By Polly Keary, Editor
Of the 11 Sky Valley businesses that made it to the top five in their categories in the extremely competitive King 5 Best of Western Washington contest earlier this month, at least three have been open for less than three years.
So if it is not decades of accumulated customer loyalty that gets a business named among the top five businesses of its type in the entire Puget Sound, what is it?
Placing in the top five in the annual Evening Magazine contest is no small feat. Each one of the winning businesses placed above dozens, even hundreds, of other nominated businesses in the Puget Sound, standing out amid businesses in Seattle, Tacoma, Vancouver, Bellingham, Everett and other larger metropolitan areas.
Last week, several of the Sky Valley winners shared a bit of what they do that could explain their significant success.
While social media isn’t important to every winner—The Monroe Laundry Company doesn’t even have a Facebook page—10 of the 11 winners use social media, most of them heavily.
Some, like The Maltby Cafe, which has appeared in the Best Breakfast top five every year since 2009, have a regularly updated Facebook page.
Others use several media outlets. Guilt Free Goodness, which placed in the Best Gluten-Free Menu category, updates its Facebook page sometimes more than once a day; posting specials, pictures of baked goods of the day or quotes that support gluten-free eating habits. The bakery and deli also has a Twitter account and a Flickr account for photos.
For the people who market to a middle-aged and younger demographic, social media can be key.
“Social media is important for us,” said Janae Hoskin, whose children’s and mothers’ consignment store Grow With Me Boutique placed in the Best Children’s Clothing category, having only been open less than four years. “Our target market is the social media target market.”
She is beginning to use Pinterest, too; a site that allows people to “pin” photos of things of interest to a “bulletin board” with just the click of a small icon that can be embedded in a browser’s toolbar.
“I heard someone say, ‘I was on Pinterest and found this,’ and I thought it’s one of those things people are using on a daily basis,” she said.
Of all the winning businesses, though, perhaps none is as social media-savvy as Snoqualmie Ice Cream, which was second place in Best Ice Cream Shop.
“We are on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn and Tumblr,” said Samantha Hill, Marketing Director for the Maltby company. “Facebook is our primary, but Instagram will be big for 2014. Social media is huge for us. We use it for customer service and to communicate with our consumers. We understand their interests and concerns and can be there immediately.”
Man Cave Barbershop, which got third place in Best Barbershop after being opening about a year, offers a discount to customers who “check in” on Facebook while they are there. Hitting the “Check In” icon on Facebook sends out a notice to all one’s Facebook friends that one is at a particularly noteworthy location.
“It’s kind of unique and catchy and it helps get more ‘visits’ and ‘likes’ to our page,” said owner Jan Woolery.
In addition to social media, winning businesses are for the most part active marketers.
Some advertise in newspapers. Others have events; Ben Franklin, which for several years has placed in the top five in the Best Arts and Crafts Store category, regularly hold classes and trunk sales.
Snoqualmie Ice Cream throws a party with free ice cream and tours every year at its cafe and factory in Maltby.
And some, such as Hill Street Cleaners, are very active with the Chamber of Commerce and in the community in other ways.
“We did a fashion show at the senior center, and we are partnering with local schools and the YMCA”, said Hoskin of Grow With Me Boutique.
Hoskin has found success with coupon circulars such as Hometown Values. Others find they aren’t suited to their demographic.
“Hometown Values doesn’t work for us,” said Woolery, owner of Man Cave Barbershop. “Men are not typically coupon cutters.”
Instead, she prints her own discount certificates and gives them to customers to make repeat clients of them.
As well, she uses a “swooper flag” a large sail-shaped sign that says “Barber,” placing it near the store to draw eyes, which she said works well to draw people in from U.S. 2.
The Monroe Laundry Company pays for advertising on the screen before movies at Galaxy Theaters, but says ultimately, their best marketing is word-of-mouth.
And that means making sure they deliver on the promise of being clean, modern and safe, said owner Jay Johnson.
“It’s all about being clean and safe, and having modern equipment,” said Johnson, who spent about $1 million building the laundromat with granite counters and upholstered chairs, 24-hour security cameras and a convenient card system for payment. “And you have to have equipment that is functional. For example, if something is out of order, within 24 hours, it back in order.”
To truly get word-of-mouth support, as well as the kind of reviews on Yelp and other business review sites that drive business to the door, customer service is key.
That is why all the businesses interviewed place a huge emphasis on it.
“Our philosophy is to always strive for the best customer service possible, in every aspect,” said Hoskin of Grow With Me Boutique. “We had a meeting this morning and I was training a new person and we talked about trying to put yourself in the customer’s shoes. If you have a conflict, it’s about always giving options toward a resolution. We value our customers. Without them we would not be here.”
Delivering quality is key, said Hill of Snoqualmie Ice Cream.
“We strive to make the most perfect product possible, which is its own form of customer service,” she said.
Offering convenience is a big part of Chaplain Dale’s business practices. The chaplain, who is a multiple first-place winner of Best Wedding Officiant, works closely with couples to plan weddings, will take care of filing the certificate with the courthouse and arranges for certified copies to be sent to the couple afterwards, and even will provide witnesses for small “elopement” ceremonies.
Man Cave Barbershop extends customer service to the entire environment; there’s a pool table in the center of the salon for people waiting for a cut, sometimes they’ll throw in a free five-minute scalp massage or other perks for regulars, and they emphasize friendliness.
“We are laid back, try to have fun and if people laugh all through the haircut then we have done our job,” said Woolery. “We recently had baseball caps made for the one-year anniversary and I gave them away to long-time clients who have referred a lot of new people.”
She endeavors to make people feel as if they are more than customers, but in fact nearly part of a club.
“We try to make everyone feel important and remember their names so they feel like part of the shop,” said Woolery. “We have a ‘brag board’ where we ask them to bring in pictures of themselves on hunting trips or fishing to make them feel like they are a part of the décor also.”
When asked why they believe they are successful, the answers the business owners gave were as diverse as the businesses.
The Monroe Laundry Company has worked to become a landmark; a historic but nearly invisible old Coca Cola mural was repainted at considerable expense on the large brick wall of the historic building, and Johnson has emphasized the laundry’s historic significance.
“We actually did the research to find out when Monroe first had a laundromat,” he said. “It was in 1908 in another building downtown, and it was called Monroe Steam Laundry, and it was run primarily to handle the laundry from the logging camps from Leavenworth to Everett.”
Woolery at Man Cave talked about cooperating with other businesses in town.
“We seem to have a good reputation and other business owners that I know promote us and we promote them in return,” she said. “I believe in helping each other out as much as possible and only use local businesses for my accounting and signage, etc.”
Grow With Me Boutique has been flexible, said Hoskin.
“When I opened it, it wasn’t at all what it is now,” she said. “The reason it changed so much is that we do take suggestions and pay attention. We adapt to that, rather than having them adapt to us.”
That has led her to offer clothes for moms as well as children, to offer story time for kids, and to have social events for pregnant moms.
“The shopping will be the payoff, but it’s a place to come bring kids and meet with friends,” she said.
And Hill ascribed her business’ success to the philosophy of the owners.
“Snoqualmie Ice Cream is successful because of its leadership,” she said. “They are fiscally conservative and have full control of everything they do. They take great care of their staff and customers, nourishing every relationship on every level.”