Are you ready for a revelation? Things are tough all over this country. Job losses are mounting. Homes are being foreclosed on at an increasingly alarming rate.We’re all more than a little concerned about the overall health of the economy, and self-service laundry customers are in the middle of it all. That’s the bad news.The good news is that life goes on. One needs only to have visited a mall during the holiday season. Sales may have been down for some retailers, but the stores were far from empty.The better news is that our business is based on necessity. We all got into it because it’s recession-proof, right? However, I doubt any of us are adopting a “business-as-usual” approach in 2009.Revisiting the malls’ example, retailers weren’t just banking on customers to flock to their stores regardless of the economic climate. No, they brought out their big guns, targeting us with deep-discounted prices, specials and other incentives. We can learn from that.A LITTLE APPRECIATIONWe know people will continue to do laundry in 2009, but we need to ensure clients feel valued and that they are receiving value from us. No, this is not the point where I say, “Follow the retailers’ lead and cut your vending prices tomorrow.” What I advocate are ramped-up customer appreciation activities.This doesn’t have to put a tremendous burden on you. Let’s start simple. Coffee and popcorn are easy, inexpensive offerings that customers love. You see them almost everywhere. Test your memory. The last time you took your vehicle for an oil change at the garage or quick lube, did those businesses have coffee or donuts? These are the little things that can help your customers feel appreciated in tough times. At a bare minimum, think about offering free popcorn and coffee.You can take things a step further by having punch cards and raffles. These additional customer-friendly activities have won favor among many laundry owners. If your laundry isn’t currently running customer-reward programs, now is the perfect time to start.What can you give to your customers? Bikes and Blu-Ray players are great giveaway items, but your customers might really appreciate free washes and drying time, or gift certificates for other nearby businesses.When you’re spending time on the Internet, check local radio and other business websites. Many offer opportunities to purchase discounted gift cards. You might be able to buy a $50 card for $25. Again, these aren’t prizes that are going to be a monthly drain on your wallet, but they’ll have a positive impact with customers during the current economic climate.TEAMWORKNow is the time to do a little cross-marketing. Other businesses are slow as well, so maybe that neighboring restaurant or car wash down the road is willing to offer you discounts on gift certificates to give out as awards. That owner probably shares your goal: He or she wants to be proactive in getting people through the door and sparking them to return.People love pizza. How about a pizza night? Work with your local pizzeria for a discount, and offer dinner for customers and their families.Perhaps you should look into a trade-out with a local hair or nail salon. This could benefit both businesses. Offer them service or gift cards for their own promotions in return.Are your weekday mornings slow? A discounted early-bird special for customers could be a welcome activity during a rough economy. Maybe you can run some cartoons or children’s shows. Throw in some inexpensive giveaways and donuts and you have a store special.FEELING GOODThese types of activities are important for two reasons. First, customers feel good about incentives, prizes and rewards, particularly during tough times. Second, it shows that you are more sensitive than someone who just does business in a neighborhood; you are part of the community.Make customers feel important by creating a V.I.P. club. Most people have e-mail addresses. Spur customers to join by asking for their name and e-mail address. As an owner, you’ll receive additional information to assist in marketing activities, and customers could receive special perks for being valued customers. This is where you benefit from the reporting functions of today’s laundry equipment and card payment systems. They are able to track individual customers’ machine usage and tailor the marketing.Stores can offer the same incentives for wash, dry and fold clients. After they hit an established poundage for the month, they become eligible for an exclusive V.I.P. rate for the rest of the month or year.The ideas are endless. A customer appreciation night could generate some buzz among clients. Maybe you could even hold a grand-prize giveaway where you pay the winner’s utility bill. If your laundry is close to a shopping area, you might offer a free baby-sitting night around holidays to allow mom and dad to do some shopping.If our individual businesses are going to navigate through the choppy waters ahead, we owners need to push ourselves to achieve the highest level of customer satisfaction. It sounds like a cliché, but the little things truly matter. Almost all of the ideas I discussed in this column are inexpensive enough that most laundries can afford them. Again, the goal is to help clients feel a little better during these trying times.But don’t feel bound by these ideas or others you’ve seen. Think creatively. Owners who really know their customers will have an easier time creating activities that will be appreciated. We all know keeping those loyal customers happy is extremely important, especially when we’re facing uncertain economic times. The little things we do to say “thank you” will help maintain and enhance customer loyalty.