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Good Ambiance Creates Success

On a rare, sunny Saturday in March, we pulled up for lunch at Boomer’s Drive-In on Samish Way. We turned on the headlights for service and placed an order that might have been placed in the 1950’s. The menus were on old style plastic signs next to each car. The music was oldies piped inside and out. The restroom was in black and red tile. The black and red checker theme was used throughout the building. We half expected Fonzi to pull up any minute. In otherwords, it was a perfect theme business.
One of the biggest mistakes any business can make, retail or restaurant, is not to settle on a consistent theme and use it. When you use only parts of a style, you confuse customers and sometimes even drive them away.
A Chinese place we used to visit had good food, but played rock music and had a poster of Switzerland on the wall. The tables had vinyl coverings that made the tables feel kind of sticky and not too clean. A few aesthetic changes and perhaps it wouldn’t have gone out of business.
Disney has this concept down. But look around. There are plenty of successful businesses and districts in Whatcom County that thrive because they understand the value of continuity in image.
Give your business a quiz and see how you do.


     • Could a customer describe your style quickly? Ask a few people to describe your business atmosphere and appearance in five words. For Village Books in Fairhaven it could be something like “homey, friendly, crowded, old fashioned, and relaxed”. For “The Greenhouse” downtown it might be “modern, spare, cutting-edge, upscale and colorful”. You may be surprised at how others view your business.
     • Do your fixtures and décor match your merchandise? Antique shops usually display in old shelves and cabinets. Modern art galleries are stark and simple in décor. Do not confuse people by putting something together without an end goal in mind. If you can’t figure out what you are trying to say, no one else will.
     • Does your theme carry through the business? We used to own a chain of pizza parlors called “Rico’s”. All the restaurants were decorated in a sort of plush, 1890’s theme with red velvet wall paper, red booths, and a long, wood bar. Eventually, Round Table Pizza bought us out and put in a Knights of the Round Table theme. But there was no confusion as to what the style was in either place. Make sure your staff is dressed for the role, too. Clothing makes a huge statement.
     • Does your business evolve within its theme? The Inside Passage store at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal specializes in Northwest gifts. When it opened, it offered some Indian art, plush whales, cookbooks, dishes and more. Since then, it has added northwest gourmet food items (a big seller), plush farm animals, and their own sweatshirts and T’s. By experimenting within the theme of “Northwest”, owner, Vicki Rogers has found new items that have sincebecome best sellers and even opened a shop at the airport.
     • Does the music match your business’s mood and demographics? Do NOT let the employees pick out your background music unless your customer demographic is that age group! You must have a background music and it must belong with the rest of the mood of the place. Ethnic restaurants are the worst offenders. People who go out for ethnic food usually want the whole package, décor, music and ambiance. Make it all match. I just visited a record store last week that actually had a classical and jazz music room so middle-agers could shop without listening to teenage music. What a concept! Walk through a Nordstrom and notice that the music changes in each clothing department. Music can coax people to stay or make them want to leave quickly.
     • Does your advertising match your theme? Typestyle, logos and graphics need to reflect your style. People make a lot of judgments based on those visuals. If you aren’t a designer, hire someone who understands the subtleties to create your advertising image.
     • Does your business go with the district? There are obvious themes like being Dutch in Lynden, or Bavarian in Leavenworth, or 1890’s like Fairhaven. But there are more subtle districts that haven’t yet created a cohesive identity and need to band together. Mall shops can look boringly alike all over the U.S., but you shouldn’t. Customers want a change from everyday life. Give them a good experience and they will return to enjoy that fantasy break from the mundane by visiting you again and again.

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