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A Recession Playbook for Small Businesses

Updated: Jul 27, 2023

7 tips to help small businesses navigate an economic downturn.

37 Oaks Blog: A recession playbook for small businesses

Over the past few weeks, large retail organizations have shared recent performance and future projections for the rest of the year.

Why is this important to smaller retail businesses? Because at the core, commerce is commerce and retail is retail. Of course, there are nuances of large and small retailers that make us different, but the customer shopping at Amazon, Walmart, Ulta, Macy's, and Kroger is also shopping with us. It is up to 37 Oaks to keep our finger on the pulse of what is going on in this industry, so we can provide relevant education, resources, and direction for smaller, women and minority-owned businesses across the country.

If you listen to their investor calls, although we may not officially be in a recession, these big retail industry players and the customers that shop it, are showing signs of one. They are all taking measures to prepare for some version of an economic slowdown. With record high-interest rates; news of massive corporate layoffs; increase use of savings and debt; more downloading of coupons; increased sales of lower-cost private label products and shoppers cutting back on products they want so they can afford products they need - these are all signs of a slowing economy.

There is so much uncertainty on which way our economy will go, but regardless, small business owners should begin identifying ways to push through a slowdown. We have taken some cues from what other retailers in the industry are doing and married them with our experience, and have put together this Recession Playbook for Small Businesses.


| 1. Focus on Loyal Customers

To grow sales, you can either focus on getting new customers or get more from existing customers. In a normal and healthy economy, you want to focus on both. But when cash and other resources are tight and need to be closely managed, we want to focus on the lower risk and higher return strategy - Loyal Customers. If customers have already purchased from us and had a great experience, ideally it will take less of an effort for you to get them to buy again, and buy more.

Why? You don't have to invest as much in driving brand awareness and in building credibility. Although there is still an investment that needs to be made, it tends to be less than what is needed to do the same for new customers.

Let's explore how larger retail counterparts describe the value of loyal customers

37 Oaks Blog: A recession playbook for small businesses
  • Costco's recently told investors that by the end of last quarter, they had 30.6 million paid Executive Memberships. This accounts for about 45% of all paid members but drives about 73% of worldwide sales.

  • Macy’s Loyallist program members drove over 70% of same-store sales. And, members of that program spent 7% more compared to a year ago.

  • Kroger reported that loyal customers tend to spend 10 times more than the occasional shopper.

We are not saying to neglect efforts to acquire new customers in this current market because we need both to grow and scale. We are saying if you are cost sensitive and need to prioritize marketing and customer acquisition efforts, it is important to understand the value and ROI of loyal customers.

Resource: 37 Oaks University Intro to E-commerce Marketing Strategy On Demand Course

| 2. Deliver Added-Value

With purse strings tightening, customers are looking for ways to save money. To combat rising costs, they will continue to seek value from where they shop to what they buy. Value can be delivered in many ways. You can reduce the price of a product with coupons and sales discounts and you can reduce the price with perks, incentives, and services.

  • Perk examples: Free gift with purchase or bonus product/quantities

  • Incentives examples: Extra loyalty points when you buy or benefits after you purchase a certain amount of product.

  • Service examples: Free shipping or gift wrapping.

Our early assumption is that traditional pricing discounts will get more customers' attention. But, we would recommend understanding the financial impact each offering can have on your sales and margin. Delivering added value will have a cost, big or small and that cost needs to be covered from somewhere. So getting a sense of what this is is key so you can strategically plan which ones to do or how much to do.

Resource: 37 Oaks University Intro to Retail Math On Demand Course

Resource: 37 Oaks University Intro to Pricing Product On Demand Course

| 3. Identify Product Opportunities

37 Oaks Blog: A recession playbook for small businesses

Shoppers now have less discretionary income to work with, so they are shifting towards purchasing less of what they want to more of what they need. They have to figure out how to purchase higher-priced items with the same budget. As a result, they are looking for more value and lower-priced alternatives.

We are seeing larger retailers shift the product assortments they offer to cater to the changing needs of the customer. They are offering more private label items which tend to be lower in price than many of the branded items they sell. Although you may not have or need private label items in your business, what's your similar approach? What product or assortment shift can you make to accommodate what these changing customer needs? What worked before may not work now- so we have to be flexible.

Sometimes we get so emotionally attached to our products that we have reservations about making changes for the evolving market. As we are already seeing signs of an economic downturn, our goal is to weather the storm and make it through uncertain times as unscathed as possible. Decisions we need to make may not be ideal, but it also does not have to be long-term decisions. It can be a temporary solution or could result in new insights into where you can take your business. Remember, one thing is consistent in both entrepreneurship and the retail industry - and that is change! How flexible will you be?

