Being well-prepared will make the SBA loan application easier
BY GERRI DETWEILER
When it comes to small business lending, Small Business Administration loans are hot. In fact, in fiscal year 2019, the SBA guaranteed more than $28 billion to entrepreneurs that otherwise would not have had access to capital to start, grow or expand their small businesses. Business loan approval, in general, is the highest it’s been post-recession.
SBA loans appeal to entrepreneurs because they tend to have longer payment terms and lower interest rates than many other types of business financing and loans. But, like any low-cost business loan, getting an SBA loan can seem overwhelming. Don’t let it be.
“The biggest misconception is that there’s a lot of paperwork, but this is just a regular business loan,” says Bob Coleman, publisher of The Coleman Report, a leading SBA intelligence report for lenders. “The bank deals with the government, not the entrepreneur.”
Here are five things you should know to help land one of these coveted loans.
1. Do Your Homework
The more you know about your financial situation [i.e. your credit history, credit scores, risk factors] as well as your industry and competition, the better-positioned you will be to apply for — and get approved for — that SBA loan.
Dr. Kathryn Primm, owner/veterinarian of Applebrook Animal Hospital, took out an SBA loan to remodel a residence and equip it as a functional animal clinic.
“I did a lot of demographics studies myself before even applying,” she says. “I knew it was a low-risk loan because I know what a hard worker I am, and I know what a good veterinarian I am. The area was able to support a veterinary hospital as well, according to my research.”
Primm was able to pay off her loan in five years.
“The SBA was like my behind-the-scenes investor and I bought them out,” she says.
It’s also helpful to understand how SBA loans work and applicants should familiarize themselves with the basic requirements. The SBA doesn’t make loans; it guarantees them.
Each lender must meet the SBA’s minimum requirements, but beyond that the lender may have its own requirements as long as it doesn’t discriminate on a prohibited basis.
2. Know How Much You Need
There are several different SBA loan programs, each with specific uses. The 504 loan is for land, building and renovation, for example, while Export Express loans help small businesses develop or expand their export markets with streamlined financing. The most popular, by far, is the 7(a) loan program, which allows you to borrow up to $5 million with a 10-year repayment period [loans for equipment or real estate may be extended to 25 years].
Maximum SBA Loan Amounts
Up to $5 Million: 7(a), CapLines, Export Working Capital Program, International Trade, 504 loans*
Up to $2 Million: Disaster loans
Up to $500,000: Export Express loans
Up to $350,000: 7(a) Small Loans
Up to $1 million: SBA Express loans [SBA Express loan limits have been raised to $1 million through the end of 2020.]
Up to $250,000: Community Advantage
Up to $50,000: Microloans
*Note: There is no project size limit for 504 loans, but the maximum SBA debenture [loan amount] is generally $5 million. Certain small manufacturers or energy projects may qualify for up to $5.5 million.
If you haven’t already, write out a budget for what you’ll do with the money if you secure a loan. Not only will this help you really dive into understanding how that money can best benefit your business, but it may also come in handy when talking to a lender who, naturally, will want to know you have a plan for the funds.
3. Know Your Numbers
Good credit and solid financials are often key to getting an SBA loan. Chester Gordon is president of M.A.C.-Tech Fabrication and Repairs Inc. in Queens, New York, a custom fabricating shop specializing in architectural metals and finishes. He recently closed on his second SBA 504 loan.
The first loan allowed him to purchase the building where he operates. The second allowed him to expand by building a second adjacent building and doubling the square footage of the enclosed space. He says his SBA loans “gave me the capability of expanding.” In addition to the physical space, the financing allowed him to hire more employees and to grow his business.
When it comes to the application process, Gordon recommends that applicants keep their credit in good standing because the SBA is very thorough. He says his loans required three years of financials, so he’s very methodical in his approach to keeping his financial information organized, relying on his accountant, his office manager and his wife, who works in the business and handles administrative duties.
The SBA generally doesn’t have a minimum personal credit score requirement, but individual lenders may. In addition, certain SBA loans — 7(a) loans up to $350,000 and Community Advantage loans — require lenders to prescreen applications using the FICO SBSS score. This score can take into account the owner’s personal credit data as well as information from a business credit report, and financial data. The SBA requires a minimum score of 155 [on a scale of 0-300] though many lenders require a score of 160 or above.
And speaking of numbers, make sure you’re keeping up with taxes.
“Producing fair and reasonable profits should always be the primary goal for small business operations, please ensure the business taxes reflect these profits,” says Tom Kindred, regional director of the Florida Small Business Development Center at Indian River State College.
