Through the lens of National Small Business Week, we’ve been highlighting the critical role of small, independent retailers. Small businesses serve as the backbone of their communities, and their activity serves as a barometer for the American economy. And with seven in 10 of America’s retailers having fewer than 10 employees, it takes an enormous amount of hard work to make it on Main Street.
With this in mind, there are a few questions we wanted answered. What makes people want to open a retail business? What thrills them about it and what keeps them up at night? And how is what’s happening in Washington affecting them?
For answers, we went to some retailers who understand the value of owning a retail business. Here’s what John Pelzer, owner of Busch’s Florist in Jefferson City, Mo., and Beth Aberg, owner of Random Harvest with four locations around Washington, D.C., had to say about being a small retail owner. Small retailers like these take risks and see the rewards every day – cementing themselves as the bedrock in towns across the nation in the process.
How long have you been a small retail owner? What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first opened for business?
Aberg: I’ve been in business for over 30 years, starting in New York City in 1982. I learned that you don’t have to do it all yourself. There is great help out there for certain aspects of the business that costs very little – instance, payroll and tax services.
Pelzer: Busch’s Florist and Greenhouse is the oldest retail business in Jefferson City, Mo., having been established in 1890. I am the third owner in 123 years and have owned Busch’s for 13 years. Where do I start? I was not a florist, or even a business owner, when I undertook this venture. The hours, the stress of cash flow, the extreme peaks and valleys of the floral year, everything about human resources and the importance/impact of the Internet on my industry all come to mind as issues I wish I had known more about when purchasing this business.
Why did you go into retail?
Aberg: I have always had a love for all things related to interior spaces, renovating them and finding the best of what is out there to fill them. Being in retail allows for me to continue to do what I love. Otherwise I would have an unsustainable buying habit.
What about being a small retail owner keeps you up at night?
Pelzer: I worry about things like making payroll in the slow months, new taxes and regulations (i.e. the Affordable Care Act) which impact our very existence and competition from Internet floral order gathers that compete with us locally without having to collect or remit the same taxes we do. I worry about my staff, particularly during slow times when I have to make a decision about hours or even layoffs.
What about being a small retail owner makes you excited to head to work every morning?
Aberg: The fact that anything is possible. Being small means we can be reasonably nimble in experimenting with new ideas and products without enormous risk.
Pelzer: It’s the challenge. I bought a well-established, yet underperforming business 13 years ago. I’ve taken chances, made a lot of mistakes, hit a few homeruns, never been afraid to try new things and have tried to stay on top of or ahead of industry trends. And when things start working well, it’s the satisfaction and pride you get that keeps you coming back.
Retailers are often considered the backbone of their local community and economy. How would you describe your business’s role in your community?
Pelzer: Without question, I believe we are a leader in community involvement, both with our time, our product and our money. I am personally involved in a half-dozen organizations, and my staff members even more. We contribute product and dollars to dozens of charitable events and organizations. I am a firm believer that it is the duty and responsibility of retailers and all local businesses to give back to the community which patronizes our stores, to keep our city strong and vibrant and to improve the quality of life for all its residents.
What policies before Congress do you think have the biggest impact on small retailers and why?
Aberg: Certainly the Marketplace Fairness Act for sales tax equality. It is becoming increasingly difficult for brick and mortar to compete. For any store, be it online or a physical address, the state’s tax policy needs to be the same.
What forms of communication do you use to engage with your elected officials about issues that are important to your retail business?
Pelzer: Face to face, when possible. E-mail, phone/fax on urgent issues, and my national associations – NRF and the Society of American Florists.