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How to Handle the Slow Times, an Aging Employee and the Turmoil of the Year Ahead

Learn to handle those days when business is off.

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Overall, our sales are up, but there are stretches of slow days. I’d love to learn more about cash flow in this situation. Is there a way to even it out?

Angela Pantalone of Wag Central in Stratford, CT, noticed a similar trend in her boarding, daycare and grooming business. She looked for a pattern and then offered discounted pricing on days that are historically slower, which drew in more customers. A similar strategy could apply to a retail setting. Determine your slower times by reviewing stats from your POS system and offer discounts (Treat Bar Tuesdays, anyone?) announced through social media or email blasts to customers to encourage them to visit during the lulls.

One of our employees is starting to show signs of his age. He’s losing his hearing and seems to be getting more forgetful. He wants to work to age 65 — three more years. What do we do?

This is a tough one. You want to be loyal, and don’t want to be perceived as cold-hearted, but you and your business can’t afford errors or to allow other employees see you tolerate costly mistakes. The best strategy is to stay focused on performance, not the person. Treat your older associates the same as you would your younger ones. “Deal with issues for what they are — not for the reasons behind them,” says Kate Peterson, president of Performance Concepts. For example, if your older associate hears something incorrectly and his actions lead to a customer problem, address the immediate issue — the customer problem — regardless of the underlying cause. A person can easily deny that his hearing or memory is failing, but he cannot deny the obvious outcome. If you decide it’s time to part ways, ensure every detail is handled correctly. “Clearly defined performance standards, daily coaching, and fair rewards and consequences must be applied consistently for all associates. You can’t terminate an employee for failing hearing or memory — but if necessary, you can for continued failure to deliver to the job requirements,” Peterson says.

2019 seems like it’s going to be a volatile year. What should we do to get ready?

Donald Sull, a London Business School professor, recommends “active waiting.” Contemplate alternative techniques, explore likely scenarios and focus on general readiness, he says. This is a time of threat, but also opportunity. “Keep your vision fuzzy and your priorities clear,” Sull says. “Maintain a war chest and battle-ready troops. Know when to wait — and when to strike. When you grab an opportunity or move to crush a threat, amass all your resources behind the effort.” At the same time, continue making routine operational improvements such as cutting costs, strengthening distribution and improving products and services.

My business is 4 years old, and I’ve done my own taxes, but I’d like to find a tax pro. How do I find a good one?

Online directories such as CPAdirectory.com, Accountant-Finder.com and AccountantsWorld.com are a good place to start. The National Association of Tax Professionals offers an online database of tax preparers, and the American Institute of CPAs has one for CPA firms. If you do contemplate hiring a tax preparer you found online, request referrals so you can ask about the quality of the service past clients received. A useful initial indicator is how long it takes them to reply to your first inquiry. And remember: As good as the person may be, never abdicate your responsibility to know what’s going on with your finances.

Is it legal for retailers to say they are selling at wholesale prices?

In short, no — unless they really are. Many states, including Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Texas, California, New York and Michigan, have laws prohibiting the use of the word “wholesale” in retail ads. Some states define the wholesale price as the price the retailer paid for the item from the supplier. Other states, and the federal government, say it must be lower than the average price retailers would pay in the area. But, really, as a small fry in a tough market, why are you trying to compete on price?

Where can I find a good employee evaluation form?

There are scores you can download to use as a model. Some are really detailed and cover every possible aspect of a job, while others are basic. Our advice when it comes to employee evaluations is that you not spend too much time on the whole process. While you may want the paper trail to protect yourself against lawsuits from former employees, there’s a growing view that reviews don’t achieve much. Mary Jenkins, a co-author of Abolishing Performance Appraisals, advocates a system in which employees seek feedback from people they work with, then draw a skills-development plan with their manager — or you.

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How to Keep New and Potential Hires From 'Ghosting' You

Catch the replay of this PETS+ Live! Lunch & Learn webinar hosted by Candace D’Agnolo of Pet Boss Nation. This episode featured Candace expanding on her June PETS+ column on preventing new hires and job candidates from “ghosting” you. Hint: Much of her advice will help you make better hires and keep happier employees.

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How to Buy Air Time, Whether to Sue or Prosecute Shoplifters and How Much Time to Spend Volunteering

Here’s our thoughts about these questions.

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Our Main Street is scheduled to undergo major roadwork for three months. What can we do to limit the disruption?

Sound the trumpet. This is an issue that requires a united and well-organized front from local businesses to negotiate with city officials and the contractors to ease the impact. Generally, contractors are willing to work with small businesses to negotiate sidewalk access, change routes and signage, and alter schedules or even suspend work to accommodate special events, critical business days or other peak shopping periods — they just need lots of notice.
Your local chamber of commerce or merchants association can try any or all of these tactics: Be sure there is a business-community representative at every planning meeting. Set up a communications system — a Facebook page, a regular email or SMS alert — to update everyone on the project’s progress. Start planning special events or awareness campaigns to let customers know what’s happening and how they can access your business. Brainstorm ways to keep people visiting the downtown district. Ideas could include “A retailer/restaurant of the week” campaign or promotional “roadwork currency” that can be used at any local business. And think about extra outreach. Could you visit clients at their homes, start a pick-up and delivery service, extend business hours, do pop-ups or even sell more online? Urban Tails Pet Supply in Minneapolis, MN, faced with a similar construction challenge, managed to boost its online ordering by double from the year before.

