When COVID-19’s arrival in Minnesota started forcing the closure of schools, restaurants and bars, it sent Minnesota small businesses reeling. Doom and gloom, ranging from layoffs to closings, dominated the headlines.
Sarah Quickel, owner of Enchanté in Stillwater, heard all the noise and felt the same pain. But she also keeps plowing forward, finding ways to meet customers’ needs in as many different ways as possible.
While there are a lot of ways she can’t compete with large retailers, she can be nimble. She’s offering through social media to meet up with customers at the Stillwater store or to display her women’s apparel offerings via Facetime. It’s not replacing all of her lost sales by a long shot, but it has made a difference. Within a day of a series of social media advertisements, she was showing shoes to a woman in Arizona over a social media channel.
“Really, honestly, you have to just keep being creative,” she says. “I’ve tried to come up with ways that we can succeed that the big stores can’t offer. You’ve got to keep it personal. What we do well is keeping it unique and personal and fun.”
Where everyone’s email inbox is inundated with messages from every list they’ve ever signed up for describing how they’re getting through the pandemic, Quickel is determined to be an oasis, a source of fun amidst the drumbeat of bad news.
“That’s not our job,” she says of the hundreds of companies out there reminding people to wash their hands and not touch their faces. “I really focus on retail therapy. Let’s just try to make people laugh and smile. They can turn to other sources for fearful information or factual information. Everyone has their different forms of therapy. What I’ve been trying to focus on is people who do like retail therapy. You’ve just got to focus on how you can remain unique.”
Staying upbeat, finding sales
Quickel’s husband works in healthcare. She’s heard all the bad news and felt the panic. But she’s also got bills to pay and she’s determined her store isn’t going to succumb to the tough times without a fight. So, while the streetss surrounding Enchanté are mostly empty, her staff is taking videos of spring wear, getting ready to put it on social media and find some sales.
“We’re trying to find ways we can succeed that the big stores can’t offer,” she says. “We’re all in this together. Nobody needs a pity party. We’re all in this together.”
Preparing in advance
Enchanté is just one of many small businesses across the state right now trying to find ways to stay alive. St. Paul-based Deneen Pottery, which manufactures high-quality handmade mugs, shut down for a week as soon as the “social distancing” guidelines were released. The company has 60 production employees in a small space working together to manufacture the mugs through its production process, which means “a lot of people working within six feet of each other,” says Niles Deneen, president.
Plus, with a lot of restaurant, tourism and national park partners, a significant portion of its upcoming orders are on hold. Employees were sent home for a week while the executive team pondered its next moves.
“I see a contraction for the next two to four months probably,” he says. “I don’t know how the economy can bounce back when we’ve got so many small businesses operating on thin margins without a lot of cushions, with fixed costs that are not being covered. There’s no assistance that can come fast enough to business owners and I don’t think anyone is really considering how impactful it is for people who have a personal guarantee on a loan that is now going to be called in.”
That said, while Deneen has been growing by double-digit rates for several years, he also knows cash is king. He began noticing some weakness in the financial indicators he monitors and he began pulling back on growth, focusing on building up reserves and paying down debt.
Not that he predicted this. “Oh, my God, no,” he says. “This contraction is unprecedented.” But the advance preparation has him in a little bit better shape than he otherwise might have been. “This year was the year we decided to take a step back,” he says. Deneen adds that he’s also arguing losses should be covered by insurance policies that have business interruption coverage because the virus created a physical loss when governmental agencies ordered shutdowns.
Contact your team — don’t disappear
In the meantime, as businesses attempt to figure out how to work through the disastrous landscape spread by the coronavirus, experts say it’s vital they reach out and remain in contact with business partners, bankers and other members of their team.
Talk to everyone and see about working out new terms that will help get through this, says John Thwing, also known as the “SBA Guy,” at 21st Century Bank. “If you end up with more cash than you need in the short term, that’s a good thing,” he says.
That’s echoed by David Deeds, a professor at the University of St. Thomas.
“The first thing is move quick, get in front of this,” he says. “Your revenues are going to be declining substantially. Get in touch with your banks, your landlords and any creditors you’ve got. Start working out payment terms. Don’t hide. Everybody is in the same situation. Everybody should be having some forbearance.”
If you haven’t spoken with your banker about a line of credit, now might be the time. Your landlord doesn’t want to kick you out or they’d then have to re-lease the space.
“It isn’t going to get re-leased anytime soon anyway,” Deeds says. “If you need some rent forbearance, it’s probably in their best interest to work with you.”
Then think about your cash outflow. Are there expenses you can put off so you can take less out of the business for a while?
Revenues are going down. “So, you now have to get in front of the cash going out the door,” he says. “Then you can keep your business alive until we can get past this and you can keep yourself alive until we can get past this.”
Once you have done that, then take a look at whether or not there are creative ways you can find to generate any kind of revenues during the difficult time.
“You’re always balancing is it going to pay,” he says. “You may want to cull as much of your marketing back as possible.”
The big thing is to really plan — and for longer than you expect. “The point is not to thrive, for small businesses right now,” he says “The point is to survive.”
Finally, Deeds says, keep an eye out for government programs at the local, state and federal level. There will be small business disaster plans put together to help. “Take advantage of them.”
Watch out for predators, look for opportunities
The Metropolitan Economic Development Association is one among many organizations working with clients to survive the coronavirus-associated challenges. Alfredo Martel, president and CEO, has spoken with a number of consultants, loan officers and other experts to put together a list of the top steps businesses should take, ranging from checking on financing to evaluating overhead spending and communicating with employees.
Of special note, Martel says, small businesses need to be extra careful about answering any emails they receive promising fast solutions to their problems.
“Any small business owner that is receiving offers or contacts that are unsolicited, they should manage them with extreme caution as a phishing tactic,” he says.
On the upside, Martel says difficult times in the past have often brought out some of the greatest innovations. He hopes this is no different. It’s going to take leadership and creativity to get through the difficult times, but it can happen.
Already, he says, some companies have been innovating by reconcepting their core competencies to find ways to help out during difficult times and earn revenue in the process. He cited as an example Tattersall Distilling, among other distilleries, switching gears and producing hand sanitizer.
“One thing that small business owners have is agility,” he says. “We have an immense opportunity to be creative and agile in these circumstances and in creative thinking there is an opportunity to take a look and evaluate is there a new market emerging for your core competence.”
So, with some creativity and strong leadership, he says, small businesses can end up stronger on the back end of the virus situation.
“Everything a business owner says and does impacts not only their staff, but everyone in their ecosystem,” Martel says. “This is a moment for proactive compassionate leadership.”
photograph by Tom Dunn