AP Business Writer

In a slow economy, small business owners know what to do: adapt.

“We have to constantly keep adjusting,” says Janice Cutler, president of North Raleigh Florist in North Carolina. She has changed her marketing strategy since the start of the recession in late 2007. That has kept people buying – even though flowers aren't always a high priority.

At Graphic Imagery, a printing company in South San Francisco, owner Rachel Imison and her husband are working harder for each sale. And they've invested in new equipment that gets the work done better.

Here's a look at how four small business owners have adapted to an economy that keeps limping along:

Marketing your way to better sales

Cutler says her floral business has done well despite the recession because people still need flowers for holidays, special occasions and big events like weddings. “But the economy has definitely affected us in that we would be doing better” if some customers weren't cutting back on regular purchases, she says, for example, consumers and companies that used to order flowers regularly as decorations.

Her answer to the recession was to market her flowers differently. “We do more than just sell flowers. It's a sentiment,'' she says. The strategy has been working. Cutler says, “we've honestly had double-digit growth every month.”

This time of year is normally slow for her business. So, “there are weeks that we seem to work harder” to make a sale, Cutler says.

Finding a way to do more, better, faster

At Graphic Imagery, “we are working longer hours, customers are demanding more for less, the average value of each sale is lower,” Imison says. But she understands that her customers are under as much pressure as her company is.

To meet customers' greater demands, Graphic Imagery invested $500,000 in equipment that allows it to print more efficiently and cheaply. It's able to make booklets and brochures faster — sometimes in as little as a day.

The company is also trying to keep its costs down. It's putting off hiring because, while business has been good, “we're not confident yet,” Imison says. One reason why: April was a terrible month for printers in her area and she's not sure why. Imison says May, June and July have been busy “but we're not out of the woods yet.”

Her family is putting off its vacation this year, something it also did during the recession. “We're still anxious,” Imison says.

Doing a different kind of work

Alan Gaynor & Co., a New York-based architectural firm, was primarily doing interior design work for companies before the recession. That meant redesigning lobbies, offices and other spaces. That type of business began to slow down at the start of 2008. But the firm started getting more projects to renovate building infrastructure.

“We realized that was a good market for us,” says Michele Boddewyn, the firm's president. She says that after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, the market for corporate interior design “was very dead.”

The interior design market has recovered somewhat but projects are smaller. Boddewyn says of clients, “If they have a wish list of 10 things, maybe they're hitting seven of those 10.” And they're shying away from flashy décor.

Boddewyn says Gaynor has seen the design business slip again the last few months along with the economy. She says some clients might inquire about a project but “they're having cold feet about it.”

Give customers their money’s worth

Brian Butler's dry cleaning business in Columbus, Ohio, caters to affluent customers. He says Dublin Cleaners held on to them by giving them superior service. Like Graphic Imagery, his company invested in new equipment and technology that improved the quality of its work and also made it easier to satisfy customers' needs.

Some of the equipment is in his plant. But his delivery people now have cell phones so customers can reach those employees if there's a problem and get it resolved faster.

Dublin had its best sales in 2007. Business fell in 2008 through 2010 but Butler says sales were down only two percent to four percent each year. That was below the industry average of 10 percent. He says the company is back up near its 2007 level.

He attributes the comeback to two things: “My quality and my customer service.”