Five tactics to keep your business strong

The economy has a guardian angel looking over its shoulder -- the housing industry. According to National Public Radio, "Americans are continuing to buy homes in near-record numbers, despite the cooling economy and massive corporate layoffs."

Except for a brief decline immediately after Sept. 11, home sales in much of the country finished strong in 2001.

A recent report from the U.S. Commerce Department announced that housing starts -- newly begun construction excavation -- jumped 8.2 percent in November 2001. More homes are now under construction than at any time since 1987.

Although many contractors are singing the slowdown blues, smart business owners are grabbing the opportunity to grow business and increase profits.

    "Companies that maintain or increase advertising investments in periods of economic downturn increase sales and share of market, both during and after a downturn."
    -- Harvard Business Review
"Experience has shown us that marketing during slow times increases customer loyalty, attracts new customers, and solidifies market position," said Jack Meehan, president of The Cyr Group, a full-service marketing communications company, and which offers pro-contractors an affordable and customizable solution to all their marketing needs online. Both companies are located in Portsmouth, N.H. Meehan, a marketing and sales professional with more than 17 years experience working in the building, remodeling and home goods industry, has seen first hand how businesses have suffered by cutting marketing expenses and not searching for more efficient long-term strategies.

Economists are remaining very optimistic about the future of the housing and remodeling industry. Recent reports show that the trends exhibited by this economy are very different than those of previous slumps.

In a study of U.S. recessions, McGraw-Hill Research analyzed 600 companies from 1980 to 1985 and concluded that at the end of 1985, "...firms that had maintained or increased their advertising during the 1981-1982 recession could boast an average sales growth of 275 percent over the preceding five years. Those who cut advertising realized a paltry increase of only 19 percent."

Is the Economy Teetering on the Roof of the Housing Industry?

The housing industry, which is notorious for its peaks and valleys, is propelling the economy in several ways.

First, home sales are at record levels. The National Association of Realtors predicts that 2001 existing home sales will reach record levels, and with an economic upturn expected in the spring, sales in 2002 will nearly match last year.

In December, the Mortgage Bankers Association of America reported that low mortgage rates were also a key reason for the housing and construction markets remaining stable.

Additions and renovations are booming. Since the tragic events of Sept. 11, people have begun reevaluating what is important in their lives. They are postponing vacations indefinitely and spending money to create a warm and secure refuge at home, a process known as nesting.

According to The News & Observer (published in Raleigh, N.C.), industry retail giants Home Depot and Lowe's have seen sales and net income jump in the past few months, despite the slowing economy.

Other contributing factors include a low inventory of new and existing homes as well as the age of existing housing stock, which in most cases exceeds 20 years. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released a report stating that by the middle of 2001 the housing industry had gone seven straight months with less than four months of inventory.

The economic stimulus package proposed by President Bush and the Congress in September included a series of targeted tax cuts for businesses and individuals aimed at jump-starting the sluggish economy.

Lastly, housing construction remains strong. The Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard reports that "low mortgage rates coupled with the fact that more people are now entering their peak earning years has helped to keep housing strong. Immigrants who are now ready to buy their first homes have also helped to drive the market."

The Trends for the Next Decade

The future of the housing industry certainly looks bright. However, economists predict that the success of housing and the economy will create challenges for builders over the next decade.

The NAHB Economics, Mortgage Finance & Housing Policy Division forecast that "heavy pressure will be put on available supplies of labor, materials and building lots. Technological advances and resource supplies will encourage changes in the way homes are built."

Constraints on timber supplies will push builders and subcontractors to seek alternative sources, such as engineered wood products, steel, concrete products and plastics.

The baby boomers are currently keeping the housing industry strong, but by the middle of the decade, the effects of the baby bust, a decrease in the number of births, will begin to slow industry growth.

Due to the effects of the baby bust, companies will also need to be concerned with attracting, retaining, training, managing and compensating a changing work force over the next decade. Just as homebuyers are getting older, so are construction workers. This will result in the need to retain older, experienced workers.

The remodeling industry is also expected to grow over the next decade. By 2010, Walt Stoeppelwerth, a publisher of management and estimating information for professional remodelers, predicts that remodeling will exceed new home building in volume.

"We encourage companies to take another look at their current marketing strategy as we head into 2002. Companies need to be prepared for the trends that will occur over the next decade and ensure their marketing strategy is in line with these trends," remarked Meehan.

    "Advertising in an economic downturn should be regarded not as a drain on profits, but as a contributor to profits."
    -- Harvard Business Review
Business owners should take this opportunity to refocus their marketing and promotional efforts and concentrate on aggressively dominating their market. Start using the following five strategic tactics today to ensure your company stays ahead of the competition.

(Courtesy of The Cyr Group)

Marketing in a Sluggish Economy:
5 Strategic Tactics To Keep Your Business Strong

    1. Full speed ahead.
    Do not slow down now. Studies show that companies which slow or cut their marketing spending may lose precious market positioning to a competitor. It is important to assure your customers that they have invested their money in a solid company, a company that will be around through the good times and the bad.

    Your marketing message should resonate your company's strengths and stability, and your commitment to the customer.

    2. Reevaluate your brand and image.
    Take this time to reevaluate how your customers perceive you. Does your company brand accurately reflect who you are - and who you want to be? What image do your competitors portray? Your image and brand have value; take this time to put systems in place to maintain them.

    Your brand and image represent you as a business owner, your company and your values. Consistent use of your logo and the way you communicate your message is critical.

    3. Explore vertical market opportunities.
    The trends for the decade are clear. How will these trends affect the way you do business? Vertical markets - industries or groups in which similar products or services are developed and marketed using similar methods - hold a wealth of opportunity for companies who want a major advantage over their competitors.

    Be aware of what changes or acquisitions are happening in your industry or business area. Where is your industry headed? Never lose site of your vision of what you want your company to be.

    4. Reach out and touch your clients.
    Contact old and new customers, thank them for their business, and ask them if they have been satisfied with the level of service they have received. Your customers will be the best measure of how your company will weather the peaks and valleys in the industry.

    Companies should look for economical marketing investments to accomplish this. More consumers and contractors are researching products and services via the Web, and your company should be positioned to communicate with these prospects on their terms, including where and when they want it.

    5. Is your marketing plan clearly defined?
    Now is a good time to integrate your marketing efforts. The investment you make in marketing should provide tangible and measurable results. Are all of your marketing tactics working toward the same goal and communicating clearly what products and services you offer the marketplace? Evaluate, plan and implement.