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Small businesses fighting to survive

Small business is risky business these days. Costs are rising, profits are shrinking and the ability of the big guys to keep prices relatively lower is drawing away customers.
Uneasy Economy Small Businesses
Tom Weisbecker, who operates the Isaly's restaurant and delicatessen in West View, Pa., says his business has been losing about $1,000 a month recently.Keith Srakocic / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Small business is risky business these days.

Costs are rising, profits are shrinking and the ability of the big guys to keep prices relatively lower is drawing away customers.

Things are so bad that many small enterprises, which account for about 99 percent of the country’s businesses, say they are hanging by a thread that may soon snap.

“We are basically losing money every month, about $1,000 a month. It’s been about two, three months now,” said Tom Weisbecker.

Weisbecker owns Isaly’s in western Pennsylvania where patrons sit on green barstools at a Formica countertop and gobble the legendary Slammer, a sandwich stuffed with a half-pound of chipped ham and smothered in onions and cheese. Prices for many of those ingredients have skyrocketed in the past year.

“We know our customers are already feeling the pinch with the gas prices and when they go to the grocery store. We’re trying to hold out, but we can’t go on much longer,” said Weisbecker.

In barely a year, the cost of pork has jumped by 50 cents a pound, while beef is up 20 percent; a five-gallon jug of canola oil that used to cost $15 is at $40; a 50-pound bag of flour jumped from $7 to between $20 and $25.

And then there are fuel surcharges of between $5 and $9 that have been added to nearly all deliveries during the past six months.

In the meantime, wages haven’t grown and the job market is tepid, at best. On Friday, the Labor Department said the nation’s unemployment rate jumped to 5.5 percent in May — the biggest monthly rise since 1986 — as wary employers cut 49,000 jobs. Average hourly earnings for jobholders rose to $17.94 in May, up 0.3 percent from the previous month.

The feeble employment market may be making consumers less willing to spend. Also, paychecks aren’t going as far as they did before food and fuel costs rose.

Image: Making biscotti dough at the Enrico Biscotti Co. in Pittsburgh
Adam Puttine, left, and Paul Lanulavitch make biscotti dough at the Enrico Biscotti Co. in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, May 13, 2008. Larry Lagattuta, who has been running the business for 15 years, says he is trying to save $7 on a 50-pound bag of flour, the same amount it cost him to buy the sack a year ago. The rising costs make him nervous. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)Keith Srakocic / AP

“In a good economy, you can makes mistakes. But in a bad economy ... you can’t afford to make a mistake,” said Larry Lagattuta.

“I am three very bad decisions away from bankruptcy at any given time,” said Lagattuta, who has been running Enrico Biscotti Co. on the Pittsburgh Strip for 15 years.

Over Christmas, he made hundreds of shipments; 2007 was his best year ever.

The last quarter was his worst.

A National Small Business Association survey of 500 small business owners in February found that sales and profits had dropped and job growth was at the lowest point in 15 years, problems that could have a significant impact on an already shaky U.S. economy.

The survey also found that 71 percent of business owners have a “negative outlook” on the economy compared to 43 percent a year ago; confidence in their business’ success dropped from a high of 81 percent a year ago to 70 percent now.

A separate survey done by the National Federation of Independent Business found that for the first time in 25 years, small business owners cited inflation as their single biggest concern, rising from 4 percent a year ago to 14 percent in April.

The survey of more than 1,765 businesses showed that for the first time in a decade, skyrocketing insurance costs were not the No. 1 concern.

As gas and food prices climb, consumers are bypassing small businesses and seeking out bargains in places like Costco Wholesale Corp., which reported a 32 percent jump in its fiscal third-quarter profit, surpassing Wall Street expectations.

“The bad thing that’s happening to us, is the economy is driving people to shop at the big-box stores ... They can buy their staples and pick other things up so they don’t have to use gasoline,” said Cindy Baker, who has been a gift shop owner for 20 years, half at her current location, Collage, in Pittsburgh’s bustling Strip District.

“This is the first time, even taking 9/11 into consideration, I can say I’ve really seen a pinch in my business,” she said.

Just like airlines and car companies, some small business owners are shrinking and letting people go to survive the squeeze.

Last month, the Oklahoma City gas station owned for 22 years by brothers Harley and Hadley Hintergardt shut its doors for good because of rising gas prices. Harley Hintergardt said the station suffered because unlike big chain gas stations, they didn’t have a convenience store or full-service auto shop to fall back on.

“We were the victim of high gas prices,” Hintergardt said. “Everybody thinks that we were making the money selling at the pump at the gas station. And trust me, we were not.”

Small businesses, measured by the U.S. Small Business Administration as those with fewer than 500 workers, employ some 58.6 million people, more than half of the total U.S. labor force. In the past decade, they have generated between 60 percent to 80 percent of new jobs, and in 2004 all the new jobs.

While no data is available on how many small businesses have gone under in the past six months, federal officials are reporting a decline in the number of loans they guarantee, a consequence of both lower demand and tighter standards.

Experts say the shrinking demand indicates businesses are reluctant to take on debt and expand. Many would-be entrepreneurs are hesitant to open new businesses.

Eric Bradlow, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, said that historical data suggest that 90 percent of new small businesses shut down in the first year. Meanwhile, a Small Business Administration study found that one-third of new small businesses close within two years and only 44 percent survive four.

“Anecdotally, you hear that this is a very difficult period because of higher gas prices and higher component prices ... definitely in the past 10 to 15 years,” says Bradlow, who is also a director in Wharton’s Small Business Development Center.

It’s an environment that also makes it difficult for small businesses to raise prices to cover their costs.

The Pittsburgh Popcorn Company is feeling that pain. It opened on March 1, since then, the price of packaging tins has tripled. Other food costs have risen between 5 percent and 30 percent, the hardest hit being canola oil and chocolate.

The company’s owners, Janelle and Rob Day, are reluctant to raise prices, though. The enterprise is new and they are afraid of driving away patrons.

“I want to attract customers, that’s my primary goal,” Rob Day said.

Only when it is certain people will keep buying, will Day raise prices. “Whether that’s a month, or two months or three months, I don’t know,” he says.

Not all small businesses are feeling the pinch, however. Those that cater to the wealthy or have niche products may be having a less hard time right now than food or apparel stores.

“Business has actually been steady for us. We haven’t seen a large drop-off,” said Bradley Bodart, who owns Daly’s Pen Shop in Milwaukee. “Our customers tend to be more well-to-do, people who don’t shy away from a $600 pen, so they’re not too affected by gas prices.”

Bodart understands that people are surprised by his success.

“I see people walk by the store and they whisper, ’How does that place stay in business?”’ he said. “It’s because it’s a niche business. There aren’t too many people about to start up a pen shop.”