Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Into the retail breach, dear friends

Jan Harte at the Small Business Development Center at Washington State University Vancouver is what I would call a “go-to” source. As an advisor to business owners – many of them embarking on their first entrepreneurial journey – Jan is an invaluable spigot of information regarding business trends, attitudes and atmospherics.

Jan works in the “trenches,” offering the kind of help for small business owners that politicians always seem to promise in speeches, but hardly deliver.

And according to Jan, the number of people coming to the SBDC seeking out that assistance has held steady in recent months – all except in one area: retail. “They don’t have the luxury to work on their business,” she told me this week. “They are already working ‘in’ it.”

Which made me think of the unique circumstances facing small shop, boutique and emporium owners, how their success, failure and continual struggle seem to fall off almost everyone’s economic radar screen.

Indeed, when a locally-owned store closes, often many of us will not notice until weeks or even months afterwards, exclaiming, “Oh, no!” as we drive past a forgotten casualty of the recession on our way to the mall.

This may be understandable, since in the context of mass layoffs, rising foreclosures and shuttered factories, the decline and fall of these small stores may seem like just a drop in a very big bucket.

But even drops add up. As do the seemingly-endless wave of store closures, which create an even more challenging business climate for retailers next door, down the street and across a neighborhood. That harsh reality goes far to explain why so many business owners are going head-first into the breach, staffing their own registers, stocking their own shelves and answering questions posed by their own customers.

These retailers face some pretty stiff odds, primarily from what some observers have termed “permanent” changes in our nation’s consumer spending habits. If any of these businesses were Fortune 500 companies, based on these dire economic projections, the Senior VPs, CFOs and CEOs would have fired all their workers, liquidated their assets and made a break for the first exit.

But that’s why small businesses like these are the backbones of every local economy. They are committed; they will not give up easily; they are here to stay. They are fighters.

These store owners don’t need your pity or your sympathy.

They’ll settle for your business instead.