Two weeks ago, Toys ‘R’ Us announced that it had acquired eToys.com (as well as BabyUniverse.com and ePregnancy.com). While Toys ‘R’ Us claims that eToys.com will continue to operate as a seperate entity from toysrus.com, this acquisition is another blow to the consumer. As smaller and mid sized toy retailers go bankrupt or get purchased, the consumer will see less and less choices. With fewer companies in control of toy retail, there is less opportunity for product variety, new manufacturers, innovation, etc. And, again, the consumer suffers.
It seems like the current situation with the American economy, coupled with the significant boost in regulations relative to the toy industry, is already resulting in, not the survival of the fittest, but the survival of the biggest. Unfortunately, small toy manufacturers and smaller independent toy retailers may be the ones who end up suffering the most. Hopefully, that is not the case in the long run. Because if it is, the end game is one or two corporations (like Wal-Mart – hint, hint) in complete control of the industry. When that happens, and it is a lot closer than you think, quality goes down, consumer choice goes down, and prices go up.
2009. The year of change.
Maybe more likely, the year of trepidation….
Certainly, all of us small business owners, or whatever you would like to call us, are a bit shell shocked as we start the new year. The 2008 economy performed dismally and most of us think 2009 will be worse.
So, I received a phone call about a month ago from a reporter for the Capital District Business Review. She was working on an article regarding the attitudes of business owners like myself relative to the economic state of affairs. I thought the article was very good in principle, so I let her interview me. I had a couple of previous experiences with this reporter, so it seemed like a good opportunity.
As we were discussing the current state of things, I began to open up about the concern I had for our business – especially the portion which depends on the local economy. Upstate NY is certainly leading the way these days as far as this economic downturn goes….
In any event, I am always incredibly wary of talking negatively about any of our business ventures. If customers feel your business is in trouble, they will most often stop buying from you. You would like to hope the opposite would be true, that people would rush to support a local business if they thought they were struggling — but that just is not reality.
Despite this concern, I spent about 45 minutes with the reporter explaining that indeed, like all other small business owners in Upstate New York (and the rest of the country) we are very concerned about 2009. This is the worst economy that most of us have seen in our lifetimes, so we would be naive at best to not be concerned. Of course, I explained – and was sure to repeat myself 3 distinct times – that I did not want to be featured in the article if it was not also added that our technology company enjoyed actual growth in 2008 and that our diversification efforts would help us stay viable. I emphasized the fact that this needed to be part of the article, because a business experiencing any growth in 2008 in Upstate NY was quite an accomplishment. And, again, no one every wants to appear in an article that describes one’s business as struggling.
SO, the article came out and my headshot ended up on the front page of the Capital District Business Review with the headline ‘Survival mode': businesses pessimistic about ’09. It was explained that I was very concerned about our survival and there was absolutely NO MENTION of the growth of our technology business.
I proceeded to send a “Thank you very much” email to the reporter who immediately called and apologized. Apparently, they didn’t see it that way. They would now like to do another story on the positive sides of our business….
Finally, to the point at hand: Reputation Management. What do we do? Do we no longer talk to the press? I don’t think that is reality. While I do not agree with Brendan Behan who said, “There is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary”, Brendan was an author and obviously not a business owner, I do think that you have to keep putting yourself out there and talking to reporters and trying to get your message out. When you have a flattering piece written by a neutral third party there is nothing like it from a marketing standpoint. Of course, you have to be careful and a little selective. For instance, it may not be a good idea for me to speak to this particular reporter again.
But beyond that, we were able to respond to this article through our company web sites:
Gile Companies Response
With these type of responses, hopefully we can reach the same audience that might read the article in the Business Review. That is certainly why it is important to regularly communicate with your customers through your web site, through blogs, through other social media and, maybe most importantly, through email.
These are all things we need to get better at. We need to regularly communicate with our customers and hopefully our prospects, so if this type of thing occurs we can contact them and spin it the right way before they even see it.
Perhaps even more importantly, with these avenues established and well-trodden, we can then better distribute good press like this article in On Point – The Gile Companies: Blending Buy Local Marketing and High Tech Products and take advantage of flattering publicity.