Economic Outlook

Outlook 2022/Small Business

Many Are Busy, But Challenges Linger as the New Year Dawns

 

Bart Raser says customers, contractors, and homeowners have all felt frustration

Bart Raser says customers, contractors, and homeowners have all felt frustration when their favorite brands aren’t available.

Bart Raser started by stating the obvious: 2021, like 2020, was “a great year to be in the hardware business.”

Indeed, many of those who found themselves working at home, or just spending more time at home because of COVID, found themselves wanting to work on their homes as well, and that certainly brought more customers — contractors and do-it-your-selfers alike — to the doors of the eight Carr Hardware locations, six in Western Mass. and two in Northern Conn., with the flagship store in Pittsfield.

But while business has certainly been good, there have been myriad challenges as well, from workforce shortages — which Raser, the company’s president, has largely been able to avoid, and he’s one of the few who can really say that — to inflation, production, and supply-chain issues, caused in large part by that soaring demand and a workforce crisis that no one in his sector has been able to avoid.

And that’s why large orders of grass seed, bird food, and other spring items will be arriving at those stores in a few days or a few weeks, rather than in mid-March, as is customary, because Raser’s team ordered well in advance to make sure the shelves would be stocked. And that’s also why he’s predicting it will be very difficult to buy a new lawnmower come April, and those forced to do so will pay a steep price for that item.

“Lawnmowers for spring look tricky — really, really tricky,” he told BusinessWest. “Some of the big manufacturers got out, and … there will be fewer choices and significantly higher prices.”

Raser’s story has its own specific nuances, but there are common threads for most all small-business owners in the region. For many, business has been good, although in most cases still not as good as before the pandemic. But there have been — and will continue to be — headwinds, like inflation, shortages of products that consumers want, lingering workforce issues, and the impact of all of the above on the bottom line.

Kris Houghton, a partner with the Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, said 2021 was a time when her small-business clients were looking to put COVID behind them. That didn’t happen, obviously, and as they continued to battle the pandemic and many new challenges emerged or escalated, especially the workforce crisis and the rising cost of everything from labor to health insurance.

“There’s definitely an employee shortage, which is causing employers to have to pay more than they would otherwise have paid in the past,” she explained. “And, of course, paying more leads to two things: they either increase prices to their customers, or there is less profit for them in the end. It’s a compounding problem, and the biggest issue is employees.”

But there are others, including supply chain, she said, adding that businesses in many sectors could have done better in 2021, if they only had product to sell or produce. That’s true of auto dealers, obviously, but also hardware chains, restaurants, and manufacturers.

“Supply chain is also a big problem because, if businesses can’t get the product, they can’t sell it,” Houghton noted. “And if they want the product bad enough, they pay increased shipping costs to try to make product available; all this is leading to diminished bottom lines.”

And these dynamics become even more critical in the months ahead, she went on, because most federal support programs, from PPP to the employee-retention credit, have expired or soon will.

“Those were lifelines to try to restore a little bit to their bottom lines,” she said. “So there is concern about the future. In New England, we’re resilient, and some businesses were fortunate enough to have some reserves that can help them carry on. I don’t know about the other businesses. Are they going to be able to borrow? Are they going to run up costly debt? Are business owners going to be relying on credit cards, which come with 18% interest? These are some of the questions that will be answered in 2022.”

“Supply chain is also a big problem because, if businesses can’t get the product, they can’t sell it. And if they want the product bad enough, they pay increased shipping costs to try to make product available; all this is leading to diminished bottom lines.”

As noted, 2021 was a solid year for many small businesses, especially those in manufacturing and related services. Jeanne Bell, controller and co-owner of Westside Finishing Co. in Holyoke, spoke for many when she said her company struggled to keep up with demand from customers who saw a surge in orders themselves.

“We ended up having a really good year,” she said. “It started off rocky, of course — the first two quarters, we were eligible for the employee-retention credit, but the second half of the year has been really, really busy, and it looks like it’s going to continue into next year.”

She said Westside is a job shop that power-coats parts and ships them back out again. Clients, and there are many, include OEMs like East Longmeadow-based Excel Dryer.

“We work for a variety of industries, and all of them are busy right now,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re actually turning down work right now because we can’t do it all; we would have to start a second shift to have more capacity, and we probably wouldn’t mind doing that if we thought we could get the people, but that’s our biggest challenge — workforce.”

Elaborating, she said the company’s labor costs rose in 2021, and one of the big reasons why was the need to hire additional staff to fill in for those out with COVID. And those additional costs kept this past year from being as profitable as others in the past.

Looking back, and ahead, she said overall sales in 2021 were not quite at pre-COVID levels. But she believes the company can get there in 2022, if current trends involving customers continue, if the economy continues to grow, and if some of those issues impacting clients themselves, including production and supply chain, work themselves out.

That’s a good number of ‘ifs,’ but overall, she said there is ample reason to be optimistic about the year ahead.

“We’re actually turning down work right now because we can’t do it all; we would have to start a second shift to have more capacity, and we probably wouldn’t mind doing that if we thought we could get the people, but that’s our biggest challenge — workforce.”

Raser concurred, but noted that most of the issues that came to the surface in 2021, especially when it comes to production and supply-chain woes — due to everything from soaring demand to workforce shortages to that large number of container ships waiting in a queue to be unloaded — are expected to linger well into 2022. He said roughly 3,000 of the 38,000 products his company sells have been impacted by both production and supply-chain issues, with that list including everything from paint and batteries to plumbing supplies and those aforementioned lawnmowers and other types of power equipment.

Paint manufacturers have been especially hard hit, he noted, adding that resin plants in Texas were set back by a succession of natural disasters, including the snow and freezing temperatures last winter and, later, hurricanes, as well as workforce challenges.

“All the big manufacturers of paint — Sherwin Williams, PPG, and Benjamin Moore — are all really struggling,” he noted. “And our painting contractors are very frustrated, as are their customers and homeowners as well. We’re been around a long time and have a lot of brands, so we’re able to pull a lot of levers to keep items in stock, but people have to flexible — they may have to consider moving to a different brand or a different product to get their project done.”

That part about being flexible goes for small businesses as well. This past year was solid for many of them, but business wasn’t the ‘normal’ that people had been hoping for, and expecting, around this time last year.

As we turn the calendars again, there are similar hopes and large doses of optimism, but the reality is that normal, as we knew it 22 months ago, is still an elusive target.

 

— George O’Brien

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