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Small Businesses' Takeaway From 2008

Stocks in this article: MCD BKC BKS

When it comes to business lessons, 2008 provided a bumper crop.

The economy was dismal. Month after month, companies cut back, laid off workers or completely imploded. For the most part, it was an equal-opportunity malaise, affecting businesses of every size and in every industry.

But hidden among the doom-and-gloom headlines were some inspirational stories, too. Despite the tough times, companies found ways to increase sales, reinvigorate their brands or save on expenses to boost the bottom line. Here are the top survival strategies that helped large corporations weather tough times. Could they boost your business, too?

1. It's all about the customer: McDonald's (MCD) vs. Burger King (BKC). Barnes & Noble (BKS) vs. Borders (BGP). When it comes to consumer goods, there are plenty of national rivalries fighting for the same dollars.

This year, two major retail chains faltered in the face of their better-prepared competition. Linens 'n Things (LIN) went out of business, leaving Bed Bath & Beyond (BBBY) the only major national player in housewares. Electronics chain Circuit City (CC) filed for bankruptcy protection and closed numerous stores. Its main rival, Best Buy (BBY), has done far better weathering the slowdown in consumer spending.

What did Bed Bath & Beyond and Best Buy do right? (And, no, the answer doesn't have anything to do with the letter "B"). Both focused relentlessly on what customers wanted and made sure they got it.

Linens 'n Things may have stocked more fashion-forward items, but Bed Bath & Beyond attracted a wider customer base by focusing on basics. More importantly, it had a better inventory system, so shoppers could find what they needed. Similarly, Best Buy studied its customers' needs and habits and trained its employees accordingly.

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