customers know what’s happening and how they can access your business. Brainstorm ways to keep people visiting the downtown district. Ideas could include “A retailer/restaurant of the week” campaign or promotional “roadwork currency” that can be used at any local business. And think about extra outreach. Could you visit clients at their homes, start a pick-up and delivery service, extend business hours, do pop-ups or even sell more online? Urban Tails Pet Supply in Minneapolis, MN, faced with a similar construction challenge, managed to boost its online ordering by double from the year before.

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We can’t afford an ad agency. What should I know about approaching a radio station to buy air time?

The first thing to know is that TV and radio stations love customers who buy direct, says Andy Malis, CEO of ad agency MGH. But the reason should give you pause: “Because they know you don’t what you’re doing,” Malis says. He recommends you call your local station and ask the sales manager for the names of a few freelance media buyers they work with. “Choose one that buys for a variety of other local businesses. They’ll charge a lot less than a full-service agency, but they’ll know how to choose the right stations and programs, and more importantly, they’ll know the best rates.”

I appreciate that giving back is a smart way to run a business, and it feels good personally, but community work can also be a distraction. Are there guidelines for ensuring we get the balance right?

In terms of the personal benefits, different studies done in the U.S. and Australia over the last two decades have concluded that about 100 hours of volunteering a year, or two hours a week, yields the optimum return in terms of happiness, satisfaction and self-esteem. The studies found there were no benefits — for the volunteer, that is— of doing more than that. As for your business, coming up with a similarly strict “cut-off point” is prudent. Salesforce.com, for example, uses what it calls its “1 percent” formula: 1 percent of company profits, 1 percent of company equity and 1 percent of employee hours all go to the communities it serves. The clarity of such a cap not only provides a guideline for this expenditure of energy and other resources, but makes it easier for you to deal with requests from your community for your time or money: “We wish we could help, but for now we are concentrating all our community efforts through …XYZ.” When it comes to helping others, a soft heart and a hard head are often the best combination.

Which should I do — prosecute shoplifters or sue them in court?

Actually you can often do both, and it can be possible to collect damages without even going to court. “In almost all 50 states, laws have been enacted that give retailers the right to demand and collect money damages from adult or juvenile shoplifters as a civil cause of action,” notes Peter Berlin, founder of the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention. “This right does not generally negate retailers’ existing right to pursue criminal prosecution in the courts as well. These ‘civil recovery’ laws, as they are often called, are designed to help retailers offset their high merchandise losses and their added cost for security. They also act as a deterrent for offenders, especially among the parents of juveniles who tend to take their child’s shoplifting behavior more seriously when they have to pay a $100 to $500 ‘civil demand’ from the retailer.” Berlin further suggests that community-spirited retailers might wish to reduce their civil demands if shoplifters are willing to enroll in and complete a rehabilitation program such as Shoplifters Anonymous.

Since launching in 2017, PETS+ has won 14 major international journalism awards for its publication and website. Contact PETS+'s editors at editor@petsplusmag.com.

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Why You Need a Will, Yes, You Have to Give Minors a Refund and 3 Other Burning Questions Answered

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I’m planning an end-of-year company party, but one concern is that somebody might get drunk and have a car accident and I might get sued. Got any advice on protecting myself?

These days, the Grinch must be a lawyer. Concerns about liability for alcohol-related incidents, sexual harassment and workers’ compensation claims have led many companies to forgo holiday galas entirely. You don’t have to. But if you’re really afraid, lawyer Anil Khosla, writing in Inc. Magazine, suggests the following steps to reduce your liability: “1. To distance the business from the party, make it an entirely social event, don’t invite clients or vendors, and make sure employees know that attendance is voluntary. 2. Plan accordingly. Hold your gathering off-site if possible. That may shift some of the potential liability to the hotel, restaurant or caterer. If you must have an on-site party, hire an independent caterer. Don’t permit anyone from the company to serve alcohol, and instruct bartenders to stop serving anyone who seems inebriated. Lawyers advise avoiding an open bar— or, at the very least, limiting it to the first hour. Also, close the bar at least one hour before the party ends. 3. Consider providing transportation to and from the event. Make sure that cabs will be available, and appoint someone to suggest cab rides home for people who have had a few too many.”

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Photo of Adorable Service Dogs in Theater Gets Viral Attention (VIDEO)

Video: Help Customers Understand What Makes Your Pet Business Unique
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How do you know when a new employee can’t be saved? How much time should you give someone?

When you have coached someone carefully and repeatedly, invested large amounts of energy, and they show no signs of improvement, that’s a solid signal you probably need to act. The clincher comes when their co-workers start showing their frustration and stop trying to help the person. This is often at about the three- or four-month mark. A lot of bosses will let it drag on past that, but it’s really in everyone’s interest for both parties to pursue new opportunities.

I haven’t gotten around to writing a will yet. What would happen to my business if I died unexpectedly?

