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Skaer Tactics: In Year of the Ox, Be Prepared for Bull-Headed Customers

January 12, 2009
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Mark Skaer

According to the Chinese calendar, the Year of the Earth Ox begins Jan. 26. Ironically, that is the first day of the three-day 2009 Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigerating Exposition, to be held at McCormick Place in Chicago.

If the weather in the Windy City continues where it left off at the end of last month, it may be the year no one was able to get to Chicago. Snow, gusty winds, ice, rain … Chicago experienced everything in late December.

Then again, it is January in Chicago. Mother Nature has not refrained this industry from hosting its biggest show every three years or so in Chi-town. Unfortunately, even if the weather cooperates, there is still fear that the economy will affect attendance. I know of more than a few contractors who said they were debating on going to the 2009 expo because they had to cut back somewhere - and many thought making a trip to Chicago was not the best use of their dwindling funds.

It may be that kind of year - period - for one and all, not just in Chicago. This year may be as slow as an ox.

FACE IT: ECONOMIC SIGNS ARE NOT FAVORABLE

For those who are unfamiliar with the ox, they are revered animals that symbolize diligence, reliability, sincerity, strength, and sound judgment. Look for the American consumer to be in this stubborn mode for 2009, unless incoming president Barrack Obama can truly perform miracles (as some in the media believe he can) with an unbelievable stimulus package.

It all depends upon how you look at it. There are forecasters who believe all that stimulus the Obama administration plans to heave at the economy has to make things better. Then again, the other side of the fence believes radical government action might make things worse and could cause the recession to turn into a depression that could last for years.

We all got a glimpse of what is possibly ahead economically during the 2008 holiday shopping season. U.S. retailers reported disappointing holiday sales in December, sparking several profit warnings, as promotions, last-minute shopping, and gift-card redemptions failed to turn around lackluster performance in the largest sales month of the year.

I, for one, am not afraid to say I held back in giving big-ticketed gifts for Christmas. In the end, it was a matter of shopping around for the best price. Sorry, but Wal-Mart may have it right: “Save money. Live better.”

Look for more of the same this year from most Americans, especially since the number of laid-off workers continuing to draw unemployment benefits surged again. The Labor Department reported recently that people continuing to draw unemployment benefits increased by a larger-than-expected 140,000, to 4.5 million for the week ended Dec. 20. A year ago, the number of people continuing to draw jobless benefits was 2.7 million. Since the recession began in December of 2007, the economy has lost nearly 2 million jobs.

CAN AN OX STAY AFLOAT?

While the economic facts are not necessarily encouraging, this does not mean 2009 is destined to be a disaster. Hopefully. Just know that you will have to go about your business like the ox, plodding along from day to day without griping or complaining. After all, the ox is never associated with flashy, get-rich-quick schemes. And, from all indications, making a ton of money may not necessarily be in the cards for 2009.

In other words, this means that your customers will be just-as-meticulous as the ox this year. After all, oxen rarely change their minds once they’ve made a decision. Therefore, expect your customers to be a tad obstinate. It will take some ingenuity and creative financing to pull the ox your way this year, but it can be done.

According to an industry consultant I know, contractors need to examine their attitude, invest more in learning, get a grip on their financial situation, and maintain consistent marketing to stay ahead of the pack in 2009. His best advice is to follow up on every opportunity, plus protect one’s customer base.

The bottom line is this: It will take a lot of work to stay afloat - or thrive - in 2009. After all, oxen are not known to float. However, oxen are depended upon to get things done. They are tireless workers who are detail-oriented and believe in doing things right the first time.

It looks to be an interesting, as well as challenging, year. Welcome to the Year of the Earth Ox.

Publication date: 01/12/2009
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