Resource: 37 Oaks University Intro to Assortment Planning On Demand Course

| 4. Highlight Your Difference

Recession or not, customers will continue to have more and more options to buy each day. Getting their attention is going to intensify during an economic downturn as companies are vying for a piece of their shrinking wallet. We will see increases in promotions, email blasts, social media posts, events, etc. It is said that a customer sees about 4,000 - 10,000 ads a day. Our assumption is that we will see it lean towards the higher side of this range as we progress through the year.

This is why we have to clearly communicate to the customer all the ways that we are unique. This helps us break through the clutter and encourage conversion.

  • Why should they pay attention to what you have?

  • Why should they shop with you and no one else?

  • What makes you valuably different from the competition?

Resource: 37 Oaks University Defining Your Unique Value On Demand Course

| 5. Leverage Marketplaces

 37 Oaks Blog: A recession playbook for small businesses

We love to have our "own branded" spaces, whether it is our own storefront location or our own e-commerce site. We can control the experience and have an exclusive, private, and undistracted engagement with customers.

If you have these spaces, that is great, and keep building them as it has a lot of value. If you are especially resource-strapped in this current retail environment, consider diversifying into online and/or retail marketplaces as well.

  • Online marketplace examples: Amazon, Etsy, eBay or events

  • Retail marketplace examples: Pop-up markets, local vendor markets, or collaborative co-op markets/vendor spaces (temporary or permanent).

Why? Marketplaces can offer additional support and benefits that late start-up and early-growth businesses find valuable.

  • Marketplaces tend to have a built-in customer following. They have invested in developing credibility and trust with larger groups of customers which may take months or years for earlier-stage businesses to do.

  • Customers can unexpectedly get exposed to your product while visiting the marketplace. Great way to build brand awareness.

  • May offer additional operational support: such as customer service, warehousing, fulfillment, marketing, etc.

This may not make sense for everyone, but you can definitely see the pros (and possibly cons) of growing into marketplaces. As with any growth opportunity, make sure the financials work and you understand the ROI and timing of ROI. Keep in mind that if you sign up for a marketplace, you still need to work that respective platform - mostly through marketing and SEO efforts.

Resource: 37 Oaks University Intro to E-commerce On Demand Course

Resource: 37 Oaks University Intro to Pop Up Markets On-Demand Course

Resource: 37 Oaks University Free Resource Guide: Understanding Product Growth Options

| 6. Diversify

Related to the last point on Leveraging Marketplaces, there is no better time to have diversification in place than during market uncertainty. This can look very different for each business. Diversification can be in the form of different price points; product assortments; customer base; sales/distribution channels; geography, etc. This allows you to reduce risks and adjust quicker and more effectively as the market and customer change.

For example, we always say, it is not a conversation about retail OR e-commerce, it is about both retail AND e-commerce. Online sales (social commerce, online marketplaces, your e-commerce site) are where the growth in the industry is, while physical retail (pop-ups, wholesale, storefronts) represents about 80% of total industry sales. If we focus on one, and not both, to some extent, we put our business at risk and leave money on the table.

| 7. Get Lean

37 Oaks Blog: A recession playbook for small businesses

With assortments shifting to lower-priced options; costs rising and increased discounting; this is bound to have an impact on our financials. This is an excellent time to get lean and eliminate or pull back on all wasteful, unproductive, and inefficient activities as a way to manage sales and profits during uncertain times.

A. Negotiate Costs: Every vendor and provider is increasing costs, but it does not hurt to try to negotiate lower costs.

B. Review Pricing: With costs going up, do you have an opportunity to adjust your pricing? Don't force it just to get more profits, but strategically look at the market and competition to see if this makes sense.

C. Eliminate Wasteful Activities: What activities are you doing in your business that are not adding -value or pushing it forward? We have limited time, resources, and funds, so we have to learn to work smarter and not harder. Use technology to automate and help complete tasks so you can direct your focus to the right places.

Resource: 37 Oaks University Intro to Value Stream Mapping On Demand Course

Resource: 37 Oaks University Intro to Costing Goods On Demand Course

Resource: 37 Oaks University Intro to Pricing Product On Demand Course

Resource: 37 Oaks University Intro to Retail Math On Demand Course

Terrand Smith, Founder/CEO, 37 Oaks
Terrand Smith, Founder/CEO, 37 Oaks

Although we have listed 7 tips to help small businesses navigate an economic downturn, none of these should be done in a vacuum. You will see the best results when all of these are assessed, prioritized, and implemented in combination with each other.

This market will continue to change and bring new insights. If you are unable to keep up with it all on your own, then follow 37 Oaks. As mentioned, our job is to keep our finger on the pulse of what is going on in the market and translate it to tools, resources, and education that supports small businesses along the way.

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