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We can’t afford an ad agency. What should I know about approaching a radio station to buy air time?

The first thing to know is that TV and radio stations love customers who buy direct, says Andy Malis, CEO of ad agency MGH. But the reason should give you pause: “Because they know you don’t what you’re doing,” Malis says. He recommends you call your local station and ask the sales manager for the names of a few freelance media buyers they work with. “Choose one that buys for a variety of other local businesses. They’ll charge a lot less than a full-service agency, but they’ll know how to choose the right stations and programs, and more importantly, they’ll know the best rates.”

I appreciate that giving back is a smart way to run a business, and it feels good personally, but community work can also be a distraction. Are there guidelines for ensuring we get the balance right?

In terms of the personal benefits, different studies done in the U.S. and Australia over the last two decades have concluded that about 100 hours of volunteering a year, or two hours a week, yields the optimum return in terms of happiness, satisfaction and self-esteem. The studies found there were no benefits — for the volunteer, that is— of doing more than that. As for your business, coming up with a similarly strict “cut-off point” is prudent. Salesforce.com, for example, uses what it calls its “1 percent” formula: 1 percent of company profits, 1 percent of company equity and 1 percent of employee hours all go to the communities it serves. The clarity of such a cap not only provides a guideline for this expenditure of energy and other resources, but makes it easier for you to deal with requests from your community for your time or money: “We wish we could help, but for now we are concentrating all our community efforts through …XYZ.” When it comes to helping others, a soft heart and a hard head are often the best combination.

Which should I do — prosecute shoplifters or sue them in court?

Actually you can often do both, and it can be possible to collect damages without even going to court. “In almost all 50 states, laws have been enacted that give retailers the right to demand and collect money damages from adult or juvenile shoplifters as a civil cause of action,” notes Peter Berlin, founder of the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention. “This right does not generally negate retailers’ existing right to pursue criminal prosecution in the courts as well. These ‘civil recovery’ laws, as they are often called, are designed to help retailers offset their high merchandise losses and their added cost for security. They also act as a deterrent for offenders, especially among the parents of juveniles who tend to take their child’s shoplifting behavior more seriously when they have to pay a $100 to $500 ‘civil demand’ from the retailer.” Berlin further suggests that community-spirited retailers might wish to reduce their civil demands if shoplifters are willing to enroll in and complete a rehabilitation program such as Shoplifters Anonymous.

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A Real-Life How-To on Putting a Shoplifter in Her Place

And how to deal with a sales person who can’t close a sale …

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I’ve got a person on staff who simply adores dogs, and she almost never fails to strike up a lengthy conversation with customers, but for the life of me, I can’t teach her how to close the sale! Help!

“Failure to close is most often a combination of lack of basic skill and fear of being too forward, or pushy,” says Kate Peterson of retail consultancy Performance Concepts. Be aware, she says, that you can’t effectively teach closing as a separate and disassociated thing. If your team member is good at engaging the customer in conversation, focus on teaching her how to make emotional connections between what the customer wants and what the merchandise provides and to listen for signals that indicate it’s time to close. When it comes to more expensive items or services, remind her that most customers are often looking for permission to pull the trigger. “Providing good service means giving it to them by asking for the sale,” says Peterson. There are also situations, when your salespeople will be grateful to be “let off the hook” with a particularly chatty customer via a personal intervention from the boss, meaning you.

What if I see a customer go to steal an item and then put it back?

Ain’t much you can do, says Rick Segel, author of Retail for Dummies. “The police don’t arrest people for contemplating shoplifting.” Make it obvious this person has caught your attention and hope they don’t come back. The staff at Paddywack in Mill Creek, WA, had just such a situation recently, reports owner Shane Somerville: “We had a customer quickly put on one of our hoodies for sale, then put her coat on over it and pretended like it was hers. Luckily, our team realized it was our merchandise and made like she was buying it because it’s such a great sweatshirt! She realized she was busted and immediately acted like she was just trying it on but ‘decided not to buy it’ and quickly left.”

One of the questions I always get, and always hate, is “Do you have to charge sales tax?” How should I answer this?

Here’s a simple way to diffuse this sneaky discount ploy. Look the customer in the eye, smile, and say, “Actually, I don’t charge sales tax. I collect it.” They’ll get the point. And while everybody wants the best deal, they’ll trust you more for it. Because if you’d cheat on your taxes, how could a customer trust you to take care of one of the most important “possessions” in their life?

My brother, who is the oldest, assumed leadership of the business, but I don’t feel he pulls his weight. What should I do?

The icky truth is you’re going to have to confront your brother. Leaving such matters to fester only makes them worse and imperils the business. Call a meeting with your brother and consider using the DESC conflict-resolution method:

  • Describe: Outline the problem. Be careful to avoid using judgmental language.
  • Express: Let him know your concerns of what will happen if things don’t change.
  • Specify. Tell your brother what you’d like him to do to make things better. Be as specific as possible. Example: “It’s important you’re here on Saturdays …”
  • Consequences: Cite the consequences that will occur when the behavior is changed — a better-run store, more profit for everyone.

