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Sam's Expanding Commercial Customer Base by Creating Business Members

Sam's Club has been making a particular effort to appeal to small business, and it's getting smaller all the time.

In this case, smaller has no negative connotation. In fact, it has the potential to enlarge Sam's small business membership base considerably. On May 18, in an initiative timed to coincide with National Small Business Week, the retailer introduced a simplified application process that makes it easier for solo operators, part-time business owners and home-based entrepreneurs to benefit from business memberships.

Formerly, the application processes required small business owners to produce several formal documents to qualify for commercial membership. Now, they can obtain a Sam's Club business membership simply by providing a current business card, letterhead or other documents used to promote or manage their business.

Considering that Staples currently is providing free business cards as a recession promotion, getting a Sam's membership may prove both easy and cheap.

Catherine Corley, vice president, small business insights for Sam's Club, said the warehouse operator "has always been an inclusive club," and considering the number of U.S. households that operates some form of business, the inclusiveness on the business side could increase several fold. Sam's provides business members with exclusive product offerings, special hours, business specific catalogs and magazines, and a personal shopping option dubbed Click 'n' Pull.

If the simplification generates additional interest, a significant part of that may come from consumer memberships. But lots of retailers are after the office supply business these days, including web sites and dollar stores. So the incremental lift that might be had from conversion from consumer to business member is nothing to dismiss, even if it only adds up to a few purchases a year not spent in a rival store.

Corley announced the changes at the Small Business Administration's Annual Champion Awards Luncheon in Washington, D.C., which celebrated National Small Business Week.

Sam's Club also announced a program with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that will provide the organization's members with a $10 gift card and complimentary cost comparison if they join or renew their business memberships

Sam's is doing its best to expand business memberships and just came off an eight-week promotional drive aimed at building commercial accounts. Yet, it's not quite all business. Sam's Club has also announced a special $15 membership that provides consumers and small business owners what it calls 100 Days of Summer, essentially access to its clubs from Memorial to Labor Day. The summer special starts off with a grilling promotion that includes lots of food sampling. Clearly, Wal-Mart's club division recognizes that all work means no play in outdoor and seasonal merchandise.

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