Don’t Panic

04/14/2020

That’s what Jennifer Rust, CEO of retail consulting firm Creative Profit Planning, is telling her clients.

A CPA for 30-plus years, Jennifer is also the former owner of a juvenile specialty store. It was her “dream job,” she says, and after operating it successfully for eight years, with the help of a financial coach and retail mentor, she became one herself.

 “I help retail stores see more profit in their business,” Jennifer explains. “My clients are all over the country and represent several different verticals, although most are in the baby, kids and toy store arena. That is home for me. I go to the trade shows, I know the vendors, and I know the stores. That gives me a tremendous amount of value as a consultant/coach to those stores.”

Jennifer was a speaker at last year’s Marketplace & Academy, where she offered retailers five steps for finding the hidden cash in their businesses. Recently, on March 23, she was one of six panelists on a COVID-19 Conversation Circle hosted by ASTRA. The discussion centered on the impact of the pandemic on our businesses. A few days later, we talked to Jennifer about what retailers should do right now, and what lessons they can take away from this to make their businesses stronger.

edplay: What are you hearing from your clients?

Jennifer Rust: They’ve closed their stores to shoppers, and the uncertainty about what’s next is their biggest concern. They’re asking if their businesses can survive the shutdown. 

I’ve helped each one plan, re-plan and plan again as the situation evolved – first to address a sales decline, then to help them decide to close or stay open, and finally to address their needs when closure was mandated. The plan is different for every store, but having a plan helps to give the business owner some control and alleviate everyone’s panic.

What are some of the things your plans addressed?

My main objective was to keep them at least cash-neutral for 30 days. I worked with them to develop a roadmap they could follow and share with their staff.

First we looked at their financial statements to figure out what their absolute minimum expenses were going to be. We had to figure out what payroll was going to look like. In some cases, everyone was laid off and just the owner was working. In other cases, stores decided to keep their web team working.

Then we made some assumptions. We assumed that their landlords would either abate or waive their rent for the next 30 days, and that their credit card companies would waive interest for the month. We made the same assumption about their loans. In some cases, they could defer principal payments. We looked at every upcoming expense and cash outlay they had and determined how we could eliminate or reduce it for a period of time.

From there, we determined what they would need to do in sales to cover their expected cash outlay and keep them cash-neutral for those 30 days. If they were not going to sell at all, then we needed to know how quickly they were going to burn through cash and where it was going to come from. 

I found that once we completed and reviewed their plan, and they had a clear roadmap to follow, it helped to give them some peace of mind. It gave them and their remaining team members sales goals.  From there they were able to put a marketing plan in place to follow the goals, taking it one day at a time.

What are some of the strategies, marketing and otherwise, that seem to be working?

The stores that were able to pivot to social selling are doing quite well, particularly those that had an already established community. They’re reaching out to customers via social media, email and phone calls with creative events, like virtual Easter basket shopping or virtual car-seat information sessions. They are offering things like virtual shopping appointments, curbside pickup, and shipping options. Many sell via Facebook Live with a new offering to highlight daily.

Are consumers shopping right now? Yes they sure are; they’re desperate to keep their kids busy. I work with a group of bicycle stores that are seeing sales they would normally see only at Christmas. Parents are buying bikes for their kids and for themselves, so they can all get outside.

There are many things stores can do if they’re nimble enough to change.

What should stores be doing right now?

Know where they are financially. Their financial records should be contemporaneous, and they should know how to read them.

They should formulate a plan. Inventory planning is part of what I offer my clients so of course I think every store should have an inventory plan. The stores that have a plan – for inventory, for buying, and for cash flow – can make decisions
immediately based on whatever circumstances present themselves.

Storeowners should know what products they have coming in and when to expect them. They can stop orders if they need to, or they can cut them down. If deliveries are showing up at the backdoor because a storeowner doesn’t know what she ordered, she can’t make plans or changes.

An inventory planner is not something that only big stores can afford. There are many small stores in my tribe, and they will tell you that they could not be successful without inventory planning. It saves them tens of thousands of dollars. In times like these, it keeps them in business.

Storeowners should be communicating with their employees about what’s going on and what they should expect as best they can. They should communicate with banks, landlords and vendors as well, preferably via phone (not email) to ask for payment deferments or abatements.

Every retailer should file a claim for business interruption insurance. Every policy has an exemption for the outbreak of an illness, but that could be overturned down the road. It’s total speculation on my part, but after 9/11, the government ruled that the wartime exemption clause in insurance policies did not apply, and businesses got paid.

If a retailer applies, and the exemption is overturned eventually, they may be eligible to get those funds. They should apply, get their letter of denial and hold onto that. 

They should stay informed about assistance available from the federal government; from their states, too. Different states have different programs.

They need to understand the Family Leave Act and how it may impact their business and their employees.

What are some of the takeaways for retailers post-pandemic?

Keep reaching out to your community! Creating customer loyalty should be ongoing.

Now is the time to begin collecting customer contact information, and adding a loyalty program if they do not already have those procedures in place. 

Learn how to use social media effectively so they can act quickly when their business survival depends on using it to reach customers. 

Retailers should make it easy for stores to buy from them. I believe the shutdown may lead to more online buying than ever before, and that shoppers may want to continue supporting their local stores.

There are going to be stores that don’t make it. There are going to be empty storefronts, and favorite stores that will go away forever. I hope that it makes consumers think twice about buying from big-box and online stores.

The stores that survive this pandemic will be stronger, and have a better understanding of different sales channels. They will better understand the needs and wants of their community. 

They should practice clienteling, and work to establish strong relationships with their customers. Examples of things they might do would be to use their point-of-sale system to generate lists of customers that they know like specific things. They can call those customers when new, similar products come in. They could ask, “Would you like to FaceTime with me so I can show them to you? Or, can I send you pictures?”

This is not a new advice, but it has become more important than ever.

The aftershock of the pandemic is not going to go away immediately. Our stores may reopen, but people may be hesitant to shop like they used to. Retail storeowners must figure out what the new normal looks like for them, and adapt their business to fit that model. That would be my biggest piece of advice for doing business post-pandemic.


As a former retailer, Jennifer has lived and breathed what toy-store owners experience every day. In her accounting practice, she has shared in many financial challenges with diverse small businesses and showed them the path to resolution. To reach Jennifer about helping your store, visit facebook.com/creativeprofitplanning or join her group for retailers at facebook.com/groups/kidsandtoystorechiefs/or her manufacturer group at  facebook.com/groups/toyandkidsstuffmanufacturers/

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