Businesses test tried-and-true tactics to offset soft economy |

Businesses test tried-and-true tactics to offset soft economy

Steve Lipsherslipsher@summitdaily.comSummit County, CO Colorado

SUMMIT COUNTY Instead of waiting for the economy to turn around, Scott Magnuson is doing somthing about it at least within the walls of his Breckenridge gift shop.We try to stay on top of things. We take care of customers when they come in. We try to keep our store looking fresh, said Magnuson, who, along with his wife, Jan, owns Creatures Great & Small on the historic towns Main Street.It may sound like a simple formula, but it has allowed the merchant to avoid some of the drastic dropoffs in sales in some cases 50 percent or more afflicting some of his cohorts.Customer service is the key, said Magnuson, who has owned the shop for 22 years. Customers in Breckenridge dont always get the best customer service.But the Magnusons and their two employees take an interest in everyone who comes through the door, he said, patiently answering questions and even referring customers to competitors if they dont find what they want.Even though were right across the street from an information center, they treat us like an information center, he said.To be certain, Magnuson acknowledged that sales are off from the highs established just last year, but that personal touch is what brings customers back, said Sharon Russell, executive director of the Summit Chamber.The biggest thing that we as a community can do to make a difference is to provide that dazzle customer experience, Russell said. When you walk into Creatures Great & Small, they treat you like theyre your long-lost friend.

As businesses throughout the high country cope with the economic downturn, Russell believes those who go the extra mile will be catapulted to greater heights during the rebound.When that will happen, however, remains a mystery, she said.Anecdotal evidence, however, seems to indicate that perhaps the turnaround is occuring. Real-estate agents have reported getting more phone calls in recent weeks, and reservations for spring break look solid, Russell said.Still, sales-tax revenue in Summit County dipped 2.2 percent in 2008, the first drop since 2003, and the December figures were off 14.2 percent from the previous year.Many budget-minded travelers are electing to stay at less-expensive lodging and cook their own meals this year, and often they are forgoing the unessential souvenirs or spending less on them.As opposed to buying three higher-priced, big items, they might buy six smaller items, Magnuson said.Summit is not alone. Sales-tax collections in Vail were down 6.5 percent in December compared with the previous year. In Aspen, retail sales dropped 20 percent in January over the same month in 2008, and lodging was off 19 percent.

Ski areas, the economic drivers of the resort communities, still are struggling to attract visitors who are keeping a close eye on their wallets.Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz, operator of Keystone and Breckenridge, said the company isnt immune from the national economy.I think its nervous, every time you see bigger company laying off folks. Theres no question jobs have to stabilize before were going to see the economy pick up, Katz said earlier this month in an appearance on CNBCs Squawk Box.Vail Resorts is the largest employer in Summit County, and its local ski resorts brought 2.75 million visits to the slopes here last season.While the company does have a core group of skiers that are passionate about skiing, Vail Resorts still is going to be affected by the wider economy.In terms of seeing some real growth going forward, you have to see the job situation improve, Katz said.An analyst with Deutsche Bank last week predicted that the companys earnings report, expected Wednesday, will be much lower than originally predicted.All that means is that the visitors who do come through the doors deserve special treatment, Russell said.They may be spending less money, but theyll come back when things are better, too.

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