Originally created 06/29/01

Creativity boosts start-ups



Sometimes she wears a long coat; sometimes she wears a bikini. No matter what she wears, the mannequin in front of Teresa Tuten's gift shop almost always gets a second look from Central Avenue motorists.

And that's the point.

With little to spend on advertising, Ms. Tuten relies on the plastic blonde to lure customers to Teresa's Treasures, the antique and novelty shop she opened nine months ago.

The dental assistant-turned-entrepreneur dresses the mannequin, which she has named Mia, in a different outfit twice a week. She said the simple effort has paid dividends in the form of foot traffic.

The svelte mannequin attracts the curious to Ms. Tuten's curiosity shop on a regular basis.

"One lady came in the store because she thought she was real," Ms. Tuten said. "I've even had people stop and offer to buy her."

Of course, Ms. Tuten wouldn't sell her main marketing tool. Besides, she said, replacing the mannequin with a comparable one would be difficult.

"They don't make them like this anymore," she said. "The new ones today, they're just forms. They don't have any expressions on their faces."

Small-business experts say budding entrepreneurs such as Ms. Tuten are forced to think of creative marketing strategies because they usually cannot afford to advertise during the costly start-up phase.

Jackie Moore, a business consultant with the University of Georgia's Small Business Development Center in Augusta, said marketing is one of the top concerns among her clients.

She recommends that new businesses gain attention by using low-cost promotional items such as magnets, pens and balloons. Businesses can also get their names out by making donations and sponsorships or through cheaper forms of advertising such as classifieds.

Direct marketing can also be effective, but business owners must be aware of the laws pertaining to mass mailings and telemarketing, Ms. Moore said, pointing out the recent $12 million lawsuit against the Hooters restaurant chain. A Richmond County jury ruled that the restaurant violated federal law by sending unsolicited fax advertisements to Augusta-area businesses and residents.

"Sending faxes would be a great, inexpensive way to advertise a business, except that it can be illegal," Ms. Moore said. "I'm not sure many small businesses realize that."

Small-business owners and marketing experts agree that "word of mouth" marketing can be as valuable as television, radio and newspaper advertising.

The strategy, called "guerrilla marketing," encourages underfinanced businesses to build a customer base through networking.

"The most cost-effective way to get customers is by referral," said George Biggar, an associate for Teleco of Augusta and the president of one of the local Business Network International chapters.

Business Network International allows small businesses to exchange customer referrals and information on new business opportunities. Mr. Biggar's breakfast club discusses small-business trends and exchanges potential customer leads.

"There's no pretense about it - we're there to exchange referrals," said Mr. Biggar, whose telephone equipment company has earned numerous contracts based on customer referrals from the group's members, which range from accountants to pest control professionals.

Being in the group is like adding an unpaid staff of 20 salesmen to your company, Mr. Biggar said.

Ms. Tuten said she relies heavily on word-of-mouth marketing. That's why she offers perks such as free gift wrapping, layaway and discount cards for regular customers.

She said she will keep Mia on display, though not every day. She doesn't want the novelty to wear off.

"I want to keep her interesting to the public. I don't want to have her in the same old outfit," Ms. Tuten said. "I want her to be a surprise."

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486 or bized@augustachronicle.com.

Pointers

Marketing tips for cash-strapped businesses

Join organizations: Business organizations such as chambers of commerce provide opportunities to publicize your business through newsletters and events.

Network: Know a good auto mechanic? Recommend him to your customers. Over time, you will build a network of small-business owners who will return the favor.

Reward recruiters: Offer discounts to customers each time they refer you to new customers.

Get in the news: If your business has done something genuinely newsworthy, send a news release to local media.

Look into sponsorships: Sponsoring a little league team or a community event can bring recognition to your company name and logo.

Volunteer in-kind services: The organizers of charity events need businesses to volunteer everything from printing to catering. They often recognize the contributors in their marketing materials. Donate your product for a charity auction.

Be a speaker: Business organizations, civic groups and alumni associations are some of the places where you can give presentations about yourself and your industry.