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“One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies… Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him.” So bemoans Della Dillingham Young, young heroine of O. Henry’s ironic tale The Gift of the Magi.

Do you know the story? Della sells her long, luxurious hair to buy a watch chain for “Her Jim,” who has sold his watch to buy combs for her hair.

The same twist of fate happens every day in America’s storefronts, as well-intentioned business owners spend hours planning something nice for their beloved customer, Ms. Jones. They scrape together every spare cent and invest it on exactly what she wants, what will make her happy, what will fulfill all her desires. They are willing to sacrifice generously to secure her love, “which is always a tremendous task, dear friends –”  says O. Henry, “a mammoth task.”

Have you misspent money on useless gifts? Have your impractical intentions ended in irony? Do you offer free financing, when she wants layaway? Do you have knock-down tables when she wants put-you-feet-up durability? Do you close early when she needs you to be open late?

Why waste good intentions and spare pennies, when we can know without a doubt what Ms. Jones wants?

All you have to do is ask. Ask her while she shops. Ask her as she leaves. Ask her three months later. Ask in person. Ask in a letter. Ask on your social networks. Ask online. Ask in an email. Send her a survey. Offer a little incentive if she tells you what’s on her mind.

A penny for her thoughts has a big pay.

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