“Lenders will focus on business profits as they evaluate the business’s ability to satisfy debt service requirements.”
4. Ask for Help
Entrepreneurs tend to try to do it all themselves, but if that describes you, know you don’t have to go it alone in applying for your SBA loan.
Chris Petropoulos of General Auto Recycling in Tiverton, Rhode Island, took a commercial loan for an employee stock ownership plan for $5 million. He quickly realized he would need to provide a lot of reports and documents for the loan. That’s why he recommends bringing a financial expert on to streamline your application process.
“A commercial financial consultant walked me through the process,” he says. “I would not recommend doing this without a representative who has experience with this type of loan.”
There are a variety of professionals who can help. These include:
• An SBDC [Small Business Development Center such the Florida SBDC at Indian River State College] adviser. Professionals from this organization can provide free assistance to entrepreneurs.
•A certified public accountant, enrolled agent or accounting professional who works with small business owners. They can help make sure your financials are well-organized and lender-ready.
5. Invest in Key Person Insurance
Insurance might be the last thing on your mind when applying for an SBA loan, but it could be the tool that ensures that your business thrives, no matter what might happen to you.
Sa El, co-founder of Simply Insurance, says that one of the requirements of an SBA loan is a life insurance policy that is greater than or equal to the amount of your loan and that you have a term length that is greater than or equal to the term of your loan.
This requirement applies to loans where, per SBA guidelines, the lender determines the viability of the business is tied to an individual or individuals. In those situations, the lender must require life insurance. Getting a life insurance policy on yourself, however, doesn’t provide the same benefits that a key person policy does.
“Getting a loan through the SBA is a great idea for any small business; however, it is critical that you have a plan for paying it back,” he said. ”If you have a key person that your business couldn’t survive without, then you need to get a key person insurance policy. Without this, you open your business and yourself up for financial ruin, especially if you can’t pay back the loan.”
You should also consider an updated life insurance policy. Lenders want to be sure their loans will be paid back in the event of your death. They do that by having you buy life insurance that assigns the death benefit to them. But loan applicants, in their scramble to form a business plan and arrange financing, typically fail to notice the life insurance requirement until closing time is right around the corner.
This article originally appeared on Nav.com.
Treasure Coast Business is a news service and magazine published in print, via e-newsletter and online at tcbusiness.com by Indian River Magazine Inc. For more information or to report news email [email protected]
Community banks benefit from willingness to approve PPP loans for small business owners
BY NANCY DAHLBERG
In South Florida as well as around the nation, small business owners applying for the Paycheck Protection Program often struck out with big lenders — even when they had been loyal customers. They had better luck with smaller, community banks that were less deluged with applications and nimbler.
According to the Small Business Administration, about 52% of the loans and 44% of the PPP program dollars were approved by local community banks and specialty lenders. That’s huge considering that banks with less than $10 billion of assets account for just 14% of the industry total of deposits, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
“With closer proximity to the market place, stronger ties to the community and individual business owners, small community banks were better able to accommodate the volume of local small business PPP applications,” said Clifton Vaughn, business consultant with the Florida Small Business Development Center at Indian River State College. “The small institutions were surprisingly effective and efficient in acquiring PPP dollars for our region’s small businesses.”
In pre-COVID-19 times, the pain of changing banks — transferring balances and syncing incoming and outgoing payments to new account numbers — was a hurdle that stopped many from making the switch. But community banks nationwide are reporting that small businesses, who felt unserved by their banks, are showing their displeasure by moving their money elsewhere or at least opening an additional account as a thank you for PPP service.
And survey numbers show the trend, too. Of businesses that secured PPP funding, about 28% received their loan from a lender with whom they had no prior relationship or a bank that wasn’t their primary one, according to a July survey of 931 firms conducted by Barlow Research Associates. About 44% of those borrowers said they would move at least some of their accounts and loans to the bank that came through for them during PPP, the survey found.
EXPECT LANGUAGE CHANGES
Chalk this up to yet another change coming for small business thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The language in retail and restaurant leases is changing as a result of the pandemic.
New leases are being written with substantial changes, particularly in regard to provisions that provide relief for tenants that are unable to fulfill their contract obligations because of circumstances out of their control, such as a natural disaster or pandemic. The language in these provisions is often broad, and landlords did not interpret them to apply to shutdowns caused by a pandemic.
Now experts are saying new clauses will include language stating that should there be any government-mandated business closures — whether by city, county, state or federal agencies — the tenant would be protected with partial rent abatement. That also protects the landlord, as these agreements often add that the tenant would need to pay a minimum rent to cover costs like property taxes and maintenance, he said.
