In 2007, I was five years into running my little used bookstore business. Things were going well. We had an established customer base, our monthly revenue was growing, and we had good relations with our landlord.
Then three things happened to change our trajectory.
First, Amazon introduced the Kindle. It was a hot topic of conversation with my customers. “It’s not like having a real book,” they would say, or “I like the feel of pages in my hand.” But sales figures didn’t lie–business had slowed.
Then the recession hit in 2008. Revenue decreased another 5%. The bills were still getting paid and so was I, but it was tougher. Other shops were struggling too. Colleagues began to shutter their establishments, but I felt my shop was strong enough to hold on.
Then the kicker happened: my landlord told me she was selling my building to improve her cash flow, a decision made because of recession issues. I was not in a position to buy. When the new owners had other plans for the space, I was forced to move to a different location across town at nearly double my previous rent.
The business held on, but it was never the same. Four years later, indie bookstores were thriving again. But we missed that rally because of my mistakes.
Looking back, I would have changed my actions and my mindset in many ways. Looking ahead to the landscape revealing itself now, I understand how 2021 will echo 2008. But it doesn’t have to mean the end of your endeavor. Here is some advice from someone who has watched her business die away, along with steps I wish I would’ve taken sooner to keep my business strong.
Examine Your Expenses
According to one U.S Bank study, more than 4 out of 5 businesses fail because of poor cash flow management. While it may be too late to build up that important cash cushion for emergencies, you should still take a hard look at your estimated future sales for the next twelve months and compare it to your existing, soon-to-be-due, and recurring outgoing expenses. Work up a plan for what to do if business gets back to normal in three months. And a plan if it takes six. And another if it takes a year or longer.
This is the time to be proactive. Call your landlord now to talk about your lease. Will they defer payments for any amount of time, or take a percentage off for guaranteed occupancy? Do the same with suppliers. Even if they can’t defer what you owe, reaching out now to have an honest conversation may strengthen your relationship so they may reconsider their stance later.
Whatever you choose to do, do not keep people wondering about possible late payments. No one likes more uncertainty in uncertain times.
Invest in Your Best Clients
Just as you should be talking to the people up your supply chain, don’t forget to reach out to the people who support your business. Regardless of whether you’re a B2B or a B2C business, your customers are feeling the same stress you are. Reach out to them. Ask them how they’re doing.
Consider this to be a community-strengthening activity, with the tangential benefit of letting your customers know your business is there and will be ready with whatever product or service you provide when they need it.
My last message to my customers said in part that “I opened the door and gave the space, but it was the people who walked through and inhabited the space — you — who made the bookshop the warm place it was.” Seven years after our closing I am still convinced customer loyalty was the primary driver that kept the shop open for over a decade.
Invest in the people who invest in you — and not just as people who pay your bills. If you treat them as part of your community, they will do the same.
Don’t Pull Back on Marketing
This is not the time to limit exposure. Let your clients know you’re open for business. Try to find new customers wherever you can, even if this means switching sales channels or turning to a new kind of product. People should believe you’re there for the long haul.
You may also want to explore different online sales channels to get your product to your customers. You might consider if the changing economy has opened up any new opportunities for your business you can fill, such as consulting within your niche.
While it’s natural to want to conserve all resources right now, your customers should never doubt you’re going to be there for them, even for a moment. Good marketing is the key to this. Don’t skimp.
Know This Will Pass
I was a single mother raising my elementary-age son when my business tanked. For a while, things got frightening for our little family. I considered sending my son to live with his father full time because I was having trouble keeping us fed and housed. I felt wounded, as if my world had ended, and like nothing would ever be good or right again.
But things did get better. After the shop closed, I found a new career as a writer. I kept growing and changing. I’ve met other challenges in my life. My life did not end when my business did.
Your worth is not predicated upon what happens to your business in the coming months.
This too will pass. American businesses have bounced back from previous pandemics, from war (even civil war), from all kinds of natural disasters, and from previous economic downturns.
When things look dark it’s important to remember this will end. Your primary job right now is to stay strong, to focus on the long-term, and to use every resource and opportunity available to you. You, the individual you, need to breathe and remember to continue on, no matter what. As Churchill said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
Marla Keene is a tech writer with AX Control, Inc. She writes about AI, AR/VR, drones, and changes occurring within the manufacturing industry. She is the former owner of Lazy Lion Books in North Carolina.