The Daily Tar Heel

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Saturday December 3rd

Mom-and-Pop Business Practices Can Be Applied to New Economy

I returned home to western North Carolina to find similar discussions and concern. In terms of economic conditions, I also found strikingly opposite circumstances.

The furniture industry is the lifeblood of my hometown, Lenoir. In terms of the title "furniture capital of the world," it is second only to High Point, N.C. If the furniture industry dies, so does the town.

As the nation's economy sluggishly moves toward what might or might not be a recession, furniture work in Lenoir has slowed, with some workers being laid off from their jobs. While Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and other economic gurus attempt to stop the bleeding and turn the economy around, the mood in Lenoir among the majority of furniture workers is one of doubt. Some say they've seen this before, and the big furniture corporations can and will pull through a recession, but all agree that at least for now, work is slow.

Contrast this with some of Lenoir's so-called "mom and pop" businesses, which seem to be doing well. A perfect case in point is the dry-cleaning business that my grandfather owns -- one of the oldest in town -- and where I spent many summers earning a little spending money. This business is an original, a throwback from the good ol' days when chewing gum was 5 cents, and Coca-Cola was a dime. The dry cleaner is thriving because it is exactly what it needs to be: A mom-and-pop business that has developed a customer base over the years that harbors intense loyalty, whether through boom or recession.

Lenoir Cleaner's is indeed old-fashioned. It doesn't accept credit cards because it doesn't have a credit card machine. The books are not kept on any computer, and files are actually put in the file cabinet.

The telephone is an old rotary-dial model and certainly doesn't have call waiting.

The old men who used to work alongside my grandfather, who have long since retired, still come by on a daily basis. They come inside and sit around like old men used to do in the country store, straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. And of course, they talk about the things old men talk about: good times, hard times, the weather, and their gardens.

They've been around the dry cleaners as long as it has been in the town, and they are family.

My grandfather conducts business the old-fashioned way as well.

Salesmen make their deals with my grandfather through a handshake rather than a signature. Relationships have been formed that have endured the test of time, and everyone received a square deal. His employees are treated fairly. In turn, they give an honest day's work for an honest day's pay.

The customers get the same type of treatment. The business has always made it a priority to satisfy the customer to the fullest, no matter what the situation or cost. "Oh, your dress isn't clean, we're sorry. Here, let us clean it again, no charge."

"Oh, you forgot your checkbook, no big deal, you can pay us next time."

Because the customers are treated in such a manner, and service is given with a smile, the business is rewarded. Lenoir's residents know where to take their clothing if they want to be treated fairly and to their satisfaction. Customers don't forget the old-fashioned way, and consequently, their loyalty for the business continues to grow.

Sadly, no matter what the direction of the economy, the mom-and-pop business continues to fade away from the American landscape. Chain stores and corporate businesses move in, and take away a business that was once unique. It has become more and more rare in today's society to receive the type of old-fashioned customer service that was once the norm.

Chain stores don't let old men sit around the back and talk about the things old men talk about. The customer isn't always right anymore. Chewing gum doesn't cost 5 cents anymore, nor is Coca-Cola 10 cents. Most businesses take credit cards and certainly have the call-waiting feature on their telephone service. But make no mistake about it, being modern doesn't always translate into being successful.

A lot of businesses, particularly in light of today's economic conditions, would do well to follow the tried and tested methods of the mom-and-pop business. They should remember the customer is always right and that sometimes, old men can be good company.

Wesley White is a senior economics and history major from Lenoir. Send him job offers at wsw@email.unc.edu.

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