photo (11)As the economy picks up I am always interested in what the small business person thinks about our future. Almost every Sunday I take a few hours to visit the Maxwell Street Market in Chicago. Even though it was forced to move from Maxwell Street to South Des Plaines the tradition continues. If you want a deal and you are willing to sort through hundreds of items to find it, you will probably find it.

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What do you want to buy? It’s here somewhere.

Picture an open-air market where you can find clothing, electronics, appliances, tacos, automotive parts, health and beauty products, BBQ, street performers, candy, men’s and ladies accessories, and jewelry.

There are never-ending bins, piles, and stacked cartons that make the hunt even more fun. If you don’t like to pour over superhero figurines to get to the iPhone cases then this is not for you. You can find everything from shoelaces to designer ties, sneakers to dress shoes, perfumes to chocolate covered strawberries. Goods on card tables and blankets compete with goods in sidewalk kiosks and stores nearby.

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Basketball, running, walking, baseball, and other shoes are on sale.

What I have learned from them is simple.

Offer great service,

fair prices,

and be impeccable with your word.

They don’t appear to take criticism personally and always remember it’s easier to service an existing customer than to get a new customer than to get a new one.

These businesses understand ‘customer return’ policies better than most large organizations.

They keep their prices low by only accepting cash, but that doesn’t discount the service they provide.

With all of its diversity it is an incubator of enterprise.

What continues to amaze me is the mix of people, products and prices. If you look carefully you can find treasures reinforcing the saying, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Where else can you buy a new baseball cap for 50¢ or a full bag of Miniature Snickers for $2 ($5.95 at Wal-Mart)? Sure the expiration date was last week, but who cares?

Certainly the Maxwell market has shifted in almost every aspect. Tacos, tamales, and churros have replaced the stands that used to sell Maxwell Street Polish sausages. There are lines forming as early as 10AM for these Mexican food items but something is different. Everything has changed from the early days except the diversity of customers, variety of products, and the melting pot of Chicago residents.

Sundays are filled with a mixed of almost every ethnicity and civility. Everyone gets along. Everyone is polite. Maxwell Street is a microcosm of a business world where people from almost every ethnic background cooperate and the only color that matters is green.

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Shoe laces against the background of WIllis Tower reminds us how to tie our society together.

The vendors are still hardworking, understand great customer service, and normally stand behind what they sell. I often talk about D-A-T-I-N-G Your Customer and these vendors get it.

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Shoe laces and muffin tins (upper left) are part of the variety at each booth

They know that they must exceed the expectations of their customers. If the product is NEW they whet your appetite with comparisons to Target, Wal-Mart, Costco prices and the customer service of Nordstrom, Zappos, etc.

If the product has expired most vendors post signs alerting consumers to the past expiration. It’s about creating informed buyers. If we take a page from Maxwell it’s the fact that everyone gets along because they are ‘color blind’ except for green.

If you are near a flea market stop by, it might not be Maxwell Street but you’ll learn a great deal and perhaps find a great deal as well.


According to Jim






  • Create informed customers.
  • Be a trusted vendor.
  • Stand behind your products.
  • Be willing to negotiate.
  • Only take cash to keep your prices low.
  • The customer is always right,                                                                                                                                even if you think they’re wrong.