During a virtual roundtable Wednesday, representatives of Mount Washington Valley small businesses told U.S. Rep. Chris Pappas that their shelves are mostly stocked for holiday shoppers, but that for the long term the area needs more workers, and housing and child care services for those workers.
Pappas, a Democrat representing the First District, held the roundtable as a prelude to Small Business Saturday.
He began by saying that the COVID-19 pandemic “has turned Main Street businesses on their heads” with little guidance on how those businesses should proceed.
Pappas said federal programs have helped, but that the businesses still face a tight labor market, supply-chain problems and increased costs, which cause “choppy waters” for them.
More needs to be done to revive local economies, he said, including expanded high-speed internet, expedited apprenticeships, and an “overhaul” of the federal visa programs that permit seasonal workers to come to places like the Mount Washington Valley.
Kendra Veno of Veno’s Specialty Foods and Meats told Pappas that a major concern for her four-year old business is that the cost of goods is “three to four times what I was paying last year.”
She has been able to hold on to all her employees.
“Nobody took a single day off,” Veno said, “but I don’t know how long I can support such a large team” while also paying more for products and passing along those increases to customers.
The unpredictable availability of top-end beef is a major concern, said Veno, adding, “I’ll order 30 cases of rib eye and get five.”
For Thanksgiving, Veno’s didn’t have enough turkeys, she said, and sometimes the turkeys were smaller than customers wanted “and they (customers) lose it” and complain.
Child care is “really hard to navigate for a new business,” said Veno, and when the pandemic closed child care centers, there weren’t many alternatives.
Pappas said the country is “still working through the shock of COVID,” acknowledging that “protein prices in particular are really high.”
Greg Vander Veer of The Christmas Loft and Laura Cummings of White Birch Books said they ordered what they could from suppliers, adding that while customers may not find exactly what they’re looking for, they will have a good array of items to choose from.
In 2021, the Christmas Loft “has had kind of a banner year,” said Vander Veer, with businesses like his ordering merchandise in January for the year-end holidays with the expectation that it would arrive in May.
The merchandise is arriving, he said, but several months later.
But “the biggest thing for us,” he continued, is a shortage of staff and “a lot of missed days” because of COVID-19.
The lack of employees is a longstanding problem that was exacerbated and “sped up” by the pandemic, he said, as was the housing shortage.
“There’s nowhere to rent,” Vander Veer said, “literally no place to rent” and people are leaving the Mount Washington Valley as a consequence.
Cummings agreed that “the housing market is terrible,” but said her business, like The Christmas Loft, nonetheless is also “having a banner year” in part thanks to having “just the right amount of people” and being part of a national trade organization that warned White Birch Books “well in advance” of some of the production, warehousing and distribution challenges that members faced.
Her business is “somewhat well prepared for the holiday season,” she said, and is poised to recommend alternative titles.
Vander Veer said The Christmas Loft did “a lot of creative buying,” explaining that when the business spoke to manufacturers and distributors it asked not only for specific products, but also more generally “what do you have available?”
Asking that second question has allowed The Christmas Loft to “fill up our shelves,” he said. “Right now it’s looking a lot better than a month ago.”
Regardless of the difficulties, small businesses can pivot as the situation demands, said Cummings, and as a result “We’re going to find a way to make our stores look amazing.”