While Mercer County was not hit as hard by Hurricane Sandy as some other areas New Jersey, life has still not been normal in the week since the super storm roared through the state on October 29.
Small business owners throughout the region began picking up the pieces as soon as the rain stopped. Some were able to open their doors within a few hours of the storm, others are still not fully operational.
Georgianne Vinicombe of Monday Morning Flowers, based in Forrestal Village, considers herself one of the lucky ones. Power returned to her store on October 31 and there was very little damage to the store or her fragile inventory.
“We had some panels blow off the compressor on the roof, but the compressor is still working. The fruit cooler blew a thermostat and the alarm system on the coolers failed,” she said.
Before the storm Vinicombe took all of her flowers out of the cooler, put them in the main room of the store, and cooled it down as best she could. “If your cooler fails it can often get hotter inside than outside,” Vinicombe explained.
When she returned to the store the flowers were still in good condition and ready for weekend weddings — she had three scheduled, and luckily none had been canceled due to the hurricane.
But that doesn’t mean that everything was easy or that there were no losses. For Vinicombe, there was lost street business at both her Forrestal Village store and Yardley, PA, location where power still had not been restored on Friday.
Gary Gulak, of Mama Flora’s in Ewing, lost inventory when the power went out at his Olden Street restaurant. “Of course I’ve got to get rid of my inventory. I can’t take a chance on food that may have spoiled,” said Gulak, who re-opened for business on Thursday.
“We’ve had lots of support, from the people who brought me generators to the suppliers who made deliveries as soon as possible, and of course, from the customers,” he said.
The good news for many business owners was that if you could open your doors the customers did come. “Business was up quite a bit on Thursday night,” says Gulak. “I just hope it stays that way over the weekend.”
It did. Grocery stores, hardware stores and restaurants were all crowded throughout the weekend. The AMC Theater on Sloan Avenue in Hamilton had a crowded parking lot at 10 a.m. on Sunday morning. But other businesses were not so lucky.
“I had a call from a client almost as soon as the rain stopped on Tuesday morning,” says Brian Critchley of OM Central Jersey Massage, located in the Princeton Meadows Office Center in Plainsboro. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to respond.
Critchley offers in-home massage and private yoga lessons throughout Mercer County and also offers classes in his studio in Plainsboro. Between power outages, roads blocked by downed power lines and trees, and problems getting gasoline, he wasn’t able to take appointments until Friday.
“If I’m not taking appointments, I’m not getting paid,” said Critchley, who was able to hold a yoga and meditation retreat that had been scheduled for Saturday, November 3. “We had about 70 percent attendance. I thought that was really excellent under the circumstances.”
There are four things business owners should focus on right now to get back in business, according to business coach Marshall Calman of Princeton. The first thing he suggests is to reach out to your clients, your neighbors and others in New Jersey who may be in need.
“One of my clients, a cleaning service, had about a 50 percent drop in business last week. They reached out to all of their clients, including an area hospital. They learned that many of the hospital’s regular maintenance staff had been unable to report for work, so they came in and did some of the cleaning. It was a win-win. The cleaning service got business it needed, its employees were paid and the hospital got needed work done.”
There are also a lot of stories about businesses helping each other. Many businesses set up “charging stations” so people without power could charge their cell phones and other portable devices. Generators were passed from person to person and business to business as power came on in different areas. Business owners with power opened their doors to other businesses and clients who needed a warm meal, an internet connection, or just a sense of normalcy for an hour or two.
“Right now there are so many people in need and dozens of ways to help. Call your clients. Ask if they need anything. Not only is it the right thing to do, they will remember it later,” says Calman.
“One of the most common mistakes small business owners make is to skimp on the disaster plan,” says Calman. In today’s world, businesses just don’t run without Internet access. If your server goes down you may lose your E-mail, your website, your ability to take orders or accept charge cards, or lose vital information that is not properly backed up.
“Most small businesses don’t know where their web host’s server is located,” says Lisa Snyder of Silver Hoop Edge website design in Lawrenceville. “Make sure your web host has servers in more than one location,” she suggests. If not, you may want to consider another hosting service.
Snyder had her own difficulties in the storm. Although she had power and telephone throughout the week, a fallen tree took down her Internet service. Luckily, she is tech savvy enough to have found a way around the problem. She “tethered” a smart phone and used it as a “mini Wi-Fi hotspot.”
The connection was slow, and she recommends anyone trying this solution check on their data plan. “If you don’t have unlimited access you will want to keep your Internet use down to only the essentials. This isn’t the best way to do that hour-long internet research project you’ve been planning,” cautions Snyder, “but it is a good way to make sure that your business continues to run.”
If an alternate way to access the internet isn’t on your disaster plan, make sure you add it to the list. Critchley found the glitch in his disaster plan: while all of his contacts are listed on his desktop computer, he had no way to access it when the power went out at his home, and he suddenly found that he had not added all of his clients to his cell phone. “I’m a mobile business. But somehow it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t always have access to my desktop computer,” he says.
Gulak has put a generator on his disaster plan. “I was lucky. I was able to borrow a generator within a day, but next time I’m going to be prepared with my own,” he says. “I wouldn’t have lost as much inventory if I’d had one.”
“Now is the time to review how well things went, what worked and what didn’t. You may have nine parts of the plan working, but it’s that tenth thing that you forgot that will stop your business,” says Calman. “With Irene last year and Sandy this year, not to mention the possibility of a good blizzard, there is no one in New Jersey who should be saying, ‘It can’t happen here.’”
The third step Calman suggests to get your business back on track after Hurricane Sandy is to refocus — fast. “Most businesses were down 25 to 50 percent last week. And most small businesses live on the edge. If you don’t refocus right now those losses could easily keep going right through the end of the quarter,” he warns.
Diane Giudidas, of Robbinsville-based Window Treatments by Diane, agrees. She spent the last week juggling her business and her family. Not only did she lose power at her home and business, she also had to help her elderly mother, who was also without power. She missed 8 to 10 appointments last week that she now needs to reschedule. “I feel as if everyone in the state has lost focus,” she says. “No one is ready to think about window treatments. If they don’t have power they aren’t ready. If they do have power they are still thinking about the storm and the damage.”
But despite the difficulties she did manage to send out an estimate and have it accepted on Saturday. “You just have to find time to work, no matter what. Sneak in a few hours at night and work the weekends,” she says.
What’s bad news for one person is opportunity for another. “Look around. What new opportunities have been presented by the storm?” Calman asks. It may sound callous to talk about opportunities, but if handled correctly, it’s not, he adds. “First you do your homework. Reach out now to your clients and people and need. Give back, then watch to see what opportunities will present themselves.”