Other experts have been seeing clauses that outline what spaces are available for extra seating, fulfilling curbside and/or delivery orders should government restrictions be enacted again.
“As innovative as restaurants had to become during this pandemic, it is no surprise that landlords are reacting with new and innovative language in commercial leases,” Vaughn said.
LAWSUITS STACK UP
As more small businesses grapple with the economic impacts of the pandemic, more than 100 South Florida businesses have insurance cases pending in state circuit and federal courts, according to a database of COVID-19-related complaints maintained by the law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth. Among them are well-known restaurants and attractions as well as medical practices and manufacturers.
“Almost all of the insurance cases are business interruption,” Walter Andrews, partner and head of the insurance practice group at Hunton Andrews Kurth’s Miami office, told the South Florida Business Journal. “Businesses have lost so much money because of shutdown orders so I expect we’ll keep seeing more of this litigation.”
Andrews said insurers are spinning a false narrative when they argue they don’t cover pandemics. He said the floodgates should open in the next few months because he knows his firm and several other big firms plan to file a number of cases in the coming weeks.
All business interruption insurance is not alike, according to Mark Friedlander, spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute. He told the business journal that some business interruption claims in litigation are not legitimate because property insurance policies don’t necessarily list every exclusion. Instead of looking at whether viruses are excluded by their insurance policies, business owners should take note of which events are covered, he added.
“Unless viruses, bacteria and contamination issues are specifically stated as covered, you don’t have the coverage,” Friedlander said.
Courts nationwide so far have sided mostly with insurers. But thousands of cases, including the more than 100 in South Florida, are pending. Adding insult to injury, small businesses are reporting that their insurance premiums are increasing upon renewal.
This article is provided by the Florida SBDC @ IRSC, the Small Business Development Center within Indian River State College’s School of Business. The center’s team of business experts works one-on-one with hundreds of entrepreneurs and business owners each year by providing confidential, no-cost consulting. The center’s mission is to help Treasure Coast businesses grow and succeed.
Treasure Coast Business is a news service and magazine published in print, via e-newsletter and online at tcbusiness.com by Indian River Magazine Inc. For more information or to report news email [email protected]
New college program gives students a head start when deciding on a career
BY ROBERT LANE
Indian River State College Career and Transfer Services has launched a new opportunity for area employers to connect with IRSC students.
The IRSC Employer Residency Program provides a professional development platform where students gain real-time feedback from business and community leaders as they build interviewing, networking and job search skills. At the same time, the program connects local employers with some of the most qualified and promising employees in the region — soon-to-be IRSC graduates.
“The Employer Residency Program connects employers and students in an experience that readies our students to walk into a job interview with a sharp resume and a clear understanding of the company and the industry,” says Calvin Williams, IRSC director for Career and Transfer Services.
Employers involved with the program participate in informational meetings where students can ask questions about the company and specific jobs within the organization and its industry. Students gain valuable insight from employers, including ways to improve their employment prospects and strategies to achieve long-term career goals. The regularly scheduled sessions are actively promoted to IRSC students and take place in-person or through virtual platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams.
The program offers additional opportunities for area businesses. Among them are increased visibility with IRSC students, faculty and staff; maintaining an on-campus presence; career and professional development; mentoring opportunities; and the chance to give back and help student development for future workforce needs.
“The heart of this program is providing our students valuable one-on-one interaction with local employers,” Williams says. “This is a great opportunity for IRSC to connect our students with people and opportunities that can help them build their futures.”
Organizations interested in learning more about the IRSC Employer in Residence Program can contact Williams in Career and Transfer Services by email at [email protected] or by phone at 772.462.7467.
WHAT IS THE CTS
The IRSC Career and Transfer Services Center educates and assists IRSC students and alumni to effectively develop, evaluate and implement their career plans. Services available to students and graduates include career assessment, career advising, resume writing, mock interviews, internships, job shadowing, career fairs, transfer services, along with co-advising from partnering universities, graduate school events, and job search strategies.
Services can be accessed online, face to face, or by telephone. In addition to providing comprehensive student resources, CTS partners with area employers to list available positions to the IRSC Central job bank, provide meaningful experiences for student interns, participate in job fairs and other networking events and conduct the IRSC Employer Residency program.
Treasure Coast Business is a news service and magazine published in print, via e-newsletter and online at tcbusiness.com by Indian River Magazine Inc. For more information or to report news email [email protected]
New IRSC president foresees budding partnership with business community
Past entrepreneurship experiences will prove helpful in forging a connection
Indian River State College’s new president, Timothy Moore, has qualifications that are especially interesting to the Treasure Coast business community. Besides being an academic at institutions such as Kansas State, Auburn University and Florida A&M, he spent the last several years as an entrepreneur, developing a probiotic and bringing it to market. A military veteran, Moore also has worked with two biotech startup companies, Ventech Solutions Inc. and MagPlasma.
