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Local businesses have been clamoring for our local dollars recently. Their outside competition, whether on TV, in the mail, or on the internet, is finally finding our pocketbooks and funneling our money out of town. This Christmas, many local vendors are trying to devise ways of stopping these long-distance market-theives from taking away business from the local merchant.

I'm all in favor of local business getting more attention. To be truthful, however, there are places where local vendors could improve upon. Quite a few, in fact. Rather than just have some people in suits and ties think about what they might be able to do to better their companies, I will specify what businesses can start doing right now to get customers to actually spend money at their stores.

Have clean bathrooms! Yeah, sure, it sounds trivial. But hey, since people use bathrooms in stores so infrequently, it shouldn't be too hard to keep them clean! I remember a lot of store bathrooms I've been inside. One commode I remember was a repulsive-looking one in a grocery store. Needless to say, I ended up having a low regard for their clean-up crew... and in a grocery store!

No smoking? Put down an ashtray! Yes, even in no smoking places, you need ashtrays. Would you rather have a smoker see a sign and, after not seeing a place to put his burning butt, have him flick the hot nub into the garbage, which could cause the burning down of your building?

Give us stuff for free that's cheap! Sure, maybe this practice has gone out of style recently, but it really makes sense! I. Keating furniture in Minot gives away free popcorn all day long to its customers. This is something memorable, that I can still remember, even though I last visited there seven years ago. And popcorn, it must cost, what, ten cents for a bag of kernels the size of a small university? It's cheap and effective! Why they'd have buttery, greasy popcorn in a furniture beats me, though...

Make things self explanatory. If there are some rules that not everyone knows, make it so everyone will know as soon as they step into your store. This means having "No Smoking" signs in clear view from the front door, prices in print large enough for people with sight problems to read it, items put in logical places in the store, and a sign that clearly shows where you can get the free popcorn.

No loud TV ads. Please, we're filled with enough noise pollution as it is. Have a heart, cut back on idiotic loud noises, and everyone will thank you.

No web site unless it'd really be useful. I may be hurting my own web site designing a little bit here, but really, before you venture out into the internet, really think about if you belong there. Almost every business can benefit in some way by way of the internet, but it takes many businesses a long time to figure out what can really help them. That's evident if you take a look at all the bad, content-less web sites on the web already!

Now you're going to mention that question all local merchants hate to hear, "what about the higher local prices?" Well, I for one like having a person right here in town, that I can talk (and complain) with face-to-face. Also, if I'm really impressed with something in particular, I'd like to be able to let someone know about that, as well. Complimenting businesspeople on what they do well will help you, the customer, as well. If they know you like "Multi 'Purr'pose Cat Soapwort," they'll try to keep it in stock.

Finally, let me finish by telling everyone, even those who are just thinking about starting their own business, one thing: make sure you have something of value. Sure, a store with the name, "Hey Karl, spend your article-writing cash here!" could pop up tomorrow with spotless bathrooms, free pop and popcorn, and a silent TV ad. However, what would be the point? Would this business be happy that they're just clogging up the business world with another pointless enterprise? I suppose if they wanted me to design heykarl.com, with secure online ordering...

No animals. Yes, keep those animals out of your store, unless you are, of course, a restaurant. If you're serving food, have all the hair possible floating around in the air! We consumers love to see animals strutting their stuff while we eat our omelette.

Don't tell the customers what we want to do. I don't want to walk into a store and be told, "Hey, look over here! All the other stuff in the store is unnecessary, this is the main thing you want!" Let us look! Sure, give us some suggestions, but don't overwhelm us!

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Karl Becker, the author of all these articles, uses New Tricks for his writings.

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