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From small-town to global: Business reputations still matter

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I was saddened last weekend to learn my attorney had retired. It's great for him, but how do I go about replacing him? He represented my parents, as did his father before him. Not only has another institution in my small hometown closed its doors, it's yet another illustration of how business is done differently today — because it has to be.

Pardon me for sounding like a dinosaur, but back in my day, you knew whom to do business with, because you were rarely more than one or two degrees removed from the merchants, doctors and other professionals you had to choose from. Take my attorney. His dad and my dad went to school together. I went to school with his sister — kindergarten through high school graduation.

If you sold a customer shoddy merchandise, didn't keep your word or let a client down, you still had to look them in the eye at the next high school football game, at church or synagogue, or at the local lodge (there were at least six fraternal organizations, plus a Lions club, a Rotary chapter and the Jaycees) or women's club (another half-dozen organizations plus all those auxiliaries to the men's groups). And word got around pretty fast.

In a town of 6,000 people with a vibrant business community, there was a lot of choice, amazingly. (There was no "downtown," incidentally. Western Pennsylvania is rather hilly, to say the least, so going shopping on Main Street meant going "upstreet.")

There were four women's clothing stores, two men's stores and three or four "general" clothing stores; two furniture stores; two general drugstores and a pharmacy; two "5 and 10s"; four grocery stores; two banks; a savings and loan (and we know what happened to that); two soda shops; and more, including an independent hospital and a newspaper.

Where you spent you money was determined by whom you knew and associated with.

Today, it's nearly impossible to build relationships like that across the board. People move around too much, and the geographic business landscape has changed as well. I sound small-town (because I am), but I've lived in more than a dozen towns and cities as an adult. And I'm not alone in that. In one memorable neighborhood, the house across the street from me changed hands three times in the four years I lived there.

So back to my original question: How do you decide where to do business today?

Word of mouth still exists, but it's morphed. Many people rely on online ratings and reviews, which is why this is important. The New York Attorney General's office last week revealed it had fined 19 businesses caught paying for fake positive online reviews.

Yes, it is illegal for a business to do that.

Amazon, the giant of online reviews, has been wrestling with this issue for some time, from authors posting bad reviews of rivals' works to companies posing as customers to disseminate glowing ratings of their products.

We're not going to go back to the days of doing business solely by relationship and a handshake. But reputation still matters.

The only things that have changed in that regard? Word of mouth is electronic now and can circle the globe in nanoseconds. And it's harder to know whose opinion to trust, because we don't know the opinionators anymore.

The week ahead

It's easy to think manufacturing is old school, too. But it's still a vital component of the Pennsylvania economy. In honor of National Manufacturing Day Oct. 4, we devote the issue to Manufacturing in the Midstate. Don't want to miss it? You can subscribe to the Business Journal here.

Tuesday is O-Day. That's O for Obamacare. As an employer, it's your first major deadline under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. By Tuesday, you should have informed your employees of the new insurance marketplaces' existence. Here's the story we published about that on Sept. 20.

As always, networking events — those opportunities to forge real business relationships with real people — abound in the midstate this week. Click here for a calendar.

On Monday morning (Sept. 30) at the Hilton, the Central Penn Business Journal honors the area's Top 50 Fastest Growing Companies. The winners are profiled in Friday's issue, and here's a list.

The rewind

During the Cold War, the government considered America's prosperous small towns a potent propaganda tool. This documentary produced by the U.S. Information Service for foreign audiences captures small-town life, circa 1957, in Anamosa, Iowa (pop. 5,500 today). It's romanticized, but the scenes, cars, clothes and activities are pretty much on the mark. Check out the family grocery shopping trip at minute 9.

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