He succeeds Edwin Massey, who as the college’s president for 32 years focused intensely on developing a workforce for the region and working closely with businesses to improve and expand manufacturing. The college is in the midst of building the Advanced Workforce Training Complex, a $23 million, 55,000-square-foot industrial technology facility on its Massey Campus in Fort Pierce.
Moore, 57, sat down recently with Treasure Coast Business Magazine Publisher Gregory Enns to talk about how the college will connect with the region’s business community.
Q: Tell me about your experiences as an entrepreneur. What were MagPlasma and Probaxstra? Are you still associated with them?
A: What I told the board [of trustees of IRSC] was that if I was approved for this job, I would decouple myself from those opportunities. So I’m in the process of doing that now. Probaxstra [probiotic] is my baby. It was the derivative of my research. I had to challenge myself to figure out how to go from a test tube to a full blown production company and do it inexpensively and be able to be successful at it. The company is 4 years old, it is debt free. It is selling on Amazon. What is it exactly? It’s a probiotic. The probiotic that I have is a single strain bacterium. It works in specific areas of the gut. We got the intellectual property for it, I outsourced the manufacturing and production of the strain, we identified the FDA compliant producers, we put together a marketing plan, we got it in Amazon. It was just myself and two other partners. But it was my brain trust. And so what I’m doing now is I’m basically handing that over to my partners and letting them run it. MagPlasma is a company that a friend of mine from the Army from 35 years ago started.
Q: Fifteen years ago we had hopes for becoming a research center that would be known as the Research Coast. But then the recession came and we never quite got there. Do you see that happening?
A: The only question is, how do we assimilate IRSC to be a generator ... the engine behind that. And so, one of the things you’re going to see me push — we’ve got a very strong entrepreneurial base program here — is to accelerate it. I want these students to come in while they’re enrolled and start businesses. Let them learn what they don’t know already. It’s tough to slog through nothing to something. Why am I so interested in making them go out there and try and [possibly] failing? It’s because 60 to 70 percent of all businesses in the next 20 years will be an entrepreneur-based business. If we don’t do this now, we’re not going to be ready, I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface of what we can do, in terms of helping business be really competitive. Think about this, we’re a state-supported sovereign entity right here. If we build a capacity to produce widgets and gadgets for industry, we can become very basic R&D and basic proof of production line, that saves them money that improves profitability. That means they can hire more employees and it gives us an ability to train their workforce. And that, to me, that’s a synergistic model. And I want to see us in that sweet spot, doing just that.
Q: At Auburn University, you actually worked on licensing some products, including a horse vaccine, that were developed and owned by Auburn. Can IRSC become actively involved in developing and licensing products as well?
A: There are certain operating parameters we have to adhere to but by and large, if a student comes in with an idea, and we build the angel, investing and fund around [it] we can support them going out the door. And there’s nothing wrong with it — we can come up with a way to provide accounting support or technical support or production support. Say that you start your business and you want to do something for charity and use our advanced manufacturing facility as part of your production base, we can be on a contract to do that. So there are ways we can do this. I’ve told all my staff, we’re going to strip away all limitations of our thought process: We’re going to go blue sky. How do we do this to ensure that this college 25 years from now is stronger and better than it is today? And to know that we’ve helped more people and we’ve had an economic impact beyond just payroll washing through the community.
Q: Won’t some businesses fear that the college is competing against them?
A: No, and it’s a great question, but I disagree with the premise. I’ll tell you why. At the end of the day, we have a mission and our mission is not to sit there and be in competition with them. When we did the vaccine project at Auburn, we were sole source to the United States. We were the only ones doing it. So there really wasn’t anybody in competition with. So there are discreet areas where we can complement and we’re not going to be in competition. For a startup business, if a technology is developed here and intellectual property is developed here, IRSC will license it to protect them and will help give them get that top cover for their intellectual property. So they can go off and do their thing. And all we’re going to ask for in return is that if they go out of business, we can draw back the intellectual property. And we [may] have an equity stake, a minority stake in the company, so that if they get sold or bought or acquired, or whatever, the college and the State of Florida benefits from what’s happened here, [as long as it’s] totally legal and permissible. I’m a business guy. I’ve been in all these areas. I’ve seen how it’s going right. I’ve seen how it’s going wrong, I see how deals get messed up. I see how companies lose.
