From the February 1998 issue of Entrepreneur

Here's news you can use: Adding private labels to your merchandise mix can build your store's identity, strengthen customer loyalty and boost your profit margins.

"Private-label products help differentiate your business from the competition," explains Denise Leathers, executive editor of Private Label News, a trade magazine. "You're offering customers something they can't get anywhere else."

In this era of cookie-cutter retailing--where it sometimes seems like the same merchandise is available in every store--uniqueness not only sets your store apart in your customers' minds; it also gives them a reason to return. An added bonus: Margins are generally higher on private-label products. This enables retailers to price their store brands competitively--or to reap the benefits of increased profits.

Best of all, you don't have to be an industry giant to start your own private-label program. For example, Sweet Charlottes, a manufacturer of handcrafted chocolates and confections in Millbrae, California, does private-label programs for such heavyweights as Williams-Sonoma and Crate & Barrel. But they also work with small retailers to develop products and custom packaging that won't break their budget.

"I really bend over backward for our private-label customers," says owner Charlotte Albright.

Check out the Private Label News Web site (http://www.plnews.com), which lists private-label suppliers of everything from air fresheners to vitamins.

Selling Short

More and more customers say CEOs or company owners, rather than salespeople, are the most important people in their vendor relationships. The bad news: This isn't because CEOs excel at selling but because salespeople are falling short.

In a 1997 survey by The H.R. Chally Group, 33 percent of respondents said the salesperson was the most critical person in the vendor relationship--down from 44 percent in 1993. Meanwhile, the number of respondents citing the CEO as most important nearly tripled, from 8 percent to 22 percent. The respondents--nearly 1,100 decision makers at large and small companies nationwide--said they turn to CEOs for satisfaction because salespeople often lack product knowledge, understanding of the customers' business and the authority to make decisions.

How can you improve your sales force? Start by selecting salespeople who have a broad background in business--not just sales--and understand the economic forces driving both buyers and sellers. Provide training that goes beyond mere product knowledge to include general business and management skills. Finally, be willing to let go of some authority. Once you have people who can make decisions, you have to be willing to let them.

Get Carded

Want to get more business? Just play your cards right--your prepaid phone cards, that is.

These colorful cards, programmed with prepaid minutes of phone time, are the hottest ad specialties around. "[Phone time] is something everyone uses," explains Laurette Veres, president and CEO of Intele-CardNews, a trade publication for the telecard industry. "You know customers are going to use them, and every time they use them, they see your logo."

Veres says phone cards are especially effective for people involved in "personal marketing," such as consultants or salespeople. Best graphic? A photo of your product, plus your logo.

AT&T, Sprint and MCI all sell prepaid phone cards, but Veres says small businesses may get more personal attention from entrepreneurial telecard companies. If you can't find them listed in the phone book, search the Internet under "phone cards" or check Intele-CardNews.

When choosing a phone card company, Veres says, compare costs per minute and ask how long delivery will take, whether the company offers 24-hour customer service, and whether it has paid its tariffs in every state to comply with telecommunications laws.

A small order (100 cards) typically costs $2.50 per card. How can you get maximum marketing bang for your buck? Get cards with at least 10 minutes of time, and "tie them into a special promotion, especially one that involves communication," suggests Veres. Send prospects a card with the note "Here's 10 minutes of our time; now can we have 10 minutes of yours?" Send a customer a birthday card that says "I know you're going to be calling family today. The next 10 minutes are on me." "Be cute and creative," says Veres, "and you'll get noticed."

Contact Sources

The H.R. Chally Group, (937) 299-1255, http://www.chally.com

Intele-CardNews, (281) 298-1431, http://www.intelecard.com

Private Label News, (215) 230-4400, plabelnews@aol.com

Sweet Charlottes, 1395 El Camino Real, Millbrae, CA 94030, (800) SWT-CHAR