Through all this, remember to really listen to your brother’s side of things and stay clear of the question of who’s right and wrong.

I know I should be focused on my business, but I get an almost warped glee out of competing fiercely with the unethical mill-puppy-selling schmuck up the road. There’s nothing wrong with having such an enemy, is there?

Indeed, there’s plenty of psychological research that testifies to the fact that humans partly enjoy having enemies. They clarify the world for us and bolster our sense of righteousness. So sure, why not channel this sometimes less-than-admirable truth to good ends? And it’s certainly easier to keep an eye on what your rivals are up to in the internet era. The only thing we’d say is that you don’t lose sight of who your real enemy is. Is it the guy so bad at business he’s cutting legal corners, or is it an online retailer, or something else — like your own complacency, inertia, or fear of change — that poses an existential threat to your business? Enjoy your day-to-day skirmishes with the schmuck up the road, use it to motivate yourself, but channel your energies into evolving and growing your business.

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ROI for Events? What’s That K on a Lightbulb? Your Questions Answered

Manage your own expectations on your ROI.

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I have several events planned for this summer. What should I expect as a return on the investment?

The answer is not as simple as a number, as hosting an event for your pet business can result in multiple ROIs, depending on what your intent is, notes Nancy Hassel of American Pet Professionals. “If you’re intent is to get more people to learn about your business with marketing and promoting it, planning that promotion at least three months ahead of your event is key. If you throw together an event at the last minute, it can still be successful, but you have to manage your own expectations on your ROI.” Allocating marketing and promoting expenses for hosting events should be included in your yearly advertising/marketing budget, she says. “This way you know how much money and time you want to spend, planning, promoting and hosting an event — and can then measure your ROI better. If you decide to host the same event quarterly or yearly, you can measure your ROI after each event. Getting PR from each event is icing on the cake, as now your local media knows about your pet business and more than likely will contact you again in the future for stories.”

We have a small store that is growing quite nicely. In fact, juggling rosters to avoid paying overtime is increasingly becoming an issue. Can we just move several employees to salaried positions? No more messy rosters. No more overtime. Right?

Likely very wrong. This is a strategy that “has been used so often to avoid paying rightful overtime, that it is written into the law through the Fair Labor Standards Act,” says Scott Clark, a lawyer and founder of the HTC Group. Yes, there are salaried positions for which there are exemptions from overtime rules, but they tend to be true management roles that require a college degree or technical training. They must also pay more than a minimum of $455 per week, and the salary must be the same every week (so if your employee wants time off \you still have to pay his full weekly salary — no more docking wages for hours not worked). If it seems that the government is uncharacteristically protective of lower-income workers in this instance, never fear, it really isn’t. On the contrary, the government IS very particular about all the taxes and Social Security that get paid on overtime. We’d say a better approach is to view your employees as an asset who make you money, not as an expense. Invest in your employees to make them more efficient, and they’ll make you even more money. Or hire the staff you actually need.

I’m looking to upgrade our lighting, but I can’t help get my head around Kelvin and color temperatures. Help!

It probably helps to think of the original theoretical model that underlies the index — that of a black metal radiator, whose color changes as it is heated, from black to orange to red to blue to white hot. Similar to Celsius and Fahrenheit, the Kelvin scale marks different degrees of thermodynamic temperature, but it is the association with color change that makes it useful as a way to designate light bulbs. Where it gets confusing is how at the lower end of the scale, from 2000K to 3000K, the light produced is called “warm white” and ranges from orange to yellow-white in appearance. Meanwhile, color temperatures further up the scale, between 3100K and 4500K, are referred to as “cool white” but the bulbs are emitting a brighter, hotter light.

Our marketing images were recently lifted and used by the vendor for their ads without crediting us. When I contacted them, they said, “We’re sorry; it was the intern’s fault.” How should I handle this?

If it was “the intern’s fault,” who approved the final vendor layouts? But regardless of whose fault it is, you should get some compensation for the use of your images, says consultant Kate Peterson. The vendor would have paid for the images had they used any other marketing professional to create them, so they should have no issue with paying your in-house team. “I would suggest that the retailer assign a fair price (what she typically pays her team per image) and send an invoice directly to the head of the company with pics of their ads and an explanation. If applicable, tell them you will apply the amount of the invoice against an outstanding balance,” says Peterson.

What are some suggestions for creating and implementing a dress code for my store?

First, put it in writing, with examples of what’s appropriate and what’s not, says Anne Sowden, of image consultancy group Here’s Looking at You. When talking about the dress code, be sure to focus on the business reasons behind the policy and the image you want your store to project. If employees are having problems meeting the dress code, Sowden says it’s best to schedule a private meeting. “Make sure the employee knows the messages that their clothing is sending. Wrinkled clothing may be interpreted as a lack of attention to one’s job.” Give them suggestions for more appropriate outfits. And when they are appropriately dressed, says Sowden, give positive encouragement.

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