Q: So you would actually see the college being a minority owner in some businesses?
A: I’ve not gone through all the legal parameters, but at [Auburn University] we spawned out several companies, we licensed several product lines and technologies.
Q: Because of the Treasure Coast’s agricultural history and your association with agricultural research, do you see opportunities for IRSC in this field? Are there opportunities to partner with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, for example?
A: The answer to your question is yes. Agriculture is a much more high-tech business, from the ability to do their financing, their employment, their payroll, their questions of how they improve yields, improve their water quality, or control their rental. There’s lots of areas where we can help them. Absolutely.
Q: One of your goals is to expand health-care education. How do you do that?
A: One is, to the extent we possibly do it right now with the constraints of financing, expanding our nursing program. Twenty percent of the U.S. GDP is health care. And so we need to be playing a strong role in that area because our graduates are going to be reflective of the demands of our economy. Florida is a wonderful state — we rank third in the nation in terms of population size and right now we are first in the nation in terms of population 65 and over. And we have a large growing minority population coming along here. What most people don’t realize is we ranked 43rd in terms of our per capita doctors to citizens, and our nursing care is also skewed. We’ve got to do more. And it’s not just us, it’s everybody in the educational environments … [we’ve] got to do more because the demand is only getting bigger.
Treasure Coast business owners improvise during pandemic shutdown
Patty O’Connell, owner of Gumbo Limbo Coastal Chic and Gumbo Limbo Coastal Kidz in Stuart, has adapted the way she runs her shop to cope with the pandemic.
Merchants find innovative ways to combat loss of revenue and customers
BY BERNIE WOODALL
For about a decade, Patty O’Connell has had an informational website for Gumbo Limbo Coastal Chic, her downtown Stuart home accessories shop. But none of the store’s eclectic collection of goods were for sale online. The plan was to eventually gin up the website for e-commerce, but there was no hurry. Most all her customers were loyal locals. All sales were in-store, just as it had been since its opening in 2008.
That was all BC — Before COVID.
O’Connell said she was fortunate to have the website up and running before protective protocols for the virus forced all stores like hers deemed non-essential to shutter from mid-March to early May.
The pandemic came on like a Category 5 hurricane in its ability to shape-shift the landscape for Treasure Coast merchant retailers, just as it has most aspects of life in this memorable year many wish to forget.
The start of e-commerce for Gumbo Limbo was pushed up overnight and sales immediately switched from in-person to order, pay online and then pick up the merchandize outside the store.
“It was a savior,” said O’Connell, a John Carroll High School graduate whose friends knew her as Patty Glascock.
Gumbo Limbo sales were way less than half of what they were in March-April 2019, but it was enough to keep the business afloat, O’Connell said.
The shift to online sales experienced at Gumbo Limbo was duplicated at small retailers, and big ones, to varying degrees of success across Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties.
How stores dealt with the massive shift in behavior by their customers determined how they fared during the shutdowns for the pandemic, agreed several city and county officials on the Treasure Coast.
The pandemic has caused “probably the most changes in habits since World War Two,” said Phil Matson, community development director for Indian River County.
Those changes include how consumers shop, from home on a phone or computer to when they visit a store.
The shutdowns hit Treasure Coast retail shops during the tail end of the selling season when winter residents inflate the area’s population.
“That pretty much killed the season,” O’Connell said. “It took away Easter, which is a great holiday for us, and it took away Mother’s Day, which is our second-biggest selling time. We learned about it six days before [the mandatory shutdowns]. It was a real punch in the gut.”
Moving sales online has been perhaps the biggest adaptation by retailers, who were guided by local and national advocacy groups including the National Retail Federation. For stores that remained open throughout the shutdowns and for those that reopened in May, advice ranged from selling and marketing online, having customers pick up purchases, shipping and delivering purchases, no-contact credit card transactions, as well as realigning store layouts to increase physical distancing. And sanitizing. Sanitizing like your shop’s life depends on it.
Jera Jarvis, owner of Jarvis Treasures in the Arcade Building in downtown Fort Pierce, said she uses sanitizer on dressing rooms, door handles, and anywhere a customer touches at her shop that sells a variety of stuff, mainly apparel.
It’s important for customers to know the place is clean in a virus-protecting way, Jarvis said, particularly when some larger stores closed off their dressing rooms.
Many small retailers enforced mask-wearing even outside of local statutory requirements because it makes customers feel safer, said Bill Moore, president of the Downtown Business Association of Stuart, of which O’Connell is vice president.
Moore said merchants in that organization showed “business starting to come back dramatically” when Martin County instituted a mandatory mask ordinance in July.