When there’s no will, state law (“interstate succession” statutes) usually takes charge of your estate. “Each state has precise laws about who gets what when there is no will, and there are differences among the states,” says Norman M. Boone, a nationally renowned financial adviser. “In California, for example, the spouse inherits all the deceased spouse’s community property, but the separate property is shared with the children. In New Jersey, your spouse gets the first $50,000 of your estate and one-half of the rest; your children get everything else. If the children are minors in either state, then the court appoints someone to manage their property (including your business), and then supervises their activities, which involves more intrusion and more expense. The children receive their inheritance at age 18. For singles, the assets are parceled out to relatives in an order determined by state law. Usually children, parents and then siblings are first in line. Friends, lovers (even domestic partners) or charities are left out.” Without a will, there is always a chance the estate will be fought over by the above claimants, a process that can drag out and potentially ruin a business. Don’t like those prospects? What are you waiting for? Write that will!

I have a no-return stipulation on all my products. But somebody told me that if a minor buys, for example, a hamster wheel from me, they have the right to return it for a full refund and I can’t do anything about it. Is this true?

It is true in most states. And it’s something many merchants are unaware of. Basically, it comes down to what the law regards as “capacity to contract” — something minors are considered to lack but which is an essential element of any valid commercial agreement. In most retail situations, minors thus have a right to disaffirm a contract and demand the return of their money in exchange for the good also being returned in perfect pre-sale condition. The law doesn’t state, however, you must return the money immediately, and if you’re up for it, you can insist Mom or Dad enforce the big-spending youngster’s right to disaffirmance in a court of law. Faced with such a prospect, the child or his parents are likely to come to something approximating a reasonable arrangement.

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Ask Us Anything: Helicopter Managing, AMEX Cards, 2020 Planning

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I got really angry at a customer the other day and left a nasty message on their voicemail. So, OK, I’ve lost that client. But how can I keep this from happening again?

If you feel anger management is an issue that’s affecting many parts of your life, go see a mental-health professional. However, if you’re like the rest of us, and anger is more a cause for periodic embarrassment or regret, we fully recommend business author Tony Schwartz’s Golden Rule of Triggers, which is “Whatever you feel compelled to do, don’t.” Instead, he says, take a deep breath, and “feel your feet” — a distraction tactic that allows you to pull your head out of the red mist. Different from the old “take a deep breath” or to “count to 10” advice, Schwartz recommends interpreting any sign of compulsive behavior as an indication that the action is probably imprudent. Rather than battling compulsion, his rule co-opts it as a warning system.

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PETS+ LIVE!

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I’ll admit I’m a helicopter manager, but if I didn’t keep an eye on everything and intervene, nothing would get done properly. How can I get my staff to show more initiative and responsibility?

It sounds as if you’ve micromanaged your staff into drones. Basically, you’ve got two options: Go big picture, where you give them ownership of their responsibilities on a day-to-day basis, or go small, where every procedure and system is mapped out in detail. The first requires employees with the right personality and experience who will know what to do when you say, “OK, our goal is to wow every person who comes in. Go to it!” The second requires a lot of work from you in putting systems in place and providing the necessary training. In such cases, one approach is to imagine that you’re planning to open another business 3,000 miles away and put in writing everything you’d want the remote employees to know — from how to run the POS system to how to make deposits to whom to call if there’s a problem with the building. With such a reference, you’d be able to step aside and, in theory, be confident your staff would be equipped to tackle most situations. Keep in mind, though, that these situations often reflect as much about the manager as the staff. Taking action is how micromanagers deal with anxiety — just as surrendering control is how under-functioning staff deal with challenges. Breaking the pattern is tough, because the manager needs to step back and do less, which means potentially letting bad things happen and tolerating the resulting anxiety. Can you handle that?

I keep hearing contradictory advice: Set goals or don’t set them. What’s your take?

There are three main arguments against setting goals: One, that they can lead people to focus on the wrong things (by, for example, becoming too aggressive in chasing sales targets) or cut ethical corners; two, that they become demotivating when it becomes clear they can’t be reached; and three, that it’s healthier and more satisfying to live your life focused on the present rather than constantly looking ahead to a future when something might be accomplished. The secret to smart goal setting then is to do it in a way that addresses these problem areas. That means:

1) Set challenging goals but don’t make a big deal of it if someone, including yourself, falls short.
2) Structure goals that focus on behaviors, so your people are learning and improving rather than wildly chasing a financial goal.
3) Be specific. Setting vague goals can produce higher rates of success with motivated staff, but if your employees are normal human beings, being specific will prevent procrastination.
4) Make the first couple of milestones easy so that people can build momentum toward the major goal. Progress is a HUGE motivator.
5) And finally, don’t make goals a death march, have fun trying to accomplish them.

What’s the best way to tell a customer you’d really rather not take their American Express card?

