Allen McBroom describes everything he learned during his coronavirus “vacation.”
When I was a primary-school student, it seemed like each fall I had to write an essay called something like “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.” Looking back, I have no idea what I wrote about in any of those essays, and that may be a good thing. I doubt they were Pulitzer-quality treatises.
Since I can’t rehash those old papers, this month you’ll get a brand new one, this time called “What I Learned During My Coronavirus Vacation.” (It wasn’t really a vacation, of course. I got no time off. But calling it a vacation helps it fit with the aforementioned theme.)
The first thing I learned was this: No matter what the government does to help, it’s probably not the help we were hoping for. The feds assigned tractor-trailer loads of cash to stimulus and recovery efforts, and despite best intentions, lots and lots of small businesses haven’t seen a dime of it. Maybe some businesses didn’t apply fast enough, maybe the funds ran dry, etc., but whatever the reason, the cash hasn’t gotten to everyone who needed it.
In my state (Mississsippi), as of early May, the Small Business Administration (SBA) had granted 9,885 loan advances. These are for the $1,000-per-employee Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) advances. This means the SBA has acknowledged receipt of at least 9,885 EIDL loan applications. In contrast, the SBA has delivered only 140 EIDL loans. That means, as of early May, or about two months into this crisis, only 1.4 percent of the loan applications have actually resulted in loans. Is it just slow turning of the government gears, or a symptom of not enough cash to cover the loan requests? I don’t know. Maybe we’ll find out as we go along.
Another lesson: Some folks can’t roll with the punches. I already knew this, but I saw it in stark terms during my coronavirus vacation, and it was disappointing to re-learn. I went to my cell phone provider to make a service change. I parked in front, walked in through the front door (which was propped open in a very welcoming way) and the store manager ran toward me yelling “Get out, get out! Go back to your car!” Mixed signals, as I usually think of a door propped open at a business as an invitation to enter. There were no signs saying not to enter, and getting yelled at by a highly stressed store manager didn’t bring sunshine to my day. I made a mental note to not yell “Get out!” at my customers, no matter the situation.
I also learned we did the right thing when we devoted time and gray matter to developing a website, a Reverb account, an eBay account, an Amazon account and computerizing our inventory. Floor sales evaporated during the government-mandated shutdown, but internet sales took off like a rocket. All we had to do was shift energy from one sales arena to another. Vendors have told me other retailers reported the same outcome with internet sales. Not doing internet sales today is akin to trying to operate without a phone number or an email address.
I re-learned that there’s no substitute for a good sales rep. Increased internet sales dug deep into our supply of accessories, guitars and ukuleles, and our stock of those products had to be replenished no matter what. (Allen’s Adage No. 7: You can’t sell it if you don’t have it and can’t get your hands on it.)
I’ve got email addresses and cell phone numbers for some key reps, and those contacts worked during the shutdown. We were able to get replacement product shipped when I thought it wouldn’t happen. Be good to your sales reps, y’all. They are the link to the stuff you sell, and without them, you’d have to deal with inside people you don’t know, and that never seems to go as well as talking to the rep you already know and love.
Another lesson: I learned that coffee is, once again, my good friend. There were a lot of early mornings and some long hours during the first two weeks of shutdown, and Mr. Coffee and his cousin Keurig were my constant companions.
I also learned that I had really started to take my post office folks, as well as my UPS and FedEx drivers, way too much for granted. They all worked with us to make sure we could get packages out and into the delivery stream. I doubt I’ll become complacent again about the level of service they deliver day in and day out. Our post office folks let me just drop labeled packages on the counter and walk off without standing in line. I texted the UPS and FedEx drivers each morning to see what they had coming in, and to arrange the pickup of the stuff going out. They gave me their personal cell numbers when we found out about the impending shutdown, and I am in their debt for that.
I learned that, if I come in around 6 in the morning, I can crank up “Live at Fillmore East” louder than I should, and nobody complains.
I learned extra humility when some of our inside vendor reps called just to see if we were OK. They weren’t looking for orders. Some of them called from home. They were just concerned about our little store and how we were doing. That feels good, to be remembered in times of distress. Those reps are hurting, too, and they still called to check on us.
I learned that not knowing what was coming down the pike was a whole lot worse than actually knowing.
I learned I never want to be a government official. Lawd gracious, no matter what they did (“they” being federal, state and county-level government folks), half the people were cheering their actions while half the people were mad as wet hornets.
As I write this, we’re coming out of the height of the epidemic. Our state will drop its “safer at home” advice next Monday. Our city will stop requiring store employees to wear masks, and stop forcing retail stores to force their customers to wear masks. The NFL is talking about its upcoming season, and high-school graduations are being hastily planned.
You’ve got lessons you’ve learned, and I’ve got lessons I’ve learned. As we come out of this, the trick will be to not forget what we’ve learned during our coronavirus vacation. Let’s remind each other to be kind, and to not take anyone or anything for granted.
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