Poll: Vermonters 'Concerned' As Small Businesses Grapple With Pandemic
According to a new VPR-Vermont PBS poll, 67% of Vermonters say they are very concerned about the future of small businesses in the state. If you add in those who said they are somewhat concerned, the number jumps to 93%.
It’s not surprising: More than half of all working Vermonters are employed in small businesses, many of which have been hammered by the current pandemic.
Bill Beanland is a good example. He and his brother opened Vermont Bedrooms in Rutland in 1984. They have 70 mattresses on display in their store's two showrooms, and Beanland can tell you about every single one of them.
“I’ve been through a lot in nearly 40 years in the bedding industry,” he said. “I've experienced five recessions. Our store burned down, and we were out of business for a year.”
That was really tough, he admits. "This is like nothing I've ever seen before,” he said.
This, of course, is the COVID-19 pandemic, and like many small business owners, Beanland says trying to keep his store afloat this spring, when he had to close his doors, was exhausting.
“There were no jigsaw puzzles and there was no one binge-watching Netflix,” he says. “It was just me and a skeleton delivery crew, and I was literally answering the phone 24/7.”
"So you have new invoices every single week, and they're big — they're really big, and suddenly your flow of income is completely shut off.” — Bill Beanland, co-owner of Vermont Bedrooms, Rutland
Beanland said he managed some sales during the shutdown, but compared to last year, he says his sales in March were down 40%, April revenues plunged 78%, and May dropped 55%.
According to the state Agency of Commerce and Community Development, a majority of Vermont businesses that applied for state assistance this spring reported similar downturns.
And while the losses piled up, Beanland said his bills did, too.
“So you have new invoices every single week, and they're big — they're really big," he said. "And suddenly your flow of income is completely shut off.”
The Federal Paycheck Protection Program, the PPP funds you often hear about, helped, Beanland said. But he remembers looking at his company savings and wondering how long it would cover other expenses.
“Funny thing happened when you had to go talk to everyone, and say, "Look, you know, there's no money to pay you, because nobody's… there just isn't any income at all,” Beanland said. “It took awhile for that to sink in to a lot of creditors and vendors and banks, that, 'You know what, we're not going to get paid for a while.'”
He says once he could open his doors, things improved.
People stuck at home realized they wanted a new bed, and the additional $600 a week in unemployment benefits and the $1,200 federal stimulus checks made it easier for people to shop.
"You know, when you're confined to the nest, you look at the nest and you go, 'Huh, this nest could be better than it is,'" Beanland laughed.
Second homeowners who flocked to the state wanted new beds too, and they helped fuel Vermont’s newly-hot real estate market.
“Not a day goes by where someone says, 'I'm closing on a house today, I need a mattress tonight,'” Beanland said.
Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce President Tom Torti said home sales are helping businesses like appliance, furniture and home improvement stores, as well as many trades.
“It’s great that people are coming here and buying homes,” he said. But Torti points out that in Chittenden and Franklin counties, the trend is driving up already-high home prices.
“Which is making it even less affordable for young Vermonters or young graduates of Vermont colleges to stay here," he said.
If you want to talk about the future of the state’s small businesses, he added, you have to look at the impact of the pandemic more broadly.
“Because what has always worked well is the balance that we've had between all of the different sectors, and all of the sizes of businesses within those sectors," Torti said. "And we're such a fragily balanced economy, that one of those getting out of whack really begins to affect the rest of the economy.”
It’s why he, along with most of those who took part in VPR's poll, are so concerned.
"I think there is a lot of worry that there are some businesses that haven't closed for good yet, but they're at that tipping point." — Kate O'Connor, Executive Director of the Brattleboro Chamber of Commerce
Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kate O'Connor doesn’t have any data on businesses in Brattleboro that have closed because of the pandemic, but she too is worried, especially for small retailers and businesses that rely on tourism.
She says some businesses have had an easier time reopening. For others, like bed and breakfasts, it’s been harder.
"You know, if you've got eight rooms and you can only fill four of them… and how do you serve breakfast?” added O'Connor.
There’s the conundrum of wanting tourists and yet being afraid of having them come, she said, and what if there’s another shutdown?
“I think what the big concern is, a lot of the smaller businesses here got PPP loans and grants,” O’Connor said. “And, you know, that sort of carried them to a certain point. And there's fear, when the government benefits end, what's going to happen? There are some businesses that haven't closed for good yet, but they're at that tipping point.”
She worries some of those businesses will simply stay closed.
Data from a National Bureau of Economic Research report published this spring projected restaurants had just a 30% chance of staying open if the COVID-19 crisis lasted four months — we’re now beyond that.
The news is not all gloom and doom, however. Business owners who’ve been able to pivot quickly have been able to seize opportunities created by the pandemic, like Vermont distilleries that now produce hand sanitizer and glove companies that started sewing masks.
Frank Sanborn and his sister Jill co-own Yankee Paint in Rutland and say quickly switching to curbside service during the shutdown allowed them to take advantage of the home improvement trend that’s spiked during the pandemic.
“Even though contractors had to stop for a couple months, our paint sales are up compared to last year,” Jill said.
“Seems like our phone rings constantly," Frank added. "We’ve had more business, more retail business, more homeowners doing things, 'cause they’re home."
At Kamuda’s Country Market in Pittsford, owner Brian Kamuda says before COVID-19, they focused on pre-made deli foods and corporate catering. When that business disappeared, he says he revamped their grocery business: They posted virtual tours of the store on Facebook, offered curbside pickup and delivered groceries to shut-ins.
"And it's kind of funny, because that's kind of how people shopped here at Kamuda’s in 1940s," Kamuda said. "We've kind of brought back that old customer service.”
He’s hired additional employees, put in a new walk-in cooler, a new meat room and is installing a small addition to the deli because sales are up.
Back at Vermont Bedrooms, Bill Beanland says he’ll never recover the losses from this spring’s shut down, and that it’ll likely take a couple years to make sense of 2020 from a business standpoint.
If there’s another shutdown, he said all bets are off.
In the meantime, Beanland is doing whatever it takes to serve clients in a pandemic, with hand sanitizer and free disposable sheets and pillow cases for any clients who want a test rest.
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From July 15 to July 28, the VPR - Vermont PBS 2020 Poll asked hundreds of Vermonters how they felt about COVID-19, racial inequality and other issues. Explore the full results here.