“That made the customers feel safe,” Moore said. “More people will venture out if everyone is wearing a mask, from what we’ve seen.”
Moore owns Kilwin’s Chocolates & Ice Cream, also in downtown Stuart.
“You can’t come into my store unless you have on a mask and use the hand sanitizer,” said Patti Descutner, owner of Patti’s Antiques in downtown Stuart. “I’m 75 years old. I’m not taking any chances and I don’t want my customers taking chances. So many of them are afraid to come out of their houses and when they do go out, they want to be sure it’s safe.”
When a customer calls Descutner’s store, the outgoing voicemail message ends, “Don’t forget to wear your masks!”
MASKS SAVED A FORT PIERCE SHOP
For Beryl Muise, owner of Notions & Potions Candles and More in downtown Fort Pierce, masks saved her store.
When her shop had to shut down in mid-March, Muise was feeling blue. St. Patrick’s Day had been in recent years one of her best sales days because of a big downtown party centered around Sailfish Brewing Company. It was canceled due to the virus.
“You’re counting on this big event and then there is no big event. What do I do now,” Muise said.
For about a month she tried several ways to entice business, including live events on Facebook such as sewing tutorials. Her friends had been telling her that they did not like the masks they were wearing for virus protection. She noticed some spa beds with remarkable covers, and she got the idea for making protective masks and selling them from Notions & Potions.
Within three days, she had 400 orders. Soon, she ran out of elastic and fabric, which was nearly impossible to find back in the days before the supply chain for such things was righted. It was also a time when medical mask prices shot up and panic buying set in.
“I was cutting up $60 leggings for ear pieces for the masks,” Muise said.
Her buddy, Christina Gibbons, owner of Varsity Sports Shop, which is just steps away from Notions & Potions, stepped in to help “and saved my ass,” Muise said.
Gibbons has six embroidery machines that smoothed the production. They designed a washable mask that sold at first for $7 but they couldn’t make money at that price so it went up to $10, and they could hardly keep up with demand.
Muise also makes a bandana-type of mask that protects while allowing for easy breathing that sells for $19. Sales have fallen off in the past few months, but they are still being produced.
“The store would have died without those masks,” says Muise, who made at least 2,000 of them.
SALES SLIP IN APRIL, REBOUND IN MAY
Gross sales in March fell 8.7% for retail businesses on the Treasure Coast and 8.5% for all business sectors in the three counties, at $1.82 billion. Activity in April was slower, shown by a drop of 18% for all business sectors and of 24.7% for retail businesses, according to a Treasure Coast Business analysis of gross sales figures reported by the Florida Department of Revenue.
Sales fell again in May for Treasure Coast retailers, by a collective 9.4%, and June showed the first year-over-year increase, up 1.1%, since February.
The Florida Department of Revenue issues county and statewide reports monthly on gross sales and taxable sales. There are more than 80 business categories. For the purposes of calculating retail merchant sales, Treasure Coast Business included the 12 largest retail categories reported by the state, which did not include restaurants, bars, liquor stores, grocery stores, or the sale of automobiles or automotive accessories.
Among the dozen biggest retail segments by sales, the largest by far is termed general merchandise, which includes sales from the big-box stores, but can include some wholesale sales. Still, it is a good guide to the business environment for retail. This segment accounts for two-thirds of sales for the dozen retail categories statewide. Second in terms of sales in the latest month reported, June, in Florida were stores selling consumer electronics, then apparel stores and fourth was home furniture retailers.
The hardest-hit individual retail segment on the Treasure Coast in April was apparel, which fell 94% from the previous year in Martin County, 91% in Indian River County and 33% in St. Lucie County. Furniture sales were down about 50 percent in each county, and electronics store sales fell 56% in Martin, 52% in Indian River and 25% in St. Lucie. Sales declines of general merchandise were not as steep, from 6% down in St. Lucie and a 17% decrease in Indian River, reflecting the relative strength of the big-box stores.
Once May arrived and stores reopened to in-person shopping, those sharp declines were followed by massive gains, not quite to year-ago levels, but impressive. Gains in May over the April nadir for apparel were 740% in Martin at $4.28 million; nearly 400% for Indian River, at $4.82 million; and 25% in St. Lucie at $4.15 million. Furniture sales for May were up from the previous month by 113% in Martin, 89% in St. Lucie, and 49% in Indian River. For consumer electronics, May recorded recoveries from April of 68% in Martin, 48% in St. Lucie, and 33% in Indian River. General merchandise gains were much more modest in all three counties.
