Each year, I write a column on how to survive the holidays. Never before, however, have I had to take the term " survival" quite so literally. With threats from anthrax, terrorism, and potential economic calamity, this may be the most challenging year ever for those of us in business.

What a difference a year makes! Last year I was advising on how to make the most of the lavish spending habits of customers. Now, the consumer mood is cautious and economic conditions unpredictable. This could be a very tough Christmas shopping season, and since the last quarter is critical for many businesses -- not just retail -- it means you' ve got to be a lot more careful in your holiday planning. Cash management is always my first piece of advice for the holiday season, in good economic times or bad. One of my earliest clients was a florist. Sales in the last quarter of the year were always brisk, as my clients decorated many customers' holiday parties as well as providing floral displays for downtown department stores. But even though they were awash in cash in December, they had a hard time paying bills in March. If the holiday season is your biggest time of year, sock some money away for leaner months. And this year, be especially conservative in ordering inventory, so you' re not stuck with large debt.

Other tips for this particularly challenging year:

  • Holiday Cards and mailings: Who ever thought you' d have to take anthrax into consideration when ordering your holiday cards? Well, you do. This year, for the first time, I had my name and address imprinted on the envelopes of our holiday cards. Assume all unmarked envelopes will be tossed away unopened. But should you bother to send holiday cards at all? I believe that the end of the year is a good time to send your customers and referral sources greetings, but if you' re watching your pennies, this might be one area to cut. How about e-mail greeting cards? They still seem less substantial than tangible cards.
  • Holiday specials. Everyone is being more careful with spending this year, so be a bit more aggressive in your pricing. This doesn' t just apply for retail or hard goods. Offer discounts for your services. And "bundle" products and services into gift packages (consulting and some software or books, hair cut with products, etc.) to make them more attractive as gifts.
  • Gift certificates. Sell gift certificates! They' re easy for customers to buy, and they' re easy for you to sell. They don' t require inventory, and they bring you cash now. Promote them on your Web site and mention them to all of your customers. Once again, this doesn' t just apply to retail. Getting a gift certificate to have your house cleaned or your dog groomed might also be appreciated (although not necessarily by your dog).>
  • Parties (Attending): Go to every one you can. And bring your business card. With such uncertain economic conditions, take every opportunity to market yourself and your company. There may be fewer parties this year, but go out and be seen. LI> Parties (Hosting): Ironically, this may be the year to hold your first holiday party. Given the tenor of the times, you may need to do something to coax your customers, referral sources, employees' relatives and friends out of their cocoons and into your place of business. Don' t go overboard on spending; no one expects lavish parties this year. Make it casual; you can call or e-mail your invitees and serve something inexpensive. Just tell people the truth: that this year, more than ever, you' d like to get together with the people who mean so much to you and your success. And if they buy something at the same time, so much the better!

Throughout the holiday season, remember what really counts: family, friends, community, your values. Don' t allow the holiday season -- or the stresses of our increasingly complicated lives -- keep us from spending time with those we really care for. And don' t forget those who are less fortunate. Happy holidays!

© Copyright, Rhonda Abrams, 2001

Rhonda Abrams writes the nation' s most widely-read small business column and is the author of The Successful Business Plan: Secrets and Strategies and The Successful Business Organizer. For free business tips from Rhonda, register at www.RhondaWorks.com.