Our View: Time to change

Local businesses must renew commitment to customer service as Wal-Mart prepares to open

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Is there a difference between a customer and a guest?

According to the Target Corporation, yes.

Its reasoning: You treat guests differently than you would someone just shopping for a product. You go out of your way to make sure your guest is taken care of, regardless of the need.

Target's philosophy hits the bull's eye. It is a perspective some Craig businesses should adopt with Wal-Mart coming to town within a year.

The good news is some Craig shops already have that guest service view -- The Kitchen Shop, M.J.K. Sales and Feed Ace Hardware, Kester Jewelry and Downtown Books to name a few. It was also a solid Christmas season for local businesses, said Christina Currie, the Chamber of Commerce director, so at least part of a solid foundation is in place.

The bad news? Positive business practices clearly have not made their way to all Craig shops. Too many businesses offer inconsistent and inconvenient hours, limited selection, and temperamental employee attitudes. In contrast, Wal-Mart, if nothing else, will offer lower prices and swift service.

"(Craig) businesses seem to have no middle ground in terms of customer service," Currie said. "... You can see from top to bottom the companies that really put an emphasis on customer service, and you can see it in businesses that don't."

Businesses that lack guest service likely will lack a reason to be open after Wal-Mart is in town.

The one effective weapon existing businesses will have against the Wal-Mart juggernaut is good, neighborly service. That is, good attitude, reasonable hours and a wide selection. And when good service is a business's norm, Wal-Mart and existing businesses can benefit each other.

To help existing Craig businesses with Wal-Mart's arrival, the Chamber of Commerce will put on at least one seminar that focuses on how to deal with big-box stores.

Currie also would like to offer customer service training classes specific to individual businesses.

Those are proactive steps and commendable, but are they enough? No.

Developing a strong relationship with Wal-Mart will be important.

"Other Wal-Mart stores have created a great partnership with the local retail community," Currie said, "and (those Wal-Mart stores) have agreed to -- in their advertising, in their store fronts -- ... (having something) that says don't forget to shop downtown and having a little map to do that."

Whether that happens in Craig depends on Wal-Mart's management team, Currie said.

Regardless, if Craig's Wal-Mart management agrees to do that, more still could and should be done. The city also must put up signage that will direct people to both the Wal-Mart and the town's many other shops.

And Craig businesses should encourage people to shop at Wal-Mart, because as Currie put it, "studies do show that when businesses encourage each other, the entire community benefits."

Another factor to consider: Steamboat Springs.

Just more than 17 percent of Craig residents commute to Steamboat Springs for work. Most studies show that people shop where they work unless their home location gives them a reason to shop local.

Thanks to Steamboat's higher prices and specialty shop focus, Currie said Craig doesn't suffer a lot in retail losses to Steamboat. Where Craig loses money is people going to Wal-Mart stores in other cities. With Wal-Mart coming, Currie believes it will offset some of that retail leakage.

Still, Steamboat will play a role in Craig's business future. Wal-Mart is the first domino in what could be a line of big-chain companies to make their way to Craig, especially considering the Steamboat City Council's recent decision to limit commercial developers to 40,000 square feet in city limits.

This excludes corporations such as Home Depot; Bed, Bath and Beyond; Lowe's; Office Depot; and, well, Target. It also could stop bookstores like Barnes and Nobles and Borders from setting up shop.

If those companies begin looking to move to Northwest Colorado, and word is, some already have, Craig is a likely place for them to come.

And that just makes guest service in current Craig businesses even more important. A reputation of guest service needs to be further built before competition arives.

Because Craig can be a place that thrives if Wal-Mart and other big chains deliver low prices and customer service while local shops treat people better than customers. But like guests.

Guests who will come back, again and again.

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