An alternative way to attract customers

Message: Small businesses with small budgets see posting cards or fliers on bulletin boards as a cheap way to advertise.

August 15, 2002|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

They get lengthy readings from some people, barely a glance from others, and on a good day someone might stuff one into his or her pocket.

They're the business cards tacked to bulletin boards found nearly everywhere - fitness centers, bagel shops, grocery stores, coffee boutiques.

The Downtown Athletic Club in Baltimore has a board, as does the Fresh Fields store in Mount Washington, City Cafe on Cathedral Street and the Fly Shop, a barbershop in Harlem Park. The cards peddle a hodgepodge of services - massages, tailoring, hair care, magic shows, pet grooming, extermination.

And behind about every card is a small business person trying to attract that extra customer of the week.

With limited budgets and small staffs, small businesses have to look at alternatives ways to get the word out. Posting business cards, shoving fliers under doors and dropping pens with the company name in inconspicuous places could all result in extra business.

Monica Andrea said her massage business, Soto Integrated Massage Therapy, depends on posting cards. She puts them on boards at one of the two One World Cafe locations, City Cafe and sub shops near universities, such as Johns Hopkins.

"Those are places that I usually patronize, they have nice bulletin boards, and they're upscale businesses where professionals go," she said. "All my business comes from these cards."

George Skepton said his Web design company can't afford an advertising budget, so the owner of Datahelpers.com looked for innovative ways to market. Posting a business card at Fresh Fields is easy and free, he said.

"The cards are pretty cheap, so I pop it up there," he said.

Michael Leavey's girlfriend posted his business cards at Fresh Fields while shopping at the store. He said typical advertising isn't practical for his side business as a magician.

"Not everybody needs a magician, so I'm not going to spend a lot of money on a big ad," he said.

The question is how many people pay attention to the bulletin boards.

Business owners said the response rate is spotty at best. Skepton said he has never gotten a call. Neither has Leavey.

"I'm finding the best advertising is word-of-mouth," Leavey said.

Tina Acree posted cards for her cleaning business at the Fly Shop five weeks ago and has received no responses.

"Nobody has ever called me from there," said Acree, the owner of Clean to a T.

She also tacked her cards up in grocery stores to little avail, but when she posted them at hospitals she had more luck.

"I get calls from the hospitals more than anything," Acree said.

On a recent afternoon, many people walked by bulletin boards at several places as if they didn't exist. Even the Fresh Fields billboard, with an eye-catching 100 or so cards, failed to attract many shoppers.

Jennifer Lazarus, 27, a teacher, placed an order at Sam's Bagels on Light Street and sat down at a table without looking at the bulletin board.

"I usually don't even notice them," she said. "I'm indifferent to them."

The Downtown Athletic Club recently moved the bulletin board from the men's locker room during renovations and never replaced it.

"We haven't gotten any complaints about it not being there," manager Mark Milani said.

The board in the women's locker room remains, with nearly 50 cards for wedding planners, skin specialists, pet groomers and Mary Kay cosmetics.

"I walk right by it," Carol Malstrom, a certified public accountant, said after a workout. "I'm usually trying to get in and out and barely notice it."

Business owners and executives say they keep the boards as a way to connect customers with what's going on with the community. All Fresh Fields stores have boards, said Tova Egelane, second associate team leader for the Baltimore store.

"We aim it toward the community," Egelane said. "All of the customers see it."

Given the number of cards jammed onto some bulletin boards and the competition for prime space, somebody must be reading them.

It's not uncommon for people to throw cards or fliers away, business owners said. Last week, a woman at Fresh Fields put fliers that were covering hers into the recycling bin.

So why use the boards?

Small-business owners said posting cards is such cheap advertising that it's worth it for the few responses they might get.

Barbara Hoye, 63, was one of the few who stopped at the Fresh Fields board last week, her eye caught by a flier for yoga. She said it's not the first time she has browsed the board.

"I like to see what's going on," she said with a chuckle. "I'm nosy like that sometimes."

Dika Seltzer, a psychotherapist, said she stops at the one at the Downtown Athletic Club because she likes to support small, local businesses. She has done business with several, she said.

Karla Winters, who owns Karla & Co., a natural hair care studio on St. Paul Street, said one call is one more customer she didn't have. And her cards almost always disappear.

"I have gotten calls, so it does work," Winters said. "I don't get a lot, but I do get some."

Skepton said he would post his cards again.

"If it's for nothing but just to get my name out there," he said.

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