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Thursday, November 26, 2009 8:36 PM

Small Businesses Fend Off Empty Holiday Shelves

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Tight credit and slow sales are putting retailers in a crunch this holiday season. Unable to finance their inventory via traditional means, CNN Money notes small businesses struggle fending off empty holiday shelves.

Retailers traditionally borrow money to buy holiday inventory. But credit for small businesses has dried up this year, and with the recession slowing sales, few merchants have cash on hand. The crunch is forcing business owners to find new ways to keep running.

For a handful of New York City retailers in one hard-hit stretch of Brooklyn, a small community lender is playing the role of Santa Claus. Lesia Bates Moss, president of Seedco Financial Services, noticed an ever-increasing number of vacant storefronts along Atlantic Avenue. In response, she hosted a meeting with a dozen area retailers to find out how her organization could help.

One common problem the merchants cited was getting enough credit to buy sufficient holiday inventory. So Seedco Financial, a nonprofit that specializes in financing for underserved communities, launched a streamlined holiday program: Retailers who could provide a marketing plan for spending the money and driving foot traffic would get fast loans.

On Monday, Seedco staffers started delivering checks. A typical loan request is for around $20,000, to be repaid over the next year at interest rates of 6% to 10%.

Toys and beer glasses: Karen Zebulon, the owner of toy and clothing retailer Gumbo on Atlantic Ave., is one of Seedco Financial's borrowers.

"Especially this year, because we have had such hard times, we really need a boost," she said. "If I can really strategize and plan and buy the right merchandise, I think it can be a turning point for me.

Artez'n Gift and Gallery, which sells products made by local Brooklyn artisans, also got a loan from Seedco. Owner Jessica Furst got her check on Monday and "ran to the bank." She plans to use the cash to stock up on one of her best-selling items: pint glasses with illustrations of Brooklyn landmarks on them. They're a proven customer lure, drawing in tourists and others who make a special trip to Artez'n for the glasses.

With sales slow this year, Furst wouldn't have been able to afford to produce the Brooklyn beer glasses without the last-minute loan.

The big challenge for merchants will come over the next month. The National Retail Federation forecasts that this year's holiday sales will decline 1%, to $437.6 billion.

"The real concern is, can you sell stuff?" said Bill Dunkelberg, chief economist of the National Federation of Independent Businesses. "I am sure inventory accumulation has been cautious. It doesn't look like it is going to be much better than last year, which was terrible."
Misguided Hope

Karen Zebulon, the owner of toy and clothing retailer said "We have had such hard times, we really need a boost. If I can really strategize and plan and buy the right merchandise, I think it can be a turning point for me."

Good luck with that because consumers have dramatically slowed down buying junk.

There are many more individual stories in the article. They all have one thing in common: misguided hope.

Here is one prime example
Clark Kepler's dad opened Kepler's Books in 1955. Like so many other independent bookstores, Kepler's Books is fighting for sales in an industry now dominated by Big Box discount retailers and Internet book sellers. Four years ago, with the shop on the brink of closure, 25 members of the Silicon Valley community voluntarily donated $1 million to save the neighborhood bookstore.

The recession has further ravaged the business, which saw a double-digit sales decline. "We had the most difficult time this last several months with the cash-flow issues," Kepler said. "We managed to get through it, but we were robbing Peter to pay Paul every step of the way."
Shoveling $1 million to keep a small bookstore alive that probably employs a half-dozen employees at most is insane. Even after getting $1 million the store is still struggling. What an amazing sinkhole, and what a waste of money.

Then there is the remarkable story of the owner of the Montana Fish Company restaurant wanting money to expand to a larger facility while not replacing workers who left and not doing any extra hiring for the holidays. This guy wants to expand?

Sheeesh. He needs to read the section on Hunkering Down In The Fast Food Business in Bank Regulators "Reign of Terror" on Small Business Loans.

Well Tomorrow is Black Friday. Let's see what shakes. I suspect retailers will try and put a positive spin on things no matter how bad it really is. But even if sales are strong, one weekend does not a season make. Nor do strong sales mean strong profits if everyone is buying deep discounts and loss leaders.

Mike "Mish" Shedlock
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