Surviving the Holidays

Date: November 14, 2014

Is your small business prepared for the holiday rush? From staffing to sales, we explore how to navigate the challenges of the season.

  • Holiday parties, bonuses or other treats can help your staff feel valued and motivated during the busy season
  • Your employees can serve as in-store marketers by recommending holiday gifts

For many Americans, the holiday season represents a time to reconnect and celebrate with friends and family. But for many small business owners—especially retailers—it’s crunch time.

According to the National Retail Federation, 20 to 40 percent of yearly sales for small and mid-size retailers take place in November and December—prime holiday shopping season. Other figures indicate that holiday shopping season is beginning earlier every year, with 40 percent of consumers starting their shopping before Halloween.

But none of the research captures the extra hours, the frenetic customers, the strain on employees and the added pressure that small business owners experience during the last three months of the year.

“The holidays are the best and the worst of times,” says Vanessa Cooreman Smith, owner of Granger, Indiana, retailer Flourish Boutique. “They are a huge blessing in that sales are usually way up, and it helps us finish out the year really well.”

Flourish Boutique’s sales nearly triple in December, but it requires strenuous work to make that happen. “It really takes a lot of preparation to get ready for it,” Cooreman Smith says. “There’s just more of everything. We’re working more hours, there’s more traffic through the door, extra staffing, more returns, more sales—everything.”

Cooreman Smith says holiday positives far outweigh the strain. She and a few of her fellow small business owners shared insights on how they survive—and thrive—during the holiday season.

Plan for the Madness  

For NFIB member Laura Prefling, co-owner of three Dream Dinners locations in the Phoenix area, the holidays represent as much as a 24 percent uptick in revenue at one location, and a 10 percent increase at the other two.


Her meal-preparation business lets customers come in, put together several dinners at once and bring them home to freeze and cook later.

“We have some specific meals we do around the holidays, including Thanksgiving meals and Christmas side dishes,” Prefling says. “We also have unique products that people love to give as gifts.”

For Dream Dinners, the key to holiday success is in the planning. “We plan for it to be busy, we staff up, we add extra merchandise to our ordering,” Prefling says. “Of course, we plan ahead for marketing and sales, but you can’t ignore preplanning for operations or you’re going to get lost.”

Planning started as early as July, with ideas for a new holiday package/marketing effort targeted to new customers. Prefling says this is one of the biggest challenges of the holidays—coming up with new products and gifts.

“There are tons of ideas, but I’m always worried about picking the right ones and bringing in the right inventory for it,” she says. “You don’t want to have extra inventory after the holidays—especially if it’s Christmas-themed.”

Staff Up—and Show Your Appreciation

Businesses that ramp up during the holidays will inevitably face the dreaded staff burnout. While the holidays bring good tidings, there’s added stress and pressure to find the perfect gifts. Your customers may not always remember to treat your staff with the respect and kindness they deserve. Add to that longer hours and added responsibility, and it’s easy to see how staff can get the holiday blues.

“It’s a lot for everyone to take on,” Prefling says. “Everyone’s used to a certain routine or pace, and when you ratchet it up out of nowhere, it can be very trying.”

It becomes important to let your employees know they’re appreciated. Dream Dinners, for instance, holds an annual staff holiday party.

“Being a small business, the company holiday party has been one of my favorite things,” Prefling says. “I feel like
I can measure our growth year-to-year just in our Christmas party.”

Cooreman Smith has a policy that none of her employees can take vacation from Black Friday through Christmas Day. She makes sure new workers are well aware of the policy, but it can still cause tension. “When you know everyone really well, it’s hard to put your foot down and say, ‘No, you can’t spend this time with your family.’”

She says that while they’ve been able to cultivate a family atmosphere at Flourish Boutique, she’s quick to remind employees that she appreciates their sacrifice.

For example, they’ll celebrate social media milestones (i.e., 10,000 followers on Instagram) or meeting in-store goals by serving cupcakes or hosting mini celebrations throughout the season. She also holds an end-of-year party where she gives employees gifts like store credit and holiday bonuses.

She leads by example. On the morning of Black Friday, she makes sure she’s the first one there. Throughout the season, she tells employees what a great job they’re doing.

“They’ve really bought in to the success of the store,” Cooreman Smith says. “It’s such a team effort, so I try to take care of them as best I can.” 

