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dave mcginn's mr. miser

A few years ago, I lived above a bar that, because of proximity, I hung out in all the time. The place had a good kitchen and a reputation as an it spot for people too cool to ever admit wanting to spend time in it spots.

After about a month or two of frequent visits, something wonderful happened. I went to pay my bill and the bartender waved me off. This one was on him. That's when I knew I had crossed a glorious threshold. I wasn't an ordinary patron any more. I was a regular.

Being in the coveted category of regular, whether at a bar, a restaurant, a dry cleaner, you name it, is like living in an American Express commercial: Membership has its privileges.

For me, that meant a free beer or two on every fourth or fifth visit. Sometimes, whoever was working the bar would send over a snack, gratis, from the kitchen.

For Ian Galloway, a 35-year-old graphic designer who has been going to the same butcher for six years, it means pretty much getting free meat lobbed at him as soon as he walks through the door, or, at the least, usually paying significantly less than other customers. "You definitely get a deal. If you ask for three steaks, he might throw another one in free," he says. "And you always get the best cuts of everything."

One Christmas, he went to pick up a goose. A woman ahead of him in line was doing the same. How much was she charged? $125. How much was he charged for his goose? $65. It was Christmas - a key time for businesses to say thanks to their regulars.

Most companies, however, will give perks to their regulars throughout the year to make sure they don't go elsewhere.

"If you've got one [a regular customer] you've got to do what it takes to keep them," says Dolly Konzelmann, president of the Toronto chapter of the International Customer Service Association.

Indeed, it costs an organization five times as much to get a new customer than to keep ones they have, says Anne Rose, who teaches customer service at the Canadian Management Centre.

And it's regulars who are most likely to spread the word about their favourite places.

"Giving away a free steak is really inexpensive advertising," Ms. Rose says. "Organizations are doing more of this now because of the tight economy."

Of course, it's easier to become a regular at an independently run business than at a shop owned by a large corporation. "There's more flexibility from the mom-and-pop shops because they're really fighting for the business," Ms. Rose says. There's also a lot less red tape.

But keep in mind that it requires more than just going to the same place over and over again. You need to establish a rapport with the people who work there.

"You've got to talk to them and find out what they're about," Mr. Galloway says. His butcher is a football fan, for example, and they'll razz each other about their favourite teams.

Also, ideally, you want to be on a first-name basis with employees at the places you frequent. Once you've established a personal relationship with the people you do business with, you're going to start enjoying the occasional freebie and also plenty of things that it's hard to put a price on, whether it's always being seated at your favourite table, getting a heads-up on upcoming sales, or faster, friendlier service.

Keep in mind, though, that being a regular is like being in a friendship - it's not about taking all you can get without giving anything in return. No one gives perks to jerks.

At the very least, be polite. In fact, I'd go out of your way to be as understanding and accommodating as possible.

And if you want to become a regular at a restaurant or a bar or any business where gratuities are called for, always tip well. I'm talking 20 per cent, minimum.

Being a good tipper won't just make you memorable, it's also a strong sign that you care about the place and the service. Once you show you care about them, they'll start showing they care about you.

On that note, don't be afraid to go the extra mile to show your appreciation in other ways too. It's worth saying an extra-special thank you once in a while.

Once a year, Mr. Galloway will swing by his butcher to drop off a bottle of wine. He doesn't do it just to get a deal on a goose. It's his way of saying thanks.

"They take care of me all year," he says.

That's the beauty of being a regular.