ADAPT TO THRIVE
Doris Tillman, executive director of Main Street Fort Pierce, said Jarvis and Muise are poster children for how small retailers adapted and thrived during the peak of the pandemic store shutdowns.
“I was very lucky that I had a lot of these channels set up before this happened,” said Jarvis of Facebook events from private shopping counseling to public group events. “Selling on Facebook is an excellent avenue.”
She had a website before the pandemic hit, but she hired a company to conduct an audit on her site and to help her rebuild it “to make it more friendly for customers to buy.”
“After I implemented free shipping and local pickup, my sales in April increased 50% over January to March,” said Jarvis. Her sales in May and June were up 20% from April after the boutique was able to open three days a week for in-person shopping. After in-store shopping returned, free shipping ended.
Jarvis, Muise, O’Connell and Descutner all say they have a loyal following who have helped them navigate through challenges thrown at them by the pandemic. But to a woman, each said that old-fashioned customer service and attention to a customer’s wants are still the most important path to success, even if shopping is online.
SHIFT TO ONLINE SEEN LASTING
There was no data other than anecdotal for the shift for Treasure Coast retailers. Huge national stores show an increased reliance on e-commerce, a shift that business analysts say is here to stay.
For the second quarter, which included the height of business shutdowns and stay-at-home practices, Walmart showed an increase of 97% in online sales, and its overall sales rose more than 9%, helped along by a federal stimulus package that has since run its course. Big stores like Walmart and Target did not have to shutter in March and April, but hours were limited in our area.
Target’s sales rose 24% in the second quarter, a record for the company. Same-store digital sales were up 195%.
The boffo results for the big-box stores could be worrisome for smaller retailers, national analysts said. The draw to Target and Walmart is their ability to offer customers one-stop shopping for most if not all purchases, presenting a challenge to the smaller retailers that specialize.
Not all retailers made it through the pandemic. Like the national chains that announced cutting stores, other issues contributed to the demise of local retailers, such as not entering the pandemic in a strong financial position. JCPenney, Pier 1 Imports, Stein Mart, Calico Corners, Brooks Brothers, and J. Crew are closing all or some of their stores in the United States.
City and county officials on the Treasure Coast said they did not have a handle on how many businesses including retailers permanently closed during the time of the COVID-19 effect that began in March. They may have a better idea after businesses report sales for tax purposes this fall — until at least after business taxes are tallied this fall — on how many businesses, including retailers, closed for good since March when the COVID-19 effect became significant.
In Port St. Lucie, from March through mid-September, 15 retail businesses shut permanently compared with 11 in the same period in 2019, said Elijah Wooten Jr., business navigator in the PSL city manager’s office. The businesses did not report what caused them to close.
BRING ON THE FOOT TRAFFIC
The shopkeepers all say they need increased foot traffic in their downtown areas to get back to normal sales levels. They are not out of the woods yet, each of them said. The upcoming holiday shopping season will be an odd one, unless people feel more comfortable by November and December in venturing out in numbers, the shopkeepers said. The National Retail Federation forecast that even in pandemic 2020, holiday shopping will rise between 3.5% and 4.1% nationwide.
In Vero Beach, much of the downtown business district is filled with professional offices but it does have about 12 to 14 retail merchants, said Susan Gromis, executive director of Main Street Vero Beach. By September, most of those merchants were not close to matching year-ago sales levels.
“You can walk on the street and you see cars driving by and not stopping,” Gromis said in mid-September. “This [impact of the virus] is lasting a lot longer than we thought. When the federal [small business] loans were offered in the spring, we all thought this would be an eight-week thing.”
“I’ve been here since 11 in the morning,” Descutner said one Friday in mid-August. “Two girlfriends came by to visit. That’s it so far for today.” It was nearly closing time.
Not enough people are shopping downtown yet, she said. “I’ve had a few great days, but they are few and far between.”
There was fresh talk in late September of the polarized Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress getting together to pass a second stimulus package of help for small businesses and stimulus payments to individuals, increased unemployment benefits and more. It was not clear by early October whether this will happen before the Nov. 3 presidential election, after it, or at all.
O’Connell said the primary goal for small stores is simply to hang on, to survive, until sales return.
“When are things going to return? We have no idea,” O’Connell said. “We have no idea when we can have events again. I don’t think any of us are expecting a booming recovery anytime soon ... 2021 will be a pivotal year.”
College and magazine keep the Treasure Coast business community up-to-date
With expanded consulting services, the Florida SBDC at IRSC is ready to assist regional businesses develop a plan to move beyond COVID-19.
