A few weeks ago, I stopped into a business in my hometown that had a large banner hanging out front, proclaiming the phrase “Happy Holidays!” I didn’t really pay much attention to the banner until I went inside, where I overheard the owner of the shop bemoaning the community’s response to the banner. According to him, three regular customers had stopped using his store due to being offended by the banner and the shop’s apparent refusal to use the phrase “Merry Christmas.”
Whenever you hear a story like this one, it’s very tempting to dive into the culture wars and argue about who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s rude and who’s polite. At the heart of the matter (at least as far as OPEN Forum is concerned) is the impact that such cultural statements have on small businesses.
Very clearly, such statements do have an impact. When you make a statement like “Happy Holidays,” you’re being inclusive of all faiths, but you may find some flavors of Christians finding shops more welcoming of their particular faith. At the same time, using a statement like “Merry Christmas” can be a bit divisive in a community that has significant religious and cultural diversity.
What’s a small business owner to do?
I think the solution to this question comes down to a few key elements that any small business owner should have a handle on before the issue comes up.
First: What is the nature of the community in which the business operates?
Is it a community that has a strong religious and cultural heritage? Is it an area that embraces the wide diversity of the people that live there? The correct answer to many such cultural issues for a small business can be found in the nature of the community in which it operates.
Second: What is the nature of the business itself?
For example, a Christian bookstore is going to have some particular interest in greeting customers with a hearty “Merry Christmas!” On the other hand, a grocer specializing in international foods will have reason to utilize a less religious-specific statement during the winter season.
Finally: What is the belief structure of the owner of the business?
For many people, the business is an expression of themselves in some fashion. If you’re a Christian business owner in a religiously diverse community, is it really vital for your personal beliefs to embrace the Christmas season? On the other hand, is it more important to you to have a thriving business that expresses your personal values in another fashion?
These questions can be difficult to answer and, frankly, they won’t be answered immediately. Instead, they need to be answered over time. The more you know the community you’re serving and the more you know your customer base, the more clear the answers to these questions you’ll become.
The ability to deeply understand and embrace the culture and beliefs of your community and your customer base is a valuable one, one that will pay dividends throughout the year. It’s not just a decision as to whether or not to have your employees say “Happy holidays” or “Merry Christmas,” but a deeper recognition of the role you play in connecting with your customers and providing them the kind of value that only a small business can provide.
Image credit: Simon Keeping