To be sure, there are reasons to wish they just would leave home without it. AMEX’s extra charges and reputation for slow payment are annoying, but once you make it clear through store signage that you accept all major cards, you don’t have much of choice but to take their American Express card with a smile. “Don’t ever, ever, ever, ask your customer, ‘Oh, do you have another card?’ In terms of customer service, that’s just plain lame,” says Rick Segel, author of Retail Business Kit for Dummies. Remember, your customer might be saving up points for a reward, or may be close to their limit on their other card, and your hesitancy to take their card puts them in an awkward position, he says.

As I start my financial planning for 2020, do you recommend a bottom-up or top-down approach?

It’s a new year, a new beginning … start at the bottom. “Top down is quicker but invariably leads to existing costs being left in rather than being properly evaluated,” says David Brown, CEO of the Edge Retail Academy. Brown explains that he asks his clients to set the financial goals they want to achieve and then work backward to determine the sales and earnings they are going to need to achieve those targets. “This results in a complete budgeting process,” he says. “If an owner has planned a retirement nest egg in 10 years and they know they need $50,000 into a retirement plan each year to reach the goal, it provides them with the incentive to hit the sales target each year.”

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A Real-Life How-To on Putting a Shoplifter in Her Place

And how to deal with a sales person who can’t close a sale …

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I’ve got a person on staff who simply adores dogs, and she almost never fails to strike up a lengthy conversation with customers, but for the life of me, I can’t teach her how to close the sale! Help!

“Failure to close is most often a combination of lack of basic skill and fear of being too forward, or pushy,” says Kate Peterson of retail consultancy Performance Concepts. Be aware, she says, that you can’t effectively teach closing as a separate and disassociated thing. If your team member is good at engaging the customer in conversation, focus on teaching her how to make emotional connections between what the customer wants and what the merchandise provides and to listen for signals that indicate it’s time to close. When it comes to more expensive items or services, remind her that most customers are often looking for permission to pull the trigger. “Providing good service means giving it to them by asking for the sale,” says Peterson. There are also situations, when your salespeople will be grateful to be “let off the hook” with a particularly chatty customer via a personal intervention from the boss, meaning you.

What if I see a customer go to steal an item and then put it back?

Ain’t much you can do, says Rick Segel, author of Retail for Dummies. “The police don’t arrest people for contemplating shoplifting.” Make it obvious this person has caught your attention and hope they don’t come back. The staff at Paddywack in Mill Creek, WA, had just such a situation recently, reports owner Shane Somerville: “We had a customer quickly put on one of our hoodies for sale, then put her coat on over it and pretended like it was hers. Luckily, our team realized it was our merchandise and made like she was buying it because it’s such a great sweatshirt! She realized she was busted and immediately acted like she was just trying it on but ‘decided not to buy it’ and quickly left.”

One of the questions I always get, and always hate, is “Do you have to charge sales tax?” How should I answer this?

Here’s a simple way to diffuse this sneaky discount ploy. Look the customer in the eye, smile, and say, “Actually, I don’t charge sales tax. I collect it.” They’ll get the point. And while everybody wants the best deal, they’ll trust you more for it. Because if you’d cheat on your taxes, how could a customer trust you to take care of one of the most important “possessions” in their life?

My brother, who is the oldest, assumed leadership of the business, but I don’t feel he pulls his weight. What should I do?

The icky truth is you’re going to have to confront your brother. Leaving such matters to fester only makes them worse and imperils the business. Call a meeting with your brother and consider using the DESC conflict-resolution method:

  • Describe: Outline the problem. Be careful to avoid using judgmental language.
  • Express: Let him know your concerns of what will happen if things don’t change.
  • Specify. Tell your brother what you’d like him to do to make things better. Be as specific as possible. Example: “It’s important you’re here on Saturdays …”
  • Consequences: Cite the consequences that will occur when the behavior is changed — a better-run store, more profit for everyone.

Through all this, remember to really listen to your brother’s side of things and stay clear of the question of who’s right and wrong.

I know I should be focused on my business, but I get an almost warped glee out of competing fiercely with the unethical mill-puppy-selling schmuck up the road. There’s nothing wrong with having such an enemy, is there?

Indeed, there’s plenty of psychological research that testifies to the fact that humans partly enjoy having enemies. They clarify the world for us and bolster our sense of righteousness. So sure, why not channel this sometimes less-than-admirable truth to good ends? And it’s certainly easier to keep an eye on what your rivals are up to in the internet era. The only thing we’d say is that you don’t lose sight of who your real enemy is. Is it the guy so bad at business he’s cutting legal corners, or is it an online retailer, or something else — like your own complacency, inertia, or fear of change — that poses an existential threat to your business? Enjoy your day-to-day skirmishes with the schmuck up the road, use it to motivate yourself, but channel your energies into evolving and growing your business.

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