Counter day in the summer. There is nothing sweeter for a warehouse employee. The sun is beating down and the air is full of humidity. But there is the distinct, enticing smell of a grill. People are gathering and those of us who work for the company are scurrying about like pigeons picking at bread crumbs.

It’s all about free burgers and drinks on a hot summer day. Another counter day at the supply house. For us employees, it’s a morale booster because it breaks the routine and helps us maintain sanity. For customers, it’s a reason to come to our company as opposed to someone else’s. The residual benefits are endless, and with the right approach, the cost is minimal.

For the past few years, my company has held a counter day every Thursday during the summer and has offered a wide range of foods, even beyond the normal burgers and hot dogs. We’ve given away T-shirts, we’ve had tables for vendors, and we’ve held sales specials. We chose Thursday afternoon because it had been notorious as our worst day for business, but since enacting these Thursday freebies it has quickly become our best counter day of the week. I’ve talked to many of our customers regarding our counter days, and obviously many are impressed. There are other companies that have a counter day once a month, or for holidays, but to have one every week is a challenging task. Luckily, in our warehouse we had an experienced cook who was always ready to grill for us each week, and we have the support of many vendors to help with the cost.

Vendor support is extremely important, because without it the costs could get out of hand for a distributor. Yet there’s also a lot in it for them as well. In return for their generosity, our vendors get their logos splashed around, their products on prominent display, and - probably most importantly - a chance for their reps to mingle with and talk to scores of customers and prospects at one place in a short time span. To our vendors, counter days mean more customers, more recognition, a better reputation and a general boost to their companies.

There aren’t many vendors that aren’t dying for the chance to come to your supply house and tell your customers about their products. Even with the recent slowdown in the economy, we still had a vendor signed up for each of the counter days that we lined up for last summer. Our preference is to have a single vendor sponsor each event, but so many vendors have jumped at the opportunity we’re considering doubling up on some days in order to keep everyone happy. As long as the events are sponsored by non-competing vendors, most seem willing to go along.

We’ve learned by trial and error some of the do’s and don’ts of hosting successful counter days. Here are some tips to help you make these events successful.

First of all, make sure your employees know about it well in advance. They and their managers need some time to plan. This is because their workload is going to increase quite a bit thanks to the multi-tasking required in tending to normal business as well as the picnic aspect. While there may be a BBQ going on, this doesn’t mean work comes to a stop. Make sure that they can enjoy the day but also that when one person goes to get something to eat, someone else is still picking the orders or receiving goods off a truck. Whatever good will you buy from customers with the grub, they’re still going to be upset if their products aren’t in their hands ASAP.

Next, make sure that your counter staff is prepared for a surge of business. Have someone in reserve that can help if the counter gets too busy. There are going to be a lot of people coming in and out, and the last thing you want is for your staff to be MIA while a line of potential orders gets backed up. The reserves can be anyone from an inside sales guy who is experienced with counter sales, to a picker who is almost ready to work at the counter. Be prepared for the busiest you could be.

Besides the employees, there are other people you’re going to need to keep happy too. At the top of that list are the vendor reps. Many people who attend will not be regular customers. They’re just there for the food and are not inclined to pay much attention to what the vendor is going to say. So have your sales team go out and mingle with the customers and introduce them to the vendors. You need to keep that working relationship going at all times. If your customers aren’t immediately interested, then go and talk to the vendor yourself. Learn as much about his product as you can, so you can learn how to get his message across and use it to help your customers in the long run. You need to make sure that the vendor sees some value in this counter day when he gets a bill for 200+ burgers and pops.

Lastly, the best way to have a successful counter day is to market the heck out of it. For an entire month before our first BBQ, we had signs, fliers, and graphics on our Web site. We had our sales staff talking it up with all of their customers, and then as the event drew near we had new signs, new fliers and new graphics posted throughout the counter area. There isn’t a customer that calls us or that walks into our building that doesn’t know about this day. Also, have another incentive behind your counter day. Give away T-shirts or offer a sale, or a special on an item that isn’t moving as much as you’d like. We gave away more than 200 orange and gold T-shirts about three years ago and I still see people walking the streets wearing our T-shirts. Some of them have nothing to do with the plumbing industry, and it’s kind of neat to know that a bunch of strangers are out there promoting your business.

Whether you’ve never had a counter day before, or you have them monthly, these are tips that are going to help you have a more successful counter day anytime you see fit. Your employees will love it, your vendors will love it and most importantly, your customers will love it. Time to fire up the grill!