Surviving (and Thriving) Through Multiple Recessions

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As business owner, I’ve faced my fair share of economic turmoil since I opened the doors at Stave Puzzles in 1974. Rather than letting the fear that economic uncertainty brings dominate my business, I made a commitment to focus my efforts on making sure my doors remained open and my employees kept their jobs.

Over the years, I’ve learned several valuable lessons, ultimately making each recession I experienced less nerve-racking and easier to navigate. When the economy took a dive in 2008, I did what I always have and shifted my attention back to making the adjustments needed to ensure Stave not only survived, but could also thrive when the economy bounced back.

Perhaps the most important piece of this equation for Stave is our focus on our customers, who are like family to us. We only sell directly to them (no wholesale) and we’ve always done whatever it takes to keep them happy, often going above and far beyond what some may deem necessary.

Recently one of the puzzles a long-time Stave customer ordered was ruined by a wine spill during a party. When I heard about the puzzle I immediately began working on its replacement – which I sent to the customer at no charge and with no questions asked. I also feel that personal touches – such as the handwritten thank you notes I send with large orders and the handful of special edition mini-puzzles I send to customers throughout the year – helps us craft and nurture long-term, personal relationships.

This year I unveiled a new loyalty program that allows Stave customers to earn dollar points on the purchases they make during one quarter that can then be used toward purchases in the next quarter.

Just as important are our products. When sales slow due to a lackluster economy, we shift our focus to honing the product line to cut products that aren’t doing well and to create fun, must-have items that set our business apart from the competition. Through this most recent recession I spent five months designing and perfecting Stave’s newest creation – Atlantis, a $4,000 seven layer, limited edition puzzle that will utterly confound even our most dedicated puzzlers. For many of my customers, the ability to ‘escape’ the recession by losing themselves in a mind-twisting puzzle is how they cope during these trying times.

For many businesses that are forced to make difficult financial decisions in a tough economy, the marketing budget may seem like the easiest place to begin making cuts. But I’ve learned that it’s critical to our company’s success to maintain our marketing budget during a recession – keeping the Stave name and product line in front of customers. We shifted our focus to only marketing tactics that work for our company and eliminated those that don’t.

Over the years, we’ve experimented with our marketing mix and have discovered that customers (both existing and new) respond best to our colorful direct mailings and that nearly half of our sales come from our website. With that in mind, we’ve ramped up our direct mailings, offered our customer base exceptional deals on Stave Puzzles and continue to make heavy investments in our website. In fact, we’ve learned that marketing expending can deliver the best bang for the buck during recessions.

The idea of spending through a recession may seem bizarre to some, but it has proven time and time again to work for our company. We’ve managed to get through every recession we’ve faced since opening our doors without having to lay off any of our staff members (even temporarily), which keeps employee morale high and Stave customers happy.

My advice for business owners who are struggling in the current economic climate? It’s simple, really. “Hug” your customers, focus on creating new products, create new deals to entice current customers to keep spending, and find new ways to continue to grow and expand. But most importantly: always deliver top-notch customer service and keep persevering. The answer is there – do whatever you need to do to find it.

Steve Richardson is the owner and Chief Tormentor of Stave Puzzles. He left his day job at a Fortune 500 company and moved to Vermont where his hobby – designing games – became his reality when he partnered with Dave Tibbetts in 1974. After a few years of dabbling in the game design business, Steve and Dave were offered $300 (a good chunk of change in the 1970s) to design a wooden jigsaw puzzle and thus, Stave Puzzles was born.  To learn more about Stave Puzzles, visit www.stavepuzzles.com.

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