Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Realities of Small Business

During periods of heavy tourist activity, the staff at the shops I work for goes without time off for the duration. Because we serve cross-country skiers, we work our hardest when everyone else is out of school or on vacation from work.

My employers tend to panic easily. They demanded from the beginning that I, their very first real full-time grunt, be available straight through the two weeks in February on which Massachusetts and New Hampshire schools close for February vacation.

We all soon realized that Massachusetts people may come to New Hampshire for vacation, but New Hampshire people usually get the hell away. We went back to taking our regular days off during the second vacation week in late February. That still leaves us working a 12-day marathon for the Massachusetts week.

Hell begins on the Friday leading into Presidents' Day Weekend. We run flat out until the end of Sunday the following weekend.

We get a foretaste of hell, ironically, around the holiday many people observe as the birth of the Son of God. If Christmas week is snowy, we're in the trenches. And Christmas can be worse than February, because the holiday falls on a specific date, not a movable three-day weekend. February vacation always runs from weekend to weekend. As eternal as it feels, it has a distinct pattern.

One may wonder why we don't add staff for the heavy periods.

In specialty retail, especially if you really care about your specialty, you need people who can work to a high standard, not just names on a schedule and mouth-breathers on the sales floor. Lord knows we get enough of those as customers. Although the schedule takes an increasing toll as we all get older, it still makes more sense to pay the overtime and work the stretch if we can manage it, than to try to rope in someone far less trained for a short hitch.

Small businesses don't have the luxury of extra personnel. Sometimes a specialty store like a bike or ski shop will develop a group of friends among the more addicted customers. These people can fill in sometimes. More often they can't. They have their own lives, which were well-planned enough to keep them out of a career in retail.

If things get really bad, a small business doesn't lay people off. It folds up. In the specialty arena, where service counts as much as sales, you have to reach a certain size to provide all the functions needed to survive. The next size down may be considerably smaller, like a single person in a tiny store front, doing his or her best to stay above water.

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