Who are those 2½-year-old darlings out there destroying the supply shelf at the front of your store?
They’re your future customers, if you know how to manage and engage the children who visit your business.
It may be hard to believe for anyone who’s witnessed a toddler melting down or going on a rampage behind the back of a distracted parent. But the key to keeping your small-fry clients happy—and your store safe and intact—is the same as dealing with adults: Focus on engagement and respect.
“No business owner wants to put out the vibe that they don’t like kids to offend any parents, or better yet, lose a key customer,” says Jerri Aubry, a family and marriage counselor and behaviorist in Northern California. “You don’t want to offend people who have kids who are then going to go and tell their friends that your [business] isn’t a friendly place.”
This is particularly relevant today, when weekend sidewalks jammed with strollers are a common sight in many cities and everything’s estimated level of family-friendliness consumes a universe of mommy blogs. And while parents are ultimately responsible for their children’s behavior in public, there still exists some responsibility that falls into the entrepreneur’s court when customers enter his or her place of business. So what are some best practices to deal with kids in your shop?
Start with prevention
If wee ones frequent your business, get some gear to keep them entertained. A small table and chairs, with puzzles, books, crayons, coloring books or activity sheets—all of it will get their attention on their level, and keep them busy while the adult with them can do their business with you. It will also show your empathy toward sometimes-harried parents, something that might go a long way to pulling in repeat business. “Kids always want to pick things up and touch them—that’s part of their sensory learning, but as a shop owner, you don’t always want them touching your stuff,” Aubry says. “And kids are unpredictable that way— something can happen in an instant. Parents aren’t always able to react in time.”
“Step into your adult”
Dr. Gail Gross, a psychologist and specialist in child and family development, once had a frustrated friend bring over three visiting children who were making a mess of her home. She met them at the door, and kindly but firmly laid down the house rules—eat and drink only at the kitchen table, what they were allowed to do and where, plus ideas for activities. “I had no problem with them,” she recalls, laughing, describing how others can take control. “It is important for children to know the rules for every situation in order to feel both competent and confident.”
“As a shop owner, when children come in, you greet them and tell them the rules of your shop,” Gross explains. “Say ‘Some of these things may be tempting, but we cannot touch them. But here are some things in this corner that might keep you busy while Mommy is looking at this or that.‘ If a parent doesn’t take control, you take control. A parent will watch you do that and take a tip from you.”
Post a friendly reminder to parents
Get that old sign: “You break it, you buy it.” Aubry says it serves as an upfront notice that ought to get parents’ attention—but don’t go out of your way to point it out too aggressively. “Having a visual up on the wall big enough for people to see it might help them internally think, ‘OK, maybe I need to settle my kids down.’” A more direct way, without offending: If a child is getting into trouble, the business owner might say “I just wanted to mention they’re getting into that stuff over there—just in case you might not know.” That way, Aubry says, it doesn’t sound like you’re complaining, just that you’re alerting them to a possibly dangerous situation to get them to react.
If all else fails, there’s always the passive-aggressive, comedic route. Like a sign that warns: “Unattended children will be given an espresso and a free kitten.”
Strike up a conversation
The handicapped ramp outside Chris Dagger’s business, Cakettes Coffee Shop in Warren, Mass., had become popular with young teen skateboarders. His wife (and co-owner) had become frustrated in her attempts to chase them away, so Dagger went out for a chat. He pointed out that someone could get hurt with them whizzing by during business hours—and then asked about other options in the area. That led to a longer discussion about the closing of their local skate park, which left the teens with few alternatives. Dagger says he brought out a few cold sodas and offered to lend his support a new skate facility, either financially or with a letter to the local government. He and the skaters are on good terms now, he says.
And listen, too
Recently, Dagger returned to his shop at night to do some work and was startled to find four teenagers crouched in his doorway. After a quick chat, he realized they were just there to link up with the company’s free WiFi—and were a bit embarrassed that they were caught in the act. Dagger says instead of getting upset, he flipped on an outdoor light for them, and let them hang out under an overhang to stay out of the rain. “Most businesses, I’m sure, would have moved them on,” he says. But “they would also have not had the kids coming into the coffee shop the next day for mocha lattes either!”
Dagger says he has several teen staffers and treats them, as well as teen customers, as he would any other adult. “I always try to engage them, because they’re the customers of the future,” he says. “They’re the people five or 10 or 15 years from now who’ll be bring their kids in.”