Since March, COVID-19 has caused serious disruption for Treasure Coast small businesses and the regional workforce. Even with all Treasure Coast businesses now open and operating, including hospitality, the reality of a changed and challenging marketplace still exists.
The primary purpose of Treasure Coast Business Magazine is to provide the region with a go-to publication for all things business across the Treasure Coast. Beginning with the spring issue, the magazine dedicated substantial pages of content that provided small businesses with COVID-19 operational tips on topics including operations, marketing, cash management, recovery and resiliency.
That same issue dedicated an entire section to the Paycheck Protection Program, Economic Injury Disaster Loans and 7(a) loan and repayment information. The magazine’s mission is clear — ensure the region’s business owners and workforce have access to current and relevant business information.
In keeping with this mission, we want to highlight and remind the business community of the Treasure Coast’s most accessible, valuable and powerful workforce and business recovery resource — Indian River State College.
Now is the time to examine all that Indian River State College can provide and offer students, professionals, entrepreneurs and business owners. Get beyond surviving and start thriving. Take advantage of what is affordable and convenient access to valuable and high-quality educational, professional development, and business assistance resources and programs at your Indian River State College.
For more than 60 years, Indian River State College has been providing high quality education, workforce training, professional development and employee enhancement programs to individuals, corporations, small businesses and government agencies. If you are a professional or a business owner seeking to reengage in the marketplace, the college has the tools, resources and programs to help meet personal, professional and business goals.
The most visible of these business assistance tools are the Florida Small Business Development Center and the Corporate & Community Training Institute at IRSC.
The Florida SBDC at IRSC is the source for assistance and expertise to help businesses survive, grow and succeed. The Florida SBDC at IRSC and its expanded team of consultants can help a business develop a plan to move beyond COVID-19.
The CCTI has educational and training services to meet community and business needs by providing high quality employee training and enhancement programs to individuals, corporations, small businesses and government agencies. CCTI specializes in customized training at a time, date and location that is convenient for the business.
Indian River State College has also created innovative programs to support the region’s workforce. Among the newest programs is Rapid Credentialing for displaced workers, made possible through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Rapid Credentialing grant by the Florida Department of Education.
Rapid Credentialing offers eligible students quick, tuition-free certificate and career-training opportunities in areas that include electric power plant technology, accounting, entrepreneurship, business, health science, automotive, HVAC, landscape and horticulture, firefighting, corrections and private security officer. Several programs include courses that are credit-bearing and may apply toward corresponding Associate in Science degrees.
The IRSC Virtual Campus provides the region’s workforce with online access to education. Offering 15 online degree programs, hundreds of programs and a variety of technical certificates, Virtual Campus provides the career training and competitive advantage needed for advancement in today’s workforce. Virtual Campus students experience well-designed courses taught by faculty members who are experts in their fields. Students have a team behind them who want to see them succeed. With options on course length and start date, students can pursue academic goals remotely, in a way that works for them.
To learn more about these programs and all Indian River State College has to offer, please visit www.IRSC.edu. To contact the Florida SBDC and the CCTI, send an email to [email protected] or call 772.336.6285.
— PROMOTIONAL CONTENT —
Leaders of the Treasure Coast
WOMEN'S BUSINESS GROUP
As the regional representative of an organization aimed at helping women succeed in business, Emily McHugh, working in tandem with her regional counterparts, mobilized the Women’s Business Enterprise Council of Florida into immediate action when the coronavirus pandemic hit.
The council created new virtual programs, professional training and high-level business networking opportunities for the women it serves. One of the most popular programs is its WBEC Window on Wednesdays, in which women attend via Zoom to hear programs presented by corporate partners, women business owners and to participate in specialized workshops.
During non-pandemic times, WBEC Florida normally would host regional meet-ups in person. But instead, the meet-ups take place virtually online and still offer the opportunity to connect and socialize.
WBEC Florida is the regional partner organization for WBENC, the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council headquartered in Washington, D.C. WBENC is the largest third-party certifier of women-owned businesses in the country. The mission of WBEC Florida is to certify, champion and collaborate with women in business to create access to opportunities and ensure success. Women can register at no cost for WBEC events at www.WBECFlorida.org
“I believe in personally reaching out to clients and speaking to them to find out what they need and how I can best assist them to accomplish their goal,” says McHugh, who lives in Fort Pierce. “People want to be heard and know that there is someone who is willing to listen and respond with real solutions.”
McHugh is the author of The Little Girl’s Guide to Entrepreneurship and has developed business strategy workshops for WBEC Florida on topics such as negotiations and having courageous conversations. Outside her work for for the WBEC, she is an accomplished violinist who has played the National Anthem for the New York Mets during spring training.