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March 14, 2012

What is the new business norm?

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Weary taxpayers and consumers, who continue to be frustrated and exhausted by an uncertain future, the ongoing economic malaise, and a ‘new economic normal,’ are in the midst of perpetuating a sea change in how business is conducted in this country.


But just what is the ‘new normal?’ What is the future look of business? Candidly, many are at a loss to describe it.


The confluence of a number of experiences in the last year – and the last several weeks – has caused me to find myself lost in thought trying to understand the future look of business, explain it, or even define the terms.


What I do know is that I have totally lost any confidence in our state and national leadership, from either party, or big business, to lead us out of this wilderness.


And I’m still haunted by what writer, Rocky Mackintosh wrote last December. Although the emphasis of his column was on fiscal public policy, his prophetic lede resonated, “Here it is, almost Christmas, and we are rapidly closing in on another disappointing year for the national and local business climate. Climbing out of this recession is proving to be a much harder and longer ordeal than most of us had hoped.”


Speaking of public fiscal policy, count me in as someone who remains totally convinced that much of our current economic malaise has been caused – prolonged, and made much worse – by the bad fiscal policies of the state and national government.


Certainly the results of a recent citizen opinion survey discussed by writer Farrell Keough yesterday, does not add to our comfort level or bode well for the future.


This is not your grandfather’s ‘normal’ economic downturn.


Everything has been turned on its head. ‘In order to better serve you,’ means you are about to suffer a bout of bad customer service. ‘Progress’ means a step backwards. ‘Better’ is worse and ‘more’ is less.


‘Investing in our community’ means higher taxes and taking more money out the private sector and placing it in the hands of government to the benefit of bureaucrats while the community gets little in return. ‘Privacy statements’ now mean you have no privacy. ‘Service charges’ are fees charged for services that are not delivered.


As for customer service in difficult economic times, you would think that customer service would improve as businesses compete for a dwindling pool of consumer dollars. And yet, paradoxically, in recent years, customer service, especially among the large (vampire squid) banks, cable TV service providers and phone companies, (and government) has sunk to horrific levels.


Meanwhile, in the last several years, several close friends, who once owned businesses which have weathered many generations of good and bad economic times, have gone out of business.


The impact on the local community has been hard to measure and even harder to put into words. The demise of their businesses has left many in the community with an added non-specific sense of anxiety.


And yet the empty storefronts, increased unemployment, and the loss of the venerable old businesses have not caused an ‘earthquake’ in the community. So many have suffered from the affects of bad governmental policies, bad customer service, unemployment and/or the loss of their homes and businesses that – sadly – it is as if the community has become desensitized to financial miseries.


It has been more like the affects of a low level of poisonous gas was released in the community – which no one wants to talk about it. It’s a slow and steady, agonizing and debilitating, death to ‘Main Street,’ that has corrosively, one thread at a time, eaten away at the social and economic fabric of the community.


The response by local, state, and national elected officials has been positively Orwellian. Politicians have surrounded the issues concerning the economy with a spirited coded dog-whistle conversation, which seems to totally ignore the constituents they serve or address the challenges.


I recently found myself a bystander in the midst of the distribution list of a spirited exchange of e-mails between (Westminster) merchants and local elected officials.


Incredibly, too many local politicians would not tacitly admit there was a problem with the retail trade or public safety on ‘Main Street.’ Some politicians suggested that ‘if’ there was a problem, ‘it’ was the fault of the merchants.


Or ‘it’ really should not be a problem because elected officials have talked about it and maybe a committee ought to be formed so we could have meetings about it.




One local politico actually put forth in print that the challenges in the local economy would be solved if local government would raise taxes. I’m not kidding.


A generation ago, the shared family experience of going to town to go shopping was a cherished event. Then consumers discovered shopping malls that expanded the shopping experience beyond the downtown district. Now, customers have the additional opportunities of shopping online – directly competing with both the malls and the downtown shopping district.


Today, many consumers are carefully researching and targeting their purchases.


However, price alone is not necessarily driving sales.


Traumatized by years of bad customer service and sketchy shopping adventures by either being creeped-out by street people or having harassing and harrowing experiences with parking or surly sales clerks, shoppers are looking for safety, consistency, value and convenience. And if they have to search for items, they want a positive experience, whether that experience is at the mall, downtown or on a website.


Many are calling the “new consumer normal,” a state of perpetual uncertainty and ongoing anxiety on multiple fronts, locally and nationally.


Although dealing with consumer anxiety is hard to quantify and certainly does not easily lend itself to a mathematical formula, it needs to be addressed by both business and government and on the local, state, and national level.


. . . . .I’m just saying…


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