Make Marketing Merry

Lance Muzslay, NFIB member and owner of Sole Sports Running Zone, which has three stores in the Phoenix area, sees “a pleasant surge” during the holiday season. Owning a running store, however, is a bit different than your average retailer.


“The core of our business is fitting people with shoes for running and walking, and that’s so personalized,” he says. “Besides a gift certificate, it’s really hard to buy someone a pair of shoes. But then things like socks, hats and apparel make great opportunities for gifts.”

Muzslay creates an in-store display and sends holiday emails with gift ideas to people who have signed up with the store. Because it makes more sense for people to buy gift certificates for runners, Sole Sports sees steady traffic even after the holidays.

Muzslay advises other business owners to make sure employees are able to work as in-store marketers during the holidays. “Our staff is well-versed in gift ideas during the holidays,” he says, noting that there’s no formal training— just word of mouth among the staff and communications on the internal bulletin board. “Suggesting gifts isn’t usually the mode of sales we’re in, so it’s a matter of making sure everyone knows how to suggest gifts for runners.”

Networking with other local businesses is also a great way to increase sales during the holidays. NFIB member Cathy Johnston, co-owner of Ruthie’s Run, a ski shop in Lake Placid, New York, banded with a local business association to start the Holiday Village Stroll during the first weekend in December.

“The restaurants do tastings on the street in the afternoon, Santa Claus comes to Mid’s Park and all the stores tend to have some sort of promotion or they serve hot cider and cookies,” Johnston says.

The event brings people into town to celebrate and shop, and it helps boost the holiday sales for Ruthie’s Run in the days after Black Friday.

Keep the Momentum Going

After the harried holidays turn into the winter lull, gift cards aren’t the only way to attract customers. Cooreman Smith maintains the growth through social media promotions and top-notch customer service.


“A lot of it is just treating the customer right. But once you get in front of people and they join your social media platforms, then you’re getting in front of them all the time.”

Cooreman Smith relies heavily on Facebook and Pinterest to promote her business. To attract first-time shoppers, the store runs social media promotions. For instance, if the customer likes Flourish Boutique on Facebook and “checks in” to the store, that person can get a free pair of earrings.

“It’s about treating customers right and making sure they have a great experience,” she says.

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When Christmas Is Your Business

It may never feel like Christmas outside of Bill Laughlin’s West Palm Beach, Florida, store, but it’s always Christmas inside.

As the owner of Christmas, Etc., Laughlin has found clever ways to stay afloat during those toasty Florida summers. Christmas accoutrements like lighting can be a year-round commodity for restaurants and any place seeking outdoor lighting.

Plus, tourists come in looking for Florida-specific ornaments they can’t get anywhere else, he says.

Laughlin estimates that summer business accounts for 10 percent of his yearly revenue, with September and October producing another 10 percent. About 80 percent of his business is done from November through the end of the year.

“It’s a fun business to be in. Christmas is one of the only businesses where people who come in your store are happy year-round,” Laughlin says.

During November and December, when he is also busy doing side jobs decorating people’s houses, he wakes up at 5 a.m. and puts in a 20-hour day.

What advice does this battle-tested holiday season veteran have for other small business owners? “You just gotta roll with it, man.”

Besides, the off-season gives him time to play golf, and he doesn’t have to feel bad about closing shop early. “Everyone down here knows to call first in the summertime,” he says.

Creating Year-Round Cheer

About 3,000 miles to the northwest, Mary Peak tends shop at Christmas at the Lake in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.


For the past 13 years, Peak has been dazzling locals and tourists alike on the city’s bustling Sherman Avenue with unique Christmas items. In the summer, she puts out golf-themed ornaments and decorations to entice the tourists who come to experience the world-renowned Coeur d’Alene Resort Golf Course.

Peak says the store stays busy from August through the end of the year. Many people keep their second or third homes in Coeur d’Alene, Peak says, and they know to start visiting the store in August and September to get the best selection before they head for warmer climates.

Just like Laughlin, it’s not about the retail for Peak. The holiday truly holds an important place in her heart.

“Christmas was always a big deal in our family,” she says. “In our house, we have more than one Christmas tree up. When I got out of corporate retail, I wanted to do something I love—and that was Christmas.”

When it comes to surviving the holidays, she advises small business owners to make it fun.

“There are some days we’re wearing antlers,” she says. “Some days we’ll wear T-shirts that say, ‘Crazy Christmas Chicks’ on them. Create an environment where, when people come into your store, they’ll enjoy and remember their visit.”

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