From the April 1998 issue of Entrepreneur

If you're wondering what's happening in America, turn your attention to the greeting-card aisles. Industry stalwart Hallmark Cards is branching out into lines that extend far beyond your run-of-the-mill birthdays and anniversaries.

"People are ready for new things," says Rachel Bolton of Kansas City, Missouri-based Hallmark Cards Inc.

To that end, Hallmark now offers cards addressing such concerns as job loss, drug rehabilitation, terminal illness and suicide. Don't think anyone wants to talk about such weighty matters? According to Hallmark, so-called "alternative cards" bring in nearly one-third of industry sales.

"The time is right," says Bolton, point-ing to the results of detailed research Hallmark's Creative Advisory Group conducts on societal trends. "People want [these cards]."

Of course, that doesn't mean there isn't still a lucrative market for more traditional greetings. "If you look at the spectrum of people, you always have those who are on the leading edge and those who are ahead of the pack," observes Bolton. "We've got to [cover] that broad spectrum." Especially when you care enough to do the very best market research.

Listen Up

A little criticism never hurt.

Entrepreneur Chuck Miller knows just how important it is to listen--really listen--to what customers have to say. The owner of Torrance, California-based Aztec Tents & Events observes, "We could sit around saying `Aren't we wonderful?' But [it doesn't matter] what we believe--it's what our customers believe."

To gauge customer opinion of his 31-year-old party and event equipment rental company, Miller began sending out follow-up surveys about a year and a half ago. Aztec customers are asked to evaluate the performance of employees and the quality of equipment rented. A space for general remarks is also included. "When I get [negative] responses, I personally call and say, `Tell me what transpired,' " Miller says. "Usually, customers just about fall over--they don't expect somebody to follow up."

Much less the owner of the company. But with an overwhelming 80 percent response rate to its surveys, Aztec is asking for--and getting--feedback worth its weight in gold. "It's a simple little fill-in, but it gives us so much information," says Miller. "It's helped our business immensely. It keeps customers coming back."

Scoring Points

Giving customers an incentive to buy, buy, buy.

Nothing is quite so tempting--in fact, downright irresistible--as the opportunity to get free goodies. It's human nature. But even as folks keep clipping box tops and sending away for the latest free gadget, a customer rewards program for the electronic age looks to score points.

Launched last year, Gold Points Plus is the offspring of Minneapolis-based Carlson Companies Inc., the parent corporation of T.G.I. Friday's and Radisson Hotels, among other businesses. Gold Points Plus enables consumers to earn points through shopping purchases via a handy, credit-card-sized card. Points can be traded in for everything from stereos to exercise equipment, or put toward travel expenditures. "Customer reaction has been wonderful," says Curtis L. Carlson, founder and CEO of Carlson Companies. "They all love it."

Debuting in Minnesota, Gold Points Plus is expected to branch out to additional locations by the middle of this year--with a national rollout to be completed within three years. Although grocery stores are the main target, other types of businesses are participating in the program as well. Might this form of digital trading stamps herald a new era in customer incentives? Think of it this way: By instituting a rewards program, you can reward not only your customers--but yourself.

Contact Sources

Aztec Tents & Events, 540 Hawaii Ave., Torrance, CA 90503, (800) 258-7368

Carlson Companies Inc., http://www.carlson.com

Hallmark Cards Inc., http://www.hallmark.com