3 Tips for the January Doldrums

What's your plan for the first six weeks of the year?

Don't have one? Not working on something a little different, special or otherwise creative to keep the register ringing? Then don't be surprised when no one comes to the nightly soirée you call a bar.

Typically the toughest time for the hospitality biz (except in those sultry spots where snowbirds gather on their annual migration), the first six weeks of the year should be thought of as make-or-break time. Beat last year's numbers, and you can rightly feel that you've got a handle on your business; fall behind, and the hole you're in may only get deeper.

There's no infallible method to beat the winter doldrums, but I'd like to offer, as my early Christmas present, a few suggestions you might consider worthy of action, just in case you agree that everyone could use a little help now and again:

1) 21st Century "Happy Hour" — Not free sticky ribs, soggy wings and fried cheese: No one wants that anymore. But even a few chains have recognized that in these times, customers need a little extra — what New Orleanians call a lagniappe — to bring them in, even if it's just the chance to order from a limited-time menu of snacks and nibbles or a selection of drinks cheaper and shorter than the regular menu offers. Short beers, half-glasses of wine, mini-cocktails and small plates all give customers a chance to indulge at an affordable level and, most importantly, provide a friendly meeting place that can turn your early hours into a profit center.

2) Affinty Clubs — Beer-focused bars have long invited guests to sign onto a long-term sampler's association, in which members who try all of the brews sold receive something special whenever they achieve a different level of drinking experience. Lately, a few bars with a strong association with particular spirits have done the same, including Martin Cate's rum haven in San Francisco, Smuggler's Cove. These clubs needn't be tied exclusively to drinking; frequent-diner cards, such as coffee roasters have long offered in a "buy nine, get one free" scheme, can include food and drink pairings over a fixed period of time or reward any regular customer who samples each specialty cocktail or just comes in a certain number of days. If you want customer loyalty, offer merchant loyalty first.

3) Kill Your Inventory — Remember that deal you got on that birch-filtered vodka last June? If you bough a case and still have 11 bottles, time to discount it and get it off your spreadsheet. The winter doldrums are the time to move dead stock out — specifically spirits that sit on your balance sheet because fads have changed, your previous liquor buyer was a dufus whom every sales person could spot a mile away or a well-reasoned decision to stock up turned out to be overly ambitious — as quickly as possible. Actually, the previous year was probably the time, but you were too busy with Christmas parties to take care of it then. Now, pour them from the rail if possible, create a slew of new discounted drinks using them, ask the chef the create a dish with them; just use them up, get them out and never order them again. Too many SKUs just means more to count, and tightening your inventory is generally a smart business decision, even if it means admitting you made a mistake. Declare your losses, get what you can for them and move on; if you make your money back, you're already smarter than you think.

That's it: Three ideas for the first six weeks of 2012. Got any of your own? Send them to me at i>>?i>>?[email protected], and I'll pass them along next time.


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