Ask an Expert: Entrepreneurs, take cue from George Costanza

— -- Q: Hi Steve — I wanted to share a tip with you and your readers. Last year we tried something different for the holiday season. I own a restaurant and one night we closed it to the general public and had a 50% off dinner for our best customers. They loved it, and in fact we sold a lot of gift cards as a result. Pretty nifty, huh? — Amy

A: Pretty nifty indeed. And I dare say pretty brave, too. Many businesses make a good bulk of their income during the holiday rush, so closing up one night for an untried special promotion is really the entrepreneurial spirit. Congrats.

If you think about it, it is not hard to understand why your promotion worked so well. Because this is such an important time of year for sales, and because people seem to be opening up their wallets and pocketbooks again, there is a rush to grab some of that money people are spending. As a result, we are seeing more promotions than usual this year — open Thanksgiving night? — and a lot more aggressive promotions at that.

What if, like George Costanza, you did the opposite? By giving to your customers and avoiding the hard sell you

•Set yourself apart from the crowd

•Build your brand

•Foster customer loyalty

•And yes, sell

There are many ways to do this. Here are a few:

Become a respite: People out holiday shopping tend to be a bit harried. You can endear yourself to them by making your business a friendly haven from all of the hard sellers out there.

For instance, set up a "Relaxation Station" where you have a couch and some chairs, some coffee for the adults and some hot chocolate for the kids. No pressure or hard selling, just giving. Or what about having Santa show up every Saturday afternoon this month? These sorts of things will cost you little, but people will love it. And in fact, whether or not customers buy from you (but I bet they do), they will remember you, and I also bet they will tell their friends about it.

Donate: Again, the idea I am suggesting is that you do the opposite of what most retailers do this time of year. Instead of the hard sell, go for the soft sell. Instead of asking for money, give money.

In this case, consider earmarking something like 5% of your December profits to your customers' favorite charity. When people buy from you, you can have a little form that lists say, 10 charities. Have them check off the one they like best and then when December ends, send those charities their share of your proceeds.

Not only is it in the spirit of the season to do so, but it is savvy selling as well. People will be more inclined to buy from you if doing so allows them to also give at the same time.

Have a repeat-customer only event: Like Amy mentioned in her question above, you could easily set aside some time to have an event for your best customers. And if you offer them a discount and make it nice and cozy, you can bet it will likely pay off big time.

Sell gift certificates and gift cards: You see gift cards for sale everywhere these days — at the market, in department stores, heck, I even saw some for sale recently at my car wash. Why? Because they sell. It is estimated that up to 10% of all holiday sales now are in the form of gift cards.

So hop on the bus, Gus! Gift cards need not only be the selling strategy of the big boys. Any small business can create a gift certificate of gift card profit center, and should.

Up -sell, but do it right: As you likely know, up-selling is the art of having a customer buy more than the initial purchase. Up-selling, when done wrong, is annoying, but when done right, especially this time of year, can help both you and your customer.

The key is to offer the item in a helpful, non-aggressive way, i.e., "Did you know that if you buy two more gift soaps, we throw in another one for free?"

With a little creativity and soft-sell thinking, your holiday selling season can be a successful one.

Today's tip: Ever get tired of re-typing the same e-mail to different people, for instance, a pitch or follow-up of some sort? I know I do. That's why I was happy to learn about Toutapp. Toutapp is a cure the repetitive email blues. With it, you can create templates of common emails you send and categorize them for easy sorting. Steve says check it out.

Ask an Expert appears Mondays. You can e-mail Steve Strauss at: an index of Strauss' columns is here. Steven D. Strauss is a lawyer, author and speaker who specializes in small business and entrepreneurship. His latest book is Get Your Business Funded: Creative Methods for Getting the Money You Need. You can sign up for his free newsletter, "Small Business Success Secrets!" at his website — Follow him on Twitter at